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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : With Haggard, You Know It's Genuine : Real-Life Lessons Add Credibility to Expressive Playing and Empathetic Lyrics


COSTA MESA — Even without his beard, Merle Haggard looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln onstage Thursday at the Orange County Fair, albeit a sort-of scrunched-up, gaunt, wan Lincoln, as if the revered president had been locked up in a bar for a couple of decades.

Had Haggard spent his youth splitting rails instead of boosting hubcaps, who knows where he might be today, but where he is ain't bad. Even in the brisk confines of a county fair performance, the singer proved a grand statesman of the human condition, conveying a weathered dignity, cockeyed humor and craggy humanity.

His son Noel, former wife Bonnie Owens and band members Joe and Abe Manuel opened the show with five songs, but Haggard still delivered 17 songs full of life. There have been nights when he has struck a deeper mood on some songs, but, unlike so many younger singers with no real life to draw on, Hag's dusty hat of a voice still said "this is the real thing" on every song he undertook.

He has always had a gift for expanding on things he knows. He was only in prison three years for a bungled burglary, but that experience was sufficient for him to convincingly sing, "I turned 21 in prison serving life without parole" on "Mama Tried." Though claiming not to be much of a drinker, the drinking or hangover songs in his set were so woozy that he often didn't even bother to rhyme: "My mind ain't nothing but a total blank, I think I'll just sit here and drink."

And though he had only driven through Muskogee, Okla., on a tour bus in 1969, he codified its small-town values so convincingly that his "Okie From Muskogee" became one of the polar emblems of the divisiveness of the Vietnam era.

That and the follow-up "The Fightin' Side of Me" seemed so violently opposed to the Woodstock ethos that in 1969 one could not have imagined those two sides ever agreeing on anything. Indeed, the sole L.A. underground radio station that did play "Okie" back then did so only after editing out all don'ts in the song, so it went, "We smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We take our trips on LSD."

When the Grateful Dead started covering Haggard's songs, people assumed it was in ironic jest. Rather, they were among the first to realize that they are great songs and that the humanity of Haggard's music transcends that polarized time.

And, curiously, over the years Haggard and his band, the Strangers, have become nearly the country version of the Dead, playing with an organic empathy and far-reaching musicality.

Steel player Norm Hamlet still helms the band, but there aren't many other old faces left. The newer players, especially the Manuel brothers, injected a little more fire into the music, though they don't yet mesh with Haggard's changing moods quite as well as his veteran players.

Aside from the instrumental that introduced Haggard, the set regrettably didn't have any of the Western swing tunes at which he and his band mates so excel. That aside, the musicianship was excellent, with Joe Manuel's demonic guitar work and Don Markham's sax and trumpet playing being standouts.

Haggard seemed to be enjoying the company, often exchanging sly grins with his band mates. In a generally playful mood, he introduced his classic "The Bottle Let Me Down" by declaring, "Here's one we know off the top of our heads, and sometimes off the side of our heads."

On one song he blew a lyric line and announced, "I'm gonna play, and think about it for a while," and launched into a guitar solo, that, as usual with him, was short on finesse and long on expression, more than filling in for any miffed lyric.

Amid his otherwise fragile reading of "Today I Started Loving You Again," he objected to a drum fill by improvising, "crying time for me was when I heard that drum." After the song he jokingly remonstrated drummer Biff Adam by declaring, "That sounded like Larrie Londin, then it sounded like Gene Krupa, and then it sounded like hell."

He remained in a lighter mood for much of his set, particularly on the fanciful "Rainbow Stew," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and his bucket of booze tunes, including "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and "It's Been a Great Afternoon."

Where it mattered, he sang with the gravity the lyrics deserved. With Haggard's vocals, gravity is a particularly apt term, as one of his trademarks is the way he'll drop the last note of a phrase down the scale, until it seemingly hits the ground.

Along with "Mama Tried," "Mama's Prayers," the wistfully sad "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," and his show closer, "Sing Me Back Home," he did the little-performed fugitive song "Running Kind." With the ache of one who has been there, he sang, "Every front door had me hopin', I'd find the back door open. There just had to be an exit for the running kind."

It's pretty much obligatory that he do his most notorious hit, and he did it in a fairly obligatory manner. And one can only speculate what they would have thought back in Muskogee when, earlier in the show, two men in the packed audience (one wearing a shirt that read "Legalize Freedom") started dancing together. Haggard merely grinned.

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