There's a great story behind Roots Volume 1, Merle Haggard's delightful new disc, his second for the Anti- label. By chance, Haggard discovered that Norman Stephens, who played lead guitar on some of Lefty Frizzell's 1950s recordings, lived just fifty miles from Haggard's Northern California home. Frizzell, one of country music's greatest singers, was an early idol of Haggard's, and Stephens was one of his favorite guitar players. Hag invited Stephens -- who had not appeared on a record for more than fifty years -- to come over to his house and lay down some tracks.
Recorded live in Haggard's living room with the singer's crack band, Roots is a heartfelt tribute to country music's last great era, before rock and roll changed things forever. It contains five of Frizzell's best-known songs, including "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" and "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)," plus two songs associated with honky-tonker Hank Thompson ("The Wild Side of Life," "I'll Sign My Heart Away") and two originally recorded by Hank Williams ("Honky Tonkin'," "Take These Chains From My Heart"). Haggard himself contributed three strong originals.
Stephens, who spent a few years on the road with Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys before packing away his guitar and becoming a civil engineer, hasn't lost any of his chops: He plays crisp, single-note runs, often doubled up with Norm Hamlet, Haggard's longtime steel-guitar player. Stephens seems to be having the time of his life.
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Haggard's buttery voice is in fine form, particularly when he stretches out the syllables like Frizzell used to do. A singer's singer who died in 1975, Frizzell was a master of melisma, and his vocal style was a huge influence on Haggard's. "I feel he was the most unique thing that ever happened to country music," Haggard once said. It was Frizzell who, in 1953, invited a sixteen-year-old Haggard on stage to sing a song at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield, California. On Roots, Haggard finally gets to pay honor to one of his musical heroes.