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By Barry M. Klein

On Saturday, October 2, 1999, Merle Haggard, undoubtedly one of the top 5 names of all time in country music, proved something to me: thirty six years after his first hit single, on his fifth marriage with a new young family, beleaguered with health problems in recent years including heart bypass surgery, and freely admitting he cannot hold some of the high notes like he used to, he can, nevertheless, still stand up on a stage for nearly 3 hours and demonstrate why he can still be considered a better singer, songwriter, song stylist, picker and fiddler than any of the so-called country singers coming out of Nashville today.

Am I biased? You bet I am! I have been a Merle Haggard fan since the early 1970's. The first time I saw him in person was at a large, former movie theater in Wayne, Michigan, in about 1978. Before a sellout crowd, Merle Haggard & The Strangers (then including Roy Nichols, Ronnie Reno, and Gordon Terry) opened with a 45-minute set of fabulous music and songs. After that, Hag had the house lights come on in the audience, approached the end of the stage, and said, "Well that's what we rehearsed - now what do y'all want to hear?" For the next 45 minutes, Hag accepted the shouts from the audience and performed every song that was requested! I have seen Hag in small, seedy bars, and in large auditoriums. I have seen him perform for over 90 minutes, and I have seen him perform for less than an hour. He has a repertoire of gags, jokes and punch lines that he has used over and over through the years. What stands out and touches everyone in his performances, however, is his charisma and talent and the phrasing of his songs (and always having an all-star band like The Strangers doesn't hurt, either).

I last saw Hag during the first week of December in 1996, at the Palm Beach Civic Auditorium in Palm Beach, Florida. There was hardly an empty seat in the 5,000 capacity venue, and I was both excited and apprehensive before the show: excited for obvious reasons, but apprehensive because in recent television appearances, Hag was looking considerably older than his then 59 years. The surprise of the evening was his voice, although not as perfect as the 1970's & 1980's, was still pretty darn good and he cast a mighty shadow that evening from which very few, if anybody, in Nashville today could emerge.

Viewed from the first row in the theater at the Las Vegas Hilton on October 2nd, I can tell you that from 5:00 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Pacific Time, time both stood still and slipped quickly away. After a false start on a duet with Bonnie Owens on the second song, Hag was kidding with the audience that he hoped that the rest of the night wouldn't go that way. It didn't! Hag slipped through many of the 43 songs on his new CD, a vast majority of which he wrote, but Hag is always ready to do a song by his favorite artists. In every Merle Haggard concert I have seen, in addition to "Okie From Muskogee", Hag never fails to perform "Silver Wings", a Bob Wills song, and a Jimmie Rodgers song.

On the pay-per-view special, Hag paid tribute to many of his early influences and to those who helped him during his career. Constantly recognizing former wife Bonnie Owens, the audience could feel the mutual respect and love they share for each other as performers and people. Hag also paid a special tribute to the late Wynn Stewart, in whose band Hag was a bass player, and Merle recalled that it was Stewart who originally wrote and performed "Sing a Sad Song", but unselfishly let Merle record it, and it became his first big hit in 1963.

Hag also sent best wishes to his ill friend, Johnny Paycheck, who opened for Merle in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1996. Within the past 2 years, Paycheck's 1981 LP, "Mr. Hag Told My Story", was released on CD for the first time. Featuring guest appearances by Hag and the Strangers, this CD is absolutely a 5-star performance!

Everyone in the audience in Las Vegas was given an autographed, numbered copy of the new Merle Haggard CD, "For The Record.43 Legendary Hits", which contains new recordings of 43 Haggard hits. The musical arrangements, interestingly enough, are quite similar to the original recordings, so there is no "Murder on Music Row" here.

Hag's voice on the recordings is, and I do admit to some surprise here, quite good. His vocals on the CD sound better than the concert, although that can be said of most performers regardless of their age. Hag didn't sound quite as good in Las Vegas as he did 3 years ago in Palm Beach, but nobody in the audience cared, even though the most expensive seats were $137.50.

My wife and I came from Michigan for the weekend, just to see this concert. We weren't alone. With seating taking place 90 minutes before the concert began, we met people from Nova Scotia, Atlanta, Texas, and Rhode Island. An old friend of long under-appreciated singer/songwriter, Freddie Powers (who was the evening's musical director and one of the guitarists) and his wife were in from California to enjoy their 1st row center seats (it pays to know somebody!).

Why should Merle Haggard, at age 62, re-record and release new versions of 43 hits that date back as long as 36 years? I asked that question myself when I first read about the new CD. Let me answer my own question this way:
Earlier this year, I purchased the 5-CD Bear Family Box set, "Untamed Hawk", featuring Merle Haggard's earlier music mostly from the 60's. It is an excellent compilation with a great book, detailed session notes, and excellent sound. After hearing Merle sing in the 60's and early 70's, one can notice a distinctive change in the 80's and 90's. Merle's voice later in his career has mellowed and matured. Not as sweet a tenor voice as he had earlier, the later Hag evokes maturity, and a worldly, grounded, and yet still emotional quality. When we go to a Merle Haggard concert today, we do not hear Hag's voice as it was 30 years ago, so why not "For The Record" listen to these great songs as Hag has been performing them in recent years!

CONCERT: 4* out of 5 stars
CD: Ditto

This should be required listening for executives of all the major labels controlling most of the country music coming out of Nashville today!

Merle's Site

Editor's Note: Barry Klein writes for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and his book, "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll", was published in 1997. To contact Barry, email him at

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