Black Music Matters Festival

The Hag rules

Tramps, New York, Sept. 20, 1997 (early show)

By Stuart Munro

NEW YORK - A TNN interview with Merle Haggard four nights before this show in New York could make fans a little anxious. Coming off of recent heart surgery, Haggard - leaving aside the cragginess that has come with age - looked 10 years older than his 60 years, and seemed to be showing the effects of his illness.

The first few moments of the show didn't do much to allay fears. Sporting a brim-backwards Nike scully cap, loud shirt and wrap-around shades, Haggard stepped slowly and gingerly on stage in front of a packed house with the current edition of the Strangers, and started with a workmanlike "Workin' Man Blues."

"Big City" followed, and while the band chugged along and displayed some tasty guitar-saxophone interplay from Redd Volkaert and Don Markham, Haggard's voice cracked and wavered not once, but twice.

Shortly thereafter, however, Merle whipped off his shades, began eyeballing the crowd and ripped any worries to shreds with a 75-minute career tour. He gave us a choice selection of his classics - "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Mama Tried," "Kern River," "I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am," "Going Where the Lonely Go" - as well as a few covers - Floyd Tilman's "This Cold War With You," and a full-blues treatment of "Milk Cow Blues."

Hag also took a turn or two down less-travelled roads such as "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star," from 1987's "Chill Factor" and even offered a new tune, a beautiful lament titled "Listening to the Wind." He gave fiddle/accordion player Abe Manuel a chance to stretch out on "Jambalaya" and "Big Mamou," brought Bonnie Owens up front to sing "Cowboy's Sweetheart," and then joined her for a sweet rendition of "Heart to Heart Talk."

Throughout, Haggard grinned, scowled, reached for notes, bantered with the band, pointed to first one, then another Stranger for solos, and ripped off jazzy riffs and slurry breaks of his own.

Most of all, we got those songs and that voice - now a bit weathered but still strong - informed and backed by that crack band. He closed the set with "Okie From Muskogee" and fittingly, given his introduction of the song as "one he wrote for his father," he played it straight. This was a splendid performance by an old master, at ease in his element, giving the audience what it expected and more while throwing in a twist or two. Merle lives!

Dale Watson - a man who bears at least a passing resemblance to the young Merle Haggard - opened the show. When Watson first toured with his new band last spring, they were a bit ragged, but this time around they're tight as a drum.

Those real country songs that Watson sings and sings about cried out for the addition of steel guitar to his road band, and the substitution of fine steel player Ricky Davis for Watson's former lead guitarist Dave Biller has at the same time allowed Watson more room to show off his own talents on the Telecaster.

While there was no doubt who the crowd - as well as Watson, as he himself made clear - was there to see, the opener's strong 45-minute set was very well-received, to the evident delight of Watson and his bandmates.

Dale Watson and His Lone Stars:

Dale Watson, electric guitar and vocals

Ricky Davis, pedal steel guitar and backing vocals

Preston Rumbaugh, acoustic bass and backing vocals

Brian Ferriby, drums

Set list:
Truckstop in La Grange
Real County Song
Another Day, Another Dollar
I Hate These Songs
That's What I Like About Texas
Flat Tire
Pity Party
Lefty and Alice
Truckin' Man
Ball and Chain
Luther's Boogie
Nashville Rash
Merle Haggard and the Strangers:
Merle Haggard, electric guitar and vocals
Redd Volkaert, lead electric guitar
Randy Mason, acoustic guitar and backing vocals
Norman Hamlet, pedal steel guitar
Abraham Manuel, Jr., fiddle, Cajun accordion and backing vocals
Eddie Curtis, electric bass
Biff Adam, drums
Don Markham, saxophone
Bonnie Owens, backing vocals

Set list:
Workin' Man Blues
Big City
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star
Bottle Let Me Down
Mama Tried
I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink
Kern River
The Way I Am
Honky-Tonk Night-time Man
This Cold War With You
Milk Cow Blues
I Take A Lot of Pride in What I Am
Listening to the Wind
Jambalaya (Abe Manuel, vocals)
Big Mamou (Abe Manuel, vocals)
Going Where the Lonely Go
Cowboy's Sweetheart (Bonnie Owens, vocals)
Heart to Heart Talk (duet with Bonnie Owens)
If You Want to Be My Woman
Okie From Muskogee