As he makes his way to age seventy, Merle Haggard is as hard as ever to classify. Nominally a country singer (and a great one at that), he’s also one of America’s most accomplished living songwriters, well versed in the musical languages of rock, jazz, and blues. Known as one of country’s original “outlaw” singers (a group that included the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings), he’s also the author of tender, reflective ballads about love and the joys of family life. A man who counted Ronald Reagan as a friend and who penned the conservative anthem “Okie from Muskogee”, he’s also an outspoken supporter of marijuana rights and a harsh critic of the Iraq war. He is, in many ways, a quintessential American enigma. And nowhere is that more clear than on his latest full-length, “Chicago Wind”.
Over the course of the album’s 11 songs (most of them original compositions), Haggard lays out a little of everything that has played a role in his longevity and legendary status. The title track is a perfect example of the country swing that he has perfected over the years, a lilting ode to loneliness and the rejuvenating power of companionship. ‘What I’ve Been Meaning to Say’ finds him coloring joy with melancholy in ageless fashion, intoning in the chorus that “I should have told you I wanted to hold you.” And ‘Honky Tonk Man’, wherein Haggard reminds us “I’ve still got my guitar, and I’ve got a plan”, plays like one of his classic barroom ballads, albeit one that’s been toned down a bit with age.
Most of the rest of the tracks mine similar territory, but three songs in particular stand out. ‘Where’s all the Freedom’ and ‘America First’ find Haggard getting feisty with searching rebukes of the American condition. In typical Merle Haggard fashion, predictable partisanship is nowhere to be found. In one breath he declares our need to “get out of Iraq, get back on track”, while in another he laments that “you can’t show the ten commandments anymore”. If consistency is the mark of a lazy mind, Haggard shows no signs of slowing down.
The album’s best track, though, is its last. “Some of Us Fly” (a duet with Toby Keith) is one of Haggard’s best originals in years. Part of that may have to do with its origins, which Haggard explained in a November, 2005 interview with GQ magazine. When he toured recently with Bob Dylan, Haggard asked the old master for a song to record. When Dylan replied that he doesn’t write songs anymore, Haggard decided to write the song he would have wanted Dylan to give him. The result is a simple but potent meditation on what it means to strive, succeed, and fail that holds its own with some of Haggard’s finest early work.
Most of the subject matter on “Chicago Wind” sticks close to that which has been covered in thousands of country songs before, but Haggard is known as one of the best for a reason. If the album can be said to have an overall theme, one that sets it apart from the standard issue, it is probably this: Haggard is aging. And like any artist who manages to stay creative late into his life, the compromises, surprises, and changes that come with growing old are reflected in his art. Haggard has finally earned, after four failed marriages and years of raising hell, something approaching contentment.
Thematically speaking, this would seem to place him at odds with his early work; with songs like “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink” and lyrics like “I turned twenty-one in prison, serving life without parole”. But Haggard is an interesting sort. His work has always been defined, above all, by a disarming honesty, a sense of openness about himself and his surroundings, delivered with an unmistakable sense of “take it or leave it”. His focus may have changed somewhat over the years, but the forces that drive him have not.
What “Chicago Wind” represents is something all too rare: the work of an artist who has remained relevant late in life, not through aping trends or peddling warmed-over nostalgia, but through pure, natural evolution. “Chicago Wind” can best be described as exceedingly solid. To call it great would be an overstatement, but at the same time it’s difficult to point out its flaws.