Full house of memories

Merle Haggard and his band of Strangers play the hits and standards for Feather Falls crowd

OKIE POETRY Though he’s traveled a rough road, country legend Merle Haggard can get to the heart of a song.

OKIE POETRY Though he’s traveled a rough road, country legend Merle Haggard can get to the heart of a song.

Photo By Tom Angel

Merle Haggard
Feather Falls Casino
Saturday, Feb. 12

A big dose of Merle Haggard with some new Strangers in his band was served up at Feather Falls Casino last Saturday night. A consummate pro with arguably one of the greatest voices and song catalogs in country music, Haggard now handles all the lead-guitar work himself. After having great guitarists, from Roy Nichols to Redd Volkaert, he now ably plays the licks himself, providing a little Keith Richards crunch tone to go with his Bob Wills/Count Basie-like ensemble.

A band like Haggard’s is an American throwback, reminiscent of when a good work ethic made for a relaxed work environment. This was demonstrated not only by a stellar performance, but also by Haggard’s actually stopping mid-song a couple of times to address a sometimes overly rowdy crowd. After singing the opening line “I wish a buck was still silver,” he stopped the song and said, “Do you want to hear this or not?” causing the “yee-haw” part of the crowd to cool it for a bit before the band glided back into the tune like a well-oiled machine.

Doing his staple hits like “Just Sit Here and Drink” and “Mama Tried” (dedicated to all the moms), his band never had that obnoxious crushing volume of a lot of modern shows. It was just a gently swinging ensemble with Haggard’s voice in as good a shape as it’s ever been. What a crooner! But, just as with his guitar playing, he can get gritty when he wants to.

“Silver Wings” featured long-time Stranger Norm Hamlett, Haggard’s silent Ed McMahon (silent except for his tasteful, inventive steel guitar playing). Hamlett strapped on the Dobro for one of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels (I’m not sure which one), which also featured new Stranger Scott Joss, a Northstate fiddler of renown who also has a dignified stage presence and great chops on fiddle and on electric mandolin.

Haggard even pulled out his own fiddle for the Bob Wills number “Little Betty Brown,” doing some great twin fiddle with Joss.

Mr. Haggard can be a cut-up at times, as when he did a pretty good imitation of Buck Owens on a snippet of a song. Then he asked the crowd if they wanted to see his Kenny Chesney imitation and proceeded to place his hat on his up-raised fist which strangely resembled the thin-faced, large-hatted country singing sensation—weird and funny. Haggard’s cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” was no imitation, though, just a great version of a classic.

Haggard has a new album of standards out, in the vein of Willie Nelson’s Stardust. As great as Nelson’s album is, I can’t wait to get a copy and listen to Haggard’s take on the great standards, because he’s really got the voice for it. On this night, he did Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” and I swear it sounded better than Nat’s version, assisted with a gentle country backbeat provided by long-time drummer Biff Adam. Next was the great standard “Pennies from Heaven.”

I could have listened to that stuff all night, but maybe Haggard felt he was losing the audience’s focus as he said something to the effect of “We better get back to it,” and went into “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Ramblin’ Fever” and the anthemic “Okie from Muskogee.” The man doesn’t just toss off anything, though, and all his songs are played with equal integrity. Those last songs are the ones that will really bring the crowd to their feet, and the experienced showman knows it.

An interesting footnote to all this is next month’s multi-city Merle Haggard/Bob Dylan tour. The pairing of the so-called Prince of Protest with the Okie from Muskogee has enormous cultural implications. In the ‘60s they might have been perceived as polar opposites, but the two are known to be admirers of each other’s work, and both have immense catalogs of great songs that are fast becoming standards.

Dylan may rock a little harder and jam a little longer, but even Frank Sinatra would have to be on his toes to follow the great Merle Haggard.