Maybe it was that his wife was with him on Valentine’s Day or perhaps he was just excited to be at the Mother Church of Country Music. Whatever the reason, Merle Haggard was frisky and musically inspired Thursday night (Feb. 14) during his sold-out concert at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium.
“I’m glad to be playing here in the Ryman,” the country legend said early in his 80-minute set. “So far, so good. I’ve never had a good night here. I’ve played here many times. I’ve never had a good night here. It’s about time we had a good night here.”
He had a good night, indeed. He appeared to enjoy himself immensely, telling jokes and stories, imitating Roger Miller , encouraging sing-a-longs and agreeing to play a request for “Rainbow Stew.”
At times, Haggard became a little aggravated with the drinking, boisterous crowd. Some in the audience rudely shouted out requests and comments at the wrong times, but the seasoned entertainer handled it in cool stride.
“Let me talk a minute!” he demanded once. “If you don’t let me do that I’ll sing ‘Cattle Call’ or something.”
Mostly, though, he appreciated the audience’s enthusiasm for his music. Haggard ended several songs by doffing his hat and flashing his priceless smile. Confident that he could handle the crowd, he enticed them by offering classic drinking songs such as “Swinging Doors,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
Haggard managed to calm the crowd enough to pause for a long minute of silence to honor fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Waylon Jennings , who passed away a day earlier. During the silence, a bar band was barely audible, throbbing in one of the clubs just across the alley from the back of the Ryman. It was somehow fitting.
After the moment of silence, Haggard tipped his hat to Jennings’ rebellious spirit in “Footlights” with its lines of “tonight I’ll kick the footlights out” and “I’ll walk away without a curtain call.”
Haggard worked the show with a 10-piece version of his revolving Strangers band, including longtime members Norm Hamlet (steel guitar) and brothers Abe Manuel Jr. (fiddle) and Joe Manuel (electric guitar). Haggard handled numerous lead guitar solos himself, and he played ‘em like he meant ‘em. He sang that way, too.
The 23-song set leaned heavily on crowd-pleasers such as “Silver Wings,” “Big City,” “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Okie From Muskogee.” However, Haggard also paid tribute to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers and managed to throw in surprises like “Shopping for Dresses” and Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly.”
Near the end, Haggard performed the gospel evergreen “I’ll Fly Away” with Vince Gill and Albert E. Brumley Jr. (whose father wrote the classic).
Haggard’s wife, Theresa, supplied backing vocals throughout the night. He dedicated “Motorcycle Cowboy” to her and also dipped into his friend Willie Nelson’s song bag for “Valentine.”
“I sent my wife roses in California and she showed up in Tennessee,” Haggard joked. “You never know when they’ll be peeking around the corner.”
Haggard closed the show with “Okie From Muskogee.” He walked off the stage with his sweetie and never returned for his curtain call.