The Bluegrass Sessions
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Thu September 27, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Merle Haggard has been in a rather reflective mood of late, though all of his odes to the past have been stamped with a unique twist. He and George Jones covered each otherís songs on Kickiní Out the Footlights...Again, while Last of the Breed gave him an opportunity to join with Ray Price and Willie Nelson to interpret an array of classic country compositions. Continuing in this vein, The Bluegrass Sessions, his latest effort, journeys back even further, and in fact, the idea of Haggard recording a bluegrass album is so natural that itís hard to believe that it has taken the country legend 40 years to make one.
Accompanied by a stellar backing ensemble that includes mandolinist Marty Stuart, dobro player Rob Ickes, and fiddler Aubrey Haynie, Haggard pays tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (Jimmie Rodgers Blues), tackles the Delmore Brothersí Blues Stay Away from Me, revamps several of his old compositions, and pens a few new ones. Not surprisingly, the performances are impeccable. Yet, The Bluegrass Sessions shies away from featuring briskly paced breakdowns that highlight his outfitís instrumental virtuosity. There are moments when he and his band push each other along. On Runaway Momma, for example, the music elicits a few growls from Haggard, while he calls on Ickes to lend some fire to Jimmie Rodgers Blues. For the most part, however, The Bluegrass Sessions is a subtle affair, one on which the accompanists are there primarily to service the songs.
Consequently, aside from the underlying framework of its material, The Bluegrass Sessions largely feels as if it is an extension of Haggardís 2005 endeavor Chicago Wind. As a result, it sits quite comfortably among the many highlights of his career. Continuing his recent string of protest songs, Haggard laments the loss of the American dream on What Happened?, and he places the compassion back into Christian conservatism on Pray. Elsewhere, the weary, bucolic peacefulness he brings to an updated rendition of Big City lends the song a lived-in, joyous air; Learning to Live with Myself is an honest account of the loneliness that old age inevitably brings; and Holding Things Together, another reworked nugget from his past, gains immensely from its weepy arrangement. In the end, itís not really important whether or not his entry into the forum of bluegrass is as big a stretch as it has been made out to be. Itís sufficient simply to say that The Bluegrass Sessions is strong enough to warrant a sequel. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
The Bluegrass Sessions is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box