Merle Haggard is, as the great Duke Ellington used to say, "beyond category." Like the best, he is a genre-defying artist. There is a strong influence of both jazz and blues in Haggard's work, though it's usually labeled as country and western. For example, he phrases like a jazz singer and he features horns in his exceptional band, The Strangersand, unlike almost all other country singers, he actually gives the band a chorus. Perhaps most importantly, he and the band swing. Like full-fledged jazz singers, Haggard phrases with the assurance of a singer who knows where the pulse is all the time.
Only now, however, as he approaches 68, has he decided to record a full set of standards from the Great American Songbook. Whereas jazz singers often search these old songs for a phrase or a melody they can elaborate and transform, Haggard lets the song do all the work; all he has to do is use his expressive voice to bring out the bruised tenderness present in most old songs, including "Stardust." In addition, he includes "As Time Goes By," and "I Can't Get Started," which are often selected by jazz-oriented singers. Haggard also swings gently through "Pennies From Heaven" (graced by Clint Strong's superb country-jazz guitar) and he brings new life to "Cry Me A River," exhibiting a world-weariness light years from Julie London's sultry original version. Haggard is not, of course, the first country artist to make this leap into standards. Willie Nelson, another C&W artist (and jazz fan), noted for his jazz phrasing, came out with his classic Stardust LP back in 1978; more recently, in 1998, country artist Lorrie Morgan, with her husky jazz timbre, released a CD titled Secret Love.
Unforgettable contains no surprises. Haggard is not stretching any envelopes, but this recording is filled with low-key piano-driven arrangements suited for a late-night smoky bar. Haggard's smooth and effortless voice, uncomplicated phrasing, and warm timbre give the lyrics a clear-headed beauty that is the hallmark of a performer with few pretensions. There are more technically gifted singers than Haggard, of course, but he does something that a lot of those technical singers cannot do, which is convey a helluva lot of truth and emotion. The key to anything touched by Haggard is honestywhether he's explaining his sinful past in one of his own drinking and cheating songs, or breathing life into an old standard like "I'll Get By."
Personnel: Joe Manuel: electric and acoustic guitar; Freddy Powers: drums, acoustic guitar; Kevin Price: cello; Joe
Reed: bass; Clint Strong: electric guitar; Catherine Styron: piano; Redd Volkaert, acoustic guitar; Tony
Savage: conductor, string arrangements; Terry Domingue, drums; Rose Katai, violin; Soo Kyong Kim,
viola; Don Markum: saxophone, trumpet; Bruce McBeth, violin; B.B. Morse, bass; Bobby Wood, piano;
Biff Adam, drums; Gary Church: trombone; Merle Haggard: electric guitar and vocals; other personnel.