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Country legend's Christmas
music is soothing, yet sad

Merle Haggard - Hag's Christmas
(Capitol Records)
3 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Dec. 14, 2007
Merle Haggard

Review by Tony Bonyata

Just in time for the holiday season, Capitol Records has reissued Merle Haggard's 1973 Christmas album under the new title Hag's Christmas. The collection is filled with seasonal chestnuts and self-penned holiday numbers that, at times, spread good cheer and, at others, are downright depressing. So, in other words, there's a little something here for those who either love or abhor this time of year.

Of course, if country music isn't your bag, then you'll want to steer clear of this release. But if you're a fan of Haggard's own unique brand of country music or just like hearing different takes on holiday favorites, then you may want to check this effort out. Despite Haggard (along with Buck Owens before him) creating the Bakersfield Sound of country music almost half a decade ago (a style they came up with in the late '50s and early '60s which sidestepped the slick productions and orchestrated schmaltz that was coming out of Nashville at the time, in favor of a style with a more rocking backbeat, electric guitars and the grit of roadside honk tonks), there are a couple of tunes on Hag's Christmas that incorporates a bit of the heavy-handed production values that he originally avoided in the mid-'60s. Then again, you really can't fault anyone for adding a string section to a Christmas classic such as "Silent Night," even if it's from a rebel like Haggard (who was arrested and jailed a number of times for robbery and petty larceny, among other things in the late '50s, and even ran a brewing and gambling racket from his cell when imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison).

One of the standout tracks on this ten-song collection is Haggard's own light-hearted Christmas composition, "Santa Claus & Popcorn," which gets to the meaning of Christmas while also injecting a warming, celebratory glow. But the happiness doesn't last too long when he also turns in sad sonnets like "Daddy Won't Be Home For Christmas" and "If We Make It Through December," which deals with a man who lost his job and can't afford to buy his daughter any gifts for Christmas. Even "Bobby Wants A Puppy Dog For Christmas" is a sorrowful tale of a boy's parents who ask Santa to bring their son a dog for a playmate, since he doesn't have any friends or siblings. But considering that much of this country legend's themes have often been steeped in drinking, wandering, imprisonment, love and betrayal throughout his career, it's no real surprise that this probably wouldn't be the most logical musical choice to get your next holiday party in a festive spirit.

Thankfully though, some of Hag's own compositions and re-workings of more traditional numbers on this often downtrodden collection of Christmas songs, along with his signature deep, warm voice, helps melt through some of the icy subject matter on this holiday reissue, making for a pleasurable listening experience.

Listen to Merle Haggard's - "Bobby Wants A Puppy
Dog For Christmas"

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