Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

Occasional jingoistic exploitations such as last year's Amber Waves of Grain encourage citified ignoramuses to believe that Merle Haggard can't see beyond Muskogee. But over the years, the man's musical sophistication has surpassed even Willie Nelson's. His Strangers are a stripped-down modernization of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys; his soft timbre and lazy swing are marks of a singer who'll never get old; and, unlike Nelson, he keeps writing. Of course, Haggard is the kind of pro who makes decent albums often and real good ones almost never and, thus, A Friend in California (Epic) is his best since his 1981 Epic album debut, Big City, if not since his 1979 Serving 190 Proof, for MCA. Even so, it's hit or miss; but for once, the hits win, among them the Floyd Tillman cover, the mariachi-tinged title tune, the rueful yet jaunty "Texas," the grateful yet unreconstructed "Mama's Prayer" and, oh, yes, "The Okie from Muskogee's Comin' Home." Those who'd like another swig should sample His Best, the first of two recent (and overdue) MCA compilations--which would be even more consistent if MCA hadn't saved a little best for the accompanying Songwriter.

No matter how hard I try, I can't discern much substance in the songs Katrina Leskanich sings. And no matter how hard I try, I don't care. For me--these things are very personal--she's like a lesser Aretha, possessor of one of those rare voices that are their own reason for being. Feed her gutsy contralto some simple pop tunes and it'll make the simple pop truisms soar. Admittedly, how high they soar varies with the tune and with her enthusiasm. But even though Katrina and the Waves' Waves (Capitol) should have been called Katrina, it's all an up.

Playboy, Aug. 1986

July 1986 Sept. 1986