Kristi and I ushered at the Carson Center in Paducah for a show of Merle Haggard and the Strangers band last night. This wasn't the first time we had seen perform there - we ushered a show of his maybe 4 years of so ago. One thing is clear as a bell to me, both through my experience country singing and going out to hear music over the years, and that is Paducah is a country music town, and loves Merle Haggard.
And so they should. Haggard has the aura of an icon, his songs are poignant, timely, touching and memorable, and a top-notch band. Fortunately for me, he played many of favorite Haggard tunes - "Big City," "Ramblin' Fever," "Sing Me Back Home," "Silver Wings," "Mama Tried," "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good," and "Tonight the Bottle Let me Down." Even the songs he sang that I was less familiar with were moving and performed with perfection. All night I, along with much of the crowd, were singing along. In fact, it was such an amazing sing-along on some songs that the theater turned on the house lights and it became one giant Merle Haggard sing along - and it sounded great! We even got a nice taste of Texas swing at the end, when Merle picked up a fiddle and joined his regular fiddler in some double fiddle.
I have to say that I was particularly impressed with Ben Haggard, Merle's younger son who played lead guitar the entire evening - not just for the Strangers, but with his brother Marty to open the show. Ben has the cleanest, most authentic country licks of any electric guitarist that I have heard live for a long time. He is one awesome player. His Dad, who is no slouch on guitar, must be very proud.
This isn't to say that there weren't other fine instrumentalists. The Strangers currently includes not only the father and son electric guitar duet, but also a pedal steel player, a very versatile guitar, mandolin, fiddle player, a sax/trumpet player, and a solid keyboard player, as well as a female backup singer, who happened to be his daughter, along with a very solid rhythm section. I never did catch all of their names enough to want to attempt to print them. But they were top players, and the band worked together to have a strong, solid, tight, but pleasant overall sound.
Kristi and I give the show the highest rating we can. He played about 15 minutes longer than scheduled, and the time never lagged at all. The band was genuinely having fun, and as Kristi said, there were "no bad vibes at all" from the stage. If you get a chance to catch Merle Haggard, do so. You will experience some of the finest country music you will ever hear.