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Merle Haggard

Unforgettable (Hag/Capitol Nashville)

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The post-Norah Jones phenomenon of standards albums from singers who don't usually sing them has yielded the occasional alternate-universe proposition: Cyndi Lauper doing "La Vie en Rose"? Hey, middle-aged mothers just wanna have fun, too.

Country vet Merle Haggard isn't the least likely artist to rip through the Great American Songbook. But on Unforgettable, Hag's voice, a tarnished whiskey-soured croon with all manner of rough edges, doesn't lend itself to easy piano-bar interpretations of "As Time Goes By" and "Pennies From Heaven." This is a good thing: Too often we're unable to hear anything in these songs beyond our collective memory of them -- that's the risk that accompanies overfamiliarity with a canon. Yet Haggard gives these tunes a proud sense of experience that has less to do with the sophisticated facility of producer Freddy Powers' smooth country-jazz settings and more to do with the sound of a man flipping through his back pages, at a leisurely pace you couldn't hurry if you tried.

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