Read Merle Haggard's Wikipedia entry. It talks, in the second sentence, of his having helped create the Bakersfield sound, with its "rough edge." Later, it discusses, at some length, his conservative touchstones, in particular Okie From Muskogee. While, in Wikipedia fashion, that may capture the popular perception of the recent Kennedy Center honoree, it doesn't hit at the core of what made him, along with Willie Nelson and George Jones, one of country music's three most revered living performers.
The Hag is cool, and he established that fact not with the porkpie hats he's taken to wearing or the cold, unneedy stare that's graced most of his album covers but with an intonation and phrasing on early hits like Branded Man and Hungry Eyes that put him in a league with Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. That's the kind of company Merle Haggard keeps creatively; perceptually, he's enjoyed a credibility throughout his career exceeding that of all other major country artists, living or dead. Yes, even Hank Sr. There's a difference between a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a cell at San Quentin. Hag has done both.
Unlike Nelson, whose voice has grown richer over the years, Haggard arrived on the scene with pipes that - okay, let's give Wikipedia props for this one - enticed Lefty Frizzell to invite him onstage as a teenager. Alas, that voice, the mien, has shifted slightly over the years and it's part of a tripartite burden that has doomed him to the charity of country music fans and critics and that saddles his new release, "Working in Tennessee," with an impossible standard.
Haggard is no longer the singer whose vocals 40 years ago were more distinctive than Jones' and perhaps just as exquisite. Nelson's output, vacillating between bristling original compositions and pop hits, has been more uneven from one release to the next, but has maintained a more consistent overall level than Haggard's.
"Tennessee" includes nine Haggard originals, including a fine duet with Nelson on the classic Workin' Man Blues. There's also Too Much Boogie Woogie, with a trite listing of old-time favorites like Hank, Willie and Ernest Tubb. And the title track, on which Haggard seems to be having...fun! It's a good song, but a bad sign.
Is it hypocritical to damn the present and damn those who do the same? No, there's a larger reality extant here, and Merle Haggard - like Sinatra, Davis, Jones, Nelson - cannot be judged on the competence of his performance alone. He once was a transcendent artist, with an overarching story line of pain, desperation, banishment, imprisonment and longing for acceptance that no one viewed as performance. It was truth in the flesh. Now he puts out, on "Tennessee," a version of Cocaine Blues in which he seems to be all but laughing. That's good news for Hag, but a slight scuff on his legacy.