August 1, 2011
Alexandria, VA USA
Review by Craig Hunter Ross
Photos by Craig Hunter Ross
On the other side of the Potomac River, just outside the nation's capital, resides one of the nation's most famous music halls - The Birchmere. Located in Alexandria, Virginia this 500-seat theater offers music fans an intimate dinner setting to enjoy their favorite artists. With tables positioned all the way up to the stage, the cozy confines of this venue has made it a mandatory stop for jazz, folk, country, bluegrass and other entertainers over the years. This particular evening, however, was especially important. The last of country music's truly great troubadours, Merle Haggard, was making a rare appearance.
The atmosphere in and around The Birchmere was electrifying. The tables were packed full of people in a festive mood. Amidst the sound of clanging dishes and glasses was a constant ringing of laughter. You could sense the anticipation in the crowd as people eagerly enjoyed their meals and placed last pre-show drink orders. Without warning, Merle's band, the Strangers, entered the stage. Led by fiddler / guitar player Scott Joss, he announced the group's appearance as "15 minutes to kill before the boss man comes out." The Strangers warm-up not only set the stage for their employer's appearance, it was also a preview of the sharp musical and improvisational skills these musicians would showcase throughout the evening.
Merle Haggard is a national treasure. A 2010 Kennedy Center Honor recipient, he's been hailed as the single most influential singer / songwriter in country music history. The author of 38 number one hits in his extraordinary career, it was almost apropos that this legendary performer was playing in the shadow of George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. When the Strangers finished their warm-up, they withdrew. Moments later, they would return and begin playing the classic, "Swinging Door." As the house lights went down and the crowd rose to its feet, an entrance at the side of the theater opened. A fedora wearing silhouette entered through the portal and slowly made its way up the long ramp leading to the stage. The audience cheered with delight.
Haggard nodded to those in attendance, strapped on his guitar and proceeded to join the band. The opening number would be the first of many sing-a-longs this evening. The classic "Silver Wings" followed. However, it was another Merle standard, "Big City," that had the crowd pumping up the volume to a point their voices almost drowned out the music.
The hits kept coming with "I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink" and "They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down". The interaction between Haggard and his band was seamless. The ‘Boss Man' only had to look and nod, at any one of his musicians, to get a precision solo from them. The Strangers occupied the entire stage, with a roster featuring piano, bass, sax, two backing vocalists (one of which is Haggard's wife Theresa Ann Lane), pedal steel, drums, fiddle and rhythm guitar, as well as Merle's youngest son Ben on lead guitar. The 74-year old performer even acknowledged his teleprompter operator (whom Haggard said he'd be "lost without"). His comments brought forth not only laughter from the crowd, but a few political cat calls as well. When someone shouted out "Merle for President" thunderous cheers erupted. Haggard, ever the gentleman, replied "Now, now, Obama's a good guy" causing a harsh murmur throughout the crowd. Haggard smiled then said, "He's just in the wrong job". Once again, cheers erupted and the audience belonged to this country music legend.
A young lady in the front row yelled out "Mama Tried". Haggard let her know that would be coming later in the show, but she continued to insist she wanted to hear it now. After a bit of light- hearted back and forth with the persistent fan, a slight nod to the band granted the audience request.
The Johnny Cash classic "Folsom Prison Blues," and the gentle pedal steel of "That's the Way Love Goes," culminated in a freight train paced blending of "Honky-Tonk Night Time Man" and "Old Man from the Mountain". Following the medley, Haggard quipped, "I'm getting too old for some of these. I wrote them in my 20's, and now that I'm in my 40's, it ain't as easy". This was just another example of the many one-liners and jabs Merle would exchange with the audience. Citing a recent heart scare, he also commented, "If you knew what it took to play some of these, you wouldn't holler out for 'em". Again, the crowd responded with huge laughs and applause.
Vintage tunes like "If We Make it Through December", "Rainbow Stew" and a bit of a history lesson contained within "Are the Good Times Really Over," kept hands clapping and toes tapping throughout. Haggard took up his fiddle for the first time of the evening and introduced a new number from his upcoming record to be released in October. The song, "Working in Tennessee," contained a fantastic fiddle duel with Joss. With a dedication to his Oklahoma congressman across the river, the band provided a cover of the 1940's western swing standard "Take Me Back to Tulsa".
"The Way I Am", "The Bottle Let Me Down", and "I Wish I Could Be Thirty Again" took everyone into the home stretch of the set. The crowd that had been so raucous all night fell totally silent as Haggard sang the first two verses of the powerful (and obviously personal) "Momma's Prayers". The song chronicled the near tragedies that had been averted, and moments of divine intervention that had occurred, throughout the songwriter's often troubled and storied life.
Haggard's most infamous song "Okie from Muskogee," brought the crowd back to life as they cheered after each line was sung. An encore of "The Fightin' Side of Me" was dedicated to all members of the armed forces. As the song ended, Merle uttered a simple ‘good night y'all' and turned. As an appreciative crowd gave their hero a long and extended standing ovation, the band played on. A fedora wearing silhouette slowly made its way from the stage, down the long ramp, and exited the door.
* Donald Gehl contributed to this review