It's been a busy month for one of country music's biggest legends, the great Merle Haggard. He turned 77 and was honored on the same day at the ACM Awards by Miranda Lambert, George Strait, and Garth Brooks, and the week before, Working Man's Poet: A Tribute To Merle Haggard was released. A quick glance at the artists contributing would make most traditional country fans and Haggard fans simply laugh and turn away. Aldean AND Luke Bryan? But, if you give this album a chance, you'll see that not only do these artists all do these songs justice, but the best ones come from the guys you'd least expect. This is a very good tribute album.
Mainstream country music is so far removed from the music of Merle Haggard that it is jarring to hear these artists sing this way. These are not pop country remakes or "modernization" of these songs: they are cut in a classy way that would make Merle proud. Sure, it's more of a "glossy" or "perfect" production than Merle's gritty versions were, but that is the norm for big label guys. The first few songs really set off the album right. "Misery and Gin" covered by Randy Houser is great, and Randy sings it perfectly. He also covers "Ramblin' Fever" later in the album to similar results. Randy has one of those voices that, if given the right material, could be a MEGA country star. He is maybe the best pure singer in country music today. Joe Nichols covers "Footlights" (also on his latest album, Crickets) next and it's a knockout as well. Joe's voice and mannerisms of singing are very similar to the Hag, so he is always a solid choice for these covers. He also provides a wonderful rendition of "My Favorite Memory" later in the album. Kristy Lee Cook is the lone female solo artist on the record (a sign of the times if I've ever saw one) and she covers one of Haggard's best: "Today I Started Loving You Again". She has an underrated voice that really hits the emotion of the song. I've always loved female covers of "Today I Started Loving You Again", and Kristy's is great. Toby Keith pops up to honor his fellow Oklahoman with "Carolyn", and the soaring production is perfect for Toby's voice. Another great cut.
Some of the names I was shocked to see on here were Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Parmalee. These artist do not seem to have much cross appeal with Haggard fans, but they are being pimped by their labels for this project. The results vary from mediocre to fantastic. Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley's cover of "Pancho and Lefty" is decent. This is the most "modernized" version of a song on the album, and has the biggest radio potential if they release a single. They certainly added a lot of noise and created more of a driving rhythm than a Spanish melody, but it isn't terrible. Some of the feeling gets lost in the shuffle, but the song is still an amazing piece of lyricism, so they really can't mess it up. Parmalee's version of "Working Man's Blues" is forgettable, but decent. Nothing about it stands out to me, and nothing really offends me. Where I was most pleasantly surprised was when Jason Adlean popped up. Jason's versions of "Are The Good Times Really Over?" and "Going Where The Lonely Go" are probably the best two songs on the album. They are full of steel guitar, emotion, and great vocals. Jason sings better than he ever has on these two tracks. If Jason left the bro-country party behind, he could have a real lasting legacy. His voice is unique in its tone and sound, and when paired with the right song, sound great. It's almost depressing to hear these songs, and realize how wasted this talent is. Luke and Jason both sing very well, and when they get material like this its a painful reminder of how great country radio could be.
Other songs on the album are exciting as well. Dustin Lynch does a nice rendition of "That's The Way Love Goes", and a pretty decent version of "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink". Newcomer James Wesley is very good on his covers of "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive" and "The Fightin' Side of Me". He puts a lot of gusto into "Fightin' Side" that really brings the message of patriotism home, and his deep twang is perfect for "Fugitive". Wesley could be a diamond in the rough of country music if he gets a hold of the right song. Thompson Square's two songs, "You Take Me For Granted" and "Let's Chase Each Other Around The Room" are both well done covers, but nothing that stands out on the album. They are pretty decent covers, but there are so many that they get a little lost in the shuffle. Jake Owen's take on "Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans" makes it sound as though it is actually a Jake Owen original. He does a very good job of making it his own and infecting personality into the song. If you buy the Walmart version of the album, you get Garth Brooks' cover of "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" from his Blame It All On My Roots box set. Its great to hear Garth on something new. His voice sounds like he never left and his rendition is solid and well done. All that being said, the coolest moments of the album belong to Ben Haggard. Merle's son covers two of the best know Haggard songs: "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home". Both of those songs are some of Merle's most personal, heartfelt songs, so its fitting that his son is the one to cover them. Ben has his own sound and voice and really makes the songs his own. Hopefully, a lot of people heard him for the first time and will check out his other material.
Tribute albums are tough to critique. Is any of it better than the originals? Of course not. Do any of these songs really offer any daring covers that totally makes over the whole song? I don't think so. However, do a lot of today's stars get to honor one of their heroes and introduce a whole new audience to his music? Absolutely. Is there a lot of good country music to listen to? For sure. To me, the last two are the most important factors. These artists didn't set out to beat or redefine Merle Haggard's music. They simply covered it and payed tribute to one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. If you like Haggard, any of the artists on the album, or just good country music (that we don't get enough of these days), then Working Man's Tribute: A Tribute To Merle Haggard is a great choice.
Standout Tracks: "Going Where The Lonely Go"- Jason Aldean, "Are The Good Times Really Over?"- Jason Aldean, "Misery And Gin"- Randy Houser, "Footlights"- Joe Nichols, "Mama Tried"- Ben Haggard, "Sing Me Back Home"- Ben Haggard, "The Fightin' Side of Me"- James Wesley
"Footlights"- Joe Nichols