This three-disc boxed-set has been released as part of Time Life's Legends of American Music series. There is no debating that Hag fits the bill, but the problem with legends is that everyone tends to have their own larger-than-life image of the icon in question. Ask one set of music fans who Merle Haggard is and you will get a portrait of the right-wing writer of the hippie-bashing "Okie From Muskogee," and "love-it-or-leave-it" author of "The Fightin' Side of Me." Poll another group and they will extol the hipness of the ex-con, honky tonk, hard-partying Merle who penned classics like "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down and "Sing Me Back Home." Keep going and you will find women (and some men) who melt as they listen to his liquid baritone readings of "If We Make It Through December," "Always Wanting you," and "My Favorite Memory."
So which one is he? Well all of them, of course. As the Clint Eastwood of Country Music, Haggard has quietly let his art lead him where it wants to go, following the dictates of his heart at the time he was making it. Though he has since laughed off "Okie" as something of a joke, the Merle of that time reflected the feelings of the crowd he came from. By 2005 that same crowd was sick of foreign wars and it is reflected in his "America First." Not as jingoistic as the title would lead you to believe, it refers to fixing things here at home before trying to solve the world's problems--an idea that both the left and right are currently entertaining.
Most of the of the various Merle's are represented here--the western swing Merle and the instrumental Merle are largely missing--but the stylistic variety is a small part of the story. Only Dylan matches the consistent quality of the songwriting over the years. And then there is the singing; to paraphrase Gloria Swanson: we had voices then. One need only compare the Haggard/George Jones duet "Yesterday's Wine," or "Pancho and Lefty" with Willie Nelson, to "Some of Us Fly," a great new-ish Haggard tune brought low by Toby Keith's pale, thin vocal contribution.
Parsing boxed sets has become a Christmas tradition, and one could find things to quibble about with this one. The Nineties recordings on Curb are missing. The label buried Haggard at the time, and whether through licensing problems or creative decisions, none of those songs are represented here. I'm sure someone has a favorite that they will miss. Still, you would be hard pressed to find one that rates bumping those included, and certainly not enough to warrant adding a fourth disc. Too, there are no out-takes or rarities. This is not a set for completists. Merle Haggard: The Original Outlaw is for anyone who doesn't own these records, whether they be country newbies; folks like me, who lost the originals in countless moves; alt-country or new country fans who need to hear what the real thing sounds like; or just someone who loves great music. There is definitely someone on your holiday list for this one, even if it is you. • Michael Ross