After his fourth song in front of a packed Kleinhans Music Hall on Friday night, black-clad country legend Merle Haggard stood at center stage, frustrated. Because of two replacement amps that were unexpectedly forced into service, the 76-year-old, working-class hero was concerned about his performance sound.
So, with the same earnestness found throughout the liner notes of his more than 70 studio albums, the man known simply as “The Hag” leaned into his mic, looked to the crowd and played it straight.
“After this show,” he said, “Some of you may want your money back.”
Judging by the crowd’s rowdy participation through Haggard’s flowing and flawless 23-song tour through country standards that have influenced artists and inserted locales like Muskogee, Okla., into 1969 dinner discussions, it’s safe to say there wasn’t a post-show run on refunds.
The Bakersfield, Calif., native’s resume reads like few others in the realm of country music. More than 250 original songs. 40 No. 1 hits. Induction into both the Country Music and Songwriters Hall of Fame. Haggard joins contemporary names like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt not only in style and songwriting, but also with a checkered past full of busts and life-altering bruises. Stories of his wayward youth, drunken adventures and time in the Cash-entertained San Quentin prison have always made him relatable to the flawed everyman. But, his redemption via blue-collar creation and craft mastery is what has made him a genre giant – and has endeared him to generations of country music loyalists.
Haggard’s Friday night set list did nothing to fray this fan connection.
Joined by nine-member touring band The Strangers, the white-haired Haggard spent his evening deftly navigating through decades of bona fide favorites. After he opened the night with the twanged disdain of 1981’s “Big City,” he transitioned to 1969’s cathartic tale of loss, “Silver Wings,” and 1987 barn dance request, “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.” On the trio of opening offerings, Haggard’s Fender rhythm was deftly complemented by band mates Scott Joss (on fiddle), Norman Hamlet (steel guitar) and Floyd Domino (keys), and directly supported by his son Ben’s impressive precision on lead guitar.
Surrounded by this musicianship – and combined with a personal stage presence that hasn’t waned since he packed barstools of Bakersfield’s “Beer Can Hill” scene in the early 1960s – Haggard rendered any detectable amplification problems moot for the rest of the evening. Instead, Kleinhans attendees clapped along with the bass drum of “Mama Tried” and dueling guitars of “I Could Be Holding You Tonight”; sang the familiar lyrics of “The Bottle Let Me Down” and Van Zandt’s “Poncho & Lefty”; and stomped their Southtowns-bought cowboy boots to the marijuana-referencing concert finale, “Okie From Muskogee.”
Five decades after his career began, Merle Haggard still occupies his initial aura: a battle-worn storyteller, performing for the people. On Friday night, his illustrative lyrics and durable musicianship served up a show to remember – and gave working men and women more than their money’s worth.
Opening up for Haggard and The Strangers were short sets by North Carolina’s Malpass Brothers and Buffalo country music institution Ramblin’ Lou’s Family Band.