Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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George Jones and Merle Haggard [extended]

  • The Best of George Jones [Musicor, 1970] B+
  • Okie from Muskogee [Capitol, 1970] B
  • The Fightin' Side of Me [Capitol, 1970] C+
  • A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [Capitol, 1970] B+
  • Hag [Capitol, 1971] C+
  • Someday We'll Look Back [Capitol, 1971] B+
  • Let Me Tell You About a Song [Capitol, 1972] B+
  • The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol, 1972] B+
  • The Best of George Jones, Vol. 1 [RCA Victor, 1972] A-
  • I Love Dixie Blues [Capitol, 1973] C
  • It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) [Capitol, 1973] B
  • If We Make It Through December [Capitol, 1974] B
  • Presents His 30th Album [Capitol, 1974] B+
  • The Best of George Jones [Epic, 1975] B+
  • The Battle [Epic, 1976] B
  • Alone Again [Epic, 1976] A-
  • A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • Songs I'll Always Sing [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • All-Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1 [Epic, 1977] A-
  • I Wanta Sing [Epic, 1977] B
  • Greatest Hits [Epic, 1977] A-
  • 16 Greatest Hits [Starday, 1977]
  • The Way It Was in '51 [Capitol, 1978] A-
  • Eleven Winners [Capitol, 1978] B
  • My Very Special Guests [Epic, 1979] A-
  • Serving 190 Proof [MCA, 1979] B+
  • I Am What I Am [Epic, 1980] A-
  • The Way I Am [MCA, 1980] B+
  • Big City [Epic, 1981] B
  • Still the Same Ole Me [Epic, 1981] B+
  • Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits [Epic, 1982] A-
  • Pancho and Lefty [Columbia, 1982] B+
  • A Taste of Yesterday's Wine [Epic, 1982] B-
  • Going Where the Lonely Go [Epic, 1982] C+
  • Shine On [Epic, 1983] C+
  • His Epic Hits--The First Eleven--To Be Continued . . . [Epic, 1984] B-
  • You've Still Got a Place in My Heart [Epic, 1984] B
  • By Request [Epic, 1984] B-
  • The King of Country Music [Liberty, 1984]
  • White Lightning [Ace, 1984]
  • His Best [MCA, 1985] B+
  • Songwriter [MCA, 1985] B
  • A Friend in California [Epic, 1985] B+
  • First Time Live [Epic, 1985] B
  • Chill Factor [Epic, 1987] B-
  • Too Wild Too Long [Epic, 1987] B-
  • Super Hits [Epic, 1987] B-
  • One Woman Man [Epic, 1988] B+
  • 5:01 Blues [Epic, 1989] C+
  • Capitol Collectors' Series [Capitol, 1990] A-
  • More of the Best [Rhino, 1990] A-
  • Friends in High Places [Epic, 1991] *
  • The Best of George Jones (1955-1967) [Rhino, 1991] A-
  • And Along Came Jones [MCA, 1991] *
  • Walls Can Fall [MCA, 1992] A-
  • Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [Epic, 1992] A-
  • High-Tech Redneck [MCA, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • The Bradley Barn Sessions [MCA, 1994] *
  • One [MCA, 1995] Choice Cuts
  • I Lived to Tell It All [MCA, 1996] *
  • Vintage Collections [Capitol, 1997] A-
  • It Don't Get Any Better Than This [MCA, 1998] ***
  • Cold Hard Truth [Asylum, 1999] ***
  • The George Jones Collection [MCA, 1999] **
  • Live With the Possum [Asylum, 1999] Neither
  • If I Could Only Fly [Epitaph, 2000] A-
  • Roots Volume 1 [Anti-, 2001] **
  • Like Never Before [Hag, 2003] **
  • The Gospel Collection [BNA, 2003] **
  • The Definitive Collection [Mercury Nashville, 2004]
  • Unforgettable [Capitol, 2004] Choice Cuts
  • The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
  • Chicago Wind [Capitol, 2005] ***
  • Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again! [Bandit, 2006] *
  • Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 [Lost Highway, 2007] A-
  • I Am What I Am [Vanguard, 2010] B+
  • Working in Tennessee [Vanguard, 2011] A-
  • Django and Jimmie [Legacy, 2015] ***
  • Live in Texas 1965 [Ace, 2018] ***

