The Austin Chronicle

Live Shots

Reviewed by Christopher Gray, September 17, 1999, Music

Merle Haggard & the Strangers

Stubb's, September 10

To borrow from his Cali compadres in the Kottonmouth Kings (also the Geto Boys), Merle Haggard sure lets his nuts hang. You know the songs, you know the man. Like U2 said on Zoo TV, it's very simple. Simple as the lolling, understated "Silver Wings" that opened Hag's Stubb's appointment Friday. Doctor's appointments had sidelined this son of the San Joaquin with pneumonia until recently, but his dressing room could be on fire and he'd still play the gig. And he did look tired, but the peerless, eight-piece Strangers had his back from "Big City" on. "Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink" featured a salty guitar pull between Merle, Freddy Powers, and Red Justin Bogart instead of the usual sax solo from Don Parker; that came next on "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" along with some gut-level fiddle/steel interplay from Abraham Manuel and Norman Hamblin that is honky-tonk's Magna Carta. "Tulare Dust/Mama Tried" made a wistful pairing. Powers saluted Hag with "Silver Eagle," and Merle in turn honored both Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers on "Time Changes Everything" (except him) and "TB Blues" (talk about close to home). Former Mrs. Haggard Bonnie Owens stepped out front for a riveting "Faded Love" and a sassy number she "wrote for the guys in the band, because I feel sorry for 'em." "Take Me Back to Tulsa" found Merle fiddling away and the salient couplet "poor man picks the cotton/rich man takes the money." A jump-bluesy "If You Can Spare the Time" prefaced a populist home stretch of "Are the Good Times Really Over" (last line: "the good times ain't over for good," and at 30 bucks a ticket, they sure ain't) and a "Workin' Man Blues" with enough grit for even George W. Bush's fingernails, plus a fine coda of Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late With Your Kisses." Then it was time for the sendoff: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee ..." And the straw-hatted KASE kickers, doob-tokin' hippies, and Dickies-sportin' punks raised their several hundred voices in unison -- Texans hollering they were proud Okies louder than if Major Applewhite just hit Kwame Cavil in the end zone to beat A&M. Pulling that off takes cojones bigger than the King Ranch. Hag may feel like he's "rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell" sometimes -- and who doesn't -- but he's more than earned his silver-winged honky-tonk halo.

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