by HILMER WEYLER – For The Outpost
Merle Haggard and his band The Strangers were in Billings Thursday night at The Alberta Bair Theater. My interest is to document the man and the show in Billings.
I don’t know everything about Merle Haggard. I just think everyone should know about his night in Billings.
Early in January, his show was announced and tickets went on sale Jan. 10. I got in line at the Alberta Bair early and barely got floor-level tickets. All were sold out in a couple of hours. This repeated what happened two years ago.
Merle has broad appeal. Professionals, laborers, rich, poor, musical and the tone-deaf flock to see his shows. This appeal is (I think) because so many relate to his life as expressed in his music. He has experienced so much that anything he sings sounds authentic. And the band is so technically good and his very unusual voice make it all great.
His sedentary guitar player, Tim Howard, rose to open the show. Then the Milpas Brothers performed some classic country, ending with a touch of Elvis. The Cajun, Joe Emanuel, sang traditional Cajun pieces.
Merle’s son Noel played and sang, introducing Merle’s youngest son, Ben. Anyone of these performers could front his own band. They were even better in support of Merle.
When Merle started singing it was a performance to keep a smile on your face. This show was highlighted by an animated Merle. Responding to crowd appeals for him to play their favorites, he “declined” explaining the show was perfectly timed to the “second” – then he proceeded to satisfy requests.
About the standard “Okie From Muskogee,” he said, “I wrote it for my dad.” Back then, when asked why, he said “because it had to be written and I was the only one that knew the words.”
“Okie” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” are universal favorites, and he sang both. The obvious favorite in Billings is “Big City,” and it was the highlight.
My favorites in the show were “If I Had Left It Up to You,” “I Started Loving You Again,” “White Line Fever” and “Ramblin’ Fever.” He even traded his guitar for his fiddle for an entertaining set. It was a show nobody was ready to have end.
His voice is strong in quality and emotion. His family’s experiences from the poor farm in Oklahoma, a boxcar home in Oildale, Calif., to our own Billings, Montana, are brilliantly reflected in the music.
Two years ago he told the Gazette’s Jaci Webb, “I keep going to provide for my exes.” This year he said, “It’s my luxurious lifestyle.” Seriously quoted, he has said, “My music is where I live.”
It will be almost impossible to find his caliber of success elsewhere. He sells out his dates, continues to write and perform topical music, and his band includes two of his sons, his wife, Theresa, and musicians who have been with him for up to four or five decades. They know each other intuitively, yet he still makes mid-performance adjustments if he hears something just a little off.
Two years ago one excited woman threw her bra onto the stage. Without missing a beat, Merle said, “We don’t travel with groupies anymore, Ma’am. We travel with nurses.”
Merle’s website relates that he recently, in fact, had lung cancer surgery but that he is doing well, getting stronger every day. He surely was strong last Thursday in Billings, and was made even stronger by the obvious appreciation of the audience.
To me, his title, “Hag,” means he is our music treasure and real-life example, no matter what path we are on.