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.
Merle Haggard And The Strangers – Impersonation Medley
Civic Center, Philadelphia
March 14, 1970
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.
What a great post! Thank you.
Some great video finds here – wow! I still think of Willie as the supreme living master of the jazz-inflected country thing, but Hag sure had the better bands, didn't he? Buchanan and Nichols in the same band?!? Come on.
Have you heard about Bryan & the Haggards, Brooklyn jazz guys who do Haggard tunes? Here they are with Robbie Fulks:
hey adios. while your posts may be sporadic compared to other bloggers, i do find that your posts are always must-reads. i love the Hag. my folks introduced me to him so on my last album i covered “workin' man blues”, made my dad proud.
Flecton – Sporadic is all part of my plan. I offer essays in a world of instant tweets. Plus, I need a full Keith Richards-esque blood transfusion after publishing one of these bad boys just to get my brain recharged. So, I lose time there.
My first time commenting here. Been reading for awhile now. Your taste in music is the closest I've ever come across to my own. Been waiting for a long piece on the Hag. Did not disappoint. Who's the kat playin' the acoustic in the first two videos? Ive seen him in a couple Osbourne Brother videos (another fav of mine). Also Adios, do you know the name of the first song they sing in Blackboard Bar vid? I know Sir Doug did a similar version called Never No Mo' Blues. Not sure about the orgins of it though. I really enjoy your work, from Doug to Sam, Minutemen to Iris. GREAT SHIT
That last post was from me. Apparently I was signed in with a different account. So I will use this name to comment. Thanks, BEAU
Awesome post. TC turned me on to Merle. Telesattva…nice. Another guy who can 'hack his way out of the jungle' with a Tele. Reduces even the sturdiest of seekers to “why bother?” mode.
Great stuff. Always look forward to your site popping up in my RSS reader.
LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. One minor question/quibble: Are you sure those clips are from “Pop! Goes the Country”? (And, has there ever been a worse name for a TV show??) Big hint is the stage doesn't have the words “Pop! Goes the Country” all over it. And Ralph Emery isn't introducing the songs. And the audience doesn't look they've been dragged in off a Nashville tour bus. I suspect this is actually from Austin City Limits, based on the set.
A P.S. to my “Anonymous” post above. If in fact this is ACL, then it's later than 1974, since that show didn't launch until 1975, and didn't start featuring mainstream country artists for a few years after that. His first appearance was in '78…that looks about right to me based on the clothes/hair styles
Merle's Legendary Performances DVD lists “Workin' Man Blues” as being from Pop! in '74 and “Old Fashioned Love” is obviously from the same show. That's basically what I was going off of.
Beau – Forgot to answer your questions yesterday. The acoustic guitarist in the first couple videos is Ronnie Reno, who actually left the Osbornes to play with Merle. He's also the son of Don Reno, who I've written about before.
The first Blackboard tune is “Travelin' Blues,” which, like “Never No Mo Blues,” was written by the great Jimmie Rodgers. Good ear!
Well I'll be damned. After today's comment about whether the first couple of videos were actually Pop! Goes The Country I decided to do a little investigating. So, I went out and bought Legendary Performances just to confirm my suspicions and it turns out my suspicions were up shit creek with a turd for a paddle. “Old Fashioned Love” and “Workin' Man Blues” are no doubt mid-to-late '70s, but I have no idea when or where they come from. It could be ACL, I suppose. When I find out … oh, and I do plan on finding out … I'll update the captions.
Loved the Haggard impersonation medley.Thanks for the great music all these years. You've inspired me to start my own music blog.Please check it out. http://1001-songs.blogspot.com/ Thanks again!
I think “sweet muppet boogie” is one of the best terms I've ever heard!
The clips of “Old Fashioned Love” and “Workin' Man Blues” are from Merle's first Austin City Limits show from 1978. The DVD is available for purchase. (the clip of “Workin' Man Blues” on the DVD you're talking about was from “Pop Goes the Country”, but this is the Austin City Limits” clip…
Talkin bout Ronnie Reno who left the Osborne Bros to play rhythm git in Merles band,well he started out playin mandolin in his dads band when he was a teenager,and he was a fine mando player in the Monroe tradition, Oh and by the way he was also a guitar badass as was his father Don Reno who was mainly known for his groundbreaking 5 string skills, Don Reno and Earl Scruggs virtually invented the 3 finger banjo style in Bluegrass somehow all country roads lead to Bill Monroe whose Bluegrass Boys included Don Reno and Earl Scruggs
Thanks for the heads up, T Bone. FYI, back in July 2010 I did a short piece on Don Reno you might wanna check out. Read it here.
What a brilliant post, thanks!