Another year, another Merle Haggard tribute, it seems. Is that five or six tribute albums to the Hag? Whatever the count, these songs never get old. In fact, it's good to hear the ol' Hag's tunes interpreted by a new set of country performers. Though none of the tributes - this one included - can touch the "Tulare dust" tribute of the mid-1990s, this 20-song collection provides some great moments.
Toby Keith turns in the best performance with "Carolyn," although Joe Nichols interprets the trademark Haggard drawl on the wistful "My Favorite Memory" and "Footlights." It's good to hear Garth Brooks again too, as he turns in a rollicking version of "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." Jason Aldean also turns in an excellent version of Hag's brooding "Are the Good Times Really Over," while Merle's son, Ben, has neat throwbacks of "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home."
Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan's attempt to re-create Willie and Merle on their version of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty" results in more noise than compelling storytelling set to music. And other than Thompson Square's "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room," there's a gaping hole of Hag's love of western swing. Haggard's band the Strangers played a huge role in his success, and he never missed a chance to let you know about them. Yet none of the musicians on this tribute are acknowledged in the liner notes. A shame, really, when you consider Haggard's love of the band.
Perhaps on the next Merle tribute. Because you know another one is just around the corner.