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

George Jones: The Best of George Jones [Musicor, 1970]
Don't take the title too seriously--the clenched jaw and rubberband larynx of honky-tonk's greatest honky have graced more albums than he can count (seventy, eighty, like that), and only the Lord knows how many singles he's put out. This is a fairly nondescript selection of ten of them, including one B side and two I can't trace. As usual, the highest-charted are the blandest, and neither of my faves--the hyperextended deception trope "Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong" and the poor white "Where Grass Won't Grow"--made top ten country. B+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Okie from Muskogee [Capitol, 1970]
Despite some slack performances, this album--recorded live during Haggard's first appearance in the city he made famous and vice versa, and the only LP to date to include any version of the title song--is a passable sampler. The wild crowd and predictable fooforaw--he gets an official Okie pin and the key to the city--give it documentary value. But The Best of Merle Haggard is a lot more representative of a great iconoclast who's keeping it under wraps these days. Tell us, Merle, just which college dean do you respect? B

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: The Fightin' Side of Me [Capitol, 1970]
This is turning into a cartoon--once again a jingoistic anthem sells a live album. Don't hippie-haters worry that hippies might have more in common with Merle than they do? After all, he does boast about "living off the fat of our great land." C+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [Capitol, 1970]
An album of Bob Wills songs, featuring genuine Wills sidemen with Johnny Gimble (as well as Haggard himself) on fiddle? Now that's the Merle I trust. His uncountrypolitan formal sense has always gone along with a reverence for history, and his subtle, surprisingly tranquil, yet passionate singing style--all that yodel and straining head voice--was made for Wills's pop-jazz-country amalgam. B+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Hag [Capitol, 1971]
Four country hits on Haggard's first straight studio album in a year and a half, but only the simple goodbye song "I Can't Be Myself" escapes bathos. "The Farmer's Daughter," "I'm a Good Loser," and "I've Done It All" have an acceptably archetypal ring. Forget the rest--Hag already has. C+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Someday We'll Look Back [Capitol, 1971]
An honest two days' work, but don't let the keynote tune fool you into expecting a lot of class-conscious reminiscences. "California Cottonfields" and "Tulare Dust" are welcome, but this has its share of romantic pap, and the nostalgia of the title bubbles too close to the surface. Surprise: "Big Time Annie's Square," Hag's peace with the hippies. B+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Let Me Tell You About a Song [Capitol, 1972]
I object in principle to music-with-commentary albums, and Haggard is hardly as forthcoming with his "inner thoughts" as the notes promise. But despite its mawkish moments--especially Tommy Collins's dead-mommy song--the material defines Haggard's sensibility in a winning way, and since not one of the songs is great in itself I guess the commentary must do it. For controversy, there's interracial love. B+

Merle Haggard: The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol, 1972]
A misnomer--they mean The Safest of the Best, or Something for Everybody. No "Lonesome Fugitive" or "Sing Me Back Home" or "Branded Man," but both of his patriotic chores, "The Fightin' Side of Me" studio and "Okie From Muskogee" live (for the third time out of three on LP). Also: "Every Fool Has a String Section," I mean "Rainbow," and "No Reason to Quit," where his timbre, which has been softening perceptibly over the years, breaks definitively into self-pity. Plus lots of good stuff, of course, but still . . . B+

George Jones: The Best of George Jones, Vol. 1 [RCA Victor, 1972]
"White Lightnin'" isn't the only white lightnin' Jones's longtime but no-more producer "Pappy" Daily passes around--to commemorate Jones's desertion to Epic, Daily has sold all the George he owns to RCA, and the initial result is a hither-and-yon compilation that skips from the high purity of his work with Mercury and United Artists (no Starday stuff) to the tortured midrange of the recent "I'll Follow You" and "A Day in the Life of a Fool." Much too brief, but not a bad introduction. A-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: I Love Dixie Blues [Capitol, 1973]
The care Haggard put into his Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills tributes was palpable; this live-in-New Orleans-with-horns affair is slovenly. The two great moments are covers--"Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" and "Lovesick Blues," both originated by the legendary (blackface?) yodeler Emmett Miller. The lousy moments include current hits, overstated polyphony, and (how did we stand the wait?) a third live version of "Okie From Muskogee," this one a failed singalong. C

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) [Capitol, 1973]
Merle hasn't played the poor boy in quite some time, but as he's turned into a legend he's all too often turned to gimmicky pseudo-concepts. This mainstream country album--his first since Hag--does more justice to its title than many of his more pretentious efforts. Nothing special, just marriage and its travails, but play it twice and you'll remember most of it. B

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: If We Make It Through December [Capitol, 1974]
Last time it was good to hear him go contemporary again. This time one of the two contemporary standouts sounds mysteriously like Bob Wills. The Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman remakes come across fresh and clean. The Ink Spots remake doesn't. B

