Merle Haggard at Billy Bob's, 6/28/14
Courtesy the artist
Billy Bob's Texas, Fort Worth
Saturday, June 28, 2014
Country music is built on a bedrock of incredible artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but you'd be an idiot to not consider the tremendous influence of everyone's favorite former felon, Merle Haggard. His career has certainly seen its peaks and valleys over the years, but Haggard's tires still have plenty of tread after over five decades of making music and being on the road.
The years may not have been kind to the 76-year-old country legend, but his picking hand remains in near-pristine condition. During his entire one-and-a-half hour set at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth on Saturday, Haggard played his signature Fender Telecaster with surprising precision and ease. Sometimes his old age was pretty evident, like when he struggled with an instrument or missed a few notes, but for the most part, he was comfortable and collected.
The evening was also a family affair for Haggard. Merle's son Noel Lee Haggard opened the night with a face and voice that was so reminiscent of his father's youth that it was almost spooky. Benny Haggard, the youngest of the bunch, plays lead guitar in Merle's band with inherited skill that will no doubt have him headlining shows of his own one day. Benny's mother and Merle's wife Theresa sang back-up and brought energy to a show that could have been really uninspired.
But it wasn't. That Bakersfield sound was almost as fresh last weekend as it was when it was pointing a big middle finger at Nashville's slicked-up sound all those years ago. After years of hard living and being on the road, Haggard lives up to his name in appearance only. His stage presence has only been diminished slightly with age, and vocally he was strong. Other reviews of this tour across the country have remarked that Haggard forgot the words to a few songs or misplayed a few notes, but maybe he felt at home at Billy Bob's, where he was almost completely on point.
Haggard's rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues," a song he first heard Johnny Cash play while incarcerated at San Quentin, was particularly respectful and well-received. I have no doubt that the Man in Black would have approved of his old buddy's version. After playing tributes to his contemporaries like Cash and Jimmie Rodgers, Haggard's "If We Make It Through December" paid homage to his influences, particularly Bob Willis.
Not surprisingly, Haggard also proved to be a great storyteller too. Before "Workin' In Tennessee," arguably one of the best songs ever written about a guitar, Haggard told the story of an old Martin guitar that was ruined when the Country Music Hall of Fame was flooded in the early 2000s. Whoever had the unfortunate job of informing Haggard that his prized guitar was gone told him that they'd last seen the guitar floating down the Cumberland River and that Marty Stuart jumped in to save it and got his hair wet, adding a little humor to a really sad situation.
In his signature song, "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard reminded the audience that this is a song written about marijuana, which elicited the usual amount of hollering. "I'm not giving you any," he laughed. "It's just a song about it." Most of the audience seemed to miss out on the fact that this song is actually a tongue-in-cheek jab at the uninformed nature of simple small-town life, but no matter; everyone who is a fan of Merle Haggard should see him perform this song live.
It's a shame that the real Willie Nelson wasn't in attendance for a duet of "Poncho & Lefty," but that's just about the only thing that could have made it better. On "Momma Tried," though, Haggard left the singing mostly up to the crowd, which they were happy to do. This was one of the only times that he seemed to be a little tired, but who could blame him? It was probably well after every other 74-year old on the planet's bedtime, and he was still playing a show.
Unfortunately, when I look at the set lists that Haggard played in other cities, it seems like the Fort Worth crowd may not have gotten all of his best. My very favorite Haggard song, "Silver Wings," and close second "Footlights," were played in other sets across the country but not on Saturday night. Considering that the stop at Billy Bob's was toward the end of his touring schedule, it's really not all that surprising that he played a much shorter show, if still disappointing.
In retrospect, the crowd was relatively subdued considering that we were in the world's largest honky-tonk, with one major exception. Something about country music makes 40-something soccer moms from the suburbs want to let their hair down and get a little crazy. Saturday night's show was no exception, with crowds of blonde suburban wives with bottle beers somehow managing to be more rowdy than the packs of TCU frat boys. Maybe it's the cowboy boots.
All the same, the night ended rather abruptly as Haggard left without coming back to play an encore and the crowd did not do much to demand one. Perhaps everyone figured that it was time for the old man to retire for the evening. His band, the Strangers, played him off with an oddly jazzy version of "Okie From Muskogee," which added a little unnecessary cheese. Still, even with these missteps that could have made any other show insufferable, Haggard is a living legend in the truest sense of the word.
Merle Haggard's place as one of the most transformative figures in country music has been settled for at least a few decades now, but that doesn't mean that he's gotten lazy in his old age. It's true that his best years are behind him and he didn't do anything new or revolutionary on that stage at Billy Bob's, but that's because he didn't have to. This is the kind of country music that is good for the soul and that is always good enough on its own.