The newest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame is on the receiving end of two very different salutes. The first, Mama’s Hungry Eyes: A Tribute to Merle Haggard (Arista/Nashville), includes mainstream performers Brooks & Dunn, Lorrie Morgan, and Randy Travis, while Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute to Merle Haggard (Hightone) highlights fringier singer-songwriters, such as Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, and Iris DeMent. But nobody can interpret Haggard’s songs of pride and pain with as much tenderness — or hard masculinity — as Hag himself.
Despite several memorable performances on the often mediocre Eyes — notably Emmylou Harris’ elegant reading of the title tune — its the mostly acoustic Tulare Dust that rediscovers the heart of his dust-bowl poetry. In reaching back to ”They’re Tearin’ the Labor Camps Down” and ”Irma Jackson,” a little- covered song of interracial romance, Tom Russell and Barrence Whitfield remember when Haggard spoke for the rootless and the disenfranchised. They also know that in Haggard’s time, country stars had voices, vices, and heart, not just radio hits and hype. Mama’s Hungry Eyes: C+ Tulare Dust: B+