Introducing “Okie from Muskogee” last night at Southern California’s Grove of Anaheim, Merle Haggard said he’d heard – wink, wink – that one could procure pot legally in certain spots around his home state. “Right here, right now!” one fan called out, but Haggard demurred. His recent health troubles, including a case of double pneumonia that landed the country legend in a Georgia hospital for 10 days in January, have diminished his willingness (or at least his ability) to partake. It was the only sign of weakness in an hourlong set that otherwise suggested Haggard, 74, will be on the road forever.
Last night’s show – the second date of a new U.S. tour that stops tonight in San Diego and stretches though the end of April – felt like an assured overview of the singer’s hugely influential career, with plenty of trademark hits (“The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”), as well as the title track from last year’s excellent Working in Tennessee. Supported by his longtime backing band, the Strangers, Haggard performed a touching version of “If We Make It Through December” and earned big laughs with a line about the dependability of a Dodge in “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).” Later, he dedicated “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to any soldiers in the house and described “Sing Me Back Home” as “one for the ex-convicts.” (“Okie from Muskogee” went out to the dealers and the cops who both make a living from the drug trade.)
Though he received a standing ovation from an audience clearly happy to see him in fine fettle, Haggard resisted any kind of grand gesture in Anaheim. Following a handsome take on “If I Could Only Fly” he thanked his fans for their prayers, then got back to the business at hand. When the show was over he shuffled off in the direction of his beloved bus, determined as always to keep on keepin’ on.