Country music legend Merle Haggard had to fight the New Mexico winds to bring his old-fashioned honky-tonk beats to a near-capacity crowd at Sandia Casino.
The “Okie from Muskogee” came out to a standing ovation, after a slight delay due to some adjustments the crew had to make to account for the windy conditions.
Haggard, 63, showed no signs of any wear or tear from his years of entertaining on the road. He moved around the stage like a man in his 30s and played with the same enthusiasm I can only imagine he had in his youth.
Even though he was born four decades before I was — even two decades before either of my parents were born — the man still knows how to put on a show.
The band moved through its set like men possessed, sometimes starting another song before the rain of applause from the previous song had even died down.
The veteran performer took the conditions of the show in stride, making jokes and even taking off his hat to block the wind from the microphone a couple of times. As the overhead lights and hanging speaker stacks swayed with the wind, Haggard made light of the weather and of his many trips to New Mexico.
The show reminded me of sitting on the tailgate of my pickup, near the river, when I was in high school, with a breeze blowing across the plains of southern New Mexico where I grew up.
Though Merle was never my favorite singer, his songs are undeniably some of the best ever written. Every tune coming from his electric guitar and the instruments of the eight members of his backup group, the Strangers, had meaning and was obviously not written just for the means of becoming a radio hit.
The Strangers had two electric guitars; a bassist, Fred Powers on an Ovation acoustic; of course, a drummer; keyboard; and tucked back in the back, a slim older man playing the trumpet and saxophone; and no country band would be complete without a steel guitar.
Don Market was the name of the horn man, and he sat back patiently waiting for his turn to blow and, when Haggard would turn to him and ask him to “take it away,” he blew into that sax or trumpet so that everyone in the crowd grew silent and was taken by the tune.
Directly to Haggard’s left stood Red Boggard, a big Canadian guitarist, whose guitar strap barely fit over his shoulders. Boggard could make his electric guitar almost disappear in the flow of the music at times, and, when the time was right, he would captivate the crowd with guitar licks that made my jaw drop.
Haggard himself came out in sunglasses, a floppy hat and beard, with shirt untucked and cowboy boots, just as I imagine he has done for the past 40 years.
Haggard and the Strangers even found time in their packed set for some comic relief.
At one point, Haggard paused between songs and asked for a minute to introduce the Strangers. In turn, the band members turned to one another and pantomimed introductions as if they had never met.
The show lasted a full two hours before Haggard left the stage, blaming his departure on his age — an age that had never shown itself for the first two hours of the show.
From time in prison to time on the road, Haggard is as country as they get, and, at this show, he let the country shine through. This is one of the best shows I have ever seen, and I would recommend that anyone who has the chance see this country music legend, before it’s too late.