Merle Haggard: Presents His 30th Album [Capitol, 1974]
The man has been making them for less than a decade, and thirty is too damn many. But this is clearly where Haggard wants to show off his range, and the display, featuring more original songs than he's put in one place for a long time, is pretty impressive. There's a rip-roaring infidelity lyric that's definitely one of his genius pieces--"Old Man From the Mountain," it's called, complete with bluegrass shading. And though after that only "Honky Tonk Nighttime Man" and the Bob Wills/Lefty Frizzell cover are liable to be remembered, just about everything else is liable to be enjoyed. B+

George Jones: The Best of George Jones [Epic, 1975]
You can hear why people say Billy Sherrill has compromised Jones on this compilation's only great song, "The Door"; Bergen White's strings begin tersely enough, but by the end the usual army of interlopers is sawing away, so that you barely notice how Jones lowers the boom on the two "the"s in the song's final line. Ultimately, though, it isn't the production that makes this acceptable but less than scintillating--it's the conception. Too many of these songs lay out the conventional romantic themes with a slight twist, and there's virtually no room for Jones the honky-tonk crazy, the one who sang "The Race Is On" and "No Money in This Deal." One Epic cut that would help on both counts is the unsarcastic "You're Looking at a Happy Man," in which his wife leaves him. B+

George Jones: The Battle [Epic, 1976]
One of the artiest cover illustrations ever to come out of Nashville has misled casual observers into the belief that this is a concept album about George and Tammy's marital problems. What it is is a slightly better-than-average George Jones LP marred by a surfeit of conjugal-bliss songs. First by a country mile: "Billy Ray Wrote a Song," about two up-and-coming Nashville professionals, both male. B

George Jones: Alone Again [Epic, 1976]
Although it sticks too close to heart songs, this comeback-to-basics statement is the best country album of the year and far surpasses the rest of Jones's recent work. I'm getting to like the over-forty Jones as much as the rawboned honky-tonker anyway--what's amazing about him is that by refusing the release of honky-tonking he holds all that pain in, audibly. The result, expressed in one homely extended metaphor per song (the only one that's too commonplace is "diary of my life"), is a sense of constriction that says as much about the spiritual locus of country music as anything I've heard in quite a while. A-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today [Capitol, 1977]
The album opens with the title song, about a Good Redneck, a class-conscious guy who pays his child support and wonders skeptically why he doesn't get ahead. It closes with "I'm a White Boy," about a Bad Redneck, a race-conscious guy who's too proud for welfare but would settle for a rich woman and/or an easy job. These are powerful pieces whether you like them or not, rendered with passionate sympathy and a touch of distance--his strongest in years. The "filler" includes covers from old standbys Williams and Wills and new favorites Delmore and Wells and an envoi to Lefty Frizzell as well as a gospel song and a running song and a sentimental standard that works (for once). Not a bad cut, and Capitol assembled it from the vaults after Haggard bolted for MCA. Why then did Hag himself put out such crap for three years? A-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Songs I'll Always Sing [Capitol, 1977]
God damn it--I could put together four discs of Hag that would never go below A minus, but Capitol hasn't offered me the job, so this two-disc mishmash will have to do. Dreck among the gems (Haggard has small knack for heart songs), muddled chronologically and thematically (a real waste with an artist so prolific and varied), and the fifth album to include a live version of "Okie From Muskogee." But at least it offers all four of his great outside-the-law songs, one per side. And it's budget-priced. A-

George Jones: All-Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1 [Epic, 1977]
Jones afficionados may well object to his re-recording his old standards, especially while some of the prototypes remain in catalogue on RCA and Musicor. But though I miss the revved-up boy-man lightness of some of the originals, these are much brighter and more passionate than most remakes, and I welcome the improved sound quality and relatively schlock-free arrangements. Likable at worst, revelatory at best, and recommended. A-

George Jones: I Wanta Sing [Epic, 1977]
The vocals aren't as intense here as on Alone Again, so the tomfoolery seems a little forced, though I hope he keeps trying. But as long as he's not buried in strings, soul choruses, and Peter Allen songs, I don't think he can make a bad album. Will somebody tell Billy Sherrill to withdraw that call to Australia? B

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Greatest Hits [Epic, 1977]
If rock and roll plunges forward like young love, then country music partakes of the passionate stability of a good marriage, and here's one couple who know for damn sure that the wedding doesn't end the story. Their hits are alternately tender and recriminatory, funny and fucked up, but they're always felt and they're always interesting. And even though George and Tammy eventually succumbed to d-i-v-o-r-c-e, they don't give you the feeling that that's the way it has to come out. A-

