Concert Review: Merle Haggard at the Birchmere

Juli Thanki | August 2nd, 2011

Merle Haggard is at an age when most of his contemporaries are enjoying retirement. At 74, the grizzled singer may have lost some hair, but he hasn’t lost his country chops, as he proved Monday night in front of a worshipful crowd that included everyone from little girls in tutus and cowboy boots to guys who looked like they stepped off the Sons of Anarchy set. Though Haggard was on stage for barely more than an hour, he hit most of his biggest hits, plus a few lesser known gems.

His set was well honed, right down to the point where he interrupted himself midsong and amended the lyrics of “Are the Good Times Really Over:” nearly 30 years after the song was released, Hag’s realized a joint was “a nice place to be.” Haggard took a few requests, but when an audience member requested “Mama Tried” ten minutes into the show, Haggard replied “I don’t want to blow my wad in the beginning.” He played it any way, and later obliged a kid’s request for “Rainbow Stew.” He occasionally referred to the teleprompter operated by one of his sons, joking about the wordiness of his music: “[These are] songs I wrote in my 20s,” he deadpanned. “And here I am in my 40s…”

Haggard’s backing band, The Strangers, were sharp, especially teenage lead guitarist Ben Haggard, who tore up the stage with his sparkly silver Telecaster. At 74, his dad is no slouch either, flawlessly delivering guitar licks and playing a mean fiddle on “Working in Tennessee” and Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (from one of country’s best tribute records). Closing songs “Okie from Muskogee” and companion song “The Fightin’ Side of Me” were met with raucous applause as well as a few differing audience opinions about the current state of the federal government.

Despite the short set and high ticket prices—the evening averaged out at about a dollar per minute—it was a fantastic night of music with one of country’s finest songwriters and performers, who, for an all-too-brief time, brought a taste of Bakersfield to the Beltway.

SET LIST

Swinging Doors

Silver Wings

Big City

I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink

They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down

Mama Tried

Folsom Prison Blues

That’s the Way Love Goes

Honky Tonk Night Time Man

Old Man from the Mountain

If We Make It Through December

Rainbow Stew

Are the Good Times Really Over

Working in Tennessee

Take Me Back to Tulsa

The Way I Am

The Bottle Let Me Down

Thirty Again

Momma’s Prayers

Okie from Muskogee

The Fightin’ Side of Me

  1. Ben Foster
    August 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Rub it in, Juli. Rub it in ;)

  2. Karlie
    August 2, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Ah, a Merle Haggard show – more like church than a concert.

    It’s interesting, I’ve been to two very different types of Hag shows: One where he didn’t say a word and flew through hit song after hit song, and then his shared bill with Kris where he was very talkative and very funny. (Not to mention the one he opened for Dylan…) Not sure which I enjoyed more.

  3. Patrick
    August 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Your website is a JEWEL! Best to all!

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