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Merle Haggard

Live From Billy Bob's – 1999 (Smith Music Group)

Reviewed by Holly Gleason

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CDs by Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard is a triple threat: a fine guitarist, a world class writer who's embodied the emotions of those who've been on the lean side of the American Dream for three decades and an effortless vocalist The nuance that escapes from Haggard's lips - almost breathing rather than anything sought after - draws the listener in for what's as much confessional as conversational. These are confidences shared in neon, bathed in the light of a hard life, shrinking hope and bursts of plainspoken joy that create an intimacy we see ourselves in.

"Live" is just what the title promises. Captured in the act, it's Haggard and an amazingly honed live band romping through a lifetime of songs with a freewheeling gusto that is Haggard in his element at the Texas club. After all the years and miles, Haggard is still in love with the notion of "playing" - and it's evident when the band opens up, when he leans into the mic, when he pulls back for an almost whispered lyric (see the opening vocal on "Mis'ry and Gin").

The set has that seat of the pants sound quality that gets in the way. A bit muffled, without the separation that makes the individual instruments pop, this is a top quality bootleg. Certainly, the sonic issues are preferable to sterility.