By: Scott Caffrey
Go ahead and add Volume I to the title. Not only does Merle Haggard wish it so, but well, it's just gotta be. Everything about The Bluegrass Sessions (McCoury Music) screams authentic, but there's one major element missing - a little more giddy-up.
Sessions sounds very much like a fresh cracked band just getting born. Joined by a cast of country and bluegrass fence-riders, Haggard sounds all living roomy in Ricky Skaggs' studio, though maybe he's a little too relaxed. Even the oldest of old timers need to shake the rafters once in a while.
Working with former Stranger (Hag's longtime backing band) Ronnie Reno, the two wisely chose Marty Stuart (guitar, mandolin) as team captain. Never mind that hair, Stu still rips. So, it's no wonder the record starts off promisingly with the re-imagined "Runaway Momma." It still cruises. But man, where'd all the ragtime go?
Frustratingly, "Runaway" is one of too few songs that ever reach any kind of "reel" speed. "Big City" and "I Wonder Where To Find You" start to get at it but neither one succeeds. Can't get on him too much, though. Haggard's voice at 70 is still heart-achingly beautiful. Charlie Cushman (banjo) and Rob Ickes (dobro, resophonic guitar) are all-over great. The album's standout track is easily the Alison Krauss duet on his signature "Mama's Hungry Eyes." Krauss is clearly big enough to stand with him and add to all the tragic radiance.
It's fair to have expectations with Haggard, and I sure hope Ole Hag can kick out the lights and become the lonesome fugitive again. This time, with bluegrass, it's a great start and he sounds mighty capable in this well-chosen late career direction. But, he needs to tap into that sneering energy that first catapulted him to fame. Hopefully Sessions really is a first take and someday makes a great companion to a more rollicking Volume II .
JamBase | Muskogee
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