Monday, February 2, 2009


 Getting ready for Saturday's big 50th birthday celebration for Perry S, I am thinking about hearing Robert Earl Keen and his band live, drinking some whiskey and maybe even dancing the Saratoga no-step and falling down on my ass. Perry is a big fan of country music and Merle Haggard. A while back he suggested that I write a post about Haggard. This is it.

Merle Haggard is one of the most prolific, talented country stars of all time. Haggard and his band The Strangers, along with Buck Owens, popularized a type of country music known as the Bakersfield Sound. It is a sound that has always been a little harder edged than the normal polished Nashville country music. This may reflect Haggard's rough and tumble upbringing that included several stints in jail. He was actually in the audience at San Quentin when Johnny Cash preformed those legendary shows.

Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard recorded 40 number one hit songs, many of these are enduring classics. There would be a big hole in the country songbook without songs like I Am A Lonesome Fugitive, Mama Tried, Working Man's Blues, Okie From Muskogee, Big City and Kern River to name just a fewAlthough over 70 years old, he continues to tour with his great band The Strangers.

I have been a fan of Haggard since I moved to Texas in the late '70's. Although I knew a few Haggard songs (we weren't listening to much country at Floyd's Hotel) before that time, I got a lot more interested in Haggard's music when I first heard his classic 1982 duet with Willie Nelson on Poncho and Lefty. From there, I became an even bigger fan after I played a cassette of his 1985 release Kern River to death. I love a sad country song and there are few song that are sadder than Kern River. Have a listen, but keep the hankie close at hand.

I have been very lucky to see Merle and The Strangers live several times in my life. The first was in 1994 in Corpus Christi at an outdoor show at Johnny Land. It was a beautiful night under the Texas stars. There was a dance floor up front and Merle and the band sounded great. Another show later that year at Rockefeller's in Houston was not as successful. Merle must have gotten over served before the show and was not at his best that night.

More recently, I have seen him twice as the opening act on The Never Ending Tour. Seeing Dylan and Haggard in one night should be illegal. Hearing both of them sing on the same bill, was a testimony to the aging of Haggard's voice. Unlike Bob, he can still sing like a bird. At the Beacon Theatre in New York he even played Kern River, which almost brought me to tears.
At a show in San Antonio with Guitar Johnny working his backstage magic, I got to meet Merle (see photo above), which was a great honor. I went to the show hoping to meet Dylan (good luck), but getting to spend some time with Merle more than made up for it. He was super friendly and we had a nice time before the show.

If you do not have a lot of Haggard tunes on your ipod, you are missing some great music. Merle Haggard 40 #1 Hits is available from Amazon and would be a good place to start. From iTunes you can pick up either Hag-The Best of Merle Haggard or Merle Haggard: 20 Greatest Hits. Check him out.

1 comment:

  1. The Hag... it really doesn't get much better...Dave Alvin's version of Kern River does do it justice welll as Iris Dement's cover of Big City..even Hag said it was his favorite version of the song, even better then his according to him. High praise from the man himself. I hear he is ailing, I hope all is well with one of the last of living greats.