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Merle Haggard

For the Record – 1999 (BNA)

Reviewed by Holly Gleason

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CDs by Merle Haggard

The notion was genius. Let Merle Haggard re-record his classics. Find a way to bring a freshness to the arrangements - and allow him to capture their evolution from years of being honed by the road. It's hard, though, to improve upon something that's been cut into the collective psyche from more than a quarter century's worth of jukebox pleasure. D-i-v-o-r-c-e isn't an easy thing to attain in any situation, but when you're talking about "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and the like, it's near impossible. After all, changing tempos and varying the instruments isn't re-inventing the original intent. A contextual change that held together - truly doing these two CDs acoustic, or with a genre-specific band (i.e., swing or bluegrass or hardcore honky tonk), or even with guests that take these songs to other places.

Add in "special guests," however, who seem as added for their marketing potential as any real compliment to Haggard, and the results are downright insulting. Jewel? Merle Haggard? He's always loved a pretty girl, but her teeny tiny chirp makes Britney Spears sound like Streisand next to a weathered voice that bears witness to the ages. Better Trisha Yearwood, Mandy Barnett or even Martina McBride who have the pipes to do the job rather than dragging in a few errant young'uns who wonder about the leering old geezer singing with Jewel.

After all, honoring one's past makes the future strong. Jewel knows this; but that doesn't mean she can hang with her hero given the vocal performances here.