Merle Haggard has slipped into his 60s with such rare grace that he can be forgiven for letting a little nostalgia seep into his work over the last five years or so. The ballad-heavy If I Could Only Fly (Anti, 2000)--sort of his September of My Years--revisits the elegantly unadorned, largely acoustic approach that made him a Bakersfield legend four decades ago, and opens with "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," where Haggard rejects any notion of remaking himself for the times. In lesser hands a song like "Proud to Be Your Old Man" would come off as Hallmark-worthy corn, but the Hag's sun-baked delivery sucks the sentimentalism out of lines like "You love me in spite of my age / You're always right there by the stage / And you say beauty's found in the soul / You make it fun to get old." For "Bareback," an oddly and perhaps accidentally suggestive song about how people don't take risks anymore, he breaks into some hot western swing, a style he also dabbles in on the recent Peer Sessions (Audium), a terrific collection that focuses on the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills (both of whom he also feted on classic albums from the early 70s), and other songwriters published by legendary music man Ralph Peer. The album was made over the course of three years, between 1996 and 1999, and features contributions from countrypolitan producer Owen Bradley and singer Jimmie Davis, who joins in on his own "Hang On to the Memories." (Davis, most famous for "You Are My Sunshine," died in 2000 at age 101.) It's old-fashioned stuff, but when it's coming out of Merle Haggard's mouth it's timeless. At this show, expect the hits. Saturday, April 26, 8 PM, the Hemmens, 150 Dexter, Elgin; 847-931-5900.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Piper Ferguson.