Country music is simple, just "three chords and the truth"; jazz is complex, with complicated key changes and improvisation. Country music is rural and down-to-earth; jazz is big-city and sophisticated. Country music is Merle Haggard. Jazz is Nat King Cole.
So how do you explain Merle Haggard's Unforgettable? The new CD from one of the most hard-core of country singers, famed for "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me," is a jazz album, featuring standards like "As Time Goes By," "Cry Me a River," and "Stardust."
But this is nothing new for Mr. Haggard, who was on the cover of the jazz magazine Downbeat 25 years ago. He has always traced his sound to Bob Wills, whose Western Swing countrified big band music, and to Jimmie Rodgers-hailed as the father of country music-who added a yodel to the blues and recorded with Louis Armstrong.
Nor is Mr. Haggard alone in bridging the gap between country and jazz. As anyone who has tried to play a Willie Nelson tune knows, his melodies are all jazz chords; and his singing style-playing around the beat, bending the notes, and doing each song differently every time-is pure jazz. The crossovers go the other way too, with jazz artists from Ray Charles to Norah Jones recording stellar country songs.
On Unforgettable, Mr. Haggard's expressive voice, still with a touch of its country cragginess, does full justice to these wonderful songs. So do the backup musicians, including the great Western Swing fiddle player Johnny Gimble.
Francis Schaeffer described how people need both form and freedom. That is a good description of jazz, which entails free improvisation within a strict objective structure. This album makes for a good, accessible introduction to an ear-opening style of music in which simplicity and complexity come together.