George Jones: 16 Greatest Hits [Starday, 1977]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: The Way It Was in '51 [Capitol, 1978]
Because Haggard's singing gained resonance and flexibility as his songwriting flattened out, this factitious compilation cum concept album, one side devoted to Hank and one to Lefty, works better than his self-designed Bob Wills tribute. A-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Eleven Winners [Capitol, 1978]
Continuing Capitol's reclamation/exploitation of his last five or six years with the label, this compiles his best originals from the period. Pretty conventional--when he does try to add a little something (I like the play on "grind" in the trucking song), it's rarely quite enough. B

George Jones: My Very Special Guests [Epic, 1979]
This collection of ten collaborations with outlaw old-timers, country-rock phenoms, Staples, Tammy, and someone named Elvis has low points, as you might expect. But its quality has more to do with what's being sung than with who's singing it where. James Taylor, harmonizing from New York on his neo-classic "Bartender's Blues," sounds fine; Emmylou Harris, chiming in from El Lay on the lame "Here We Are," fares only slightly worse than Johnny Paycheck does on poor old "Proud Mary," which comes complete with made-in-Nashville interaction. Must-hears: "I Gotta Get Drunk," with Willie Nelson, and the amazing "Stranger in the House," which gives an unexpected clue about who taught Mr. Costello to sing. A-

Merle Haggard: Serving 190 Proof [MCA, 1979]
Its impeccable simplicity and sensitivity gives Haggard's fourth and best album for MCA an autumnal feel reminiscent of recent comebacks by Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Granted, autumnal country music is easier to come by than autumnal rock and roll. But for Haggard, a mere forty-one but feeling it, the effect has thematic repercussions--and he's written a batch of wise songs to flesh it out. B+

George Jones: I Am What I Am [Epic, 1980]
Smiling corpse or committed cuckold or drunk peering over the edge of the wagon, a sinner is what he am, and he's never sounded so abject or unregenerate--the twenty-years-in-five thickness of his Epic voice only intensifies the effect. If Billy Sherrill's chorales signify his helplessness, their unobtrusiveness-in-spite-of-themselves prove his triumph. And remember, it was Sherrill who found him these songs. A-

Merle Haggard: The Way I Am [MCA, 1980]
"Wake Up," a devastating final-night plea that's one of Haggard's few great love songs, is the only original that transcends his usual poses, with "Sky-Bo"--"That's a new kind of hobo for planes"--the most cloying offender. But Haggard's chief value has been vocal ever since "Okie From Muskogee" saddled him with an image, and here his resonant, reflective baritone transforms three Ernest Tubb tunes from standards into timeless pieces of Americana. If Willie Nelson is Bing Crosby, Haggard's Sinatra. B+

Merle Haggard: Big City [Epic, 1981]
Having charged CBS considerable to slide into that notch on Billy Sherrill's gun, Merle signifies his seriousness by saving the flaky stuff for next year and clearing his throat before he sings. This isn't just for his cult--it's for the whole damn country audience. "My Favorite Memory" and "I Always Get Lucky With You" are love songs that may cloy eventually but at least stick for now. "Big City" and "Are the Good Times Really Over" are by the Merle who wrote that song about hippies. And just like on a real Nashville album, you can only tell how much filler there is by listening till you're sick of it. B

George Jones: Still the Same Ole Me [Epic, 1981]
Dumb title, appropriately enough, and every word true--just like his lies about lifetime troth in the title number, one of those inane stick-to-the-medulla-oblongata tunes no one will ever do better. And side-openers, the man has side-openers--a brand-new honky-tonk classic and a brand-new wages-of-honky-tonk classic. Nothing else stands out except for the intrusion of young Georgette Jones (Wynette?) (surely not Richey?) on "Daddy Come Home," which even George can't get away with. But it all stands up. B+

George Jones: Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits [Epic, 1982]
Sure he's inconsistent and self-destructive, but he's such a natural that all his insanity goes into the mix, and such a pro that the greatest performance on all four sides, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," was recorded with a year between the first verse and the bridge. Note also that it was completed in 1980--the strictly chronological sequencing clarifies how he and Billy Sherrill grew into their collaboration. As countrypolitan evolves into country-pop, yielding a standard country best-of on the first two sides, Sherrill gives up on forcing Jones into the mold, instead encouraging his prize to be what he is, the greatest country singer in history--not so much with arrangements, though they do get sparer, as with increasingly hyperbolic and goofy material. Jones's Starday and Musicor best-ofs are as essential as Jimmie Rodgers or Robert Johnson. Side four--ruminative, mannered, dripping with pain--cuts them. A-

Merle Haggard/Willie Nelson: Pancho and Lefty [Columbia, 1982]
Haggard hasn't sung with so much care in years, which is obviously Nelson's doing--the difference between this "Half a Man" and the one on Going Where the Lonely Go is the difference between a husband who doesn't deserve to be cut down and a shit who does. But if Waylon brings out Willie's self-righteousness, Merle brings out his self-pity--Leona Williams doesn't want you to know it, but both of these boys have had more soft places to fall than any good man needs. B+

