thumb_IMG_0036_1024A few weeks ago, on the occasion of Merle Haggard’s passing, rising country music star Drew Cooper posted: “I pledge allegiance to the Hag . . .” Well, that noble sentiment from a gifted newcomer got me thinking about all the times I saw the Hag—from 1972 in Harrah’s South Shore Room at Lake Tahoe (where he and his Strangers were backed up by the hotel’s mandatory bevy of tuxedo-clad violinists), to the Oakland Colosseum (where he did a sold-out gig with Marty Robbins of “El Paso” fame), to fairly recently when he teamed up with Kris Kristofferson at Saratoga’s Mountain Winery.

But one concert stands out from all the rest: a balmy night back in the Seventies when Merle played the main stage at Marine World/Africa USA, of all places, which was located on a prime piece of landfill in Redwood City, a spot that has long since been repurposed to host the circular towers of the Oracle Corporation. But on that magical night several decades ago, amid the jungles, waterways, and wild creatures of a family-friendly paradise, Merle—sporting a nifty powder-blue suit—strode to the center of the stage, tucked a cream-colored fiddle under his clean-shaven chin, and commenced to play a lovely chordal rendition of “Faded Love.”

My buddy Slick Rick and I were sitting in the aluminum bleachers set up around the ring that separated us and Merle, a ring that was ordinarily the province of a dancing elephant and large cats that obeyed the crack of a whip. Curiously, the stands weren’t full tonight. Maybe most of Merle’s fans had been unable to imagine how their working-class hero could possibly be appearing here amid the aforesaid wildlife and other exotica. So people had stayed away, which was too bad, because it wasn’t just Merle standing on that stage (although that would have been enough).

Sneaking in behind him was perhaps the mightiest contingent of cowboy jazz musicians ever assembled. Indeed, a couple of the guys on stage had belonged to the legendary Texas Playboys, who, with Bob Wills at the helm, had created the very genre of cowboy jazz—a musical phenomenon that Merle and his band were now celebrating. In addition to the customary bass, drums, and pedal steel, there were three swing-time fiddlers blazing away, a piano rocking out, and an entire horn section of trumpets, saxophones and trombones adding an undeniable punchiness that made your body feel surprisingly good.

But fabulous musicianship notwithstanding, something was a little off. Possibly the players were a mite nervous about so few folks showing up. Nonetheless, they finished their set to a solid round of applause—or as much noise as our mini-crowd could make—and quickly left the stage.

“God,” said Slick Rick, shouting into my ear, “I hope he does an encore.”

“Me too!” I yelled as we continued to clap and whistle and do our damnedest to summon the Hag.

And finally he and his ensemble did come back. They played “Okie from Muskogee”—the man’s theme song. Then the band left the stage again. Merle was following them out and perhaps looking forward to a stadium gig when suddenly he catches a whiff of the devotion that we have for this man and his music. Suddenly he turns our way and says: “So you want to hear what else we got?”

“Yes!” roars the crowd.

So he calls to his band, which is climbing aboard a bus whose open door is just visible beyond the stage. “Come on back, boys! They want to hear everything!”

The band members come back, pick up their instruments, and begin to play. They’re all really into it now, like their love for the music might be even greater than ours. And stretching things out, everybody gets to solo, trading the lead from player to player in number after number.

And then Merle says to us, his audience: “Come a little closer, everybody. There’s too much physical space between you and me!”

Which is true. He’s on the stage, we’re in the stands, and there’s nobody down on the actual floor of the animal ring. “You heard the man!” says Slick Rick, grabbing my arm.“What are you waiting for!”

We hurry down out of the stands and a few seconds later we’re sitting on the ground just below Merle’s pointy-toe boots at the edge of the stage. Others fill in behind us, Merle peers down at us—for a second our eyes actually connect—and says: “Well, this is more like it. Just like my living room!”

And then he’s playing again, with that beautiful band behind him as he sings what seems like every great song he’s ever recorded—from “Misery,” to “Mama Tried,” to “Rose of San Antone” and many, many more. The security guards are frantically checking their watches, and yet he plays on into the night for another half-hour and then another half-hour after that—with his musicians all going crazy, kicking their heels, and grinning like fools as they fly into musical orbits and somehow make it back to Earth again without ever missing a lick . . . so gorgeous it made me weep and I wasn’t the only one.

But that was a long time ago, and I sure do miss those lively licks now. Just like Andrew Cooper and Slick Rick and God knows how many others. . . .



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