Induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame is a high and genuine honor, and when Merle Haggard got the nod some 10 years ago, he handled it in a way that, for a brief moment, just about gave all of Nashville a massive coronary: Haggard produced an acceptance speech so huge that it scrolled 10 feet across the stage behind him, took a very pregnant pause and announced “First of all, I’d like to thank Andy Gump. Andy, you’re doin’ a great job keepin’ my toilets clean . . .” Another pause; a wicked grin, a wave to the crowd and, happily clutching the trophy, he walked off. It was a brilliantly iconoclastic moment, one that perfectly illustrated Hag’s mixture of establishment loathing (he called the Grand Ole Opry “that sacred cow devoted to filling the pockets of a bunch of anonymous bastards who don’t know doodle-shit about country music” in his 1981 autobiography), and, with his swift exit, respectful deference to Hall of Famers like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff.
Hag, of course, has always gone at it the hard way, from his misspent, freight-hopping, prison-breaking criminal youth (resulting in classification as an incorrigible and hard time in San Quentin) to raw-knuckled socio-political statements like “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and the old bugger has hardly mellowed today. Last year’s Rebuild America First was as outspoken a culture bomb as anything that preceded it (and Capitol Records—who had just re-signed him with great and ultimately insincere pomp—demonstrated true stupidity by not shipping it as a single the same week Katrina struck the Gulf). But all that hot-under-the-collar razzmatazz is just one miniscule part of Haggard’s artistic life. You may think him an unreconstructed redneck, but he’s also the only country artist ever to appear on the cover of jazz bible Down Beat magazine; the man is a goddamn poet, a singer of acute sensitivity and grace, a guitarist capable of roaring power and bruised understatement, and even at 69 years of age, his voice remains strikingly powerful and clear-toned. No one knows what he’ll do next—not even his band, because Haggard never uses a set list. It’s all spontaneous impulse, and his mixture of illimitable, natural talent and minute-to-minute unpredictability guarantees a chronically fascinating experience. (Jonny Whiteside)
Merle Haggard at the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino Tukut Lounge, 777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, (800) 359-2464; www.sanmanuel.com. Thurs., Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. $20-$40.