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Rerelease Review: Merle Haggard, Kern River and Amber Waves of Grain

Merle Haggard
Kern River
and
Amber Waves of Grain
[BGO Records (2010)]

The remastered reissues of Merle Haggard’s Kern River and Amber Waves of Grain by BGO Records are part of the English imprint’s long-running series where two classic Haggard LPs are re-released on a single CD. Kern River is considered to be one of Hag’s better releases of the 80s, yet, interestingly, he only penned three—including the autobiographical title track—of the eleven selections heard here. Overall, it’s a far cry from his hard-edged honky tonk style of the 1960s. Instead, the proceedings are characterized by beautiful professions of love (“Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You”) and aching heartbreak (“You Don’t Love Me Anymore”). “Natural High” is a gorgeous testimonial that netted Haggard his 31st number one hit. Janie Fricke adds delicate harmonies on the track.

At times, the listen moves slowly, requiring patience for a better, fuller appreciation, but Haggard’s tender, expressive voice at this stage of his career is still marvelous. What saves this being from a totally mellow-ish affair is a zippity New Orleans-flavored rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Big Butter and Egg Man” and Haggard’s western swing revisitation on “The Old Watermill” and “There I’ve Said It Again.” (Haggard was instrumental in western swing’s revival in the early 70s.) Interestingly, former Bob Wills’ sideman Tiny Moore plays fiddle and mandolin and the venerable Grady Martin, who produced most tracks, guests on guitar.

Amber Waves of Grain is a live recording from the Holiday Theater in Merriville, IN and the Bob Devaney Sports Complex in Lincoln, NE that was a tribute to America’s farmers, where all song royalties were donated to a farm-oriented charity. The title track is particularly patriotic; Haggard poses the question that if the amber waves of grain should disappear (meaning farming in general), “would we buy our bread and butter from the Toyota man? / Would an Idaho spud be stamped ‘Made in Japan?” “American Waltz” poignantly recounts our country’s development as a nation while “I Wish Things Were Simple” is an equally moving reflection on life. Of course, since it’s a live album, there’s going to be the familiar, which Hag does in a crowd-pleasing medley of “Tulare Dust” and “Mama Tried.” “The Okie From Muskogee’s Coming Home” is a short sequel to “Okie From Muskogee” but sequenced here before the classic for a novel twist. As live albums go, the sound quality is good, and the performance from Haggard’s band is topnotch, kicking when it needs to. The CD includes extensive liner notes, which helps explain the significance of why two these releases are important, but overlooked chapters of Hag’s career.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

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