[7 April 2004]
In the beginning, there was cash. Then, for the fortunate few who proved they could use that cash responsibly, along came credit cards as a privilege for that wealthy elite that felt it beneath their status to use filthy lucre. Soon, even common plebes realized that these conveniently thin rectangles of plastic with their raised numbers made life a whole heck of a lot easier. As the wider public ran out to sign up for Visas, MasterCards, and, yes, Diners Club accounts of their own, the original elite was upset at having to share their plastic status with hoi polloi. Some ingenious credit company created a scheme to make everyone happy: create special cards for special people, and name them after the most precious metal, gold. A gold card was the sign of success, until, alas, everyone had one. Behold: the creation of the Platinum Card. And when everybody and their grandmother had a platinum card? The Titanium.
Despite all these ridiculous credit card shenanigans, never have gold and platinum been so devalued as on this shameful collection rushed out by the greedy folks at BMG Heritage. The Platinum & Gold Collection series promises a great deal, and emblazons its creed on the back of each album in the set: “the best-known songs from all-time favorite artists, along with informative liner notes and digital remastering for the best sound possible. The #1 place to find the ‘best of’ is the Platinum & Gold Collection”. But for all these lofty words and aspirations, the contents found within are, at best, fool’s gold.
Take the case of this Merle Haggard entry, just for example. Yes, the “best-known” songs are all here: the heart-felt “Branded Man”, the sublime “Mama Tried”, and even the ridiculous “Okie from Muskogee”. However, it’s safe to say that the “best-known” versions of these three songs are the original ones that put Haggard on the map of country music when they were released in 1967, 1968, and 1969, respectively. That’s why it’s so ridiculously disingenuous and circumspect that the versions of these “classics” on Platinum & Gold are not the original ones: they are re-recordings made in Sony’s studios between 1994 and 1995. [The harmonica blowing on “Mama Tried” was my first tip-off that something was awry.] So, not only are these songs hardly the “best-known” versions of Haggard’s catalogue, but their remastering is also specious, given that they have been recorded digitally in the past ten years,
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Why are the time-tested favorites like “Bottle Let Me Down” and “Tonight I Started Loving You Again” left off this hardly Platinum & Gold compilation, in favor of vapid duets like the needless “Pancho and Lefty” with Willie Nelson or the needling “That’s the Way Love Goes” with Jewel? While it’s nice to see that Haggard cares about songwriting luminaries like Townes Van Zandt and Lefty Frizell, there are surely better examples from his over 30 albums of cover material. And, lastly, as to “informative liner notes”, while it is neat to be reminded that Haggard got his music start while serving time at San Quentin in 1958, where one Johnny Cash gave a rather famous concert in the beginning there was Cash—this is clearly the most told, best known, and least necessary story to tell fans about the life of Merle Haggard.
There is no reason whatsoever to buy Merle Haggard: The Platinum & Gold Collection. The #1 best-of compilation remains Merle Haggard: 20 Greatest Hits, released by Capitol, the label for which all of his original hits were recorded. For the more industrious plumbers of this branded man’s catalogue, check out the two-disc The Lonesome Fugitive, also on Capitol. Of course, you could also spring for the Down Every Hall boxed-set, but if you’re so into in Haggard, then you either already own it or have stopped reading this review. Yet no matter your level of interest, from passing fan to fanatic, only the truly crazy would bother charging this worthless chunk of Platinum & Gold on even cheaper plastic.