How To Kill Two Bucket Lists With One Show
Merle Haggard with Special Guest, Craig Campbell
The University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center
July 1, 2015
Reviewed by: Patti McClintic
It isn’t every day that luck comes knocking on your door in the form of a country music star’s bucket list, so when that sort of thing happens, if possible, you run with it, even if it means running all the way to Georgia to do it.
My husband, being an event photographer, stumbled upon country music artist, Craig Campbell’s Facebook post, saying how thrilled he was to be opening up for the legendary, Merle Haggard and how it was one of his “bucket list” items. Bucket lists are becoming more common, and I guess even celebrities have them. Ironically, doing a photo shoot at a Merle Haggard show was one of my husband’s “bucket list” items as well. When you have exactly one day to throw together a roadtrip to check that item off, you do the only thing that can be done. You scramble. Scramble, we did. With pet sitter in place, we were off the very next day, traveling the 400 miles to Tifton, Georgia.
When you travel to a new, unfamiliar venue, you never know what you’ll encounter, and from the limited information we had, we weren’t sure if this would be an indoor or outdoor show. With temperatures in the high 80’s and the typical southern humidity, we were prepared for the worst. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the venue was in a very comfortably air-conditioned auditorium, not unlike one you might find at a larger high school.
Craig Campbell never fails to entertain. We’ve seen him several times and consider ourselves fans, but this show allowed us to see him perform in a different light. Campbell only brought one band member along for the ride this time, guitarist, Stephan Laplante. Let’s call it “Craig Campbell – Unplugged”. Campbell and Laplante each had an acoustic guitar and harmonized well. It was most interesting, especially, to see Laplante, a seasoned guitar guru, playing in a more subdued style. It’s obvious now, he is no one-trick pony.
Opening with the radio hit, “Outta My Head”, was a good choice, as people were still filing in, as it was a recognizable tune to lure them to their seats more quickly. The next song played was from his first album, “Craig Campbell” released in 2011, entitled, “You Probably Ain’t”. This song offers a lighthearted rant at those folks who claim to be “country”, but “probably ain’t”.
Clearly on the path of having fun, Campbell explained that his next song offered a twist at the end. “I Bought It” is a bit of a “revenge” number, written through the eyes of a guy who just got tired of knocking himself out to please his girl. If you aren’t familiar with the song, look for it, also from his debut album, and you’ll find out for yourself what that twist was. Thanks to Campbell’s clearly delivered lyrics, even those who may have been unfamiliar with the song, enjoyed it.
Things turned more serious during “Family Man”, a moving ballad from the debut album. It was especially powerful after following a string of lighter tunes. Bringing things up just the slightest bit, Campbell next introduced his newest radio single, “Tomorrow Tonight”, his first album on his new label, Red Bow Records.
He finished the set strong with “Keep Them Kisses Comin'” and “Fish”, which Campbell says is based on his own real-life experience as a 10th grader. It’s always a crowd pleaser and a perfect way to end the set on a high note. Afterward, Campbell thanked the audience for being there to “witness a dream come true to open up for Merle Haggard”.
After a short break, it was time for the evening’s headliner to take the stage, and, in a manner befitting a legend such as Merle Haggard, his entire band arrived first to play a little something before the man himself joined them. The moment Haggard emerged from the wings, the entire audience stood up, cheering and welcoming him like an old friend. Like any old friend, he settled on something very familiar to get things started, by opening with “Big City”, off of his 1981 album of the same name.
Not one to break the momentum, he continued on the path of the tried and true, with his next three numbers being the wildly popular, “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, “Silver Wings” and, perhaps, one of the most famous cover songs ever, Johnny Cash’s, “Folsom Prison Blues”, which Haggard recorded in 1968 on his album, “Mama Tried”.
When he wanted to slow things down, he very appropriately chose, “Today I Started Loving You Again”, which was one of the few quiet portions of the show. Even Haggard’s relatively rowdy fans offered him the respect required to deliver that song the way it was meant to be.
Never one to avoid controversial lyrics, even in his 70’s, Haggard had everyone’s full attention the minute he broke into “Are The Good Times Really Over?”, a 1981 song that was awarded the Academy of Country Music’s coveted “Song of the Year”.
“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” had the crowd dancing, singing, hollering and holding up their collective beverages of choice for the evening. Immediately following this number, Haggard did what so many headliners today fail to do, and really, always should. He introduced his band, The Strangers, one by one, asking the audience to applaud for them, and they were definitely earning their paycheck last night. Haggard’s band is as solid as they come.
Starting with steel guitar player and band leader since 1967, Norman Hamlet, and moving on to wife, Theresa Haggard on harmonies, Jim Christie on drums, Renato Caranto on saxophone, Taras Prodaniuk, bass, Floyd Domino, piano, Scott Joss, fiddle, and last, but certainly not least, son, Ben Haggard on lead guitar.
Judging by audience reaction, the next song was highly anticipated, “Pancho and Lefty”, originally recorded 32 years ago with fellow country superstar, Willie Nelson, evoked shrieks of excitement. Keeping with the theme, Haggard followed that one with “Unfair Weather Friend”, released only one week earlier, another collaboration with Nelson, off the “Django and Jimmie” album. While the crowd was decidedly quieter during the new song, you could see they were taking it all in and were grateful for new material from these two country music icons.
Dedicating “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” to all “the drunk females” in the house, Haggard invited them to sing the bridge along with him, which, they, and probably, even their sober counterparts gladly did.
Always a patriot (even much of his merchandise reflects that patriotism), he next dedicated, “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to all of the servicemen.
Nearing the end of the evening, Haggard and fiddle player, Scott Joss launched into a “dueling fiddles” of sorts, right before Haggard accidentally dropped the instrument, bow and all. A split second expression of surprise at the incident, led to an even faster look of realization that this was a live performance, and anything can happen. Always quick with a one-liner, the music legend asked a direct question of the crowd, “Should we have a burial?” Laughter erupted from every seat.
On that note, Haggard launched into his final number for the night, perhaps his most well-known song, “Okie From Muskogee”, which was written in support of troops serving in Vietnam, at the height of anti-war protests, which Haggard didn’t understand, even though the war itself was understood even less. He felt those troops deserved to know that there were people out there behind them, despite all the backlash that was going on. It was during this last song that everyone was singing along and there was a fair amount of dancing and hugging in the back of the house as well. No doubt that there are those that can take a song originally inspired by events of a long ago war, and relate it to the country’s current situation with so many service people battling difficult enemies overseas.
Merle Haggard has stood the test of time and will always appeal to new generations, partly in thanks to his tremendous musicianship, but it is what he stands for that offers the greater pull. He is a man who never backed down from his beliefs and found ways to put them to music. He is an entertainer, yes, but I think many would agree, it is who he is as a human being that attracts us to him on a much deeper level. May he continue to play for many years to come.