Merle Haggard at the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort
Riverside, Iowa, July, 10 2009
Part two of Riverside Casino’s Summer Concert Series (don’t worry, I plan to miss Styx and Kenny Wayne Sheppard) featured a living legend of country music, Merle Haggard. Not to be morbid, but there are moments when I consider how much time is left in a performer’s lifetime, particularly when the artist is advancing in age, when dishing out money for a ticket.
Hag turned 72 this spring: young enough to feel secure that he’ll be with us a while younger but old enough to know that quality may begin to suffer with each passing year.
Someone must have told Hag that a good way to make sure all of the seats (or lawn chairs, in this case) is filled with more than just the A.A.R.P. crowd is to have a young country band as his opening act. That logic is sound, but unfortunately, the promoter picked Trailer Choir, a country group whose claim to fame is a nearly 400-pound vocalist and a cameo appearance in the Toby Keith movie, Beer For My Horses.
To be honest, I love that movie. It’s so awfully awesome that it deserves a spot in my collection right next to Roadhouse, Glitter, and Deathrace 2000. But Trailer Choir, with all of their Toby Keith shoulder-rubbing and blatant novelty appeal (their best-known songs are the track from the movie “Off The Hillbilly Hook” and the chubby chaser anthem “Rockin’ The Beer Gut”) they are not deserving—in both talent and style—of an opening slot for an American poet like Merle Haggard.
The second opening act, The Malpass Brothers, is the real thing. It’s obvious why he tapped the duo: they stunningly recreate a period of music that’s near and dear to Hag’s heart. Not looking a day over 21, the duo dress to the nines before they even hit the stage, paying careful attention to making sure their pompadours were meticulously positioned.
All of this would have meant nothing if they weren’t able to recreate that haunting AM drift of country radio from the ’50s, and their brief five song warm-up to the Haggard set showed enormous adhesion to country music’s storied tradition. Younger sibling Taylor Malpass channels a lot of same nasal delivery that Hank Sr did while older brother Chris handled more of the other material, including a remake of an old tune by Merle. Throughout the set, steel guitars floated overhead, every lead was politely introduced by one of the two men, and each cover was properly attributed to its original performer (“Here’s an old song you may remember from the great Faron Young…”) out of respect and obligation.
Indeed, the brief ride in the Malpass time machine caused a few senior farmers who were dressed in their weekend best and shined cowboy boots to grab their spouse to cut a rug. Before introducing Merle to the crowd, the brothers invited everyone to “stop by the brown tent over yonder” to meet them, pose for pictures, and buy CDs. Every one that did was addressed as “m’am” or “sir” and when one wrinkled farmer waited patiently for a few moments just to grab the ear of Chris Malpass, he told him how much he appreciated that the two were keeping the music of his own youth alive for others to hear.
“Thank you, sir.” Chris told him with sincere eyes as he shook the man’s hand. “We’re sure trying to.”
The crowd showed their respect for Merle as he slowly took the stage to a standing ovation. At least, those that could stand manage to wrestle up from their lawn chairs; this was the first concert I’ve ever been to that had a few audience members tooling around in Rascal scooters.
Speaking of, there were a few times throughout Hag’s set when his age was noticeable. Merle rushed a few verses, forgot a couple of lines here and there and moved a few words around. No worries; Merle gave a shit-eating grin after each fuck up and even stopped the band in some cases for a mulligan. The point being that Merle is still in full control of himself, even if his synapses may be firing a tad slower. To illustrate a different perspective of this, when I saw Chuck Berry perform last year, nearly every song featured noticeable errors. Verses disappeared, Berry played in different chords, solos broke down, and there were a few times I could have sworn that Chuck had no idea what he was doing.
Merle is nowhere near this point. His capacities are fine, the voice has an added dimension with those years, and he’s still able to deliver an enchanting set.
A set of two-dozen songs, mind you. When you have 38 number one tracks to your record (and countless other top 40 hits), it’s easy to whip up a satisfying list and even the most casual fan will surely recognize a few tunes. People have their favorites but Merle doesn’t strike me as the type of guy that normally considers your personal preferences when sitting down to write out a setlist.
For example, Hag chooses not to perform “Okie From Muskogee” much any more, a sign that he was growing tired of being aligned too closely with the song’s protagonist. But on this muggy July night (thunderstorms and tornado warnings went through the area throughout the day), Merle brought out this classic 1969 hit at the request of some members in the crowd. He instructed us to act surprised during the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” perhaps knowing that the weed grows rampant in ditches throughout the state. When we didn’t show enough mock support for our herbal prohibition, he stopped the song and suggested that the highway patrol may take a closer look in his bags on the way out of the arena if we didn’t pretend to voice our puritan pride just a little louder when those verses came around again.
He cracked a smile, counted off “Muskogee” again, and we obliged with additional cheers as requested.
Hag also obliged his band, the Strangers, with affectionate introductions during their solos and even had a hand at generating a few solos of his own. He even brought out his own fiddle on a track, advising the crowd that we should “tell your friends” that he picked up the instrument. After just one song, Merle put away the instrument, jokingly explaining how he didn’t want “to strain myself.”
The moment came during a few songs that examined Hag’s recent foray into bluegrass music. You could tell he was having a blast with his steadfast and capable musicians, picking along with them every chance he could and raising an eyebrow at whoever threw down a tight lick or busy run. Merle’s known for bringing the Bakersfield sound to national acclaim, but at 72 Hag’s showing us that he’s picked up a few tricks throughout the country. He’s as much of a student of country as one of its most tenured professors.
Which may explain why the man has amassed over three dozen number one country hits and did so up until the late ’80s, about the same time when country radio began drawing clear lines between “old” country and the new guard.
Since then, Hag’s been busting ass on the oldies circuit, bringing huge handfuls of his storied carrier to those who have been with him from the beginning and others like me who don’t want to miss an opportunity to see one of country music’s greatest singer/songwriters before those opportunities aren’t available.
I’ve finally had my chance and couldn’t be more happy. I’ve heard reports of Merle doing shows with Neko Case and performing at Bonnaroo, but I’d encourage anyone reading to pull in a Hag show regardless of where it may be. Casinos, county fairs, whatever—Merle Haggard is one of those artists that’s probably performing nearby this weekend and his presence supersedes the environment that he’s billed at. There’s still life left in the old man yet, but more importantly, there’s still lessons to be learned from him.
Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today
White Line Fever
Folsom Prison Blues
The Bottle Let Me Down
Workin’ Man Blues
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
If We Make It Through December
(My Friends Are Going To Be) Strangers
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink
That’s The Way Love Goes
Old Fashioned Love
Take Me Back To Tulsa
I Ain’t Got Nobody (And Nobody Cares For Me)
Sing Me Back Home
Back To Earth
Are The Good Times Really Over For Good
If I Could Only Fly
Fightin’ Side Of Me
Okie From Muskogee
Video: Merle Haggard – “Mama Tried”