Merle Haggard and the Strangers,
Coeur d'Alene Casino in Worley, Idaho
16 July 1999

Living legends are a dying breed, Waylon Jennings has pointed out. I might add that some of those who are still alive aren't doing quite as well as they used to. Recent years haven't been especially kind to Merle Haggard: he hasn't released an album of new material for over three years; one of the best albums he's ever recorded, 1994, never got the airplay it deserved, and 1996, which also had some fine performances, sank almost without a trace. Not to mention that Merle has been writing songs about being sick of the music business almost as long as I've been listening to him. Who would have guessed that the man who sang in "Footlights" about being too old for the music business would be on the road twenty years later?

Fortunately, on this night, Haggard made it very clear he still enjoys what he's doing from the opening notes of "Silver Wings." "Swinging Doors," which followed, is from the very beginning of his career, but Haggard gave it a reading as spirited as if it were written that day. By the time Haggard and the Strangers began trading solos, Western Swing fashion, during "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," the smile on Haggard's face was nearly as broad as those on the faces in the audience.

When an artist has had as many hit songs as Haggard, it's not possible to squeeze them all into one show, but over the next hour and a half, he did his best. Highlights included "Ramblin' Fever," "Working Man's Blues," "Mama Tried" and "Big City." In fact, my only complaint was that, by sticking to his hits, Haggard didn't play any of his lesser known songs. Haggard was one of the first country artists to record whole albums of single-worthy material instead of two-hits-and-some-filler, and it would have been nice to hear some surprises.

His choice of covers did go a long way towards keeping the show from sounding like a greatest hits album. Unlike today's country stars, who claim Hank Williams, George Jones and Haggard himself as their artistic forefathers, and then cover songs by Billy Joel and Aerosmith, Haggard has always paid tribute to his influences, going so far as to record entire albums of material by his heroes, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills: Same Train, Different Time and Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, respectively. On this night, Haggard began the tribute portion of his show with Rodgers' "T.B. Blues."

Haggard has always had a particular fondness for the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Songwriter/guitarist Freddy Powers took over the lead vocal chores for a sly (and appropriate) "Time Changes Everything." The old chestnut "Faded Love" gained poignancy as a duet with ex-wife and long-time backup singer Bonnie Owens (and also gained some intentional hilarity when Haggard did a mock double take as Bonnie sang "I think of our love as I watch the mating of the dove"). "Take Me Back to Tulsa" ended the Bob Wills tribute, and if it didn't quite reach the heights it might have when Haggard counted former Texas Playboys such as Johnny Gimble as members of his Strangers, it came pretty close.

It must irk Haggard that "Okie From Muskogee" still gets the biggest crowd reaction. He's always been ambivalent about "Okie" -- yes, the song brought him his biggest success, but it also stamped him in the eyes of many as a redneck reactionary. It was his own fault, mainly. Haggard often claimed the song was written as a joke, but he's always sung "Okie" without a trace of irony -- although he's usually prefaced it with subtle and not-so-subtle digs. "This is a song that mentions a certain substance," he told the audience at the Coeur d'Alene Casino before singing that deathless opening line: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee...." These days, though, Haggard doesn't even sing "Okie" straight: the line "We don't make a party out of lovin'" has become "We don't make a party out of nuthin'."

Just in case there was anyone who still didn't get the joke, Haggard followed "Okie" with a spontaneous-sounding number which explained how marijuana is to blame for all the evil in the world. It ended with a reference to ex-Stranger Roy Nichols and a certain American president: "So let's burn one down for Roy / But don't inhale! And don't enjoy!"

On that heroic note, Haggard and the Strangers left the stage to an enthusiastic standing ovation. They returned for a heartfelt "Today I Started Loving You Again." Not a huge hit when it came out, the song has since been covered by countless other artists and is a real country music standard. It is, you might say, durable -- like the man who wrote it.

[ by Chris Simmons ]