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MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Merle Haggard performs at the Salem Civic Center on Sunday night with his band, the Strangers.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Long gone are the days when a Merle Haggard show could fill a Roanoke Valley arena. But on Sunday, Haggard and his band, the Strangers, showed that they are worthy of a full house, even as country music has seemingly forked away from them.
At Salem Civic Center, 1,369 in a venue configured to hold 2,800 paid to see “The Hag” and his swinging band of honky-tonk masters lay out 70 minutes of hits, new songs and rarities.
After dueting on the Townes Van Zandt classic “Pancho and Lefty” with his utility man, Scott Joss, Haggard jokingly acknowledged that the days of superstar status are behind him.
“Willie Nelson and I had a platinum record on that many years ago,” Haggard said of their million-selling 1983 collaboration. “Maybe some of the older folks can explain that to the younger folks on the way home. We used to be big stars back in our day.”
This crowd, which skewed older but included a fair number of younger fans, knew all about it, greeting Haggard with a standing ovation when he walked on stage, giving him another after a rollicking version of “Just Stay Here and Drink” and delivering one more when Haggard closed the show.
The 76-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist earned it with a focused and energetic show in which his baritone was strong, his guitar work solid and his band fluent.
Haggard looked sideways at a few lines from his old hits.
During “Are The Good Times Really Over,” he stopped his band after singing that he wished that “Coke was still a cola and a joint was a bad place to be.” Haggard, who has declared himself pro-marijuana in recent years, restarted the band and sang “a joint was a good place to be.”
His set-closing signature song, “Okie From Muskogee,” has become practically ironic in Haggard’s repertoire. He told the audience that the 1969 single, which opens with the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” was written for his “daddy, and also for marijuana smokers.”
Elsewhere in the set, he referenced the old Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoon in which a chicken farmer in “Mashville, Tenn.,” took LSD and set his chickens free. He snuck in that reference after playing “Working In Tennessee,” a new number inspired by the 2010 Nashville, Tenn., flood that washed away his old Martin guitar and many other exhibits from the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Haggard picked up a fiddle for that western swing-style number, playing a good lead and harmonizing with Joss. He followed it up with his classic “Working Man Blues,” his 20-year-old son, Ben Haggard, plucking out the guitar intro. Extending the family vibe, Merle Haggard’s wife, Theresa, sang harmony vocals.
The younger Haggard has mastered his father’s repertoire, with tone and feel greatly improved since he first came to the valley with his father, for a June 2009 show at Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre. He has earned his place on stage with his father, steel guitarist Norm Hamlett, Joss and the rest.
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