Merle Haggard's Shaded Bluegrass

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Merle Haggard's voice, that sublime distillation of a lifetime's worth of orneriness, misery and rye, is so perfectly suited to the perpetual, high-toned ache of bluegrass, it's a wonder nobody thought of pairing the two before.

"The Bluegrass Sessions," Haggard's genre debut, mixes standards (including a first-rate reworking of the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me") with chestnuts from his back catalogue ("Mama's Hungry Eyes" with Alison Krauss on harmony) and a few new originals that just sound old.

Assisted by Marty Stuart, a crack backing band and a sackful of dobros, the Hag confers the Seriousness of the Tomb upon every song here, even the ones that are supposed to sound kind of happy. He doesn't just sing these ballads of vanishing small towns, motherless children and feckless women, he sounds personally disappointed by them. "What Happened?," the gruffest track here though by no means the best, is a de rigueur Haggard cootfest, bemoaning Wal-Marts, the government, Americans who drive foreign cars and the general indignities of modern culture ("It used to be Andy and Barney Fife/Now it's Howard Stern and the brothel life").

"Sessions" doesn't exactly take a rigorous approach to traditional bluegrass, an ailing idiom beset by low sales and a lack of new stars. With its lean, improvisational feel and mournful air, it might as well be called "The Front Porch Blues Sessions," though Haggard's fondness for the genre is evident on every track. He may be the unlikeliest of saviors, but these days bluegrass can use all the help it can get.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "I Wonder Where I'll Find You at Tonight," "Blues Stay Away From Me"

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