Classic country came to town Tuesday when Merle Haggard and his band, the Strangers, entertained a big crowd at the Baton Rouge River Center Theater.
In the realm of country music, at this point in music history, the show was among the most authentic audiences are likely to see.
With his show’s attendance reaching 1,536, Haggard, a 1994 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and 2010 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, sold nearly twice as many tickets as folk-music legend Joan Baez did at the same venue almost exactly one year ago. His audience, too, must be among the loudest and most appreciative crowds to ever occupy a local concert venue.
Haggard made his entrance as the Strangers played a western swing version of his most famous song, “Okie From Muskogee.” The 74-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter acknowledged the sustained greeting with graceful tips of his hat.
Because he has 40 No. 1 hits to his credit and many more essential songs as well, Haggard has a vast catalog from which to choose a set list. He and his 10-person group, including fiddle, steel guitar and two female backup singers, played faithful, spirited renditions of Haggard classics plus some lesser-known material.
During performances of his better-known songs, applause greeted the beginning of the songs, choruses and favorite lines within the songs.
Haggard applied his signature laid-back vocals to the lively, steel guitar-laced “I Had A Beautiful Time.” When he did the same for “If We Make It Through December,” a snapshot of a young family suffering through cold and hungry times, his understated delivery made the scene-setting lyrics all the more poignant.
Haggard and his band shifted gears for the classic honky-tonk gait of “Big City,” a song that blends a lively beat with melancholy lyrics. Listeners can tap their toes even as tears fall in their beer.
“Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana,” Haggard sang as the steel guitar cried.
Haggard and company showed their versatility with another hit, “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.” The song expertly re-creates the heartfelt atmosphere of a ‘50s ballad, including piano triplets and a sax solo.
Haggard dedicated “Sing Me Back Home,” one of his prison songs, to any ex-convicts who might be in the house. Of course, he’s an ex-con himself. “Mama Tried,” another prison song, also made Tuesday’s set list.
The show’s tempo increased when Haggard picked up his fiddle to play the western swing of “Working In Tennessee.” And after he performed a western-swing rendition of the country-blues standard “Corrine, Corrina,” the fiddling singer proudly told his audience, “It’s called country music.”
Rather than tease people into demanding an encore, Haggard made his biggest hit, “Okie From Muskogee,” the next-to-last song in the show. Following one more Vietnam War-era hit, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Haggard said farewell to the accompaniment of another massive wave of appreciation.