Stellar performances aren’t usually met with thunderous applause until they come to a close, but country artist Merle Haggard is such a badass that the entire audience greeted him with a standing ovation the moment he stepped onto the Saban Theatre’s stage last night. This was just one of many times the Hag brought the crowd to its feet throughout an evening filled with several of his No. 1 hits (He has had 38 of them, by the way.), including set opener “Big City,” his very first hit from 1966, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and his latest, “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.” Fans couldn’t control themselves, spontaneously hooting and hollering in between the lines of “Silver Wings,” singing along to “Mama Tried” or breaking out into a mini dance party at the foot of the stage during “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
One might think that the gorgeous Art Deco theater in Beverly Hills would be an odd fit for a raucous Merle Haggard show, but Angelenos of every ilk – from flannel-swathed hipsters and wheelchair-bound cowboys to dedicated Hag Fans proudly donning past tour shirts and even comedian George Lopez – turned up in droves to support the California native and make him feel right at home. Born in Oildale, Calif., Haggard had a troubled youth but eventually helped to create the Bakersfield sound and played with his band, the Strangers, in barrooms and honky-tonks up and down the coast. “I started in Oceanside, and here I am in Beverly Hills,” he remarked while telling the story of how he sent a guitar down to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville after being inducted in 1994 and it being lost during a flood in 2010. He penned a song about the instrument’s loss, “Working in Tennessee,” appearing on his most recent album of the same name from 2011. Despite the song’s title, Haggard stressed that he still lives in California and he is “not a Nashville boy.”
Whenever Haggard spoke in between numbers, he brought forth smiles and laughter. “Most of these songs were written in my twenties, and here I am in my forties trying to pass muster,” the 76-year-old joked during the introduction to “Rainbow Stew.” Before breaking into a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty,” which served as the title for Haggard’s 1983 duet album with Willie Nelson, he exclaimed, “We recorded this song during the last millennium, before the turn of the century.” He even poked fun at some audience members: “This next number’s about age. I saw some of you limping in, you limpers. I used to go for older women… and I don’t need to tell the rest of that joke,” he chuckled before “Footlights.”
In addition to the laughs, there were also incredibly touching moments during the show. The crowd held its breath to catch every nuance of Haggard’s beautiful delivery of “If I Could Only Fly.” You could see Haggard’s pride while introducing the members of the Strangers (who jokingly stood up and shook hands with each other, as if they were actual strangers), especially pedal steel player Norman Hamlet who has been a part of the band since 1965, his wife Theresa on background vocals and his youngest song, Ben, on lead guitar.
It was a thrill to see Haggard pick up his fiddle and break into the lively “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and while he performed popular songs like “Sing Me Back Home” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” there was one favorite that people in the crowd kept calling out for throughout the set. Haggard finally complied with his most famous tune, “Okie from Muskogee,” which he wrote for his father who moved to California from Oklahoma during the Depression. Haggard said that the song is also about marijuana, to much of the crowd’s delight, recalling that the first time he ever heard the word on the news was when Robert Mitchum was arrested for possession in 1948. Haggard smiled as audience members rushed into the aisles to dance and sing along to every word of the song, bringing the evening to a lively end.