Merle Haggard and George Jones: A Taste of Yesterday's Wine [Epic, 1982]
What might have been a historic get-together overplays both the good-old-boy camaraderie and the cry-in-your-beer sentimentality of country's male-bonding mode. Willie Nelson's keynote tune becomes completely bathetic, and that the nostalgia and mutual self-congratulation it presages are even bearable is one more proof of Jones's genius. B-

Merle Haggard: Going Where the Lonely Go [Epic, 1982]
Country legend or no, Haggard has no more business doing an album about broken relationships than Public Image Ltd. As a result, material that might be touching from a more austere singer is barely credible, and the three songs that open side two--one by Merle and Jimmy Dickens, one by Merle's off-and-on wife Leona Williams, and one by the austere Willie Nelson--ooze with the kind of moist self-pity ordinarily encountered only in leaders of the men's liberation movement. C+

George Jones: Shine On [Epic, 1983]
Charley Pride couldn't get away with the lucky songs Billy Sherrill's stuck George with this time, and though the unlucky songs are better, superstar guilt and second-convolution cheating just don't suit him. Granted, "Ol' George Stopped Drinkin' Today" is a near-perfect fit. But when it comes to "Almost Persuaded," I'll take the original--by David Houston, Tammy's first singing partner. C+

Merle Haggard: His Epic Hits--The First Eleven--To Be Continued . . . [Epic, 1984]
Though at first this just seems sad, an objective person will admit that actually the songs are kind of memorable--in other words, not filler. He wrote most of them himself, too. But an objective person will also note that the two side-openers (and the two best tracks by a mile) both feature Willie Nelson. And wish he hadn't ruined a great stanza in "My Favorite Memory" with that stupid line about how she made their vacation a ball. And get kind of sick at the reactionary nostalgia of "Are the Good Times Really Over." And wonder whether Mrs. Hag really ended up in George Jones's bed like he claims in "C.C. Waterback," and whether Hag minded, and if not why not. And get sad all over again. B-

George Jones: You've Still Got a Place in My Heart [Epic, 1984]
This not-great George Jones record should reassure anybody who was worried he'd never make another decent one without hitting the bottle again. First side leads off with messages to wives of various periods, second with a Jones-penned chestnut that happens to be the title of his new bio, a great pseudofolksong (or maybe it's real, which is what makes it great), and a very cheerful explanation of why he'll never hit the bottle again. We believe you, George. B

George Jones: By Request [Epic, 1984]
At least there's a rudimentary honesty to the title--this compiles the legend at his most broad-based, and while I'd request half of it myself, only the Ray Charles duet can't be found in more exciting company. B-

George Jones: The King of Country Music [Liberty, 1984]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

George Jones: White Lightning [Ace, 1984]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Merle Haggard: His Best [MCA, 1985]
Though occasional jingoisms like last year's Amber Waves of Grain encourage citified ignoramuses to believe he can't see beyond Muskogee, over the years his musical sophistication has surpassed even Willie Nelson's. His Strangers are a stripped-down version of Bob Wills's Playboys, his soft timbre and lazy swing marks of a singer who'll never get old, and unlike Nelson he keeps writing. This compilation is overdue--he deserted the label in '81--and not all it should be. It draws too heavily on the all too conceptual 1980 Back to the Barrooms. Its two best songs may steer you away from the minor pleasures of the all-encompassingly unconceptual The Way I Am. And it's recommended to ignoramuses nevertheless. B+

Merle Haggard: Songwriter [MCA, 1985]
The best cuts here would make His Best better. But the real reason Haggard has never chalked up the great compilations a great country artist has in him is the reason MCA is perfectly justified in repackaging duff stuff like "Red Bandana" and "From Graceland to the Promised Land." On the country charts, those were hits--that's the way the country audience can be with great country artists. Best cut: the dangerously self-referential "Footlights," which was never released as a single. B

Merle Haggard: A Friend in California [Epic, 1985]
Just when I decide he's gonna lay back forever he ambles into this. No Nippophobia, minimal love pap, a touch of Mexico, and lots of swing--except for one Freddy Powers pledge it keeps going till the obligatory sentimentality of the last two cuts. But though Merle's writing is rolling the prize is Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You." I vote for a tribute follow-up. B+

