Merle Haggard's 'Road' trip

Merle Haggard is somewhere on the short list of America's greatest popular musicians. Songs like Sing Me Back Home and I Started Loving You Again are so rich in emotional textures that the listener has a visceral sense that they have real-life origins.

And indeed they do, with the former shaped by young Merle's conversations with a death-row inmate through the ventilation system at San Quentin and the latter springing from one of his many tangled relationships with women.

Tuesday's release of the boxed set Merle Haggard: Down Every Road ( ****out of four) is a bonanza of Haggard's moving and entertaining songs, always convincing whether he lived them or not. The set includes 100 remastered recordings from 1962 to 1994 and a 75-page book that will reinforce Haggard's status as a first-class singer, songwriter, bandleader and jazz-style guitarist.

The set arrives on the heels of two tribute albums and his brand-new 1996 album, and is a model of inter-label cooperation that takes in the breadth of Haggard's output.

It also may offer some new perspectives. The early recordings, more subtle than later renditions, indicate that Haggard may be the most graceful and sophisticated musical communicator in all of country music, despite such occasional heavy-handed departures as Okie From Muskogee.

In other ways, the four discs help reconcile Haggard's contradictory personae, which stem from such wide-ranging viewpoints as those of the right-wing narrator in Okie and the young man's plea for interracial acceptance in Irma Jackson. In either case, Haggard is utterly convincing.

By David Zimmerman, USA TODAY