I saw Merle Haggard last Wednesday

I saw Merle Haggard last week at the Grove in Anaheim. I’d missed the Hag on a couple of separate occasions over the past few years and I was determined to catch him the next time he passed through.

The show was just the epitome of what I’d like shows to be. His band opened and played for 30 or 45 minutes (when I arrived, they were already playing) with a couple of different singers doing classics and songs that (original or not) adhered pretty close to traditional country. Then they said they’d take a short intermission and Merle Haggard would be out soon. They encouraged us to order another drink and visit the merch table out front. It was very old-school show-biz-y. Not at all like a rock concert.

About 15 or 20 minutes later, at 8.45pm, the lights dimmed and the band returned and Merle strode out in front in boots and faded jeans, a fringed leather jacket and his hat. He picked up his Telecaster with the “MERLE” embossed leather stap and they struck up “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” without much ado. They barely paused before going into “Mama Tried.” They hit several songs just back-to-back including “Folsom Prison Blues” before they paused and Merle spoke a little. He wasn’t rushed. That’s just how you do it: song, song, song, song, banter, song, song, song, song, witty line, song, song, song, band introductions, song, song, song, song, etc.

Merle spoke several times introducing a song with a wisecrack, lamenting that you couldn’t have a good ole-fashioned fistfight anymore since everyone had a gun, speaking about the flood in Nashville in 2010, and the like. But they’d hit the song right after that perfectly polished and usually they’d go right into another one.

Merle played some nice solos on a few songs. I believe he put the Tele down only to pick up a fiddle for “Working in Tennessee.” They played “Fightin’ Side of Me” after a short introduction from Merle about our boys in the military. They played “Okie” after a funny story about how people would tell Merle he had a pretty nice career going until he wrote that song about marijuana.

At about 9.40pm, Merle took his guitar off, thanked the crowd, said a few parting words and then said they were going to do one more. At 9.45pm, they were done, a voice came over the P.A.: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Merle Haggard and the Strangers…” and that was it.

And I looked at the time and thought… “I’m going to be in bed at 10.30.” That’s going to shows on weeknights in your late 30s. I loved it. An hour of music is a great amount of time. It doesn’t wear you out physically, your ears feel great, you don’t start to dread the deep cuts coming. I mean, he could have played 2 more hours for sure. I didn’t get to hear “Silver Wings” which I would have liked. And I’m sure there’s dozens more songs we could wish list. But I got the whole show, not a bad note, and I was back in my truck before 10.