Article is written by Dave Sichak from Hillbilly-Music.com
Friday night - Modesto's newest concert venue paid tribute to the country music roots of the central valley of California by playing host to Merle Haggard. The concert was said to be sold out, but not everyone showed up to sit in their seats. And shame on them - they missed a good one. Ole Gran'pa H. M. Crittick got himself a ticket somehow and had to put on some clean clothes, but it was well worth it.
The evening started off with the opening acts - running until about 8:45 (show started 8pm). Chris Milpass was one of the opening singers - he did an old Hank Williams tune, trying to do the bended knee stuff, etc. But when you're waiting for someone like Merle, you get a bit itchy, even if that person is pretty good.
After the intermission - Noel Haggard opened the second half of the show - giving you a resemblance of Merle and what he looked like in his early career. You can't help but compare him to that early version of Merle you grew up listening to, even the way he handles himself with the guitar.
Merle finally came on about 8:45pm or so - to a standing ovation.
As someone who grew up listening to his tunes of a bygone era, you knew he wasn't going to get to all of the hits, but the crowd enjoyed each one he did sing.
He had about 11 people backing him up. Norm Hamlett, a long time member of Merle's Band, the Strangers, was again on steel guitar - dressed a bit like someone from the Blues Brothers.
We got to hear Merle in his best form doing his classics - Swinging Doors, Silver Wings, Big City, Mama Tried, the Lefty Frizzell classic, If You Got the Money, I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am and then the crowd pleaser, his classic Okie From Muskogee.
He didn't lose a beat as he moved into a duet with the female backup singer of the Johnny and June Cash classic, Jackson.
One down side is while he introduced local act Chester Smith, they didn't do a duet number together. Why couldn't they do the tune they recorded together, "Wreck On The Highway"? Was there a union rule? What is the protocol in such a situation - does the main act give a portion of their fees to the guest singer? Of course, Chester may have been a bit under the weather, too and couldn't sing. But still, it would have been great to hear them perform together, even if just one song. Chester still has good stage presence based on the last time I saw him in action.
Merle was in fine form, vocally and on the guitar. Sometimes he was in his hat along with dark glasses but once in a while, he tossed the hat and glasses aside so folks got a better look at him. Perhaps they're props that fit the mood of the music he was doing.
He closed with Sing Me Back Home and Rambling Fever. The crowd gave him a rousing ovation, a standing ovation - but evidently the contract would not allow him to come back for anything more or the concert venue has a time limit. But God help us if
Willie Nelson comes to town - they may have to start at noon to let him get through all of the tunes he's known to do at his concerts.
But the venue made for a great honky tonk - you can't beat the sound, even from where I sat - up in the balcony.
The crowd was decidedly demographically unappealing to today's radio stations - over 50 - the folks that probably grew up listening to him on the radio. Trust me - we still know how to whoop and holler and have a good time. The odd thing was the local country station KATM listed this concert as something that was part of their 'classic country series' yet they were no where to be seen, nor did I even hear a mention of the concert on Friday afternoon. In fact, I don't recall hearing even one song by Merle listening to them while driving around doing my errands. Sorry, but the local radio station doesn't get any kudos for this one.
And for one Saturday night - downtown Modesto was doing a toe-tapping two-step rather than a hyphy stomp or some other rock stuff. It was something the entire family could enjoy whether mom and dad remembering the tunes they listened to on the radio or their kids that were getting to see one of the legends of country music.
But the thing is - he showed why he won entertainer of the year awards, he showed us why he was a legend, he showed us why today's radio won't play his music - the truth is - he's better than what's being spun. He can still pick the guitar, he can still sing his classics, he can still entertain an audience.
Later in the weekend - the Gallo Center for the Arts hosts a tribute show to Patsy Cline.
Well, at least for a night or two, hillbilly music (also known as country and western music) was more than an old 78rpm.