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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Merle Shows His Many Haggard Faces : At the Crazy Horse, the legend sometimes looks as noble as Lincoln, then as humble as a hobo at your back door. His set was solid, if short.

March 09, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — What goes on in Merle Haggard's head? I'm starting to wonder whether along with the hand-beaten sterling of his songwriting and his wonderfully weathered voice, one of the main appeals of seeing Haggard perform isn't the mystery of trying to fathom what drives him.

One has to wonder sometimes if the brutal geology of his face was formed by all the conflicting notions he keeps behind it.

Is he the simple happy dog singing "It's Been a Great Afternoon" or the man with a hellhound on his trail in "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive"? Is he the fragile heart watching his dreams recede in "Silver Wings" or the corroded liver of "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink"?

Haggard once said that the only time he isn't bored by life is when he's performing. Yet while he was singing Monday at the Crazy Horse (his first appearance at the club since 1981; he was also scheduled for a second night on Tuesday), he often looked as if he wished he were somewhere else.

He's an enigma, looking at once as noble as Lincoln and as humble as a hobo at your back door with his hat in his hand. Nearly every instance Monday when he looked to be having a good time--sharing a joke with a band mate or playfully kicking at his amplifier--he would follow it with furtive glances to either side, as if he were expecting someone to come and haul him off to prison again. What does go on in that head?

Granted, his mind has had to process a lot of information: He's gone from being a troubled Bakersfield reform-school kid and San Quentin prison number to a guy who has played in the White House, becoming a true musical legend along the way.

He became a hard-hat hero for his anti-hippie "Okie From Muskogee" and a hero to hippie bands like the Grateful Dead for the undeniable humanity of his other songs. He's been an inspiration to a new generation of country artists, and brain-dead country radio stations have even awakened recently to let him back on the charts with the current single "In My Next Life."

*

Haggard didn't perform that song in his first of two shows Monday. Indeed, there was a wealth of his greatest songs he didn't sing. That's one of the problems with short sets, and his wasn't just brief--it was abrupt, ending without warning, or encore, after 13 songs, seemingly in the middle of his minor 1985 hit "Makeup and Faded Blue Jeans."

With the first 10 minutes of the show given over to his band, the Strangers, and ex-wife and singer Bonnie Owens, Haggard was on for only about 45 minutes. Fortunately, he's such a personality--maybe even multiple personalities--that he can get a lot across in such a short span.

Haggard opened strongly with one of his earliest hits, 1965's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," which set the dark fugitive theme that was to run through much of his best work.

Some of those appeared in his show, including "Running Kind," "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" and the chilling "Mama Tried," in which the bad-seed narrator ends up "turning 21 in prison, serving life without parole" despite the best of motherly remonstrations. He has sung the song better, but there is still no one in country music who could come close to singing it as convincingly as Haggard always does.

He was no less compelling voicing the tender regrets of the Lefty Frizzell ballad "That's the Way Love Goes."

His eight-piece Strangers have been getting stranger with time, with only bandleader/pedal-steel wizard Norm Hamlet remaining from Haggard's classic lineup.

Yet even with some personnel changes since his appearance last summer at the Orange County Fair, their playing was tight and empathetic. Haggard's music is still a miraculous melding of hard-driving Bakersfield sound and the nimble, jazz-inflected Western swing music of Bob Wills.

Along with Hamlet, Haggard has some fine players, notably guitarist Clint Strong, who, despite a mellow tone on his Tele, burned through every solo he touched.

Though Haggard's own guitar soloing couldn't touch Strong on technique, it more than made up for it in personality. Curiously, it recalled Bob Dylan's newfound love for soloing: Both he and Haggard play as if they couldn't give a hang for musical theory or the standard riffs of the trade, instead using their instruments as voices as distinctive, expressive and idiosyncratic as their own.

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