George Jones: First Time Live [Epic, 1985]
If it's amazing that this inexhaustible record machine has never resorted to a live quickie, it's doubly amazing that he's never dared one. Less amazing is the career moment it captures, the period of sobriety that's turned his never-ending stage fright into shtick. "No Show Jones" opens the show, naturally, and this being country music it kicks off with his guitarist's Merle Haggard imitation. Elsewhere there's a set-down-a-spell band feature, a get-it-over-with medley, and the usual quota of you-had-to-be-there cornball, which Jones, whose stage fright isn't altogether irrational, delivers pretty clumsily for a thirty-year-man. And on top of it all there's irrefutable proof of how instinctive his tricks and mannerisms are--you've heard these vocal grimaces and bursts of prose poetry before, but never in just these heart-stopping places. Definitive: "He Stopped Loving Her Today." B

Merle Haggard: Chill Factor [Epic, 1987]
Supposedly a good one, and since it features an illustrated inner sleeve and six songs on one side that must be the intent. But by peaking with "Thirty Again," all it proves is that his great theme is age rather than love, which of course dominates. Further proof includes the overtaxed title metaphor and a Hank Cochran copyright so bitter and direct it makes you think his women get sick of him for the simple reason that's he full of shit. B-

George Jones: Too Wild Too Long [Epic, 1987]
As per recent habit, "I'm a Survivor," "One Hell of a Song," and "Too Wild Too Long" adduce his legend without justifying it. "The Old Man No One Loved" is as pointless as anything he's ever walked through, "The U.S.A. Today" not as bad as you'd fear. But "The Bird" is gloriously silly, and he hits "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" on the noggin. As for "Moments of Brilliance"--well, "Moments of Brilliance" is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. B-

George Jones: Super Hits [Epic, 1987]
Four of these undeniably super tracks are on Epic's essential Anniversary--Ten Years of Hits, two more on Epic's near-essential All-Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1. Included is the mawkishly obvious "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes." Omitted is the tragically obscure "Don't Leave Without Taking Your Silver." B-

George Jones: One Woman Man [Epic, 1988]
Less than no way to tell this is his best album since I Am What I Am nine years ago--Billy Sherrill himself doesn't know, not with two cuts previously released and one of those nothing special. The other, however, is the homicidal "Radio Lover," which I first heard on the makeshift By Request. Points of interest include veteran honky-tonk, shameless tearjerk, and the impossible "Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You)," about three icons sitting around talking--Elvis Presley, Fred Flintstone, and George Jones. B+

Merle Haggard: 5:01 Blues [Epic, 1989]
It wouldn't be strictly accurate to claim Haggard has pissed his talent away, but the temptation to say so anyhow beckons. His laid-back vocal signature is the lazy man's friend. His originals suggest that he has no reject pile--just entunes any old piece of verse for the annual session. And again and again his famous ecumenicism camouflages lame genre excursions--on this album, the Bellamy-reggae "Sea of Heartbreak." A slight improvement over 1988's feckless Out Among the Stars, due mostly to a formulaic title tune Hag didn't write. But if he thinks he isn't getting away with shit, he needs a shrink. C+

Merle Haggard: Capitol Collectors' Series [Capitol, 1990]
"His Capitol years resulted in 38 Top Ten smashes, many more than can be adequately covered in just this one volume of his hits." But at least this one includes the studio version of "Okie from Muskogee," its first appearance on any Hag album. Although newcomers should note that the man doesn't understand country's essential theme, monogamy, he does know work, prison, family, hard times, my country right or center--which doesn't stop him from getting mawkish about them. And gutless he's not. Six of the seven '74-'76 selections went number one country, while the other barely creased the aforementioned top 10--the one that speaks kindly of Dr. King. A-

Merle Haggard: More of the Best [Rhino, 1990]
The remaining 18 hits, I presume, including the definitive sinner's lament "Mama Tried." Capitol has dibs on the classics, including flag-wavers rock and rollers think they can live without, so Rhino's is short on working-man songs. But it also avoids unnecessarily educational jingoist jingles. Instead we get an asshole's view of marriage, as instructive as it is irritating. He screws in the afternoon, he takes his wife to Florida for a weekend of woo he's sure will patch things up, he settles for a substitute: "I don't have to wonder who she's had/No, it's not love, but it's not bad." You wonder exactly which working men these songs are for--makes you realize how many high-rolling automobile dealers he plays to. But self-pity has rarely possessed a more observant spokesperson. And "Rainbow Stew" says bye with an antiutopian whimsy lefties can relate to. A-

George Jones: Friends in High Places [Epic, 1991]
friends wherever he can find them, some inspired (Randy Travis, Vern Gosdin), some otherwise (Ricky Van Shelton, Buck Owens) ("A Few Ole Country Boys," "All That We've Got Left") *

