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Haggard Gives Club's Setting Thumbs Up

March 13, 2000|RANDY LEWIS

After making a living playing country music for more than 40 years, Merle Haggard has been through the swinging doors of as many honky-tonks as probably anyone alive.

So his thumbs-up to the Crazy Horse Steak House's new site in Irvine should cause of sigh of relief for Southland country music fans, as well as club owners Jay Nuccio and Brad "Paco" Miller Jr., who acknowledged the giant gamble they were taking in tinkering with one of the most honored institutions in modern country music.

"If last night's show is any indication, it's gonna be excellent," Haggard, 62, said shortly before his second night's performance in the new facility on Thursday. "It's got a sort of intimate feel. . . . It don't feel that much bigger than the old place."

Haggard should know, because he played the old Crazy Horse in Santa Ana almost annually after it opened in 1979 and was one of the first really big names in country music to play there. His first stop at the club in 1982 was a big step toward putting it on the map.

"It has the opportunity to be one of those good places, as opposed to the bad places, where you go in and you can hear a pin drop," he said. "It has a nice, warm feeling."

Nice and warm, however, is not how Haggard feels about much of the music coming out of Nashville these days--and not simply because the industry's emphasis on young, photogenic performers has bumped veterans like himself out of the spotlight.

"I'm not bad mouthing any of the young kids--they deserve to have their time," said Haggard, relaxing on a sofa in a backstage room lined with photos of Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Tammy Wynette, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and dozens of other country greats who stopped at the Crazy Horse during its 20 years in Santa Ana.

"But I'm just being honest when I say I think we're being force-fed a certain part of it," he said. "Country music seems to be more about looking good than sounding good; it's more about bellybuttons than being in tune.'

"I heard somebody call a radio station the other day and ask, 'Why don't you guys ever play anything by the Hall of Famers, people with some credibility?' And the deejay said, 'Who the Hall of Famers and people with credibility are is really a matter of opinion.' So that's the mentality we're dealing with.

"I'm hoping something like Elvis will come along again, something really unique, something different," Haggard said. "When was the last time you heard anything that was really different?"

Something different for Haggard, widely acknowledged as country's greatest living songwriter and who has recorded with virtually every country musician of any significance, might involve rock's greatest living songwriter.

"Man, I would love to do something with Dylan," Haggard said, upon learning that Bob Dylan, who has long professed his admiration for Haggard's music, was rehearsing that night in Anaheim (See review in Calendar, F1).

"He and I have never done anything together," Haggard said. "But he's a great writer. I'd like to record some of his music one day."

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