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JUST WHEN you've had your fill of blow-dried cowboys who've found God and Adam Smith, here comes deliverance, courtesy of one Merle "the Hag" Haggard.

In "Merle Haggard for the Record," Haggard reprises 43 songs that paved his road to country sainthood, from the early '60s to millennium's doorstep.

The two-disc package is billed as a companion to an Oct. 2 pay-per-view special out of Las Vegas. To be sure, there have been other Haggard greatest-hits and boxed-set offerings. But this one is enriched with the patina of the man's years.

Once again, he is the total package, without need for a pedal guitar or mandolin to lend an air of authenticity, with the 62-year-old's voice showing a mere hint of tremolo and strain.

There are some guests along the way. Jewel (yes, Jewel) is a commendable partner in duets with the Hag on "Silver Wings" and "That's the Way Love Goes." Brooks Dunn joins him on "Movin' On." Alabama adds the octane to a rollicking "Ramblin' Fever."

And Willie Nelson and Haggard reprise "Pancho and Lefty," in one of the package's few disappointments.

The years have been kind to the music. Each song is either a personal milestone or historical footnote in almost four decades of American Landscape. "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" are lyrical pile-drivers of the wedge that split generations back in the Vietnam War era.

Other Haggard hits: "Workin' Man Blues," "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "I'm Always on a Mountain When I Fall," "Going Where the Lonely Go," "Sing a Sad Song" and "Mama Tried."Rating: ****.

"I'm Not So Tough" is Mindy McCready's third outing in the country bigs of Nashville and clearly demonstrates she's here for the duration. At the ripe old age of 23, McCready has the smarts to select songs that work. Hers is a robust, self-assured voice that is as comfortable with high-energy rockers as with the breathy intimacy of a romantic ballad.

"I'm Not So Tough" is not classic country but is typical of how McCready views her musical mission -- as a singer, not necessarily a country singer.

The musical influences of this Fort Myers, Fla., native run the gamut from Madonna to Def Leppard to Reba McEntire, with a hefty dose of opera training for damn-good measure. The disc's title cut and a Matraca Berg entree, "All I Want Is Everything," set the pace for the recording.

"Dream On," a Tia Sellers ballad and a heavyweight tugger of heartstrings, and "Over and Over" by Aimee Mayo, give it depth. The 11th and last cut, "Take Me Apart," is an infectious rocker with loads of hooks.

A quibble, but a quibble nevertheless, is the feeling that every track is tailored for the hit mill. Hopefully with the security of success, McCready lets loose a little and experiments with her muse. Rating ***

Beware: Garth-wanna-be alert. OK, that, by itself, isn't necessarily bad. But on his suspiciously titled sophomore effort, "Being Human," Garth Brooks mimic Michael Peterson comes off preachy and pretentious and, ultimately, dispensable.

Oh, it's all here, the big Nashville sound, the cowboy hat and the label (Reprise) hype of mega-hits past and mega-hits to come. Plus the braggadocio that Peterson is the only new artist recently to pen and record his own songs.

The disc's aptly titled first cut, "All the Way to the Bank," is an up-tempo ditty about shirking the daily grind for a busman's holiday. By the time the third and fourth tracks roll around, you realize that up-tempo is the pace for the distance. Talk about your caffeinated cowboys.

Peterson, a former motivational speaker, has a penchant for injecting a subtle but annoying "preachiness" into these songs, as if the arena were an info-mercial (potted palms, anyone?).

Exhausted is the operative word by the time the "bonus track" (what would be the 11th song) appears on your platter, Stepford country fans. Gee, thanks for the favor. Rating: . *

Preaching is the operative word for Ricky Skaggs' upcoming release, "Soldier of the Cross," on his own label, Skaggs Family Records.

This is a gospel record, pure and simple. Hallelujah.

A Skaggs primer: The artist, who comes from eastern Kentucky, perhaps the buckle in the Bible Belt, traded in a long and illustrious career as country instrumentalist and vocalist for his true love -- bluegrass. Since then, Skaggs, surrounded by Kentucky Thunder, a band of musicians with all-star credentials, has two critically acclaimed bluegrass releases: the Grammy-winning "Bluegrass Rules!" and its follow-up, "Ancient Tones." So his first gospel album, scheduled for an Oct. 5 debut in stores, was a natural for Skaggs, while retracing his musical roots.

For the unwashed, unwitting or non-believer, gospel can be a bit unnerving. Hellfire and damnation are no exaggeration in "Soldier of the Cross."

And, taken at face value, the casual agnostic might limp away with a few pew splinters chafing the mood. But the music, almost universally, is glorious, rich in harmony, redolent in the trademark Skaggs musicianship and a helluva (pardon me) package.

Skaggs and crew, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Jerry Douglas on dobro, are joined by a trio of onward Christian vocalists -- Marty McCall and Bonnie Keen of First Call, and Lisa Bevill -- for the harmonic heroics.

Skaggs reprises "The Darkest Hour" in glorious style. But most selections are traditional: "Are You Afraid to Die," "I'm Ready to Go," "The Darkest Hour," "Waiting at the Gate," "Gone Home" and "A Voice on High" come to mind -- all borrowed from the frequent play lists of bluegrass royalty Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.

And there are the neo-thumpers, including a stirring "The Joshua Generation" and the title cut, a Rowan Brothers number that cuts to the chase: Believe? Heaven. Don't believe? Hell. Rating : *** 1/2 .

MERLE HAGGARD For the Record (BNA 07863-67844-2)
MINDY McCREADY I'm Not So Tough (BNA 07863-67765-2)
MICHAEL PETERSON Being Human (Reprise 9 47353-2)
RICKY SKAGGS Soldier of the Cross (SKFR-CD 5001)

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