Last year, after a decade-long label skirmish in which he was on the receiving end of some of the lowest industry brawling tactics, Merle Haggard released If I Could Only Fly, one of the finest albums of his career. Despite an apparent reserve of inspiration, Haggard’s decision to strike an album of covers with his hot iron makes perfect sense. With Roots Volume 1, one of country music’s most reverent fans has again come up aces while paying tribute to his heroes. What began with 1969’s Same Train, Different Time (Jimmie Rodgers) and included 1970’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player (Bob Wills), now includes tips of the hat to fellow roots, Lefty Frizzell, and a pair of Hanks, Thompson and Williams. Part of Haggard’s singular gift is that despite being one of our finest songwriters, he’s an equally gifted interpreter. And Hag sounds positively spry leaping into Frizzell’s skin for runs through “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” and “I Want to Be With You Always,” and other gems from the country canon, including “Honky Tonkin'” and “The Wild Side of Life.”
The purpose of Haggard’s Roots runs deeper than homage, taking in the styles of these three iconoclasts and accentuating what made them special: a love of seemingly disparate American music styles (country, jazz and blues) that resulted in something new. These twelve tracks skip and sway with a jazzy country swing and it’s no great surprise that the three originals are folded in adeptly. The sixty-four-year-old Hag has always made things difficult to label. On one hand, he’s wrapped a tight, tidy holy trinity of personal tributes to those who helped define his music. On the other hand, by giving his album a Volume 1, he hints at a return to the reservoir for future volumes. If Haggard continues to sound this inspired, then trinities be damned.