Last Night: Merle Haggard At Mo's Place

Merle Haggard Mo's Place November 7, 2010

Next month, President Obama will look on while Willie Nelson inducts Merle Haggard into the Kennedy Center ring of honor, our nation's artistic equivalent of a Purple Heart. A glance at the Hag's tour calendar could offer a small clue why.

Haggard plays palatial performing-arts palaces and falling-apart municipal auditoriums, and any county fair or casino that can meet his asking price. The Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas and DC's Country Junction in Lowell, Ind., the Dodge City Civic Center and the Mother Church of Country Music, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Back in February, Haggard and Kris Kristofferson played Verizon Wireless Theater.

He is equally at home, and at peace, in every one. Although perhaps a little disoriented. "I'm not exactly sure where we're at," he told the beyond-packed audience at Katy shopping-center honky-tonk Mo's Place Sunday night. "But we're having fun, and we're glad to be here."

As someone who has written expertly and indelibly about ex-cons forever on the run and the blanket of hard times that descends like a fog once every generation or so, Haggard doesn't get much credit for his humor. Maybe that's why it stood out.

When he said "I'd like to introduce the Strangers," his longtime backing band - including youngest son Ben, a real mother of a guitarist, and wife Teresa, June to his Johnny on the set-closing "Jackson" - promptly began shaking hands and greeting one another.

He stopped one of the most somber songs he's ever written, "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)," to amend the line "... and a joint was a bad place to be" to "...and a joint was a nice place to be." Willie Nelson's not inducting him for nothing, you know.

The other thing we noticed, in our fourth or fifth appointment with the Hag, is that he's kind of a hustler. Universally revered and endlessly imitated as the epitome of bare-bones barroom honky-tonk - something he set up and knocked down sure as a shot glass Sunday with "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" - Haggard is a swing kid at heart.

Western swing and Sinatra swing. He and the Strangers jumped, jived and wailed all over "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," Skynyrd reclamation project "Honky-Tonk Nighttime Man" and the Hag's last country No. 1 from all the way back in 1987, "Twinkle Twinkle, Lucky Star."

Ben, born 1993 (the year Aftermath graduated high school), is already a class-A guitarist. His silver-haired neighbor on steel was absolutely peerless... we only wish Haggard had actually introduced the band. He chose to melt our hearts on "Mama Tried," "Silver Wings" and "Sing Me Back Home" instead.

Haggard has earned that purple heart; without looking, we'd guess his heart really is purple. Purple is the color of nobility and nasty bruises; jesters, kings and conjurors alike. Are the good times really over for good? Not as long as Merle Haggard is with us.

From the way he wailed on the "Workin' Man Blues" guitar solo and his frisky fiddle on "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and the set's only new song, "Workin' In Tennessee" - which he wrote after this past spring's severe flooding in Nashville - it felt like he'd be with us for a while yet.

Forever, maybe. And he will be, in some ways. When he's gone, though, we're all going to have a lot of work to do, and it may take a little more than singin' the workin' man's blues to get us through.

Personal Bias: To us, there is no difference between Merle Haggard and Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash or Doug Sahm. Except one rather obvious one.

The Crowd: Cowboy-hatted, boot-clad, multigenerational and goddamn glad to be there. Sang along especially loud to "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and "The Fightin' Side of Me." Mo's namesake owner Mo Jeloudar told Aftermath that having Haggard play his 22-year-old joint - which is a nice place to be, by the way - was "my American dream."

Overheard In the Crowd: Two things:

  • "Bullshit!" - screamed after Haggard stopped "Okie From Muskogee" and sang the opening line, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," for the second time.
  • "If you get close to him, I'm going to put you on the ground" - a sheriff's deputy stationed outside Haggard's tour bus to a guy hoping (in vain, as far as we know) the singer would autograph his copy of Haggard and George Jones' 1982 LP A Taste of Yesterday's Wine. Jones, he told us, had already done so at his Arena Theatre show a few months back, and was "real down to Earth."
  • Random Notebook Dump: Two more things:

    • Kristofferson was there, at least in spirit. One of Ben's older half-brothers, Noel Haggard, sang a convincing version of Kris' "Chase the Feeling" (from 2006's This Old Road), before his dad came out.
    • Our favorite Merle Haggard story ever: Around 1970, backstage somewhere, a musician encountered the Hag smoking a joint: "I thought you said in the song you don't smoke marijuana?"
    • Haggard's reply: "The song said I don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee."

      SET LIST

      Silver Wings Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink Mama Tried Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star Workin' Man Blues The Fugitive Honky-Tonk Nighttime Man Sing Me Back Home Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) Folsom Prison Blues Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down Take Me Back to Tulsa Workin' In Tennessee The Fightin' Side of Me Okie From Muskogee Jackson

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