After a somewhat tepid foray into the Great American Songbook with 2004's UNFORGETTABLE, Merle Haggard returned to his fiery, outlaw roots on 2005's CHICAGO WIND. The album is a brilliant return to form, in large part because it reunites Haggard with producer Jimmy Bowen, an ex-Nashville bigwig who first established a partnership with Haggard on 1979's SERVING 190 PROOF. There are other nods to the past as well, such as Haggard's reworking of his 1973 classic, "White Man Singing the Blues."
Yet Haggard is too mature and accomplished an artist to rely on simple throwbacks. CHICAGO WIND represents the Hag of the mid-2000s: sophisticated, provocative, and as informed by the phrasing of jazz and standard balladeering as he is by hardcore country. He makes a few of his strident political statements ("Rebuild America," "Where's All the Freedom"), while on other songs he is intensely personal and melancholy (the title track; "Mexico"), and elsewhere still he builds bridges with a younger generation (his duet with heir apparent Toby Keith on "Some of Us Fly"). All in all, it adds up to one of Haggard's most forceful and satisfying releases in years.