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Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard

(Hightone)

On most tribute records, the varied interpretations of a single artist rarely amount to anything more than a greatest-hits package once removed, and often an uneven one at that. But the sheer volume of tribute albums on the market almost guarantees occasional exceptions to this rule. One recent example is Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard (Hightone). In his heyday, from the late 60s to the mid-70s, Haggard and his backup band the Strangers were one of the strongest country groups in the business. There are already numerous compilations that amply demonstrate their achievements. (In our CD age the best are probably the 1990 compilations The Capitol Collector's Series and its worthy companion volume on Rhino, More of the Best.) But on this new tribute album, producers Dave Alvin and Tom Russell are after something else. By focusing on his songwriting, they and the 13 other respected singer-songwriters who contributed to the project have carefully framed the most endearing example of Haggard's important populist legacy available on a single disc.

That legacy starts with his biography, a postwar rags-to-riches drama too perfect even for Hollywood. Raised in a converted refrigerator car by his widowed Okie mother, shuttled among reform schools as a teenager, he was convicted of robbery in 1957 at age 20 and sent to San Quentin. But he was released in 1960, and within five years he earned a major-label contract and a top-ten hit ("All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers").

Over the next two decades he exploited his background with a stunningly prolific output of singles and albums. In songs about work, prison, family, love, marriage, and politics, his attitude ranged from patriotic pride to class-conscious resentment, from down-home nostalgia to lecherous rambling fever. These contradictory stances always captured millions of white, working-class American males' gut reactions to the confusing social changes and tumultuous political events of their times. In return, they (and their wives) rewarded him with a string of more than 40 top-ten country hits between the mid-60s and the early 80s.

No doubt Haggard deserves the title "Poet of the Common Man," but the title's noble pretensions often ring hollow. As both the Capitol and Rhino compilations faithfully demonstrate, "the common man" related to Haggard not only for his more virtuous qualities but for his self-pity, jingoism, and callous machismo, most famously demonstrated by his right-wing anthem "Okie From Muskogee" and its follow-up, "The Fightin' Side of Me" ("If you don't love it, leave it / Let this song that I'm singing be a warning"). Tulare Dust, on the other hand, purposefully avoids Haggard's most thickheaded songs, focusing instead on his most empathetic numbers, whether simple love songs or homages to the working class.

If you want to be snobbish you might call it The Enlightened Side of Merle. With folksy cuts like "They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down" and "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today," it seems at first as if the underlying PC goal is to redefine Haggard as a modern-day Woody Guthrie. And indeed the homespun feel of the project is reminiscent of the 1987 Guthrie tribute album Folkways: A Vision Shared (Columbia). But the comparison is a natural one. Even overlooking their shared Okie roots, Guthrie had an undeniable influence on Haggard's simple melodies, traditional arrangements, and class-conscious lyrics.

More important, if you give it a chance, the album touches on more sides of Haggard's talent than is first suggested by the rootsy framework. There's the understated trucker anthem "White Line Fever," brought into sharp relief by Joe Ely's crack country-rock rendition, and the melancholic breakup song "Silver Wings," aptly given a full-blown, country-pop reading by Marshall Crenshaw. Some of the sparser cuts are equally powerful, like the quiet paean to interracial love "Irma Jackson," sung by Barrence Whitfield, and the raw, desperate tale of alcohol dependency "I Can't Hold Myself in Line," sung by John Doe (greatest phrase: "My weakness is stronger than I am"). If I were to quibble, I might replace a few cuts with my own Haggard favorites, switching the bathetic family fantasy "Daddy Frank" with the dry-eyed family confessional "Mama Tried," and the goofy meditation "My Own Kind of Hat" with either the workingman's lament "If We Make It Through December" or the lover's lament "Today I Started Loving You Again." Also, at least one of the contributors, Steve Young, oversings the material, a mistake Haggard himself would never make. But given the way the album refigures and revitalizes Merle Haggard's wide-ranging, complex, and all but forgotten oeuvre, these complaints are trivial.

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