Published on February 7th, 2014 | by Jon Santiago0
Review: Singing along with Merle Haggard at the PAC
Merle Haggard and the Strangers
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
It turns out Merle Haggard is one of those men who truly needs no introduction. At his show on Thursday night (Feb. 6), he didn’t get one. Instead, as he picked up his Fender Telecaster and punched in to work before a packed house at the Performing Arts Center, what Haggard did receive was a standing ovation. That very warm welcome was not lost on Hag and the Bakersfield boys who went on to give their audience a tight, hour-long show filled with hit songs.
Of course, pulling a set list together from among Haggard’s deep catalog of chart-toppers is a challenging task. But as the evening gathered steam, it became evident that Haggard wasn’t simply checking off the boxes on songs his fans expect to hear. Did those songs make the cut? “Mama Tried.” “Okie from Muskogee.” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” All present and accounted for, thank you. Still, there’s much more to these deeply personal songs. Pay attention to these lyrics and you’ll hear a story that does not only belong to this man’s life. It’s the reason an auditorium full of strangers can sing along to something like Haggard’s “That’s The Way Love Goes.”
It’s always been Haggard’s great gift as a songwriter to reflect our lives back to us. His songs have helped us forgive our own trespasses (“The Way I Am”), mourn our losses (“The Bottle Let Me Down”) and speak out loud about a worrisome future (“Are the Good Times Really Over,” “If We Make it Through December”).
Very often, Haggard’s songs have been poignant in chronicling the shocks the working class has had to deal with over the years. And lately, what with a couple cancer scares and some heart surgery lurking in his recent past, Haggard’s been giving us a taste of what it feels like to be an old mule bucking this whole growing old thing. “I Wish I Could Be 30 Again” has that great line “They say life starts at 50 / We been lied to, my friend.”
He sets pen to paper about our common experiences. Things it might be a good idea to accept if not embrace and where possible, even develop a sense of humor about. Examples of this wry through-line in Haggard’s songs abound, but here’s one from the Charleston show.
Merle told the story of how somebody at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville called asking him for something to put in their permanent Merle Haggard display.
“Do you have anything close to your heart that you don’t use much anymore?” they asked, and Merle says, “Maybe you better ask my wife.”
Eventually, Haggard sent them a favorite old Martin guitar to put on display. Some time later, the songwriter got another call from the Hall of Fame. This time, it was about the damage that 2010 Nashville flood had caused the museum. The news was, “I saw your guitar floating down the Cumberland River.”
How did the Hag react to this news? Wrote a song about it, of course. The result, “Working in Tennessee,” is one of those bright Western swing numbers like “Take Me Back to Tulsa” that bring Haggard and the Strangers full circle in the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound they helped develop.
Haggard said that the thing he’s devoted himself to for the last 50 years or so — songwriting — is “mailbox money,” referring to those royalty checks coming in the mail. Naturally, the only songwriters who see that kind of money are the ones who can make you laugh, break your heart, and help you fall in love all over again. The ones who write songs where you know all the words. The ones who learned their craft from guys like Merle Haggard.
Top photo by Jon Santiago.
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