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Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard help soothe Nashville's soul with new albums

There's a lot of talk these days of rebuilding Nashville, of country music's history being washed away by punishing floodwaters. The concern is both literal and metaphorical; uncertainty reigns on Music Row. As a result, you better believe a whole lot of behatted singers — always adept at wallowing in misery — will be unloading the water imagery. • At the same time the Tennessee town fights for a return to normalcy, however, two minor salves have arrived on store shelves, as both Merle Haggard, 73, and Willie Nelson, 77, have released soothing new albums. You want to hear the survival stories of weary warriors? Check. You want to be reminded that country's rich past isn't going anywhere? You got it.

Hag's I Am What I Am, most of which was written by Mighty Merle himself, opens with the eerily prophetic I've Seen It Go Away. He sings, "I've seen my share of good times come and go," but the ultimate message is that he's still around to recall them. The cantankerous Californian's voice has all the wear of a dusty pair of Justin boots. But his weariness, both personal and political, works. Accompanied by a saloony piano, lazy-day brushwork and his own nimble picking, Hag harkens back to falling in love for the first time (Pretty When It's New), the wanderlustian possibilities of a locomotive in the night (Oil Tanker Train) and smoking and dancing to an able mariachi (Mexican Bands). Per usual, Hag is singing for himself, but also per usual, we're all invited to have a seat and sing along.

With authenticity-obsessed producer T Bone Burnett by his side, Willie makes the winkingly titled Country Music an intimate, steel-weepy tour of what Music Row sounded like before looks and hooks trumped voices and words. The songs he covers — from Doc Watson's Freight Train Boogie to Hank Williams' House of Gold — are built with fragments of broken homes on the range; the instruments surrounding him — mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, his own beat-to-heck guitar Trigger — sound as if they were warmly recorded in the very barn on the album's cover. Whereas Hag's voice stays steady, the Red Headed Stranger still climbs high for those lonesome notes; enjoy the creaky glory while you can. By the end of this soft, affirming rumination, Willie has given Nashville a needed pat on the back. He has also reassured us that history, no matter how threatened, is ultimately waterproof.

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The MAZD Playlist

The MAZD is dead! Long live the MAZD! My poor beater of a car, whose wayward "A" fell off long before I bought it, was taken out to pasture a couple of weeks ago, a mere 400 miles from the golden 200,000 mark. Actually, it was taken out to CarMax. They gave me $250 for the wheezy 1998 wreck, which, in a devilish farewell, stalled twice on the way to its doom plus overheated past the H. That $250 makes me the greatest salesman of all time; little do they know, I would have taken a Twix bar and an old Newsweek for the AC-less jalopy.

My new ride is a Nissan Murano, which I already love more than my children. There's absolutely nothing funny about a Nissan Murano — but I can live with that. I can also live with a Bose sound system, leather interior and a gas gauge that works.

Still, as I bade adieu to the MAZD, I felt a bit forlorn. It was the last car I bought with my late father, a Consumer Reports fanatic who could spot a lemon a mile away. It safely, soundly transported my family — including a newborn who would later call it "Stinky Car" — from D.C. to St. Pete. And it provided inches and inches of newspaper copy, the last of which is right here. By giving the MAZD a twisted star status, I made it more palatable to drive — although a fickle CD player tested our relationship every day. (It went to its grave gnawing on a John Fogerty disc.)

The other day in the totally humorless, totally awesome Murano, my oldest daughter, the one shuttled to FLA in the MAZD, said, "Daddy, I miss Stinky Car." Really? I asked her what she missed the most. Perhaps the ceiling liner hanging down like drapes? The windshield wipers that always made visibility worse? Perhaps the seats stained with all manner of baby barf, 2 a.m. taco sauce and extraterrestrial detritus?

But my daughter never answered. Instead, she turned her 6-year-old face to the Nissan's icy air-conditioning, smiling as if it were some newfangled invention for all to enjoy.

1. Goodbye Mr. A, the Hoosiers

2. Wreck on the Highway, Bruce Springsteen

3. Stop Breaking Down, the White Stripes

4. That Smell, Lynyrd Skynyrd

5. Engine Overheat, Wishbone Ash

6. Clunk, Limp Bizkit

7. Survival Car, Fountains of Wayne

8. Out of Gas, Modest Mouse

9. Junkyard Blues, Deep Purple

10. My Ride's Here, Warren Zevon

Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard help soothe Nashville's soul with new albums 05/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 5:58pm]
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