CD Reviews

Celebrating old timers’ day

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, each with a new album, are not slowing down

In the past, Willie Nelson has dabbled in everything from reggae to American standards. But the name of his new album, “Country Music,’’ clearly identifies the 76-year-old’s current direction. In the past, Willie Nelson has dabbled in everything from reggae to American standards. But the name of his new album, “Country Music,’’ clearly identifies the 76-year-old’s current direction. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 19, 2010

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They’re well into their twilight years, but age is nothing but a number for longtime friends Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, both of whom release albums tomorrow that remind you they’re not just country patriarchs. They’re American masters.

Willie Nelson
“Country Music’’ (Rounder)

Aside from a pair of tattered cowboy boots and a plate of biscuits and gravy, few things are more country than Willie Nelson. Granted, most country music icons don’t sport long braids of graying hair and a taste for, um, green living, but Nelson’s renegade ethos has embodied the genre’s spirit for nearly 50 years.

It’s curious, then, that the 76-year-old legend named his new album “Country Music,’’ but it also feels necessary given how far afield Nelson has ventured artistically in the last decade. Since 2005 alone, he’s dabbled in reggae and American standards and collaborated with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and alt-country rocker Ryan Adams.

“Country Music,’’ his first album for Burlington-based Rounder Records, doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a welcome and spirited return to Nelson’s first love of classic country.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album adheres to Nelson’s shopworn strategy to let his voice lead the songs. From the spare banjo and fiddle accompaniment on “Dark as a Dungeon’’ to the swinging jazz-country of “Pistol Packin’ Mama,’’ Nelson is entirely at home wherever the music takes him.

Sounding like orphans from 1998’s acclaimed “Teatro,’’ stark renditions of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’’ and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine’’ strip Nelson down to his essence as a superb interpreter. Otherwise, the rest of “Country Music’’ is exactly that — straightforward and distinctive reworkings of the classics, from the stately grace of “Satisfied Mind’’ to the chugging junkyard blues of “Freight Train Boogie.’’

Merle Haggard
“I Am What I Am’’ (Vanguard)

Merle Haggard recently turned 73, a fact you can’t ignore when you hear “I’ve Seen It Go Away,’’ the leadoff track from his superb new album.

“I’ve seen many a great tomorrow turn to yesterday/ I’ve seen ’em, boys/ And I’ve seen it go away,’’ he sings.

On paper, a sentiment like that drips with bittersweet nostalgia, but not when Haggard is delivering it. There’s a resilience in his voice — the way he recites instead of sings the line “I’ve seen ’em, boys’’ — that suggests his setbacks have only made Haggard stronger.

Like most of his recent recordings, “I Am What I Am’’ is not strictly country, at least in terms of the music. Much of this album sounds like the soundtrack to “A Prairie Home Companion,’’ an easygoing mix of shuffling country waltzes (“We’re Falling in Love Again’’), old-timey jazz (“The Road to My Heart’’), and plainspoken folk (the excellent title track).

His wife, Theresa, joins him for a driving duet on “Live and Love Always,’’ one of the snappier tunes about the joys of being in a relationship. Elsewhere, he takes love with a grain of salt, describing it as “Pretty When It’s New.’’ And Haggard doesn’t let himself off the hook, either. “In this old mirror/ I’m just a reflection/ But I might be brilliant/ If you’d give direction,’’ he sings, beautifully, on “Bad Actor.’’

Only on “Mexican Bands’’ does Haggard’s songwriting teeter toward parody: “No sabe the lingo/ ’Cause I’m just a gringo.’’ But then he redeems himself a few lines later with a lyric that only Haggard could write: “And early mañana/ I’ll smoke what I wanna.’’