The name Merle Haggard carries a heavy weight in country music. Haggard remains a maverick who stared into the face of decadence during peaks and valleys of his legendary music career—thirty-nine number #1 country hits, IRS troubles, addictions, prestigious accolades, extreme wealth, bankruptcy, prison, women, and lawsuits—to emerge as one of America’s most respected songwriters.
Haggard’s If I Could Only Fly, achieves a rustic musical atmosphere. The album was recorded and mixed at Merle’s Tally Studio by Lou Bradley. There’s a laid back simplicity to the songs recorded with Haggard’s long time band, The Strangers. Listening to this record you realize the music is just as much jazz as it is country.
If I Could Only Fly opens with a revealing song called “Wishing All These Old things Were New”: “Watching while some old friends do a line/Holding back the want to end my own addicted mind/Wishin’ it was still the thing even I could do/Wishin’ all these old things were new.”
Red Volkaert’s underplayed guitar licks accent a low-key tone of the album from the onset, while “Honky Tonk Mama” pools various styles, with Don Markham’s upbeat saxophone that crosses barroom jazz with a western swing.
“Turn To Me” is a classic Haggard tune; his voice sounds strong as ever, with Norm Hamlet’s pedal steel weeping in the background. This song could serve as a single, among others, but there are no throwaway cuts on this CD. In fact, on most contemporary country albums several of these songs would be a hit.
The title track is a stark composition portraying a faded glory and cross to bear, while Abe Manuel’s harmonica whines like some lonesome train passing in the night. Due to its rhythmic nature, “Crazy Moon” emits a tropical feeling of sitting under a palm tree near a blue water bay with a Caribbean wind blowing. “Bareback”--an up-tempo, driving song--eludes any genre by fusing a combination of fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, saxophone, bass, drums, guitar, and Haggard’s lyrical phrasing.
Haggard co-wrote “Lullaby” with his wife Theresa. At this point, If I Could Only Fly takes a reflective turn, steering towards Haggard’s childhood memories and family tributes on such tunes as “I’m Still Your Daddy”, “Proud To Be Your Old Man”, “Leavin’s Getting Harder”, and “Thanks to Uncle John”.
Each song possesses trademark tones of the old Haggard sound within this refreshing new material. The final cut on the album, “Listening”, fades with an optimistic feeling, as if Merle is happy just to be watching the sun set…
If I Could Only Fly reiterates the depth of Haggard’s songs and sound. Even as far back as his troubled youth and stint in prison, Haggard forged a heartfelt vision of the downtrodden and common man that defines his music. His influences spilled over into the rock & roll scene when the Grateful Dead began covering his songs. In 1973, Gram Parsons died in Joshua Tree, California, waiting on Haggard to produce his next album. Parsons exposed the longhairs in Los Angeles to musicians like Haggard, Buck Owens, and George Jones.
If I Could Only Fly contains none of the sentimental, syrupy moaning of a sixty-three year old man, but truthful and timeless compositions from a great songwriter who transcended the conventional industry snares of country music. Merle Haggard remains ever the outlaw…
- James Calemine