George Jones: The Best of George Jones (1955-1967) [Rhino, 1991]
You never know with George. On Starday's 16 Greatest Hits, which I purchased for $3.88 in 1978, are Jones originals called "Eskimo Pie" and "No Money in This Deal" that I've always loved. Now I check Joel Whitburn and discover that neither was ever a hit, great or otherwise. These were--they constitute as complete a tour of Jones's early best-sellers as has ever been conducted. That doesn't make "Tender Years" half the record "No Money in This Deal" is--Nashville hits are often cornier than city folks prefer. But he isn't the greatest country singer in history for nothing. Let a dozen compilations bloom. Just watch out for duplications. A-

George Jones: And Along Came Jones [MCA, 1991]
and along came Tony Brown too ("I Don't Go Back Anymore," "You Couldn't Get the Picture") *

George Jones: Walls Can Fall [MCA, 1992]
The cassette-bound are advised to fast-forward to side two, CD investers to program, oh, 6-4-7-8-9-10-1; there's no true filler here, but "Wrong's What I Do Best" is far more thematic than "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," in which 10 suburban cowpeople sing the praises of 61-year-old youth, and which I conceive as a coda. George has been hitched and on the wagon since well before he cut his late-'80s dreck, but he can still sing the likes of "Drive Me To Drink" (if she can't be his wife she can be his chauffeur) and "There's the Door" (if she can walk out of the house maybe he can walk out of the bar) as if he does a lot of listening at 12-step meetings. His problem wasn't authenticity--it was Billy Sherrill. A-

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [Epic, 1992]
In art if not life, this was a rich, amazing marriage, goofy and tragic at the same time. Anybody who thinks Tammy got nothing but trouble from the same old him should compare this "My Elusive Dreams" to the David Houston classic. Anybody who thinks serial monogamy equals mental health should try and giggle at the Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming." Anybody who thinks novelty songs say nothing new should check the postconjugal intimacy of Bobby Braddock's "Did You Ever." A fitting companion to volume one--just press stop before the inspirational finale. A-

George Jones: High-Tech Redneck [MCA, 1993]
"The Visit" Choice Cuts

George Jones: The Bradley Barn Sessions [MCA, 1994]
did someone say duets with America's greatest living vocalist? ("Bartender Blues," "Where Grass Won't Grow") *

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: One [MCA, 1995]
"If God Met You" Choice Cuts

George Jones: I Lived to Tell It All [MCA, 1996]
a drunkard's prayers ("I'll Give You Something To Drink About," "Tied to a Stone") *

George Jones & Melba Montgomery: Vintage Collections [Capitol, 1997]
Besides keeping track of them, the big problem with new George Jones reissues is the same as the big problem with old George Jones issues--consistency. Be they literal rereleases like New Favorites and The Race Is On or circumscribed compilations like Razor & Tie's UA-only She Thinks I Still Care, they rise and fall with the quirks of a taste that isn't yours. But here partnership is a steadying influence, as Montgomery props up the flatter material with her cornpone contralto. George isn't just being polite when he claims Melba was a better match than Tammy--anyone who counts that Birmingham beautician deep country should check out the hollers near Iron City, Tennessee. Montgomery is less original than Jones, as is Pavarotti. But she's so downhome that she never got her druthers or her just deserts. And she's also so downhome that Pappy Daily didn't even think about countrypolitanizing her. A-

George Jones: It Don't Get Any Better Than This [MCA, 1998]
old faithfuls ("Wild Irish Rose," "It Don't Get Any Better Than This") ***

George Jones: Cold Hard Truth [Asylum, 1999]
Begins with two all-time keepers and a fine novelty, after which the songs need more than the scratch vocals he was stuck with after he ran into an abutment playing his stepdaughter the tape ("Choices," "Cold Hard Truth," "Sinners & Saints") ***

George Jones: The George Jones Collection [MCA, 1999]
Too obvious too often ("Wild Irish Rose," "Golden Ring"). **

George Jones: Live With the Possum [Asylum, 1999] Neither

Merle Haggard: If I Could Only Fly [Epitaph, 2000]
For decades aesthetes have crowed about the hard-traveling Haggard's all-American musicality without mentioning that he's a cranky bastard who never decides till the moment at hand whether this gig or session is worthy of his high standards. After a long, dispiriting string of releases that gradually devolved from hit-or-miss to cynical, he comes out of nowhere on a punk label to cut one of the very best albums of his very uneven recording career. Although I doubt there's a "Mama Tried" or "Today I Started Loving You Again" here, I'm positive there's no "Valentine" or "Kids Get Lonesome Too," both of which turned my stomach at a 1996 show, and I like or love most of the new songs-including the metanostalgic "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," the Western swing condom commercial "Bareback," and several about how much he loves his fifth wife. Plus sui generis singing that pauses for consecutive Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash tributes, and the sense of time that permeates his equally sui generis Bakersfield swing. What is his deepest belief? That time is to be savored, not possessed. A-

