It’s good to see that tonight’s Merle Haggard concert at the Cascade Theatre in Redding is sold out. Haggard is waiving his fee to make the show a benefit for the Northern California Veterans Home. That’s a nice gesture by our famous Palo Cedro neighbor.
As I’ve covered the arts for more than a decade here in the north state, I’ve found it’s an interesting relationship we have with Merle. A lot of people who’ve lived here awhile will tell stories about him — some flattering, some not so flattering, some hilarious, some matter-of-fact.
Most people realize he’s a star, but many don’t have a concept of just how big. Beyond the lifetime Grammy Award, dozens of No. 1 hits and Country Music Hall of Fame stuff, there’s a global understanding in music that this man possesses an amazing songwriting gift. He’s got the respect and admiration of Bob Dylan, and that might be all you have to say.
But he’s also a human being, flawed in many ways like all of us. So when I hear a story that paints him in a negative light, I always think about how celebrity can be a curse and that a prophet will always struggle in his or her hometown.
Nevertheless, beyond Haggard’s genius as a songwriter is his physical voice, which I believe is the best in country music. Beyond that, he’s an excellent musician. Beyond that, he’s got a wicked great band that includes our friends like fiddle player Scott Joss, pianist Doug Colosio, bassist Kevin Williams, and Merle’s teenage son Benny, who is emerging as an excellent guitarist.
In honor of tonight’s show, I’m picking my top five Merle Haggard tunes. (I could probably go top 10 or 25, but we’ll just keep it simple at five. Please feel free to add your own.)
5 – “Irma Jackson.” People know “Okie From Muskogee,” but they don’t often know the same man wrote this lover’s lament about an interracial relationship.
4 – “Footlights.” A fabulous tune revealing the other side of being a performer — “Tonight will kick the footlights in again/Try to hide the mood we’re really in/Might not put on that ol’ instamatic grin.”
3 – “Big City.” Those first two fiddle notes just send me in this coolest of shuffle songs. “Turn me loose, set me free,” indeed.
2 – “Mama Tried.” Merle jumped a lot of freight trains in his youth. Then he wrote an amazing song about the impulse to do such a thing.
1 – “Sing Me Back Home.” Johnny Cash encouraged Haggard to not shy away from his prison past. I view this simple portrait of a death row inmate’s final walk as one of the greatest, most beautiful songs of all time.