Merle Haggard Stafford Centre March 21, 2013
Thursday night at the Stafford Centre, I watched Merle Haggard play some of the greatest songs from arguably country music's greatest period while sitting next to Dr. Frank Mann, a retired veterinarian from Wharton .
The elderly country pet doctor told me stories about his life, from getting a C in military science while a cadet at Texas A&M, barely missing the Korean War that took some of his friends back to Jesus, to being the preeminent vet in his town, looking after 10,000 patients of all shapes and species at one point.
Mann was watching the show aisles away from his son and his friends because of a recent stroke that made his mobility limited. Mann's wife, a former schoolteacher, is sitting in a hospital at the moment fighting an illness.
"We've been married 56 years, but I started dating her ten years before that. I deserve a medal," said Mann, as Noel Haggard, Merle's oldest boy, ended his opening set for his father.
While we all waited for the elder Haggard to hit the stage, Mann pointed out his friends in the crowd: his pharmacist, his surgeon, and his friend that was a former bull rider, who married into money and became the biggest hay merchant in Texas, according to Mann.
Haggard and his son Noel share a band, the Strangers, a sturdy country group that features Merle's younger son Ben on lead guitar -- handling the heavy lifting -- and his wife Theresa on backing vocals.
The legendary Haggard, who will turn 76 on April 6, is part comedian and all troubadour onstage, championing his one remaining lung and praising pneumonia for giving him a great singing voice.
Opening with the classic-country two-fer "Big City" and "Silver Wings," Haggard had the crowd in his hands. The cheers came easily, and the whoops and hollerin' from the balcony were non-stop. Some people screamed entire sentences with requests. The bemused Haggard rolled on.
"I don't drink anymore. Or any less," he joked before "The Bottle Let Me Down," which made Dr. Mann cheer the most. The ones about hard drinking made him happy the most.
Sadly, the concession stand stopped selling beer and wine halfway through the gig. I am sure a younger crowd would have decimated the whiskey stock.
Haggard recited Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," during the show's victory lap. Those up on their Hagg-story will know that the former San Quentin State inmate saw Cash live at the prison on January 1, 1958, a moment that kicked his ass into taking on his music career whole-hog. Moments like this won't be around for public viewing much longer.
He relayed the old story about being asked why he wrote the anti-hippie anthem "Okie from Muskogee," he replied "I wrote it because I was the only one who knew the words." Most people know that Haggard wrote it as half-satire, and half-tribute to his military fans, but the crowd at the Stafford Centre appropriately ate it up as gospel.
At the end of the show, after the lights went up and fans herding out of the main hall, Dr. Mann sat in place, waiting for his wheelchair. I asked him if he wanted me to snag it for him.
"Nah, I am enjoying the scenery, but thank you," he replied.
Personal Bias: It's Merle Haggard.
The Crowd: Mr. Haggard's song "I Wish I Was 30 Again" was God's honest truth, but for me the milestone is just a month away. Many people in the crowd were double that age. I don't think I will be complaining about the 3-0 in a few weeks.
Overseen In the Crowd: Older country fans have seen shows and artists that I would commit serious crimes to have seen live and in person. I wish I could download their brains for their musical memories.
Random Notebook Dump: Stafford Centre should be your go-to place to see your favorite surviving country legends if you get the chance. The stage doesn't revolve, the sound and seating are quality, and parking is free unless you're a fancy-ass valet person. It only took me 20 minutes to get there from Montrose.
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Big City Silver Wings Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink Mama Tried If I Could Only Fly The Bottle Let Me Down Pancho and Lefty Today I Started Loving You Again The Fightin' Side of Me Footlights I Wish I Was 30 Again Workin' Man Blues My Favorite Memory Runaway Mama Folsom Prison Blues Workin' In Tennessee Okie from Muskogee