Merle Haggard (August 2, 2012)
Merle Haggard has always been an iconoclast and a contradiction. He is a hipster and a working-class hero, a restless traveler who sings yearningly of home, a deep romantic who rues love lost. He has survived poverty and prison and cancer. He has lived in boxcars and barrooms and mansions, and mostly he has lived on a tour bus, looking out at the America that he has chronicled so woundingly in song.
He’s a down-to-earth icon not given to showy entrances. He ambled onto the Congress Theater stage on Wednesday night like he was walking into a friend’s living room. He doffed his fedora to the crowd. The audience of punks, bikers and mainstream country fans roared in unison, a tidal wave of raw emotion erupting at the mere sight of the legend.
The road warrior opened fittingly with the percolating “Ramblin’ Fever,” his classic ode to wandering ways. The gray-haired Haggard, 75, looked casually cool in a suit and shades with a Fender Telecaster slung around his shoulder. Accompanied by a seven-piece band and two backup singers, Haggard cut loose on well-considered guitar riffs and the occasional fiddle lick.
Haggard has always been a nuanced singer with a finely honed instrumental sound, but the muddy acoustics at times swamped both singer and band. No matter. The fans sang and clapped to every word. “Oh my God!” shrieked a woman when Haggard launched into the opening strains of the classic “Mama Tried.” She seemed to speak for the entire room.
The songs were mournful (“Kern River,” “Silver Wings”). They were at times raucous (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”). They spoke of prison (“Sing Me Back Home”) and heartbroken mothers and lonely times.
“This one’s for all the workin’ men in the house,” Haggard said with a grin, launching into one of his finest pieces of pure Americana, the snarling “Workin’ Man Blues.” His humor throughout the night was low-key and sly. “We’re gonna do one for all the drunks in the house,” he said, by way of introducing the mass sing-a-along “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.”
This consummate songwriter leaned quietly into the Townes Van Zandt-penned “Pancho and Lefty,” infusing the desperado tale with all the pathos of the man who wrote it.
Merle Haggard is an American icon, but his greatest gift to us is that he has remained one of us. He exited the stage the same way he came on, doffing his hat and waving to the crowd as if he were taking leave of a family reunion. He disappeared quietly into the wings, leaving the thundering sound of love in his wake.