When word spread late last year that Merle Haggard was negotiating a return to Capitol Records, the company where he first established himself, country music insiders and fans alike were spellbound at the prospect. Delivering Unforgettable, his critically-acclaimed, self-produced set of standards as part of the deal was an impressive start, but the best was yet to come. Capitol Records Nashville takes great pride in the release of one of the most anticipated country albums of 2005, Chicago Wind. Notable both as an artistic breakthrough for Merle and as the project that wooed renowned producer Jimmy Bowen out of a ten-year retirement, Chicago Wind renews a spectacular collaboration and fulfills the promise of the auspicious reunion between Merle and the label where he made the greatest records of his impressive four-decade career.
From the radiant country-jazz guitars of the title track to the emotionally-devastating closing ballad, Merle returns with all of his skills sensitive vocals, provocative songwriting and a liberated, modern musicality in prime condition. It is a singular mixture, one that provided him 40 No. 1 hits, spurred his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame and also made him the only country-and-western musician ever to grace the cover of bebop bible Down Beat. His masterly talent, flexibility and range continue to reach extravagant new heights from the crackling hard country for which he's famed to some exquisitely tender ballads some of them new Hag compositions and others by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. Always an outspoken social critic, Merle pulls no punches: the radical warning call of "Rebuild America First" assumes wrenching significance in light of recent events, and "Where's All the Freedom" strikes at the heart of 21st century America's troubled condition.
The ability to explore, within a single album, such strikingly-different subjects springs from Merle's own intricate artistic psyche, and many of these songs reflect specific and significant elements of his personal history. Chicago Wind's sense of displacement matches the California-born singer's migrant Oklahoma heritage. The drifter of "Mexico" recalls his far-ranging open-road hobo-musician youth. "I Still Can't Say Goodbye" manifests the enduring pain of Merle's greatest tragedy the death of his father when he was nine years old.
He has led an extraordinary life a great deal of it spent in juvenile halls and county lock-ups, facilities from which he routinely escaped, until his lengthy record and classification as an incorrigible earned him three years of hard time in San Quentin. Back in Bakersfield, he finally directed all his misspent energies towards music. After stints playing bass for Cousin Herb Henson and Red Simpson, he landed in West Coast innovator Wynn Stewart's band. After Stewart gave him "Sing a Sad Song," Merle scored his first hit and a deal with Capitol. Since that 1965 start, he has continuously distinguished himself as one of country music's most successful, exemplary and influential forces.
Each song on Chicago Wind gains additional depth and perspective from Jimmy Bowen's deft, innovative production technique, and his guidance provides Merle with a much-needed sense of freedom. The collaborative relationship between the two is built on an enduring personal bond going back to their first venture, 1979's Serving 190 Proof album (co-produced with Fuzzy Owen). Bowen took a different tack with Merle in the studio, divorcing him entirely from his road band, the Strangers, and assembling a hand-picked team of ace session-players, a method that has always resulted in acutely expressive and successful work. Anchored by the acclaimed Nashville guitarists Billy Joe Walker, Jr., and Reggie Young and enhanced by the presence of multi-talented musician/composer Mike Post (a steadfast Bowen crony from the heady mid-'60s days at Reprise), Merle found himself in an ideal position to create an album of quality and reach equal to and perhaps even surpassing his own trove of classic milestones.
Bowen, of course, is the Texas-rockabilly rebel who made his bandstand bones with Buddy "Party Doll" Knox and became an industry legend after his work with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin gained both singers number-one hits ("Strangers in the Night" and "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime") during the frenzy pitch of Beatlemania. Bowen subsequently became a Nashville mainstay, transforming the careers of Hank Williams, Jr., Reba McEntire and George Strait, producing 70 No. 1 hits and a hundred top-ten entries. He became known as the "Messiah of Music Row," a title he relinquished only upon his 1995 retirement. A forthright maverick whose blunt, non-conformist attitude makes him an ideal partner for the equally iconoclastic Merle (who reckons they get along "because we're both crazy SOBs"), Bowen's return in itself is notable no one in the business ever thought they would see him again in a recording studio.
Bowen knows Hag an awareness that permits some remarkable excursions through a complex, emotional spectrum. Whether revisiting Merle's 1973 classic "White Man Singing the Blues" or covering engaging new territory, the experience is consistently rewarding. Elevated further by the brilliant arrangements of Mike Post, whose tasteful charts allow Merle to achieve a level of communicative intimacy rarely heard in contemporary country music, the album is nothing less than a masterpiece. Chicago Wind demonstrates that Merle Haggard remains as challenging and arresting a musical force as he was when Capitol first recorded him, and emphatically realizes its promise as an important new platform for his outspoken, insightful artistry.