Haggard Brings Honky-Tonk to the Ryman

Merle Haggard ‘s music is best heard where the pre-concert entertainment might involve a drunken brawl in the parking lot. Sure, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is a terrific concert venue, but Haggard’s music is really made for the barrooms and honky-tonks.

Not to say that there weren’t a few drunks at the Ryman Tuesday night (Feb. 11), but everything was safe when Haggard returned with a nine-member edition of his band, the Strangers. Haggard’s voice still sounds great, although Tuesday’s show lacked some of the power and urgency of his best work — both onstage and in the studio. However, how many young artists of today will be as vital as Haggard at the age of 65?

Haggard hit the highlights of his career during the Ryman show, although a 70-minute set required the omission of several classics, notably “Swinging Doors” and “The Fugitive.” To his credit, Haggard provided a balanced set by mixing his own hits with material from at least two of his major influences — Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell .

The Strangers now feature guitarist Norm Stephens, who recorded and toured with the late Frizzell. Stephens and Haggard’s longtime band leader, steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, were in synch like a $10,000 watch to recreate the instrumental passage from Frizzell’s hit recording of “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time).” Haggard tipped his hat to Wills by grabbing the fiddle for the king of western swing’s “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”

Cracking jokes between songs, Haggard performed an abbreviated take on Johnny Cash ‘s version of “Orange Blossom Special” before briefly impersonating Buck Owens (on “Love’s Gonna Live Here”) and Roger Miller (on the opening riff of “Dang Me”). Looking into the crowd, Haggard said, “I feel like everybody here is a personal friend of mine, but I put on a bulletproof vest, just in case.”

He’s recognized as a singer and songwriter, but Haggard is also a top-notch guitarist and bandleader — the only country artist ever featured on the cover of Downbeat, a prestigious jazz magazine. Haggard’s previous bands have included some stellar guitarists, ranging from Roy Nichols (in the ’60s) to Redd Volkaert (in the ’90s), but these days Haggard is prone to play the lead guitar parts himself, rising to the occasion on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

An hour into his set, Haggard introduced band member Kenny Vernon, who sang Wynn Stewart ‘s “Heartaches for a Dime.” Taking a break from the vocals, Haggard backed Vernon on guitar and then introduced “Okie From Muskogee” by saying, “This song has put more butter on my table than any song I’ve got.” That completed the set, although Haggard didn’t even bother walking offstage before agreeing to a one-song encore — “Workin’ Man’s Blues.”

Opening act Eric Heatherly provided a thoughtful acoustic performance that served as a fine complement to Haggard’s show. Opening with the title track from his upcoming album, Sometimes It’s Just Your Time, Heatherly was backed by an acoustic guitarist and bassist, on a rockabilly-influenced set that included a cover of Faron Young ‘s “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young.” Heatherly got into a patriotic mood with “Didn’t Mean a Thing,” but excelled on “The Last Man Committed” and his hit version of the Statler Brothers ‘ classic “Flowers on the Wall.”

SET LIST:

Eric Heatherly

“Sometimes It’s Just Your Time”
“Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young”
“The Last Man Committed”
“Flowers on the Wall”
“Swimming in Champagne”
“Didn’t Mean a Thing”
“Wrong Five O’Clock”

Merle Haggard

“Big City”
“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”
“Silver Wings”
“Mama Tried”
“Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”
“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
“That’s the Way Love Goes”
“Orange Blossom Special”
“If I Could Only Fly”
“If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)”
“Take Me Back to Tulsa”
“The Farmer’s Daughter”
“Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still a Buck)”
“Kern River”
“Heartaches for a Dime” — Kenny Vernon
“Okie From Muskogee”
“Workin’ Man’s Blues”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.