Merle Haggard played to a sold-out crowd at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night (June 25) with a compact 75-minute set filled with country classics like “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried.” Not one to linger, the final note of “The Fightin’ Side of Me” had barely dissipated when Haggard strolled off stage and the house lights came up.
Although there was no encore, Haggard still delivered a potent show at the Mother Church of Country Music, with stars like Martina McBride, John Anderson, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton and Gretchen Wilson cheering him on. The crowd loudly sang along with the choruses of the most familiar songs, turning the esteemed venue into just another honky-tonk on Lower Broadway. Fortunately, Haggard kept singing, too, rather than let the audience take it. At age 71, he remains a strong, expressive singer with plenty of charisma.
Even with dozens of hits in his set, Haggard seemed most excited to tackle his beloved Western swing. He kicked off his performance with “Old Fashioned Love,” a track from his 1970 tribute album to Bob Wills, and his face lit up during his rendition of “I Had a Little Gal” (his version of the Bob Wills/Milton Brown classic, “I Had a Little Mule”). Whenever he crossed the stage to pick up his fiddle, you could detect a swing in his step. He’s not exactly a virtuoso on the instrument, but luckily he was surrounded by the Strangers, his commendable 10-piece band that bolstered his performance. They were all dressed elegantly in suits, while Haggard sauntered around the famous stage in a casual Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans, a black hat and sunglasses.
Musical highlights include “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Silver Wings,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Are the Good Times Really Over?”, “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Kern River,” “The Way I Am” and “The Fugitive.” He also featured “Down to Earth,” an exquisite track from Last of the Breed, the album he released with Willie Nelson and Ray Price last year. Always an astute observer of the ups and downs of love, Haggard also made it easy to chuckle at the simple truths of romance in one of his new songs, “Love’s Always Pretty When It’s New.”
I have spent entire afternoons listening to Merle Haggard at home, so of course I have some songs I wish he’d sung, including “Swinging Doors,” “Branded Man,” “Hungry Eyes,” “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” “Carolyn,” “If We Make It Through December” and “My Favorite Memory.” He also dropped one of his most famous songs, “Okie From Muskogee,” from his set list. However, I did enjoy the newer songs such as “If I Could Only Fly” and “Half of My Garden Is for Willie.” (Take a guess what that farmer is planting.)
Haggard has notched 38 No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts between 1963 and 1988, along with many more Top 10 hits. Thus, I wish he’d been on the stage from the get-go, then taken an intermission and come back for more. Instead, the show started at 7:30 with a string of performers, including Haggard’s son Noel Haggard, two cartoonish men dressed in county-western costumes and another guy who said he was the roommate of the sound engineer.
All the same, it was certainly a thrill for country fans to hear one of the most important singer-songwriters in country music history sing them back home.