For a fiercely private man, Merle Haggard allows fans a rare glimpse of his soul with the forthcoming release of two gospel collections -- "Cabin in the Hills" and "Two Old Friends." Due May 1, the al

For a fiercely private man, Merle Haggard allows fans a rare glimpse of his soul with the forthcoming release of two gospel collections -- "Cabin in the Hills" and "Two Old Friends." Due May 1, the albums initiate a new partnership between the country icon's Hag Records and Relentless/Nashville, part of Madacy Entertainment's newly established Madacy Label Group.

Produced by Haggard at his Tally Studios in Palo Cedro, Calif., "Cabin in the Hills" includes his original songs as well as takes on such classics as "Love Lifted Me," "This World Is Not My Home," and "Life's Railway to Heaven." Haggard performed and produced "Two Old Friends" at Tally with gospel singer Albert E. Brumley Jr., whose father penned such standards as "I'll Fly Away" and "I'll Meet You in the Morning."

"All these years Al and I have been friends, but we never have really recorded together," says Haggard, whose relationship with Brumley dates back to the early '60s when both performed on "Cousin Herb and the Trading Post Gang," a Bakersfield, Calif., TV show. "Al has a terrific voice, an honest voice."

For his part, Brumley says recording with Haggard was a great experience, "because we respect each other. You don't try to outdo each other. You just sing the way you feel."

It was especially gratifying for Brumley to pay homage to his father, who has been heralded as one of the greatest gospel songwriters.

"He was gifted," Haggard says of the elder Brumley. "I think all gifted writers have in some way tapped into the source of all creativity. I think the greatest songs I've written have been written that way. I don't know how they come or what makes them come, but when I get through writing them down, I'm just as amazed. I'm sure Al Brumley Sr. was that way, as well as Hank Williams."

The 64-year-old Haggard says he has been contemplating mortality recently, and this theme is especially apparent in the originals he recorded for the new albums. The title track on "Cabin in the Hills" finds a man considering where he wishes to spend eternity, while "Apart for Awhile" also addresses death. Haggard says his generation spends a lot of time in funeral homes as friends and loved ones pass on. With that in mind, he says, "if you really believe you are going to see them again, then you are going to be happy about them getting out of this mess."

His two new gospel albums hold a special significance for Haggard, because his late mother was a gospel music fan. "It was a strange feeling to do something that your mother would approve of and have her already gone to the other side," he says. "Maybe we're getting some help there we don't know about."

Haggard is not one to flaunt his beliefs, but he obviously holds his convictions dear. "I've been a Christian for many years. I just never make a public issue of the fact, and I still feel sort of personal about it. It's about me and the old man, you know."

"Cabin in the Hills" and "Two Old Friends" have been available exclusively through Wal-Mart for the past six months on Hag Records. Haggard's manager, Tom Thacker, says the Wal-Mart deal was "an experiment" that proved successful, but they are looking forward to having the projects in wide release in both mainstream and Christian retail outlets, the latter via Madacy's Christian music division.

Dave Roy, president of Relentless/Nashville, says the firm is enthusiastic about the partnership with Haggard: "Merle is truly an icon, and he's perfect for what Madacy does."

The new gospel discs will be marketed via a direct-response TV campaign utilizing an 800 number. The spots will also be tagged "available at fine retailers" to direct consumers toward retailers. A video for "I'll Fly Away," featuring Haggard and Brumley, will also be promoted.

In coming months, Haggard plans to release a country album, "Fresh Milk," most likely through the Los Angeles-based Anti label, which issued last year's "If I Could Only Fly." He also plans another slate of releases on Hag through Relentless, including a gospel duet album with Chester Smith and a Christmas collection..