Liner Note Author: John O'Regan.
Recording information: Eleven-Eleven Sound, Nashville, TN; Taley Studios, Palo Cedro, CA.
BGO's 2013 three-fer combines three late-'80s albums from Merle Haggard: 1983's The Epic Collection (Recorded Live), 1987's acclaimed Chill Factor, and 1989's 5:01 Blues. The first of these is a confusingly titled live album from early in his run on Epic. The title Epic Collection suggests it's a collection of hits from those years but it came out in 1983, just two years into his stint on the label, so it draws very heavily from his Capitol prime. This doesn't necessarily mean it's weighed down with hits. "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Sing a Sad Song," and "Workin' Man Blues" all make appearances but Hag finds time for the delicate "Holding Things Together," as well as Jimmie Rodgers ("Blue Yodel No. 2") and Bob Wills ("Trouble in Mind") covers. The atmosphere is mellow, with Haggard favoring late-night ballads -- both broken-hearted and romantic -- and adopting a nicely weathered saloon crooner stance. This doesn't make for the liveliest record but it's a nice, unassuming portrait of a master at middle age playing his way through just another date. Four years later came Chill Factor, which happened to be his last Top 10 country album.
Compared to Kern River, Chill Factor is streamlined, constructed primarily of originals and given a clean, gleaming production designed with the radio in mind. In the case of the sweetly swinging "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," it took him all the way to the top of the charts -- the last time he'd achieve such a peak in his long career -- and it's a deserving final number one hit, bearing enough of a trace of Western swing to be of a piece with his classic hits, yet given an unmistakably modern spin. All of Chill Factor has this serene, clean production -- even when the tempo starts to kick upward, things stay reserved (in the case of "You Babe," it threatens to mummify the performance, but this is a one-time stumble) -- and while this sound dates the album somewhat, it's also easy to hear beyond it, to recognize that this is one of Haggard's strongest collection of songs of the '80s, a record where he remains a peerless craftsman and has yet to succumb completely to the streak of bitter nostalgia that sometimes tainted his records of the '90s. Here, he's clear-eyed and perceptive, sometimes pining for the past, but decidedly alive in the present.
5:01 Blues was the last album Haggard released on Epic and it's fairly clear things are beginning to wrap up between the singer and the label. He's not being teamed with a big producer as he was at first; he's on his own, working with Mark Yeary and Ken Suesov, just relaxing through a set of laid-back ballads and blues. Perhaps the settings are a shade too clean and slick for Hag's warm croon but it's an amiable, enjoyable set, highlighted by Richie McDonald's "Losin' in Las Vegas," the title track, and the singles "A Better Love Next Time" and "If You Want to Be My Woman." ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine