DALLAS — Few would call any of Nashville’s legends — George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson — spry, but that doesn’t mean they lack fire.
One such icon, Merle Haggard, temporarily brought low by lung cancer late last year, moved deliberately Thursday night as he took the stage at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. But once the standing ovation subsided, the 71-year-old Haggard launched into Big City, his voice weathered but strong.
That theme — triumph over adversity — ran through the night as Haggard, backed by a stout 10-piece band, delivered a tenacious, occasionally touching, set showcasing, if nothing else, that they really don’t make ’em like they used to in Music City.
A high point was his tough, almost melancholy take on Are the Good Times Really Over: “Are we rolling downhill/Like a snowball headed for hell?” Haggard intoned, reaching back to the chaos of the ’60s even as he acknowledged the turmoil of now.
Hag’s note-perfect cover of Johnny Cash’s timeless Folsom Prison Blues fit snugly against his tender reading of If We Make It Through December. The songs, like bookends to his eventful life, felt simultaneously reflective and defiant.
As with other country music performances at the austere Meyerson, the mood wavered between down-home warmth from the audience and awkward, attentive silence. While the Meyerson is an acoustically ideal venue, it’s hard to have a party in there.
Haggard’s son, Noel, who makes his home in Fort Worth, delivered a solid opening set, complete with impressive takes on Cash and Conway Twitty standards. When so many country hopefuls are leaning on pop flash and glossy style to sell their music, artists like Noel Haggard remind you that even if it’s not apparent on the surface, the heart of Nashville’s glory days continues beating.