Johnny Cash; Merle Haggard

Cash: American III: Solitary Man (American) / Haggard: If I Could Only Fly (Anti/Epitaph)

In rock and R&B, there's an obvious premium paid on youthfulness, and an almost reflexive disdain for old coots who keep in the game too long. Country music, by contrast, pays tribute to its elders and legends -- up to a point. The sad fact is that Nashville, like L.A., likes to see sweet young thangs shaking their heinies while racking up multiplatinum hits. No matter how many nods Music City makes to tradition, it's damn near impossible for old-timers to get any airplay these days. This reality was brought home forcefully last year when officials restricted George Jones -- arguably the best country singer alive -- to only part of his first radio hit in years during a televised award ceremony. Jones refused to sing, and it was left to a whippersnapper like Alan Jackson to stick up for him, playing the song in protest when it was his turn on camera.

Still, with the right audience, geezer cred can work wonders for country legends. In the early '90s, Johnny Cash signed with American Records and found himself the toast of the college/indie crowd, his charisma and catalog skillfully milked by rock/rap impresario Rick Rubin. Solitary Man is the third album Cash has recorded for the label, and, once again, it's a mix of self-mythologizing and soulful traditionalism. Half the tracks are cover tunes, which employ varying degrees of irony. Cash's low-key delivery on songs by Tom Petty, U2, and Neil Diamond is oddly wonderful, but his version of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" (itself a painfully obvious tribute to Cash's style) is just as insufferable and overblown as the original.

Merle Haggard, another hick music legend with a rebellious sheen, makes his entry into the wow-the-college-kids genre with an equally understated record that could double as the soundtrack to a biopic on George Dubbya Bush. The opening verse is a sure-fire attention-getter about watching old friends snorting coke while yearning for the recklessness of bygone days. Party animal nostalgia echoes through the album, shamelessly balanced by a maudlin "confession" to his kids regarding the youthful indiscretions that sent Merle up the river to San Quentin. Despite the baldness of the writing, this is easily one of Haggard's best albums in decades. Both Cash and Haggard seem paradoxically impelled to put more effort into their songs when playing to the non-country audience. Say what you will about their marketing strategies, but these old guys can still cut the mustard.

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