NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Country Music Patriarchs Return With Fresh New Music

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I was talking with a very accomplished Nashville singer-songwriter the other day when the subject of what we were listening to came up. I said there was not much new music around right now that was creating much of a breeze. He agreed, adding, "Man, I just wish something would come along that would blow me away! It's been a long time."

Well, he's right. And there's not a lot right now to entice you to invest in a CD or a download. But there's some solid new music this week and a few things on the horizon that look promising. I have to tell you that the two most country-sounding albums this week come from septuagenarians. For the Tweeter generation, that means somebody who is in his or her 70s. Old geezers, that is.

But don't tell Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard they're obsolete. They are two of the main architects of modern country music, creators of what the music became after the excesses of the Nashville Sound and the Urban Cowboy mess. Those two old guys will still be creating music up to the end. And they've still got the touch, even if they've slowed down a bit.

Haggard signed to Vanguard records earlier this year, and his new release is I Am What I Am. That title pretty much sums up and encapsulates what he presents. It's a very listenable, very personal and highly introspective album with many musical highlights.

It's Merle at his most talkative and most garrulous, sharing stories about his childhood, other old memories, about a train that he especially recalls and about his loves and his regrets, his thoughts about love in general, how love can be reborn, the complexities of married life, the temptations facing a musician on the road and about relationships in total. His general disappointment with the general situation in this country today comes in "I've Seen It Go Away," a weary dismissal of things today: after having seen Elvis Presley and Bob Wills onstage, he says, "When you've seen the very best/The rest can hardly play." He sums up his animus for the status quo in this line: "I've seen our greatest leaders break their people's hearts."

The instrumentation is, as is usual for Haggard, impeccable. And he is still in pretty damned good voice. As he sings in the final track, "I am what I am." Good for Merle.

Haggard also recently recorded a fascinating duet with J. Geils Band lead singer Peter Wolf on "It's Too Late for Me" on the latter's solo album, Midnight Souvenirs.

Nelson keeps rolling on, through however many thousands of shows and hundreds of thousands of miles on his buses. And I have lost count of how many albums he has recorded. But he's a welcome reminder of how the past can still matter and can stitch together all the fabric of what country music is and should be today.

Now he, as did Haggard, has signed with a roots record label. In this case, it's Rounder Records. Nelson's latest release is simply titled Country Music.

And that's exactly what it is. Produced by T Bone Burnett, it's 15 tracks of blue-blooded deep catalog country music songs that could send you to the research books to read up on them. But they're all genuine heritage songs worthy of another listen and another life.

Willie is all over the country music history map with this. Here's a Merle Travis song with the marvelous coal mining dirge, "Dark as a Dungeon," and over here is Ernest Tubb's memorable "Seaman's Blues," and there's "Satisfied Mind, " which was Porter Wagoner's first No. 1 hit in 1955. And there's "Freight Train Boogie," which the Delmore Brothers recorded in 1946, as did Red Foley in 1947. "Drinking Champagne" was a No. 4 hit for George Strait in 1990 and also a hit for Cal Smith in 1968. Hank Williams' "House of Gold" is a treasured song in any collection. As is the traditional song "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," which Uncle Tupelo revived in 1992.

You have to admit that country music's old timers get short shrift from the media these days, no attention at all from mainstream country radio and little notice from the media in general. Except for other old geezers like Larry King. We all understand that. Celebrities trump all. Try checking Willie or Merle against Lindsay Lohan online. ... But, still ... what are you going to want to listen to?

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