GREENWOOD — If ever a man was the living embodiment of his name it is Merle Haggard.
Haggard took the stage Tuesday night (June 26) at the Greenwood Performing Arts Center with poise and elegance that could only be forged by serving a life sentence on the road.
He was met with thunderous applause and kicked off his set with “Silver Wings,” which moved some in the audience to tears. Indeed, this crowd was no stranger to Haggard’s tunes. Throughout the night, the crowd enthusiastically encouraged the band with shouts of “Get it Merle!” With so many hits to choose from, every single song was familiar to the crowd, from “Mama Tried,” to “Are the Good Times Really Over” to “Working Man Blues.”
He also covered a few popular songs, such as “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and then near the end of the show he asked: “Do you all miss Johnny Cash?” and proceeded to treat the crowd to a cover of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Throughout the night, the house lights were periodically raised to encourage audience participation, and they hit their mark every time.
While Haggard was reinforced by a full complement band, at age 75, he took the lead guitar riffs on several songs. He may look long in the tooth, but he can still work those nimble fingers up and down the fret board.
Midway through the show Haggard addressed the crowd: “It’s good to be in Greenwood, Arkansas, tonight. What’s the biggest thing in Greenwood?”
“Merle Haggard!” came the unanimous response.
The show featured three of his children. Noel and Dana Haggard opened up the show with a 30-minute set of vocal performances, and Ben Haggard played guitar throughout the show while Dana continued to sing back-up vocals.
On “Going Where the Lonely Go,” Haggard slowed down the pace of the song and the words: “I’ve got to keep goin’” slowly melted out of his mouth. Given the blistering heat outdoors, the crowd hung on every word as the hesitation in Haggard’s voice made it seem that for a moment he perhaps would not be able to keep going. But then he would find the strength and more words would come, and all were assured that he would indeed keep going and all would be right with the world.
Age was a theme throughout the night. Haggard noted that some members of his band had been with him since he started in 1965.
“Most bands have roadies that follow them; we have a medical crew. We spend more time in the hospital than we do on stage.”
On “Thirty Again” Haggard paraphrased Mark Twain’s quip: Youth, it’s wasted on the young. Youth should be saved for the last/but it’s wasted on the young and fast/but I wish I could go back in time/to a faster time back then/and I wish I could just be thirty again. With his relentless tour schedule and a brand new CD, Working in Tennessee, Haggard gave no indication that he is slowing down.
He has a way of helping us all transcend the aging process. When he closed the night with the 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee” everyone in the crowd left feeling decades younger, full of memories from long ago.