I would guess that legendary musicians – or artists of any kind, for that matter – are sometimes tempted to sit back and rest on their laurels. However, I would also guess that part of what makes them a legend is that they’re continuously striving to stretch themselves, and that’s certainly Merle Haggard’s intent on his new album on the McCoury/Hag label, The Bluegrass Sessions.
Like all genres, bluegrass music has a lot of different faces, but it’s mostly thought of as reedy-voiced singers harmonizing on toe-tapping tunes, accompanied by a sawin’ fiddle and lots of pickin’ on mandolins and guitars. It’s a type of music made famous by Bill Monroe and his contemporaries and has remained popular for decades.
Traditional Bluegrass is kept alive today by modern artists such as Ricky Skaggs and others. But even though the tunes on this album were recorded in Ricky’s studio, Haggard gives us something a little different and closer to his own musical heritage.
Although he employs some talented sidemen (including Marty Stuart on mandolin) and does manage to occasionally hit the target with conventional bluegrass sounds, this collection is more reminiscent of his rich history in country blues and Western swing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Listening to Haggard’s vintage style on “What Happened?”, a new song that evokes earlier anthems like “Okie From Muskogee,” or teaming up with Alison Krauss on “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” offers plenty of proof that his musical instincts are alive and well. He knows what he wants to do and he knows what we want to hear.
I also enjoyed his tribute to blues icon Jimmie Rogers, as well as his updated take on his own classic “Big City,” but for something a little closer to bluegrass, try another of the album’s new songs, “Runaway Mama,” with Stuart’s mandolin backing up Haggard’s playful but melancholy baritone.
Even with the bluegrass sound it’s still a honky-tonk heartbreak song, a time-honored and treasured variety of country music that Haggard has always loved. Another good example is “I Wonder Where I’ll Find You At Tonight,” which is actually the Hag’s take on a Johnny Bonds classic.
Other newly-written tunes include the softly solemn “Pray,” and the soul-searching “Learning To Live With Myself,” neither of which has a particularly bluegrass feel, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter how the songs are labeled. This is an outstanding collection of enjoyable tunes – some old and some new – from a master at the top of his considerable game. Highly recommended.
1. Runaway Mama
3. What Happened?
4. Medley: Jimmie Rodgers Blues Medley
5. Learning To Live With Myself
6. Mama’s Hungry Eyes
7. I Wonder Where I’ll Find You At Tonight
8. Holding Things Together
9. Big City
10. Momma’s Prayers
11. Wouldn’t That Be Something
12. Blues Stay Away From Me