“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am huge, I contain multitudes.)”
– Walt Whitman (”Song Of Myself”)
There have been plenty of tributes to singer/songwriter Merle Haggard over the years. Whether it’s a spirited affair (like at the Country Music Hall of Fame) or a dressed up, bloated, random television show (like the Kennedy Center Honors), Merle Haggard has had his share of having to sit there and listen to others sing the songs he lived and wrote. I’m guessing that he is going to love the latest tribute — Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard.
No one in country music captures the stuff that gives us wrinkles, smiles, sore feet, heartaches and heart flutters more completely than Merle Haggard. His songs are so truthful that, even though the songs are country, the insights are universal. In that sense, he must be regarded as one of the great chroniclers of the American experience — the Walt Whitman of the working man. His songs give voice to people on the borders of life, with an intimacy that few other songwriters could match. Whether sung by a prisoner, a field hand, a labor camp worker or merely a dusty troubadour passing through town, Mr. Haggard’s songs become the musical equivalent of a John Steinbeck novel; overlooked aspects of complicated lives appeared in his lyrics, making sense of it all, for better or for worse.
Mele Haggard was the heir to Hank Williams’ place as the singer/songwriter who was the voice for his generation in country music. Maybe the next Merle Haggard hasn’t come along yet, but that’s just fine because Mr. Haggard is still around (and doin’ just fine), as are his profound songs. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard, a newly released compilation of 20 songs honor Haggard’s contribution in the best way possible — by letting the songs live on with new conviction, new gusto and new understanding from new artists who are more than up to the task. This is not one of those tribute albums that will end up in the back section of your CD collection, destined never to be heard again. Nor is it one of those tribute albums that sends you running for the original versions just to cleanse your aural palate. It is that rare tribute album — one that stands on its own as a true companion to the originals. It’s an impressive achievement considering who the original is.
This isn’t just another tribute album. It’s a smart move by an insightful record label to showcase some of their most talented artists while giving listeners the chance to hear them sing twenty of the greatest country songs ever written. The end result is up to those performers (performers like Dustin Lynch, Ben Haggard, Joe Nichols, Parmalee, Randy Houser, Jason Aldean, Thompson Square, Jake Owens, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, James Wesley, Kristy Lee Cook and Toby Keith), and for the most part they all exceed high expectations. Do they have what it takes to let us hear a Haggard song the way it should be heard — with the experiences of our own lives acting as a sort of sub-woofer as they convey the experiences of their lives while singing the notes and words that Merle Haggard wrote down about his own life? Almost every track on Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard deserves the praise I’m sure will come it’s way when the collection is released tomorrow (April 1).
The album is loaded with top-notch tracks, including two songs (“Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”) recorded by Merle’s son, Ben Haggard, who plays guitar in his father’s band, The Strangers. Ben offers an understanding of the songs that few could and his phrasing is inspired. Another definite highlight is “Workin’ Man Blues,” performed by Parmalee with a proper blend of sweat and swagger. The one track that doesn’t quite live up to the original (and that also doesn’t come up with its own valid interpretation) is “Pancho and Lefty,” performed here by a listless Luke Bryan and an afterthought of Dierks Bentley. It is too safe, too predetermined and suffers from a lack of purpose. Don’t worry, though – that track is followed by one of the album’s great surprises — a fun performance of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” by Garth Brooks. (Note: Garth Brooks will present Merle Haggard with the Academy of Country Music’s Crystal Milestone Award during the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 6 — Haggard’s 77th birthday. Miranda Lambert and George Strait will also perform a tribute medley of Haggard’s hits during the show and he’ll receive the ACM’s Crystal Milestone award, honoring his 50th anniversary in country music.) Other tracks that succeed on many levels include “Misery and Gin” (Randy Houser), “Going Where The Lonely Go” (Jason Aldean) , “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” (Dustin Lynch) and “Carolyn” (Toby Keith).
Merle Haggard is indeed the poet laureate of the working man (and woman). His labor created songs of everyday survival… songs of honesty whose very existence brought dignity and democratic nobility to those who understood them. Seems like whenever a country artist is asked to name someone who has influenced their music, Merle Haggard is a standard, immediate response. What country singer wouldn’t love to perform a tribute to the man? Luckily for us, Broken Bow Records has such a talented stable of artists to assign this dream task to. The versions these artists perform prove their respect and reverence. Listening to Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute To Merle Haggard is a reminder of why we have ears.
A track listing of Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute To Merle Haggard:
1. “Misery And Gin” (performed by Randy Houser)
2. “Footlights” (performed by Joe Nichols)
3. “Going Where The Lonely Go” (performed by Jason Aldean)
4. “Today I Started Loving You Again” (performed by Kristy Lee Cook)
5. “Carolyn” (performed by Toby Keith)
6. “Pancho And Lefty” (performed by Luke Bryan & Dierks Bentley)
7. “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” (* performed by Garth Brooks)
8. “You Take Me For Granted” (performed by Thompson Square)
9. “Mama Tried” (performed by Ben Haggard)
10. “That’s The Way Love Goes” (performed by Dustin Lynch)
11. “Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans” (performed by Jake Owen)
12. “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” (performed by James Wesley)
13. “Workin’ Man Blues” (performed by Parmalee)
14. “Are The Good Times Really Over” (performed by Jason Aldean)
15. “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room” (performed by Thompson Square)
16. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” (performed by Dustin Lynch)
17. “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” (performed by James Wesley)
18. “My Favorite Memory” (performed by Joe Nichols)
19. “Ramblin’ Fever” (performed by Randy Houser)
20. “Sing Me Back Home” (performed by Ben Haggard)
*Appears only on the Walmart exclusive
Essential Downloads: “Misery and Gin” (Randy Houser), “Footlights” (Joe Nichols), “You Take Me For Granted” (Thompson Square), “That’s The Way Love Goes” (Dustin Lynch), “Workin’ Man’s Blues” (Parmalee), “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” (Dustin Lynch), “Sing Me Back Home” (Ben Haggard).