The Bluegrass Sessions
By James Calemine
Merle Haggard's new release, The Bluegrass Sessions, upholds his reputation as one of America's finest musicians. After 40 years, Haggard continues to record and release vital music. These songs were recorded at Ricky Scaggs's Tennessee studio in two days. The "living room style" sessions prove Haggard's voice remains that of a great storyteller. Haggard never strayed from the roots of American music, and this record serves as testimony to his ability to remain poetic in modern times.
An all star cast of musicians such as Marty Stuart, Carl Jackson, Rob Ickes, Charlie Cushman, Aubrey Haynie, Ben Issacs and Allison Krauss provide a rural route feel to these songs. In the album liner notes Marty Stuart wrote: "Each take became a performance. Merle's singing was totally inspired. In fact, he got to the point where he didn't even go into the control room to listen to playbacks. There was no need. All of us knew what we were doing was right."
Haggard never fully immersed himself into bluegrass music until now. "Bluegrass is an area of music that I never really ventured into before. But I've always loved it, and I just thought it would be neat to go down there and work with Ronnie Reno (a one-time member of Haggard's old band The Strangers)and Marty Stuart, and have them help me do one.
"I went through my many, many stacks of songs and tried to find things that I thought would work well in these surroundings. Bluegrass people are the salt of the earth, kind of no-baloney audience. If you're going to play something and you're going to hook it, you'd better hook it good--it either has to be real funny or it has to be real serious."
"Runaway Mama" proves as a light-hearted opener on The Bluegrass Sessions. "Pray" ranks as a composition that would fit well in the Carter Family songbook. Haggard always loved Jimmie Rodgers and he covers the old brakeman's tune "Jimmie Rodgers Blues". Haggard sings his classic "Mama's Hungry Eyes" like some laid back zen-master using an American songbook tradition. "I Wonder Where To Find You" spins the yarn of a great storyteller flanked by an authentic Appalachian soundscape.
"Holding Things Together" serves as the heart-rending centerpiece song. When Haggard sings, "The postman brought a package/I mailed a few days ago/I just signed it Love Mama/So Angie wouldn't know" you understand the road he's traveled. "Momma's Prayers" prove Merle never lost his soul in this mean old world.
The last track on The Bluegrass Sessions, a Delmore Brothers tune--"Blues Stay Away From Me" contends as one of this collection's most moving songs. This CD pays for itself after the first two tracks. Merle mentioned about recording these bluegrass sessions..."I hope this is just volume one..."