Merle Haggard,
If I Could Only Fly
(Epitaph, 2000)

Is it an exaggeration to say that Merle Haggard, a man with more than 50 albums to his credit, outdid himself on this one? Absolutely not.

His previous album, 1996, was a good effort but the sound was a bit like something out of a carnival and the poignancy of Merle's lyrics and sound had all but vanished. The exact opposite is true here. This album is brutally raw, both musically and lyrically.

Haggard seems uninterested in catching up to the times. Technology and heavy-handed production are given a well-deserved back seat here. Not since the '70s have we heard such glorious fiddle licks as on "Thanks to Uncle John," acoustic picking or such catcthy but honest melodies as on the drum and percussion-driven "I'm Still Your Daddy." It's been a while since Haggard gave us songs that we're likely to be humming in the shower.

But the desperate attempts to try and stop time with the muscle of his lyrics are perhaps the most gripping moments, as on the stripped down "Wishin' All These Old Things Were New" or the brilliant title track, which is one of the best ballads to leak from Haggard's melancholic pen in quite some time.

If I Could Only Fly is the work of a man who recognizes that his glory days are behind him and is now treading forward to his last years. This album is the narrative of that journey to the sunset of his life. It may be the most honest recording he's ever done; he lets his life bleed all over the songs, and sometimes his smoothly tattered voice sounds as though writing such an obviously personal record was no painless task. These songs don't come from his voice, they come from his blood. That kind of achievement is getting rarer by the hour in contemporary music, no less country music. This album is not just a must-buy, it is the chance of a lifetime.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 31 May 2003

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