** CLASSIC ALBUM ** Merle Haggard "Chicago Wind" Album Review

Merle Haggard

Prime Cuts: Chicago Wind, Honky Tonk Man, I Still Can't Say Goodbye 

"Chicago Wind" explains why there are so many Merle Haggard clones in and around Music Row. On this sophomore CD that bears the Capitol Nashville logo this side of the new Millennium, Haggard does not just sings. But, with some deftly strokes of his vocal nuances, he paints a sonic magnum opus drawing upon a mélange of colorful emotions from his listeners. In short, Haggard personifies his music as it engages the listener on an emotional and spiritual level. A listen to the forlorn title cut "Chicago Wind," a newly penned Haggard original, proves the point. On this lonesome ballad, when this old Okie describes the razor-sharp freeze of the gust of the Windy City, there's an incumbent pain and loneliness producing a gush of spine chilling moments in seriatim.

This title cut sets the pace of this CD: Rather than a rough and rowdy honky-tonk record some have been hankering for, this new CD finds a reflective and warm Hag. Like Neil Young and John Prine's latest efforts, the backings accommodate rather than intrude, providing a sympathetic undercurrent for Hag's soft yet gruff deliveries. This is in part credited to co-helmsman Jimmy Bowen, who came out of an over a decade-long retirement to produce this set with Mike Post. Despite its title, "Honky Tonk Man" (one of four tracks not written by Hag) is an understated love ballad delivered with a seasoned devotional restrain that is tender and romantic. Roger Miller's lesser known "Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go" bespeaks to our times where marriage and relationships are often so flippantly resolved. A poignant ballad that calls for giving love a second consideration, lines such as "Maybe leaving's not the only way to go/People reach new understandings all the time/Take a second look, maybe change their minds" are therapuetic. Leaving romance aside for a moment, the James Moore and Robert Blinn "I Still Can't Say Goodbye" is a gentle tear-jerking love song from a child to his departing dad that offers sentiments so dear yet often suppressed. This superior paean ought to be a Father's Day anthem in years to come.

Amongst the Hag originals, "Some of Us Fly" finds the Hag teaming with Toby Keith on the much anticipated duet. Offering a philosophical treatise on Fate's right hand, this fiddle-laden ballad has a jazzy late night feel, though Keith sounds a little bored. Showing a tender side to this country legend, "What I've Been Meaning to Say" finds a regretful Hag laying his heart on the line on this insightful as well as heartfelt love song. Included also are two patriotic numbers: the debut single "America First" and the freedom of speech "Where's All the Freedom." With comments made about the public read of the Ten Commandments and the Iraqi War, though there's nothing as bellicose as pal Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," there's nothing watershed about these recycled political decries. Compared to Hag's previous "Me and the Crippled Soldier," these two patriotic numbers pale in terms of their messages and ingenuity.

Nevertheless, "Chicago Wind" finds the Okie leaving his rambling soul behind. Instead, this is an album filled with heart warming moments with Hag dealing with various issues of the heart. And with such thoughtful ruminations and carefully executed tunes (thanks in large to a cohort of A-list musicians including Billy Joe Walker, Jr, Herb Pederson, Reggie Young to list a few) the Chicago wind doesn't feel that cold and lonesome. 

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