Haggard, Stuart Play to a Packed House Sunday

This appeared in the Daily Mississippian on June 2, 2003

There is more to country music than what you're being force-fed on FM radio," proclaimed Grand Old Opry radio personality Eddie Stubbs to a near-capacity crowd at Merle Haggard's concert Sunday. Judging from the classic acts that followed, Stubbs definitely spoke the truth.

Oxford favorite Marty Stuart joined the legendary Haggard at the concert. Haggard and Stuart left home at an early age, though under somewhat different circumstances. Stuart left Philadelphia, Miss., to begin touring as a musician at age 13, while Haggard ran away from Bakersfield, Calif., at age 14, bouncing around reform schools until landing in San Quentin after a drunken attempt at burglary.

Haggard's rough-and-tumble early experiences and Stuart's connection to the storied tradition of Nashville are deeply present in their music.

Stuart opened the concert with his typically flamboyant show. He may play country music, but in his way, he is a rock star. Prancing around onstage with his big hair, neon green scarf, leather pants and a band whose average age looked to be about half his, Stuart belted out an energetic set that was hard to follow.

Stuart's set featured such favorites as "Rock Island Line" and "Hillbilly Rock," in addition to the vocal stylings of Stuart's wife Connie Smith on several songs.

The Strangers, Haggard's longtime band, then played several songs before Haggard himself took the stage. The Strangers featured notably a saxophonist, who seemed a little out of place during Haggard's set, and an ashen octogenarian sitting and playing lead guitar.

Eventually Merle joined his band onstage, and started his set with several songs about his - and Oxford's - favorite problem of drinking, including the classic, "I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink." Fittingly, Haggard fumbled many of his leads and lurched through his first few numbers, starting and stopping songs abruptly.

Haggard played mostly older, well-known songs, despite his continuing production of new material. He treated the audience to an upbeat "Mama Tried" before embarking on a series of short covers of works by his boyhood idols, including Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills.

Somewhat predictably, Haggard ended his set on a patriotic note, playing "The Fightin' Side of Me," a song about what Vietnam protesters and others who "run the country down" got, and continue to get, on.

Haggard followed with perhaps his best-known song, "Okie From Muskogee," which is about what residents of Muskogee, Okla. do, such as prominently displaying "Old Glory" and cutting their hair, and do not do, like smoking marijuana and burning draft cards. "Okie" drew a very enthusiastic a sing-a-long from the audience.

A mix of country music fans made the trip to see these legends. There were plenty of people at the Ford Center still dressed for church, but there was also a healthy smattering of Merle-types, sporting sleeveless shirts, tattoos and straw hats.

The Ford Center presents a unique opportunity to the university community: the center could become a focal point for demonstrations of culture, inviting performers and speakers from across the artistic and political spectra.

You can catch Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard and a host of country music greats on the Electric Barnyard Tour, which is geared at bringing big country acts to small communities near you.

By Matt Rutherford

Return To Articles Return To Home Page