Merle Haggard’s big sound in the Grand Sierra

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RENO — Alright, so here I go again with another, “I’m not a country kind of guy” story. This is my third country artist in the last couple months that I’ve covered – and I’ve liked them all.

Merle Haggard brought his band, the Strangers, to the Grand Sierra Resort Dec. 5 and it was another sellout. At exactly 9 p.m. the band came to the stage without Merle and featured Doug Colosio on keyboards and vocals for three songs.

After a brief respite Merle came out with hat and glasses in hand, took a polite bow to the audience before moving to center stage where he “suited up” with hat, dark glasses, guitar and kicked it up to a rousing jubilant response. With a nine-piece band behind him the sound was thick, full and twangin.’

The band consisted of Renato Caranto on saxophone, Doug Colosio keyboards, Jimmy Christie drums, Floyd Domino keyboards, Norman Hamlet steel guitar, Scott Joss fiddle, mandolin, guitars and backing vocals, and Taras Prodaniuk bass guitar. Merle’s youngest son, Ben Haggard, plays guitar, and his wife, Teresa, sings backing vocals. Merle, of course, plays lead guitar and fiddle as well as sings.

I don’t recall what the first few songs where, because I was running around taking pictures, but I do remember when they started “Folsom Prison” by Johnny Cash. Merle has a casual “real” way about his performance. It just flows, and with a band that has been together with him since 1965 they are very tight. After “Folsom Prison” they moved into “Motorcycle Cowboy” which had some great mandolin by Joss.

Haggard 1Merle switched up his look during the show a couple times. Some artists will come out in shades and never take them off, and that can be frustrating for a fan who wants to see their star. For the first part of the show he was in full disguise with the cowboy hat and the shades. Between songs a couple times he would take off the glasses and looked into the audience and take a little bow or just smile. Eventually he removed the hat, but kept the shades on. Then he took off both, and still later he popped the hat back on with no glasses. What more could you ask for?

I had no idea if I would enjoy Merle, but I did. The songs are simple and short, but there’s a very comfortable and easy feel to them. The stories are simple and everyday in style. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band helped create this style which is called the Bakersfield sound.

He’s funny too. He told a story about when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. They wanted something from him to put in the museum. He said they asked him if he had anything near and dear to his heart that he didn’t use anymore, and then he looked back at his wife and she turned away. “That’s not something you ask a man my age,” he said as the crowd laughed.

He touched on songs he played with Willie Nelson and George Jones, and with Marty Stuart. He shared stories about doing time (which he did) and the songs that came from those experiences. Eventually he said the were going to play a song about marijuana, and they played “Okie From Muskogee” as their last song.

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take no trips on LSD

Actually, they had to start it a second time, but I don’t remember why. Maybe somebody isn’t really from Muskogee.

Merle Haggard has survived a very hard life in his 77 years. Some of it was hard as a result of early poverty and a challenging life, and some of it was his fault. It’s a testament to resilience that he has achieved all the success that he has. Knowing what I do about his life and looking at his face through a 200mm telephoto lens I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics of the very young Brandi Carlile in her song, The Story:

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am


About Nick McCabe

Nick McCabe is a musician, photographer and writer from Reno. He is the editor of the music website Front Row Photo. He plays in a seven-piece band, Apothic.

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