Merle Haggard at Stafford Centre, 4/1/2014

Merle Haggard Stafford Centre April 1, 2014

Bet you 20 bucks that Keith Richards really digs Merle Haggard. He is one cool cat.

The Hag doesn't say much onstage at first, and barely moves apart from gesturing to one band member or another when it's time for a solo. His low-key style has been both profoundly influential -- witness the star-stuffed new Workingman's Poet tribute album, not to mention the big Hag salute scheduled for this Sunday's ACM awards -- and almost completely ignored, at least when it comes to what makes a country-music "star" these days.

For the Hag, who also happens to turn 77 years old on Sunday, that means a precision-tuned road band that still plays hundreds of gigs a year and songwriting as simple and intricate as a Swiss watch. Tuesday night at Stafford Centre, he and longtime band the Strangers played 20 songs to a rowdy but respectful crowed that loudly acknowledged almost every instrumental solo, and was otherwise unshy about expressing general approval. It was that show where people around you sang along softly and "woo-hoo"-ed liberally instead of talking to their friends. Imagine that.

Haggard and the Strangers didn't give anyone much time for chatter, though, cranking out 20 songs in scarcely 90 minutes. Like a jazz gig, it was a good show to enjoy the pure pleasure of skilled musicians practicing their craft onstage, and these guys were pros: bandleader Norman Hamlet on steel guitar and dobro; guitarist/fiddler Scott Joss, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Jim Christie, all of whom played with Dwight Yoakam for years; and in the big black Stetson, Floyd Domino, longtime veteran of Asleep at the Wheel and arguably the greatest Western swing pianist alive.

Tenor sax man Renato Caranto elevated "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star" and "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" early on, and Haggard's lead-guitarist son Ben Haggard (all of 21 years old) brought real bite to those indelible Bakersfield licks of "Mama Tried," "Workin' Man Blues" and "That's the Way Love Goes," among others. His wife Teresa doubles as background singer.

With all that talent behind him, half the fun is just hearing the different combinations of solos and instrumental breaks in each song, and the other half is watching Haggard just ease back and tell his stories. Clad in a fedora and shades, he makes a perfect narrator. The gorgeous imagery of "Kern River" is offset by the tragedy of the story -- it ought to be the California state song, were it not so damn depressing -- and "Footlights" is about as tragic a tale as you'll find in country-music history -- a middle-aged singer of some renown has nothing else going on in his life, so he delights in the cheap thrill of wrecking the stage equipment.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray