In the ’60s, Merle Haggard was viewed as a reactionary by some due to the “love it or leave it” lyrics of “Fightin’ Side of Me.” In recent years he’s emerged as a populist, without anything good to say about W. or his Iraq adventure. On “Working Man’s Journey,” Haggard delivers 12 tunes that document the average American’s struggles to survive in modern America. The album is split between Haggard oldies and newer material that sounds like hits in the making. “Stormy New Orleans,” obviously inspired by the Katrina debacle, takes a darkly humorous look at the plight of the survivors as they rebuild their town. Dan Markham’s R&B sax gives the tunes an authentic N’awleens flavor.
“In the Mountains to Forget” lists all the things Hag can do without, including the Internet, bin Laden and pointless wars. “C’mon Sixty-Five” is a Harlan Howard song praising retirement, somewhat ironic considering Haggard is now 70 and touring as much as he ever did. This CD is available only from Cracker Barrel stores or online at www.crackerbarrel.com.
John Prine & Mac Wiseman
John Prine & Mac Wiseman, a bluegrass picker and singer known for his work with Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, collaborate on “Standard Songs for Average People” (Oh Boy). The duo turns in beautiful, low-key versions of tunes made famous by artists as diverse as Earnest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Bing Crosby. An A-list of Nashville players adds incomparable picking, making the set a delight from start to finish. Highlights include Bob Wills and Cindy Walker’s swinging “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” “In the Garden,” an ageless Southern hymn and “Blue Side of Lonesome,” one of the saddest country songs ever written, dressed up in some new bluegrass clothes.
John Carter Cash
Tribute albums tend to be uneven affairs, but producer John Carter Cash, son of June Carter Cash, has done his mom proud with “Anchored in Love” (Dualtone). June’s musical life included years in the Carter Family as well as her time singing with her husband Johnny Cash. She was also a first-rate songwriter, so the participants in this tribute album can draw on some of the greatest country tunes ever written. Loretta Lynn’s “Wildwood Flower,” Rosanne Cash’s “Wings of an Angel” and Ralph Stanley’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” are stunning. The only clunkers are the Sheryl Crow/Willie Nelson duet on “If I Were a Carpenter” and Elvis Costello’s oddly understated “Ring of Fire.”