Not the first Merle Haggard compilation and probably not the last, Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard is still about as honorable a summation of the musician’s work as a single disc could possibly attain. Concurrently efficient and comprehensive, Hag paints a compelling portrait of a deceptively complicated artist.
A chronic jailbird in his youth, Haggard spent much of his early career apologizing through song about his reckless past, with songs like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Mama Tried.” Country audiences quickly cottoned to this sad, flawed man and his quest for redemption.
Haggard’s greatest successes, ironically, might have come from the reactionary one-two hippie punch of “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me,” where the outlaw showed no patience for the counterculture springing up across the United States. “Okie” is a somewhat unfortunate song, though its popularity is perfectly understandable. Still, when Hag sings of Muskogee that “the kids here still respect the college dean,” it’s hard to imagine that there’s a person less qualified to speak on their behalf. It’s no wonder Governor Ronald Reagan ultimately gave Haggard a full pardon three years later.
Both songs are represented here, as well as two dozen other chestnuts, at turns wistful and defiant. The overwhelming majority of tracks are prior to the ’80s, when Haggard’s relevance dimmed and country’s personalities became shinier. A few solid twilight-year tracks are here, though, including duets with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Toby Keith (who, for better and worse, is his closest modern descendant). And with first-rate packaging and liner notes, Hag assumes its role as the simplest and best evidence of Merle Haggard’s finer qualities.