Country superstar Merle Haggard performed
"Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," and other hits
during two shows at the Island Resort and Casino.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
With a cache of classic songs, Merle Haggard has become one of the greats of country music.
Excited fans began talking to me about his show at the Island Resort & Casino in Harris not long after it was announced.
Of course, I was familiar with the Haggard classic "Mama Tried," but that was because I liked the version by the rock band Grateful Dead. The Dead also covered Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home."
You'd have to be completely oblivious to music not to have heard the tongue-in-cheek "Okie From Muskogee," which even made the pop charts when Haggard crooned: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee; we don't take our trips on LSD."
With those facts in mind, I decided to go to the performance, but I have a confession to make. Although I've been to dozens of rock and blues shows, I've never attended a concert by a major country star.
As a country neophyte, I thought I'd better do some research prior to the concert. So, I listened to a "best of" Haggard compact disc and watched a few of his videos.
I learned a lot about him along the way.
The singer, songwriter and guitarist was born in Bakersfield, California in 1937. (The city would later lend its name to "Bakersfield Sound," a twangy style of country music Haggard defined along with Buck Owens.)
Haggard's life took a tragic turn when his father died when he was nine years old. As a teenager, the future superstar rebelled, committing petty crimes and spending time in juvenile detention.
Then he saw Lefty Frizzell at a concert in Bakersfield. Haggard sang a couple of songs for him and Frizzell brought the young musician with him on stage. When the audience received him enthusiastically, Haggard set his sights on a career in country music.
But, plagued by financial problems, Haggard soon ran afoul of the law again. He was convicted of burglary in 1957 and sentenced to three years at San Quentin Prison. Haggard was an inmate when Johnny Cash staged his first concert there in 1958. (In fact, Cash would play there many times, finally recording a classic live album at the prison in 1969.)
Cash's presence proved to be a pivotal point in Haggard's life. After being released from prison, Haggard rededicated himself to a career as a country singer and songwriter.
He played at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas in 1962 and was taken with Stewart's composition, "Sing a Sad Song." Haggard asked permission to record the tune which became a national hit in 1964.
Haggard had his first No. 1 country record in 1966 with "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive." During the next two decades, he racked up 37 more country chart-toppers, many based on his personal experiences.
"Okie" is probably Haggard's biggest song, even drawing the attention of President Nixon. The record was hailed as an anthem for the "silent majority," and Nixon declared Haggard his favorite country singer.
In 1972, as Haggard's star continued to rise, California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon for his past crimes.
Haggard's highest charting pop hit came when "If We Make Through December," became a cross-over smash. The song, about the 1973 recession, peaked over the Christmas holiday period that year, cementing Haggard's reputation as a spokesman for the working class.
He released scores of successful singles and albums in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then he has continued to record and perform, remaining true to his hardcore country roots.
At Haggard's Oct. 18 show, it was clear the audience loved the California native when he walked on stage to a standing ovation.
Playing a Fender Telecaster guitar, he opened with "Swinging Doors," an early hit from 1966, and followed with "Silver Wings." Then came three No. 1 country smashes from the 1980s: "Big City," "I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink," and "A Place to Fall Apart."
Haggard showed his allegiance to folks slaving away at their jobs every day with "Working Man Blues," which topped the chart in 1969. Another No. 1 followed with "That's the Way Love Goes" while his tribute to the road, "White Line Fever," followed.
The 71-year-old Haggard delivered a heartfelt version of "Mama Tried," his No. 1 from 1968 which the Grateful Dead appropriated for their live shows.
Haggard was backed by the 11-piece Strangers which included his 15-year-old son Binion on lead guitar and his wife Theresa on backing vocals. (Son Noel performed a few songs to open the program.)
With dozens of hits to chose from, Haggard delivered "It Always Will Be" and "Rainbow Stew," a live recording from 1981. My sentimental favorite of the evening, "Mama's Prayer," followed.
He ended the show with three No. 1 country hits: "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," from 1966; the obigatory "Okie From Muskogee," from 1969; and the patriotic "The Fightin' Side of Me," from 1970.
Along with the rest of the audience, my wife Sue and I saluted Haggard with another standing ovation as he walked off the stage.
After attending my first country concert, I have another "confession" to make. In that audience full of admirers, Haggard won a new fan or two.