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The Hag: Spending Sunday night with Merle 

Too often, as they ease into their septuagenarian years, many a great musician falter. They simply skate by playing as few licks as possible and work hard trying to sing, and too often muffing, the lyrics.

Such is not the case with The Hag -- Merle Haggard -- who at 73 still delivers. And does it, as witness Sunday evening at the Les Schwab Amphitheater, with ease and style.

The Hag's voices is as smooth as the oil his daddy helped bring out of the ground in Bakersfield County California back in the 1930s. He'll be crooning along and then drops two octaves effortlessly only to climb back up with equal ease.

But perhaps the best thing about The Hag is how he keeps true country music alive at the same time paying tribute to Texas Swing a la Bob Wills in "Take Me Back To Tulsa" on which he played fiddle and gypsy/swing jazz as exemplified by one of the new relaxed tempo numbers that's on his new CD.

Newness is not at play with his backup group, The Strangers. Most of The Strangers have been with The Hag for decades. They're old cats who still play like crazy and Haggard's loyalty to them is touching.

Outstanding among The Strangers is steel and Dobro player Norm Hamlet. If there's a better steel player, I've yet to hear him or her.

Among the relatively new Strangers is Bend native Kevin Williams, a Mt. View High grad, who plays bass and had a coterie of longtime local friends in the audience.

Then there are The Hag's sons, Noel and Benion. The older Noel opens his dad's show playing with some a smattering of The Strangers. Foremost among them is 17-year old Benion Haggard, a monster guitar player.

Then there are the fantastic Malpass who look (pompadour hairdos and sideburns, cool looking cowboy suits and pretty boots) like Hank Williams senior and early Elvis revisited. They help open things for The Hag and when they do you got some retro-country going on.

So we've got two kids playing old stuff, family, longtime friends (sidemen), and The Hag's wife singing backup. In short, Sunday evening was more like being at someone's house listening to a bunch of people who really like playing music with each other.

And they played a solid set moving from one tune to another without the aimless and too often pointless chatter that every contemporary music act seems to indulge themselves in between songs.

When The Hag cracked wise, it was on point. When he introduced a song, he was short and to the point. It wasn't about him; it was about the music.

There were all the Haggard favorites ("Momma Tried" etc) that had the crowd singing along, a few recently written numbers and a concert-closing rendition of "Okie From Muskogee".

Once a almost a battle cry of a song, "Okie From Muskogee" today sounds a bit dated, anachronistic. But it still sounds good and knowing that The Hag wrote it for his dad and a generation of people struggling with the events of the late sixties and seventies, you appreciate its heartfelt nature.

As the show ended, there was a warm vibe around the Schwab. The Hag appeals to a lot of people from all walks of life and that's always been his trademark.

Hey, I'm a certified jazz fanatic, but I dig The Hag, always have and always will.

Photos by Ken Strode

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