At this point, Merle Haggard's musical territory is staked out and grazed to the nubbin: slow, sauntering ballads, up-tempo country boogie, occasionally a little Western swing. No string sections, no synths, no exclamation marks. Staying clear of the clotted, market-tested production of the Nashville A-team studio players seems to keep him alive; still, his recent records, self-produced and made in his own California studio, have been a bit plain, enshrining his time-ravaged voice with a bit too much open, untreated space. If I Could Only Fly, his first for the punk label Epitaph, is no different. But what a lyricist he still can be. All the songs emanate from a single persona, an aging, cloistered singer (Haggard is in his sixties) whose routine — avoiding drugs, taking comfort from cushioned bus seats, being honest with his kids — is all he has. In "Bareback," a song about surviving the road after the romance of it goes away, he warns a woman that she'd better look out for his comfort. But this isn't some male-chauvinist guffaw; it's about age, not sex, and it's so unromantic that by its sheer honesty it achieves tenderness. The album isn't quite Sinatra's September of My Years, but the man's songwriting control is exemplary. There's nothing mytho-poetic in boredom, and weariness is one of country's cliche themes, but Haggard finds a middle road that's unusual for country: self-acceptance, totally free of bluster or self-pity.
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