Merle Haggard And The Strangers – Corrine, Corrina
Civic Center, Philadelphia
February 14, 1970*
Featuring Chubby Wise on fiddle
* I’ve read conflicting reports that this show was recorded on 2/14/70 and 3/14/70, but the Valentine’s date seems more credible.
A couple of weeks ago, I asserted that Merle Haggard is the greatest singer/songwriter the state of California has ever produced. I stand by that. Hag has one of the most understated, yet soulful voices I’ve ever heard and he’s a great songwriter, not by country standards, but by Bob Dylan/Duke Ellington standards. And yet, like those two men, it’s Merle’s vision and diligence as bandleader that’s been the key to his 50-year career.
In May 1980, Merle appeared on the cover of Down Beat, which wouldn’t have raised eyebrows were it not a jazz publication. In hindsight, it was a brilliant editorial decision. Haggard leads his band, The Strangers, with an Ellingtonian sense of pacing and color and has often referred to his music as country-jazz because of its emphasis on solo improvisation.
As longtime drummer, Biff Adam, told Classic Drummer, “Merle never does the same show twice. We’re always loose up on the stage. He doesn’t even play songs in the same key or the same tempo. So, it’s almost like jazz. He keeps everybody on their toes because we don’t have any idea what’s going to happen. Like last night, some of the endings we played I don’t think we’ve ever heard before. I think he got that from Bob Wills. That’s the way his band was. He’d just point at the guy he wanted to play the turnaround.”
Merle Haggard – Brain Cloudy Blues
A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World: Or, My Salute To Bob Wills
Here’s Merle and The Strangers at their peak swinging through an old Bob Wills number. The video opens with Hag on fiddle, which is an interesting story. Apparently, Merle learned rudimentary fiddle skills as a kid, but hadn’t played the instrument for years. In 1969, he challenged himself to become proficient enough to actually lead a twin fiddle band. So, over the next several months he did just that.
Think about that decision in context. In 1969-70, Merle Haggard was king of the fucking mountain. He was on a 4-year hot streak of #1 hits and was poised to win 9 major country music awards over those two years. He was a genuine cultural presence with “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side Of Me” revealing fissures between professional middle class whites and working/lower middle/lower class whites.
Merle could’ve pandered to the obvious, wrote a handful of anti-hippie anthems, and spent the next decade cashing million dollar checks. Instead, at the height of his fame and power, he transformed The Strangers from lockdown honky-tonk badasses into the swinging, country-jazz assault vehicle you see above and below. Pure balls.
Merle Haggard And The Strangers – Workin’ Man Blues
Austin City Limits
The beauty of Merle is that his honky tonk is mixed up with blues, R&B, jazz, folk ballads, dixieland, and just enough pop to be dangerous. All of which sounds suspiciously like rock ‘n’ roll. This arrangement is straight out of the Ray Charles bag of tricks. What else to love?
- Mark Yeary, Strangers pianist from 1973–92, laying down the sweet muppet boogie woogie.
- Merle’s econo guitar solo is a treat. He’s a great guitar player in his own right, with a wonderful sense of rhythm.
- I should’ve mentioned the Hamlet Helmet last time, but I was busy genuflecting about Hag. Look, Norman Hamlet’s steel playing is top notch and he was also an integral part of the Haggard sound, but I can’t stop looking at his toupee. Seriously, that’s a helmet full of win. The only downside to a rug that powerful is that at some point it becomes self-aware and goes solo. However, circa ’74, it was content with its own per diem.
- Roy Nichols‘ solo from 1:47-2:15 is a thing of beauty. He doesn’t get nearly enough attention, but he was Merle’s secret weapon for over 20 years and he’s gotta be one of the ten or so greatest guitar players ever. Roy was the original Telesattva, the precursor and inspiration to Merle Haggard, Don Rich, James Burton, Clarence White, Roy Buchanan, Albert Lee, Danny Gatton, and Redd Volkaert. Go back and listen to “Old Fashioned Love.” His proper solo from 1:29-1:46 is all-time, but his subtle playing under Merle from :39-:55 is like a bop solo.
Merle Haggard And The Strangers – The Bottle Let Me Down
Live in Canada
The VHS transfer may be for shit, but Roy Nichols’ brilliant guitar playing shines through. Love the dual intro riff (Roy and Merle) as well as the compact solo from 1:37-2:03, which is also doubled (somewhat) by Merle himself. “The Bottle Let Me Down” is honky tonk by way of big band, as if The Strangers had one foot in sawdust and the other foot in spats.
Merle Haggard And The Strangers – California Blues
PBS documentary Introducing Roy Buchanan
This isn’t bad if you like Merle singing Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell songs while Roy Nichols and Roy Buchanan duel on Telecaster. The video is part of the 1971 PBS documentary, Introducing Roy Buchanan, however it’s also known as The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist, a more accurate statement and as true now as it was back then, sadly. Introducing is a fascinating look at a musician who inhabited a different reality than the rest of us, and that quality came out in his (inter)stellar, adventurous playing. I like that he admits to a heavy Nichols influence because it’s important for the genes of both Roys to be passed on.
I’m gonna leave you with one of the great medleys of all-time. Why don’t more people know about this??? Merle’s mimicry of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow (who opened the show with Chubby Wise), Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens is phenomenal. It’s no wonder he became a star given his ridiculous talent. But, listen to how versatile The Strangers are. They perfectly complement Hag’s expansive musical vision of country music, with June Carter-style harmony from Bonnie Owens and Don Rich-style backup vox from Bobby Wayne.
The Strangers: 1970-73 (L-R)
Norman Hamlet – pedal steel guitar, dobro, hair helmet
Dennis Hromek (blonde guy) – bass, background vocals
Biff Adam (vest) – drums, bus driver
Roy Nichols – lead guitar, god among men
Bobby Wayne – rhythm guitar, vocals
This is American Music. Learn it, know it, live it.