It's hard to disagree with the claim that Merle Haggard is one of few truly legendary country singers. This powerful nine-track set, a compilation of some of Haggard's biggest hits (he's had over 35 Number One tracks on the country charts since the late '60s), packs a punch as potent as a hard-luck, hard-drinkin' cowboy with a chip on his shoulder. Haggard synthesizes the traditional themes of trouble in money and in love, trouble with the law, drinking, gambling, and rambling into a complete and utterly convincing take on the country music myth. His superb songwriting and hardboiled, heartfelt delivery keep it fresh.
Haggard's versatility is astonishing. FIGHTIN' veers from good-time barroom tunes to tales of the low road, break-up songs, and heart-string tuggers. Twangy guitars and bouncing doggies-on-the-trail rhythms lend a vintage feel to every cut, and sing-along choruses make them memorable. On the fine "Swinging Doors," high, close harmonies back Haggard's classic country croon. But perhaps nothing screams "MERLE!" as loudly as the title track, a cantankerous, patriotic call to arms. How Haggard manages to remain so staunchly traditional without ever becoming stale is a testament to his unique charisma and enduring appeal as both a songwriter and performer.