We were late, stuck on 306 behind everybody else heading out to WhiteWater to see Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in the first of a 3-night sold out event. I was anxious as hell to get there, but a nip of Buffalo Trace, given to me by my sister-in-law, and a couple tokes, given to us all from the Great Spirit, and I was getting into a Willie mindset. That is to say, “fuck it, shit happens. If I don’t get there in time, I’ll make it up.”
I felt like a badass picking up my ticket at Will Call with the other VIPs, then told myself not to. Most of them were older, white folks who can spend what amounts to a small fortune on tickets to get right up close to these craggy-faced beacons of a bygone era. Me, my old man, and a buddy of mine got our drinks and made our way to the middle of the crowd.
The Strangers kicked into Merle’s theme and slowly, out walks Mr. Haggard, stopping to wave and shake hands with folks in the first row. With two quick draws of his bow, fiddle player Scott Joss sends The Strangers into “Big City.” Merle sounds older and rougher than when I’ve seen him before; he’s 77 and the temperature was in the 50s. He still has unbelievable vocal control and you can hear his falsetto color some of the stuff that his natural register used to be able to bridle and hold. It doesn’t sound bad, just older. He has acclimated his secondary instrument, his voice, to get the most out of it at his age. He growls at times and his higher notes come out as a smoky whisper.
Hitchcock supposedly placed pantyhose over his lenses to add that glowing, sheer quality to Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren or one of his other blonde sirens and Merle’s voice has this sheen to it, although his is entirely real and natural. He falls from note to note at the end of phrases, sounding almost R&Bish. Merle, as a vocalist, is still better than most pros and uses his weathered, aged instrument to the best of its abilities, never straining but replacing virile, gut-flexing diaphragm delivered dispatches with softer, more eloquent dips and jukes. He sounds like Deion Sanders used to move. He still does all his tunes in their original key and when his wife Theresa and daughter Dana, along with Mr. Joss, fill out the big choruses, you don’t notice his age.
Merle’s son Ben plays guitar, mostly the iconic solos made famous by Roy Nichols, with some extra licks and bends that Roy never committed to wax. Ben is a real sick motherfucker, and I wonder how much is genetic, or raw talent, and how much his old man was on him to be a picker. The chemistry between Ben and Merle is great and it makes me feel sentimental to think how proud Merle must be of his youngest son’s abilities. Abilities that make fledgling musicians like myself hate the bastard.
Norm Hamlet, the bandleader, steel player, and oldest Stranger in years and time spent with Merle, who you can’t write a piece about The Hag without giving some ink to, gets his time in the spotlight as Merle calls solos, at his leisure, throughout the night. The set ends with Merle promising to see us during the second set of the show. A promise that he doesn’t deliver on after retreating from Willie’s famously cloudy bus just minutes before Willie Hugh Nelson of Abbott, Texas takes the stage. This is where shit gets real.