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George Jones & Merle Haggard - Kickin' Out the Footlights...Again Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    Bandit
reviewed by:    Charles Andrews

ImageWhat did you expect from this? A legendary recording, just because two of the most legendary performers in the history of country music are singing together on disc for the first time in 25 years? No, make that: two of the greatest voices e-v-e-r – in any genre of music – yes, I know what I’m saying, I’ve been saying it for years. Sinatra, Caruso, Aretha, Elvis, Maria Callas, Ray Charles, Josh Groban – if your list gets up to double figures, you’ve got to let these two cowpokes in.

(Okay, I was going to wait until the last line of the review to say, “By the way… I was just kidding about the Josh Groban.” But I’m afraid if I wait I might lose almost every reader with that flip remark, and those who accepted it at face value… well, you… probably should leave, now.)

If you want to argue about my Olympian opinion of the Hag and the Possum, I’m going to sit you down and trot out recordings going back almost 50 years, and just to top it off show you a list of what they’ve each written. Few humans who have ever opened their mouths while music was playing have expressed emotion more eloquently or movingly. The simplest words become art, somewhere between the heart and the lips. When you think of a song sung blue that can literally move you to tears, do you think of Mariah Carey? Tim McGraw? Kelly Clarkson? Johnny Mathis? It’s a feat, to use the nuance of your voice and the emotion you put into it to elicit real physical responses in others, involuntary reactions like a tight throat, churning stomach, irregular breathing, and tears, real, wet tears escaping from the corners of your eyes and streaming slowly over your cheekbones before you know what’s happening. (Of course, it does help if you’d had a brew or two.) Merle and George are masters of it, have been doing it with their eyes closed for four decades.
But not so much anymore, because Hag just hit his 70s and ol’ George is 75. There are two elements involved: the voice, and the soul. And while age may even pad the bank account in the latter category, time is a cruel master who inevitably taketh away from the former. You may say, gee, he sounds great for his age, but past 70, 75, somewhere in that neighborhood, you’re not going to honestly say, he sounds exactly the same, or even just as good, as he did 30 years ago.

Live performance – a different thing. Then you get the personality, and the face, perhaps a gaunt, or bloated, gray reminder of those old album covers you’ve got at home, but still recognizable, and familiar like an old friend. And perhaps some ruminations from the stage that are one-of-a-kind. Worth the ticket, though you’ve got to arrive in your seat expecting the voice probably will not match your cherished recordings. You come, in the waning years of a favorite performer’s career, for whatever is left. When I saw Bob Dylan on tour last year, almost half my anticipation was for his “opening act,” Merle Haggard, and I was as delighted with what he offered as the so-called jaded L.A. audience who gave him such a warm response, including one of the most emotional mid-set spontaneous standing ovations I’ve ever seen (left Merle almost speechless).

Sometimes an album by a fading geezer can be amazingly rewarding, an obvious example being Johnny Cash’s recent final recording, American V: A Hundred Highways, which is difficult for almost anyone to hear, it is so wracked with emotion and the sound of a man with home in sight but so weary he can hardly take the final steps. But Cash was from the beginning possessed of a singular, moving vocal instrument that no one mistook for being a good singing voice, and when he passed at 71 it was barely a croak that only occasionally hit the notes or even the tempo.

Hag’s almost there, and George left 71 in the dust, but unlike Johnny these two have been known as great singers, with great voices (the two don’t always go together), all their careers. So the main question to be answered by this release is, how are they holding up? Is this an exercise in nostalgia and camaraderie, or worth it for the chops they’ve still got?

The answer is yes, and no, on all counts. If you looked at it as any kind of competitive measure (which I’m sure these two old friends do not), the prize would go to… Merle Haggard. He’s still got more of what made Merlewaukee famous than does Lonesome George, though I understand Jones has been affected recently by serious allergies and other physical problems, which may be a passing thing and he’ll sound better at 77 than he did at 75. But on the evidence in these grooves, Haggard still possesses much of his vaunted range, and nearly all his powers of expression.

But here’s the odd thing that I find really fascinating about this recording. It’s subtitled Jones Sings Haggard, Haggard Sings Jones, because besides four duets they each sing five songs written by, or associated with as hits from, the other singer. A great premise: let’s see the George Jones style applied to classic Hag numbers, and Merle interpreting those famous vocal swoops of G. Jones. But for whatever reason, while George applied what he could of that arching country tenor to songs Merle sang fairly differently, Merle decided to do his best George Jones imitation, and he did it so well I had a lot of trouble on the first few listenings, unless I checked the credits, believing that was really him singing that George Jones chestnut, and not George Jones. Who knew he ever had it in him, let alone in his 70s? The two are nearly opposites in their ranges, Merle’s basement basso drops down so far it’s barely visible from George’s high and lonesome vocal roost in the attic window up above. Call it Jones Sings Haggard as Jones, Haggard Sings Jones As Jones, but I loved it, despite the missed opportunity of hearing Haggard interpret more than mimic Jones.

It’s a delightful journey for fans, as the two somberly consider the changing fortunes and continuing values of the aging performer in the opening duet “Footlights,” a slow-moving meditation different from the tone of the rest of the recording, and contrasted with the closing light-hearted goofing of Duke Ellington’s appropriate “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” where mid-song you’ll get the kind of endearing back-and-forth repartee of two old soldiers you might otherwise only catch at a live show. George’s duck even makes a rare, brief appearance, quacking Merle up. As much as I admire Haggard as a phenomenal songwriter, three of the four songs that make you sit up and notice right away are George Jones classics, “The Race is On,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and “The Window Up Above,” the fourth being the Haggard heartbreaker “Sing Me Back Home,” beautifully rendered by George. Among the duets, “Born with the Blues” is a gem, with George reaching for those tears from the opening notes.

Even at whatever percentage off their peaks these two may now be, “Kickin’” reminds us that they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore; as much as I preach about the quality of music that continues to bubble through in the bleakest of times, Nashville’s embrace for decades now of pretty boys and girls with good voices but no souls gets blown out of the water when you hear what George and Merle can still do with a song. Love ‘em while we’ve still got ‘em.

Adequate. Mostly workmanlike. Covering the bases. Standard, mostly uninspired, country. Not up to the stature of these legends. I know, this disc is supposed to concentrate completely on the singers, and you can hear them perfectly, and they seem happy enough with the accompaniment (yeah, Merle, let’s do hear it for Pig Robbins), but this is classic country without the kick, which can sometimes border on boring. For God’s sake, this is Haggard and Jones! – besides Pig, can’t we get them the biggest names there are? Who would turn down this gig? Guess it doesn’t work that way. Dylan seems to do just fine with a shuffle of skilled but nameless players.

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