The best part of Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum right now is probably an exhibit dedicated to the Bakersfield Sound, looking back on when artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens injected wiry electric Telecaster and old-time pedal steel sounds into the largely conservative country music landscape of the mid-Sixties. The exhibit includes Haggard's signature sunburst Telecaster and the handwritten lyrics to songs like 1972's racial anthem "Irma Jackson." Most acts covered this extensively at the Hall of Fame have long hung up their instruments, but not Haggard. During a two-night stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium that began Monday ("I'll be here for two nights. You can stash your stuff in the same seat it'll still be here"), Haggard proved he remains a master performer, storyteller and bandleader. He guided his seven-piece group the Strangers through both barroom and working-class anthems, soul and Western swing and the honky-tonk sounds of his youth with plenty of old-school showmanship. "I wrote a lot of these songs in my late twenties, and here I am singing them in my late forties," Haggard joked. His real age? 77.
Haggard made clear he has never felt a particularly deep connection with Nashville ("I lived here for a year one time, and I don't think I did anything of importance," he said), but he does have a historic relationship with the Ryman. Every day, tour groups at the theater hear about when Haggard appeared on The Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman in 1969; Haggard surprised fans by revealing he had been an inmate serving a 15-year sentence at San Quentin when Cash played the prison in 1958. Cash's show for the inmates pushed Haggard to get out on good behavior and pursue songwriting.
Haggard's shows are essential viewing for Music Row. While reporting a recent Eric Church feature, Church told me his first date with his wife, Katherine, was a Haggard show at the Ryman about a decade ago. Last night, Jewel and Jamey Johnson were hanging out backstage (later, Johnson caught up with Haggard on his bus) while fans like Vince Gill — who recently recorded an entire album dedicated to Haggard's Bakersfield Sound — watched from the front.
Haggard doesn't make setlists, and those who attended both nights received plenty of variety. The first night was rowdier; fans sang every word from the moment Haggard emerged in a grey suit and Stetson and launched into the stomper "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." Those screams only intensified when the band launched into the twangy opening notes of "Mama Tried" or the fiddle intro of "Big City." Night Two, however, was a two-hour, ten-minute marathon, a freewheeling set that included surprise covers of friends like Roger Miller — that even seemed to astound longtime tour manager Frank Mull. "He's having a lot of fun right now," Mull said backstage. Here are some great moments from both nights that prove Haggard can still kick the footlights out again and again.
"These guys have been making me sound good since 1965," Haggard said while introducing his band the Strangers, including steel guitar player Norman Hamlet, who joined in 1967. The current band includes fiddle-guitarist Scott Joss, bass player Taras Prodaniuk, piano player Floyd Domino, drummer Jim Christie and sax player Renato Caranto. It's also a family affair, with Merle's wife Theresa Haggard on backup vocals and 21-year-old Ben Haggard on guitar, who unleashed a flurry of twang on "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."
The Strangers are tighter than they've been in years, turning on a dime from swing to soul to rock & roll. Haggard often evoked a jazz bandleader; during the slow-rolling groove of "Silver Wings," he pointed to sax player Caranto to take a soaring solo. On the frantic boogie "Motorcycle Cowboy," bassist Prodaniuk and pianist Domino blew minds by soloing in unison. On Night Two, Ben Haggard and Joss weaved together their own masterful solos on "That's the Way Love Goes." Haggard's guitar playing was also in fine form, nailing the jittery lead on "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive."
The Drinking Songs
"We're gonna do a song for the drunks," Haggard said. "We got a lot songs written in the alley. We call 'em 'drinkin' songs.'" He then launched into a rousing "The Bottle Let Me Down." The night was heavy on those boozy songs, including "Swinging Doors" and, on Tuesday, a heartbreaking, soulful version of "Misery and Gin."
The Best Damn Fiddle Player
Haggard learned the fiddle and recorded a full album tribute to his childhood hero Bob Wills on A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Jason Fine tells the story, along with many others, in his epic 2009 Rolling Stone Merle Haggard profile). The LP Live in Austin '78 has the Strangers nailing a long set of Western swing classics. They channeled those days when Haggard picked up the fiddle for 2011's wildly underrated "Working in Tennessee." The Strangers' chops were most evident on the swinging blues of "Milk Cow Blues," full of difficult starts and stops, fiddle and steel guitar interplay and Haggard squinting, reaching high in his falsetto — maybe the highlight of the entire run.
The Haggard Wit
"I'll tell you what, it's a little early for me," Haggard said near the beginning of Tuesday's show. "I haven't even had my orange juice." Both nights were full of great stories and one-liners. While talking about his induction to the Country Hall of Fame, Haggard said, "They called and asked, 'Do you have anything near and dear to your heart that you don't use anymore?'" Following a comedic pause, the Hag quipped, "You can ask my wife about that," as Theresa burst out laughing. When he continued the story, someone shouted, "I love you." "I love you too," Haggard replied, sternly adding, "but that's not what we're talking about."
Practically everyone in Nashville has an unrecorded song in his or her back pocket, so there were plenty of screams when Haggard asked, "I bet there are a lot of songwriters here. Anyone got any songs?" One brave guy placed his CD on the front of the stage. Haggard looked at him a little puzzled and added, "I'm going to play one I wrote right now” as everyone laughed. Before he left the stage last night, Haggard did make a point to pick up the CD.
Cash Is King
Early both nights, Haggard paid tribute to Cash by launching into a rousing stripped-down "Folsom Prison Blues." Haggard evoked the Man in Black by mimicking his baritone and strumming high on the neck — just like he did during his impressions segment on The Johnny Cash Show. Haggard also shared some memories of Cash on the first night, including the time Cash invited him over to his house to write a song together. "June said, 'Merle, John sold 15 million on 'Ring of Fire' [which June co-wrote]. John said, 'Present wife, will you make some coffee?'"
The Willie Way
Haggard also talked about his friendship with Willie Nelson, telling the story of their 1983 Number One hit "Pancho and Lefty," written by Townes Van Zandt. Haggard said he had been staying at Nelson's ranch and had finished an entire album except for a title track at the time. "We'd been up five days and five nights, uh, doing what you do," he said, recounting how he and Nelson subsisted on only a juice cleanse. "We had this drink that supposedly came from the Bible called the Master Cleaner: cayenne pepper, pure maple syrup and lemon juice. That's all we had for five days and five nights."
Haggard finally got to bed, before immediately being woken up by Nelson asking him to cut another track. "He said the band is learning it right now, so why don't you come in and do it?" Haggard recalled. "I said, 'You guys go in there and put it down and I'll get up early in the morning and do my part.' He said, 'No, we gotta do it at the same time.' I don't even remember [cutting it]. There's a lot of things I want to forget, I want to remember that."
The next day, Haggard asked to redo his part. "They said the record is already on its way to New York. I said, 'I don't know what I did.' They said, 'It's really good." Haggard delivered the entire song on Tuesday night, giving a verse to guitarist Joss and singing his famous verse as soulfully as he did on the record.
"Okie From Muskogee" & "Working Man's Blues"
The sincerity of Haggard's 1969 anti-hippie anthem "Okie From Muskogee" has always been a bit of a mystery to fans. "This one was written about marijuana before I knew what it was," he said on the first night, performing "Okie" while bathed in green lights. The song bit with even more irony when he added the line, "We get drunk like God wants us to do." Meanwhile, Haggard has never shied away from addressing tumultuous times in American history, and his ballad "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)," — with its chorus "Are we rolling downhill/Like a snowball headed for hell?" — rang truer than ever.