At 77 years of age and after five decades in the business, one might forgive Merle Haggard if he were to phone it in Tuesday night. Instead, one of music’s living legends jammed through a 19-song set laden with classic country hits in front of his long-time band The Strangers, peppering the performance with endearing quips and self-deprecating humor that left the sell-out crowd in the palm of his hand.
Opening song » Haggard meandered on stage in a gray jacket and black hat on the arm of his wife Theresa to the chords of "Okie from Muskogee," foreshadowing the best-known hit that was bound to come. But Haggard strapped on his guitar and donned a pair of dark sunglasses to open his set with "Turn me Loose, Set Me Free."
Highlight » With the solid musical backing and so many hits to choose from, it’s hard to peg one shining performance, but three songs in, Haggard & Co. jumped into "Folsom Prison Blues," — a song Haggard heard Johnny Cash play when Haggard was doing time in San Quentin — and "Mama Tried." Both songs brought many in the crowd to their feet, clapping along and setting the tone for the rest of the night. Haggard also performed solid versions of "If We Make It Through December," "Heaven Is a Drink of Wine" and a rendition of "Kicking Out The Footlights," which he recorded with the late George Jones that would have made The Possum proud.
Crowd Favorite » A lively rendition of the classic "Pancho and Lefty" was a nice touch, but after Haggard finished the night with "Okie From Muskogee," everyone was on their feet applauding. Even better, Haggard introduced the tune as being "about marijuana" and stopped after the first verse — "We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee — urging the crowd to whoop a little louder after the line. "I realize they’ve legalized it most places, but it’s still not legal here," Haggard said. "Act like it’s still illegal one more time."
Best quotes » "We’re the only band that carries nurses rather than roadies," Haggard joked, after introducing Norman Hamlet, who has played steel guitar for The Strangers since 1965 and was dynamite Tuesday night. Haggard welcomed the crowd saying it’s good to be back in Salt Lake. "The poverty level is real low here and the streets are real wide."
In the crowd » As might be expected, the crowd skewed heavily to the middle-aged, with the occasional hipsters sprinkled in for good measure. For whatever reason, the audience couldn’t get enough photos of the gray-bearded Haggard on stage and unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to turn off the flashes on their cameras. Then there was the idiot in the balcony who would scream like a gorilla every time Haggard said the word "drink," or really just about any word. Otherwise, the audience was appreciative, even adoring, if mildly sedate.
Low note » It took Haggard three tries to get through the third line of "Are The Good Times Really Over." "I forgot my words," he announced, grinning, but recovered nicely: "I wrote this song at sea level," he joked.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.