1967. George Jones quits another tour. He is off to Texas to catch a young man perform the hit single “I Threw Away the Rose”. Somewhere in Texas, someone stops Merle Haggard and tells him that George is headed his way, just to hear him sing.
Mr. Haggard comes from an honest place. He’s the Real McCoy to use the parlance of our times. He grew up playing a hand-me-down guitar from his brother Lowell. In the family home, a converted locomotive boxcar, Haggard learned the songs of his heroes, Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell. It’s unlikely that at this point he had any idea he would one day be considered one of the greats in the canon of Country & Western music.
Merle Haggard has received an astounding number of music awards from the Grammys, Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. He has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (1994) and been bestowed the Kennedy Centre Honours for “Outstanding Contribution to American Culture”.
If this list of life experience and accomplishment doesn’t give you an idea of the authenticity of this man, then get a load of this: Merle Haggard cites seeing Johnny Cash perform as one of the most influential factors in deciding to pursue a career in music. The kicker is, Haggard saw him perform in San Quentin Prison where he had just been transferred after an escape attempt from Bakersfield Prison.
After 76 years, 5 wives, 6 children, 38 number one hits, 76 studio albums and a hell of a lot of time on the road, Merle Haggard made another stop at Centre 200 in beautiful, downtown Sydney last week. Although he showed no signs of slowing down, with the way the world has been losing musicians lately, it’s hard to say if he’ll ever make it back.
After a brief introduction from his son and lead guitar player (who looks exactly like a 40-year old Merle), Mr. Haggard, in his customary cowboy hat and sunglass, took the stage, plugged in his electric-guitar, played a quick turn around and laid into some singing. It sounded good, great even, and a whole lot like Merle Haggard. He sang with the power, the feeling and the lack of effort of musicians half his age. The band was on; the man was on.
With 38 No. 1 hits, one would assume that it’s hard to put together a bum setlist at this point in his career. You got the feeling at the concert that Merle hears every note his band plays; he sees the bigger picture. The show is entertaining but it’s all about the music. At no point does the act distract you from the music, nor would it need to with musicians of this caliber. The Strangers now include 3 of Mr. Haggard’s children; two sons and a daughter. The band: pedal steel, electric guitar, female backing vocals, drums, bass, piano and acoustic/fiddle all backing Mr. Haggard on vocals and the Bakersfield-bred country telecaster.
Mr. Haggard played the hits, he played the fiddle, and he played to his audience. At one point, in a wonderful moment that made you feel like you were the only person in the stadium, Haggard took off his hat and glasses and said hello.
The magic for me was hearing “Footlights”. Mr. Haggard singing with all the wretched feelings living in the lyric of that song was a serious moment. The back and forth between trying hard to make it and just keeping on was so well conveyed.
Overall I feel lucky to have been there at Centre 200 on Thursday night, seeing a legend of Country music here in my own town and sharing it with a few thousand people who all have that thing in common. We’re real people in Cape Breton, and so it seems obvious that we’d appreciate such a real human as Merle Haggard.