Merle Haggard 1999

Merle Haggard: The Right Crowd

May 4, 1999

It wasn’t my most memorable Merle Haggard concert. That honor goes to the one in the late 60’s where I heard him debut “Okie From Muskogee” to a crowd of 2000 well-groomed white people, and having the only shoulder-length hair in view, felt it prudent to leave before the next song began.

But Monday night at Tramps was certainly my best Merle Haggard concert. The last time I saw him at Tramps, Merle appeared to be applying the ennui of Dean Martin to the subject matter of Woody Guthrie, and the Strangers subsequently sounded, well, as strange as the crowd, a mismatched mix of defensive country boys and edgy hipsters. This time Hag himself was in fine form, tearing into a punched-up classic set. His voice was as controlled, expressive, and varied as his songs, and the Strangers were so tight and full of swing you wished they could jam all night.

Credit must also go to the crowd, who greeted Bonnie Owens and then Merle with a roar that never let up, even during selections from the three pillars of Haggard tradition — Jimmy Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, and Bob Wills. Yes, the guys in big cowboy hats were there, mixed with Big Apple media middle managers. But this time around they were both out-numbered by lots of good-timin’, honky-tonkin’ twenty-somethings with no obvious identity projection needs (including groups of dancing women friends out for a night on the town). And so we all grooved to the music of a great American and –shades of Pete Seeger — even did a hootenany style singalong to “Okie From Muskogee.” Clearly, a corner in our city’s, if not our nation’s, culture has been turned. But I’ll be damned if I know which one.

Tom Smucker, Village Voice