Merle Haggard – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
When Merle Haggard returned to the stage of the refurbished Ryman Auditorium for the second time in 13 months, he probably had all the immortals who had stood there before him in mind. To the delight of the many blue-collar fans in attendance, he opened the show with a vigorous “Workin’ Man Blues”. These people still take Haggard’s “Poet of the Common Man” handle seriously. He, in turn, takes them seriously as well, which explains why they’ll always be there for him.
From there, Haggard went straight into “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, which featured the fiddle work of Abe Manuel and former Texas Playboy Jimmy Belkin. After “Big City” and the crowd-pleasing “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” came one of the night’s more beautiful moments: a version of “Kern River” featuring the dobro of longtime Stranger Norm Hamlet, who also played great pedal steel throughout the concert.
Haggard leads, coaches, inspires his Strangers. The timeless feel of “Silver Wings” mesmerized people, but the audience snapped back when the band swung into a version of “Honky Tonk Nighttime Man” that foreshadowed the next transcendent tune: “That’s the Way Love Goes”, Lefty Frizzell’s last masterpiece.
Beginning “Mama Tried”, with its classic and familiar opening lines, Haggard was like Acuff doing “Wabash Cannonball” or Monroe doing “Blue Moon of Kentucky”: The man embodies the essence of country music by the time he gets to the first chorus. Haggard followed that with the oft-covered (over 400 versions) “Today I Started Loving You Again”. Longtime bandmate and onetime wife Bonnie Owens sang superb harmony.
Then Haggard, introducing “No Time To Cry” as the title of his forthcoming album, asked Iris DeMent to join him on piano. The song concerns a musician who, after an emotional breakdown, schools himself in detachment and trains himself to ignore personal losses and daily tragedies. As the audience hung on to every word in the last verse, Haggard’s voice tapped into often suppressed dread and fears:
The baby that was missing was found in a ditch today
And there’s bombs flying, people dying, not so far away
I’ll just take a beer out of the refrigerator and go and sit out in the yard
With a cold one in my hand I’m gonna bite down and swallow hard
Because I’m older now, I’ve got no time to cry
After he finished, there was some silence. The crowd jumped up, stunned by the ballad’s uncompromising honesty and Hag’s emotional delivery. Then he surprised the crowd, telling DeMent to take a bow because she had written the tune. People cheered as though they had just heard a new Haggard masterpiece. It’s a perfect song for Haggard now. Fragile characters trying to survive hard lives are familiar territory for him, and as a piece of music it can stand alongside his best.
Haggard followed with the more lighthearted “Sin City Blues,” another fine new song. To finish the set, he hauled out “a couple of songs I keep sayin’ I’m not going to play anymore.” Owens returned for a warm reprise of their 1964 hit “Just Between The Two of Us”. “Even though we’re divorced,” Haggard joked, “she’s still the boss!”
Lastly and too predictably, Haggard did “Okie From Muskogee”, one song he should probably give a rest. Ronnie Dunn and Wade Hayes — who had opened the concert with a fine set of originals and well-chosen covers — joined him.
On the way home, I thought of all the country milestones Haggard didn’t have time to play: “Sing Me Back Home”, “Swinging Doors”, “Lonesome Fugitive”, “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down”, and countless others. No living country singer has a deeper catalogue, and with over 40 #1 hits behind him, Haggard easily could coast instead of keeping everything fresh. There was little doubt in anybody’s mind when Haggard walked off the Ryman stage that night that this giant stood as tall as anyone who had ever played it, maybe taller.