America loves an underdog, which may explain why country has become the nation's de facto folk music. Among the many sad sacks crying over lost love and flat tires are the outlaw country stars, those proud icons whose dark side has only enhanced their status as monuments. These guys love to play the loser, but their real lives just as often back up the claim, and, unlike many of his likeminded peers, Merle Haggard's experiences befit his apt name. Haggard actually spent time in jail, and a recent heart attack showed that his years of hard living have finally caught up with him. Yet even a legend can't always get a break, which explains why his new If I Could Only Fly is being released on one of Epitaph's many imprints. From the cover art to the execution, it's clear that Haggard is aiming for a classy comeback album akin to Johnny Cash's American Recordings. Why more artists don't follow that stripped-down strategy is a mystery, as it all but guarantees creative success for a legend as tried and true as Haggard. As for commercial potential, what does he care? Radio hasn't touched him for years, putting him in the same boat as fellow survivor and treasure George Jones. Songs such as "(Think About A) Lullaby" and "Honky Tonky Mama" are spare and subdued, skirting the overproduction that kills so much country, while "Wishing All These Old Things Were New" and "I'm Still Your Daddy" take advantage of Haggard's status as an elder statesman. "Proud To Be Your Old Man" and "Leavin's Getting Harder" even find Haggard at last settling down, tired of the road and ready to stay in one place for a while. If the songs don't really carry the emotional weight of Haggard's past masterpieces, the lighter mood is as refreshing as it is surprising. If I Could Only Fly is a real breeze coming from a man as hard as The Hag, but its good spirits are a sign that he's ready to again get serious about a career many wrote off a long time ago.