What's left for Merle Haggard? It's been 40 years since he was paroled from San Quentin, where he did just shy of three years for a botched burglary, 40 years since he first made a go at a genre he would -- in his songs, voice and life story -- come to own. His first single, released in 1962, was on the mark: "Singing My Heart Out" and "Skid Row." The titles forecast a double-sided art. If Haggard has chronicled working-class life at its most itinerant and dire, he renewed every desperation through the dignity of his deep, supple, and emotionally open voice. In songs like "Branded Man," "Kern River," "Mama Tried," "Tulare Dust," "If We Make It Through December" and "Sing Me Back Home," Haggard finds that elusive, timeless place, the one where the soul of man never dies. Haggard has also, though it's often forgotten, made some of country music's most majestic records: "Caroline," with its high-cresting chorus, as thrilling as any Phil Spector score; "What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana," with a glowering, terminal recitation and those barely perceptible layers of guitar, backing vocals and violins; and "Footlights," with its electric piano echoing Bill Withers' "Lean On Me," and lyrics that say all you need to know about the man because the man said it himself: I live the kind of life most men only dream of/I make my livin' writing songs and singin' them/But I'm 41 years old and I've got no place to go /when it's over/But I'll hide my age and make the stage/and try to kick the footlights out again." After Hank Williams, country music has never known a singer/songwriter of such talent, charisma and virtuosity.... More >>>