Merle Haggard: Roots Volume 1 [Anti-, 2001]
who wrote his country soul was Lefty, not Hank--as if we didn't know ("Always Late [With Your Kisses]," "If You've Got the Money [I've Got the Time]") **

Merle Haggard: Like Never Before [Hag, 2003]
Rebel, patriot, musician, legend, populist, sentimentalist, small businessman ("That's the News," "Lonesome Day"). **

George Jones: The Gospel Collection [BNA, 2003]
The Possum, Billy Sherrill, and a great American songbook plus ringers ("The Old Rugged Cross," "In the Garden") **

George Jones: The Definitive Collection [Mercury Nashville, 2004]
As music, this collection of 22 remastered early recordings is magnificent even if you believe, like most nonpurists, that the greatest country singer ever was just getting started in his straight honky-tonk period. It's terse, unsentimental, and soul deep, Jones's voice a marvel and mystery long before its fathomless maturity. Moreover, Jones sounds maybe a quarter quantum clearer and younger in this mix. Note, however, that 1994's two-disc Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years covers the same ground, and its 29 additional cuts are as worthy as all but a few highlights here. With artists of Jones's calibre, sometimes more is more. [Blender: 3]

Merle Haggard: Unforgettable [Capitol, 2004]
"Goin' Away Party" Choice Cuts

Merle Haggard: The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
In which hackdom ages like a fine muscatel. Back when Hag was still flexing his muscles commercially and culturally, the sentimentality of his Billy Sherrill period was rank. Now it's just gorgeously phrased. Sit back and enjoy it. No harm done. [Recyclables]

Merle Haggard: Chicago Wind [Capitol, 2005]
Leave Iraq and stay with your love ("Where's All the Freedom," "It Always Will Be"). ***

Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again! [Bandit, 2006]
Hag keeps getting Haggier, but that thing in George's voice that was grainy like cornbread is turning to mush ("Things Have Gone to Pieces," "Footlights"). *

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price: Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 [Lost Highway, 2007]
There's only so much three prolific old coots can do with a double-CD of country standards, and they do most of it. Intimate with the literature, they pick winners you've never heard, and they're putting out, always a consideration with the prolific. Yet though the broad-beamed Price obviously needs two of the deftest singers left on the planet, it's his ruined echo chamber of a voice that injects a defining solemnity into the two religious songs, and everything else derives from that. Not much kidding around here--they're feeling their varying ages. But they ain't dead yet. A-

Merle Haggard: I Am What I Am [Vanguard, 2010]
Although Haggard recorded many more good albums in the '00s than in the '90s, his songwriting hasn't been this sharp since 2000's If I Could Only Fly. Not that every song flies, and not that he creaks so noticeably on the December-December "We're Falling in Love Again" just to make sure he conveys how "making love 'neath the stars" actually feels at 73. But his good-old-days laments taste sweet where once they curdled. You'd almost think he's grateful to be alive, which may just be why Johnny Cash's ghost gets to croak "I watched it all completely fall apart" on the lead track. B+

Merle Haggard: Working in Tennessee [Vanguard, 2011]
Now 74 and short half a lung, he's not making the best music of his life, just the best albums. The playing keeps getting savvier, he hasn't lost as much voice as God intended, his homegrown anarchism is feistier than ever, and with help from his fifth wife he's still writing keepers. Not even the anti-Nashville "Too Much Boogie Woogie" feels like filler. Try a title track that crests with "Well the water came in, the water went out/Saw the Hall of Fame floatin' about," or the equally insouciant "Laugh It Off," or the love songs for seniors "Down on the Houseboat" (they've got money) and "Under the Bridge" (they don't), or a "What I Hate" where he blames the resurgent Civil War on the Rebels. Or if all that sounds too darn modern, start with the three oldies: "Cocaine Blues" on his lonesome, "Jackson" with his fifth wife, and "Working Man Blues" with Shotgun Willie and his own 17-year-old son. Man's learned how to live, and he has no intention of stopping. A-

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie [Legacy, 2015]
They do enjoy themselves, but although you'd think Willie wrote the buoyant one about the world going to pot, instead he wrote the lugubrious one about dreams going to die ("It's All Going to Pot," "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash," "Live This Long") ***

George Jones & the Jones Boys: Live in Texas 1965 [Ace, 2018]
Listen to these 26 numbers not for their resonance or intensity, but for how expertly and dispassionately they're picked up, performed, and put back down ("I'm Ragged but I'm Right," "Who Shot Sam," "Intro: Hold It") ***

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