By CAL CUMIN - For The Outpost
There are more cowboy hats than usual in the Brew Pub and Bin 119. The sidewalks are busier than most Wednesday evenings, and close-in parking is hard to find. Merle Haggard’s in town at the Alberta Bair Theater.
Many of the crowd are older hands. Merle rose to singing fame in the ’60s. Unlike many of us, he’s retained his talents - songwriting and singing ability - honing them over the years to the thorough professional entertainer he is today.
Once described as incorrigible and having reform school, jail and San Quentin prison experiences behind him (for which he was pardoned by Gov. Ronald Reagan), he’s recorded more than 250 songs, including 40 No. 1 hits. Johnny Cash once described him as “a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about.”
Having a pre-concert Sharptail Pale in the Brew Pub, one could swear Merle walked in the door several times: the thoroughly worn, dark short brim hat with its high rise, the grizzled face, longish white hair, even the dark glasses. It didn’t seem to be intentional imitation but rather the way some of a generation have aged and what they find comfortable to use and wear — just like The Hag.
Two large, idling buses are outside the Alberta Bair. The incoming crowd thickens close to the 7:30 starting time, and the seats are full by the time eight figures enter the darkened stage. The lights come on and a young Merle Haggard introduces himself as Noel Haggard, “the youngest of the first litter,” i.e., from Merle’s first marriage.
The “litter” comment sets an edge to the evening, an edge first made with the introduction of the Bakersfield country sound that Haggard along with singers like Buck Owens was instrumental in creating.
The sound is a combination of hardcore honky-tonk and Western swing; it also uses amplified electric instruments more than the softer, more traditional, polished styles of Nashville country, giving the music a harder, edgy flavor.
Noel introduces his younger brother Ben — “of the second litter,” lead electrical guitarist for the band, and a quiet man. A tall, long-haired brunette comes from the back after accompanying a couple of songs with her clapping and swaying and introduces herself as Dana, “the oldest of both litters.” She sings, “You always find a way to hurt my pride,” a song, according to Dana, Merle never sings.
Both Noel and Dana sing well, but without the lilting tonality revolving around the long life experience reflected in Merle’s mature voice. The Hag comes on at a quarter after with a quip about having “them” behind him looking over his shoulder.
Merle’s wife, Theresa, joins Dana in back left. Wearing a light blue T-shirt under a black sport coat, knee-stretched Levis, white shoes, round shades, and his signature short brim fedora, Haggard immediately launches into “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” Without waiting for the applause to stop, he launches into the next song — which he does all evening - as if trying to sing as many songs for his people as possible in the time he’s got.
He picks up his violin and starts “Big City” with its “somewhere in the middle of Montana” line. The lights come on, a signal for crowd participation, an encouragement it doesn’t need. As it did in the late ‘60s, his “Okie from Muskogee” resonates an old chord with the audience — to those who still feel it reflects a cultural division in America and to those who just smile at the memories it stirs.
Merle notes that most of his songs were written in his 20s at sea level. He laughs at himself and then sings the simple words, like those in most of his songs, “I wish I could be 30 again. Wish time didn’t wrinkle my skin. They say life begins at 50. We’ve been lied to again.”
He’s survived supposedly terminal heart problems and cancer. In January he came down with pneumonia, and, early in the hospital, the doctors thought it might have been the cancer again. As noted in this newspaper by Alan Sculley, Haggard had thought it was all over, giving him once again in his life the opportunity to evaluate what really matters to him — his family, his band, his music, his fans.
He proudly introduces his longtime band, The Strangers, noting that some are members of the Music Hall of Fame. The band has included many noted country music stars over its many years, including Bonnie Owens, Glen Campbell, Fuzzy Owens and Iris DeMent.
Nowhere is mentioned that Merle is also a member of the Hall of Fame, nor of the many other awards he has received, such as being voted the Top Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music Awards, and having early in his career 37 straight Top 10 hits, including 23 No. 1 singles. Not bad for the boy who taught himself to play the guitar by listening to records in the railroad boxcar he and his parents called home.
At the end, he puts his guitar down, takes off his hat and dark glasses, and bows to the audience. One gets the feeling that he means it.