Merle Haggard is many things: a country music legend with 40 No. 1 songs, an important architect of the gritty Bakersfield sound, a notable in the outlaw country movement and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is also an ex-convict who saw Johnny Cash perform while imprisoned at San Quentin, which inspired him to clean up his act. He's a lung cancer survivor, a father and a grandfather.
And at the Chumash Casino Resort last Thursday night, at age 77, he showed that he is still a highly entertaining performer whose voice has aged quite well.
The show began with a few warm-up songs, then Haggard took over the vocals starting with the song "Big City," the first of many hits from across the decades.
There were lots of early classics, including "The Fugitive," "Silver Wings," "Workin' Man Blues," "Today I Started Lovin' You Again," "California Blues" with a quick yodel at the end, "The Bottle Let Me Down," which he introduced as "one for all the drunks in the house," and the patriotic (and, back in the day, controversial) "The Fightin' Side of Me," which he dedicated to our country's servicemen.
Favorites from later in his career included "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," the mournful "Kern River," Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," which Haggard recorded three decades ago with fellow traveler Willie Nelson, the amusing "Motorcycle Cowboy" and "Are the Good Times Really Over" with a few funny additions.
Haggard's recent output was nicely represented by the swinging "Working in Tennessee," which he introduced by telling how his beloved Martin guitar that he donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., was swept away in a flood a few years ago. For this tune, he switched from rhythm guitar to fiddle, and he stayed on fiddle for the old Bob Wills song "Take Me Back to Tulsa."
The show ended with Haggard's best-know song, "Okie from Muskogee."
Originally released during the Vietnam War, this was either a denunciation of the hippie movement or a satire of the squares, or probably a bit of both. At the Chumash Casino Resort, it seemed to resonate with the crowd, especially the rewritten line "We don't do that deadly marijuana / We get drunk like God wants us to do."
Throughout the evening, Haggard was backed by his amazing band The Strangers, with bandmate since 1965 Norman Hamlet (pedal steel guitar), plus Renato Caranto (sax), Jim Christie (drums), Taras Prodaniuk (bass), Floyd Domino (keyboards), Scott Joss (fiddle) and his son, Ben Haggard (lead guitar).
To my ears, Haggard lived up to his legend at the Chumash Casino Resort, and as he approaches 50 years after his first No. 1 song, it seems that he isn't about to slow down.
Love's Gonna Live Here (Buck Owens song)
Chase the Feeling (Kris Kristofferson song)
F.D.R. Jones (from Babes on Broadway)
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
Let Me Down
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt song)
Are the Good Times Really Over
If I Could Only Fly
Workin' Man Blues
The Fightin' Side of Me
Today I Started Loving You Again
Working in Tennessee
Take Me Back to Tulsa (Bob Wills song)
I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink
Okie from Muskogee
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.