On Feb. 13, I was in the audience at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland for Merle Haggard’s final public performance.
On stage that night, Merle’s son, Ben, his lead guitarist, and the rest of the band seemed watchful, playing longer at times to allow more space between songs. Merle even picked up a violin and played, and he seemed to delight in it. He spoke about his double pneumonia in a matter-of-fact way, explaining why he sometimes had trouble catching his breath. But even with the acknowledgment of his illness, I never thought it would be the last time I’d see Merle in concert.
He was upbeat despite his apparent weakness, and I thought he’d go home and recover and get back on his bus in the spring, or maybe head out with Willie in the summer, and I would be in the audience again.
The Paramount is a beautiful historic art deco theater, built in the 1930s. It was filled to capacity that night, and seemed to include a whole new generation of Haggard fans alongside the old. People waited in the alleyway to greet Merle when he stepped off his bus, and Merle’s son, Noel, opened the show. When Merle took the stage, he brought with him a presence and a style that, like the theater we sat in, was from a different era.
What I’ll remember the most from this last show is Merle singing “If I Could Only Fly.” The audience and the band were quiet, and the focus was on the words, and the way Merle delivered them. The lyrics, by Texas songwriter Blaze Foley, are full of longing and hope, and Merle sang them in a way that was, paradoxically, both sorrowful and uplifting. It reminded me of something I read about Merle awhile back, about how he sought to capture the melancholy and joy — both in life and in song.
I will also remember Merle’s interactions on stage with his son Ben, an effortless young guitar player. One of the most touching things about seeing Merle perform in his later years was witnessing the bond between him and Ben, and Merle’s obvious pride watching Ben play beside him. During Ben’s guitar solo that night, Merle faced him and became immersed in his playing, turning to the audience only when the solo was over, a way of both honoring Ben and watching the show he most wanted to see.
As most Haggard fans know, certain things were a constant in his show, and it was no different that night. When he sang “Okie from Muskogee,” you could tell he got a kick out of singing old phrases like “pitchin’ woo” and mentioning the “hippies out in San Francisco” in a Bay Area venue. When he said, “I’d like to introduce my band, the Strangers,” the band all shook hands with each other. When he removed his hat at the end the show, he humbly acknowledged the audience that was on its feet.
I’m a Bakersfield native and I’ve seen Merle many times over the years, and each time, it was like being back home. He sang about the places I knew, the scenery I grew up with; his voice was the one I heard at backyard barbecues, in the parking lot of high school football games, from the open window of a passing car. His lyrics are spare and direct, poetic and romantic, and there is a strong emphasis on love — love of home and family, love of the land, and love of God.
The book “Merle Haggard, Poet of the Common Man: The Lyrics,” includes the lyrics to all of his songs. As the title suggests, it is a book of poetry, beautiful and accessible. Last week, I came across the lyrics to “When My Last Song is Sung.”
“When my last song is sung
And my life’s work is done
And my old faithful guitar loses tone
You won’t find me troubled then
Wishin’ I could sing again
When my last song is sung I’ll be gone”
When Merle left the stage that night, I don’t know if he knew he’d sung his last song, but either way, it seems, he was complete.