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Merle Haggard

Unforgettable – 2004 (Capitol)

Reviewed by Jon Weisberger

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CDs by Merle Haggard

Back with the label on which he had his first and most memorable success, The Hag has opted to make his re-debut with a collection of mostly pop standards that nicely complements his recent exploration of vintage country songs on albums like "The Peer Sessions."

Though he's revered as a hard country icon, Haggard knows that the lines between pop, jazz and country have always been at least a little blurry - after all, he's a long-time admirer of Bob Wills, whose genre-busting work proved the point with timeless musical eloquence. And while his fondness for Lefty Frizzell is well-known, he's also spoken admiringly of pop crooner Bing Crosby (who, not coincidentally, once scored big with Wills' "New San Antonio Rose"). Backed by a sparse ensemble that features fiddle, occasional saxophone, trumpet and trombone and even strings, the singer works his way through songs like "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," "I Can't Get Started" and the title track, with a late '60s Cindy Walker song and a new original, "What Love Can Do," fitting seamlessly alongside them.

Haggard's singing is warm, intimate and relaxed, yet full of his trademark moves, revealing how he's been influenced by these songs and the greats who sang them.

It may surprise those who know him only as a honky tonk hero, but "Unforgettable" is another absolute jewel from Merle Haggard.