Legendary singer/songwriter Merle Haggard once wrote, “And I’ll hide my age and make the stage and try to kick the footlights out again.”
Even though those lyrics were written more than three decades ago, Haggard, now 76 and still on the road, proved on Nov. 2 at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts that he is more than capable of living up to those words.
With his longtime backing band, The Strangers, already on stage and finishing up an instrumental, Haggard strolled out without an introduction, removed his hat and sunglasses, and waved to the large and enthusiastic crowd at the Wilkes-Barre theater. He then strapped on his famous maple-colored Fender Telecaster and launched into “Big City,” one of his more than three dozen No. 1 songs.
In quick succession, and without addressing the audience, the Hag then rattled off more of his famous hits: 1987’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (his most recent chart topper), 1968’s “Mama Tried,” and “Silver Wings,” a popular B-side from 1969.
He then briefly introduced himself (as if that were even remotely necessary) and continued with Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” before returning to his hit streak with “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
The Strangers, who have served as Haggard’s backing band since the 1960s, were in top form on Saturday night, especially steel guitarist Norman Hamlet and multi-instrumentalist Scott Joss (fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, backing vocals). These days, The Strangers are a true family affair for Haggard, as his son Ben served up some tasty licks on lead guitar and his wife Theresa chipped in some harmony vocals.
Haggard’s hits continued with great readings of “Kern River, “My Favorite Memory,” “The Fugitive,” and “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).” He then headed down the homestretch with the ever popular “Workin’ Man Blues,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
After two songs about growing older (including the aforementioned “Footlights”), Haggard got out his fiddle for a song about losing one of his guitars in the Nashville flood from a few years back and “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” by his hero Bob Wills.
He then ended his 70-minute performance with his most famous song, “Okie from Muskogee,” updating the lyrics by replacing the part about hippies in San Francisco with “We get drunk like God wants us to do.”
Saturday’s show was opened by The Malpass Brothers, a pair of guitar-slinging siblings from North Carolina that look and sound like country stars of the 1950s.
With strong support from The Strangers, lead singer Christopher Malpass sang like Johnny Cash one minute (“Luther Played the Boogie”) and Marty Robbins the next (“Begging to You”). Brother Taylor, who shone brightly on electric guitar throughout the 30-minute set, sang lead on “Hello Walls,” and the brothers scored big with their original tune, “The Man in Black Is Wearing White,” about the day Cash died.
They ended with a rocking tune by “Elvis when he was still Elvis” (“That’s All Right”) and an awesome version of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.”
No wonder Haggard has signed them to his Hag Records label and has said that they are the only opening act he will take on the road these days.