It’s difficult not to judge folks by who they do business with—and Merle Haggard might be screwed based just upon his handlers. While the SoCal country stalwart has the distinction of being a crucial figure in the development of what’s been termed the Bakersfield sound, he’s ostensibly a touring relic, something like the Queen of England, pushed out to give solace to folks who remember the good ole days. Haggard’s last release, 2011’s “Working in Tennessee,” has all the charm of soft rock added in to the lesser country tropes outlaws have cultivated during the last half-century, again proving artists need someone alongside them to edit out the trash. “What I Hate,” with its cheeseball guitar tone and drum shuffle, sports Haggard’s complaining about the current state of the nation. He makes some observations about pollution, which no one can disagree with, but then goes on to mention “the war still going on in the South.” Unfortunately, that ended in 1865. So, for the last 140 years, folks have glutted themselves on fried food and avoided training that could potentially land them high-paying jobs. There’s certainly no shame in working on a production line, but if that’s your lot in life, it’s tough to blame people who live hundreds of miles away for personal decisions. Along with estimations from a mind so politically engaged as to include a number of songs about jobs he hasn’t done for at least four decades, Haggard throws down on a version of “Cocaine Blues.” The track’s a lone highlight, the singer’s voice cracking just enough to reveal his age, but not enough to detract from the song’s overall vibe. It’d be hard to mess up a classic, though. What may save Haggard’s upcoming Chicago date is his legacy. So, just keep hoping he’s gonna reach back to 1965 and pull out some hits. (Dave Cantor)
August 1 at the Congress Theater, 2135 North Milwaukee, (773)276-1235. 6:30pm. $30-$50.