Merle Haggard & the Strangers | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Merle Haggard & the Strangers 

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MERLE HAGGARD & THE STRANGERS

Not only has country radio nailed the lids on the coffins of its forefathers, it's buried alive legends who are still making great music, most notably Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Merle Haggard. The remarkably consistent 100 songs on Haggard's 1996 box set, Down Every Road (Capitol), paint a vibrant portrait of him as a complex artist; the liner notes remind us that he's a man out of mythology: born in Bakersfield, California, to Okie parents, he's been a reformed thief who turned music into his salvation, a champion of the working class, a pugilistic patriot who hung out with Richard Nixon. In his nearly 40 years in the biz Haggard hasn't swerved from the beautiful hard-country sound he developed by transforming the Bakersfield honky-tonk pioneered by Buck Owens, Ferlin Husky, and Wynn Stewart into something more serious and expansive. On 1996 (Curb), which also came out last year, Haggard's cover of Iris DeMent's "No Time to Cry" shows that he's hipper than the country radio stations that play neither artist. And even a song like "Beer Can Hill," an ode to his youth that tosses in Cajun accordion, saxophone, and wah-wah guitar, succeeds in his hands--no surprise, given that during the height of his popularity Haggard easily traversed time and styles with tributes to early country giants Jimmie Rodgers, Emmett Miller, and Bob Wills (without suffering commercial setbacks). Haggard, who always leads crack bands, doesn't normally play venues this intimate in the Chicago area--he's usually exiled to the Star Plaza. Wednesday, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo (Merle Haggard Jr.?).

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