By TRAVIS COLEMAN • Tribune Staff Writer • February 14, 2009
“Haggard” meant more than just the last name of a country singer for concertgoers Friday night — it stood for honesty, toughness and the essence of a lonesome fugitive.
But legend was the most commonly used way to describe Merle Haggard, the original bad boy of country music, who played his string of hits to a sellout crowd of more than 1,700 people Friday night at the Mansfield Theater in Great Falls.
Attendees showed up to hear Haggard standards such as “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Working Man Blues,” from a voice Rolling Stone Magazine recently named as one the 100 best of the modern era.
“He’s one of the best singers left,” said attendee Bobbie Mital.
Haggard, 71, is widely recognized as one of the most important country artists to emerge from the 1960s. Attendee Rick Thomas should know — he has watched Haggard since he first blossomed into a star.
Thomas grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., when Haggard was molding the honky-tonk sound that rebelled against the slick and polished music coming out of Nashville, Tenn. Thomas remembers hearing Haggard play in a local cafe on countless occasions.”He’s a part of America — at least what it used to be,” said Thomas, who attended the show with his wife, Dee.
“He’s just part of the good ol’ country music,” Dee Thomas said. “It may be the last time we see him.”
Haggard was appearing on stage about three months after having surgery to remove lung cancer in November. The Country Music Hall of Famer has tour dates scheduled through July, and will next appear in Butte today.
Bret Kuntz and his wife, Rose, drove from Harlem for the show. Bret Kuntz said he admires Haggard’s authenticity.
But of all Haggard’s fans in the house Friday night, Misty Denny was unquestionably the biggest. The Rocky Boy native has been to seven Haggard concerts since 1998 — all in a pursuit to sing with the country legend on-stage.
The would-be country singer’s strategy to landing a duet was to display her giant poster reading: “Let me sing with you Merle” from her front-row seat.
“I love the guy. He’s the poet of the common man,” said Denny, 31. “He’s got a song for every man.”
Like many in the audience, Denny grew up on Haggard’s music. Haggard’s tune “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” was her bedtime lullaby, she said.
“I was in the womb listening to it,” Denny said.