‘Common man’s poet’ delivers at Handley
Adorned in a black suit, black sunglasses and a black bowler hat, one of the few remaining legends in country music took to the stage at the Patsy Cline Theatre on Wednesday night.
Starting with his hit “Big City,” Merle Haggard sang more than 15 songs during the sold-out concert, attended by 1,327 people at the fifth annual Patsy Cline Classic.
The 76-year-old singer started with no greeting and little fanfare, and it appeared he might stay a stranger to the crowd.
But after his fourth song, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Haggard shimmied once, pointed to the audience and took off his hat.
“My name is Merle Haggard,” he said. “It’s nice to be here in Winchester.”
Haggard next went into “Momma Tried,” but it wasn’t until song number eight, “Are the Good Times Really Over,” that he began to come out of his shell, taking off his glasses and hat and smiling to raucous applause.
That’s all it took, and soon Haggard was playing to the crowd.
Before he sang his classic “The Bottle Let Me Down,” he claimed the song was for all the drunks in the house.
“I know you can’t drink in here, but I know you got that bottle down in your boot,” he said to hoots and hollers.
At one point Haggard pulled out his red fiddle for a song called “Working in Tennessee.” He said it was hard singing a tearjerker in a high school auditorium and not in a bar, where “bottles are clinking around.”
Haggard’s last song was “Okie from Muskogee” — a song for all the “marijuana smokers.”
“I had to quit about five years ago, and now they’re going to legalize it,” he joked.
Although there were a few signs of age — including some shortness of breath and one forgotten lyric — Haggard’s voice rang true and strong during the show, gaining momentum throughout, and audience members showed their approval by shouting their vows of love and appreciation for him.
“I’ll see you sometime, somewhere,” Haggard told them as the lights came on at the end.
Proceeds from the show will benefit the Winchester Education Foundation, which supports the city’s public schools.
Haggard’s performance was the fifth Patsy Cline Classic concert in as many years. The previous years’ artists were Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Wynonna Judd and LeAnn Rimes.
Haggard has released 78 albums and had 38 No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, including “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and “Pancho and Lefty.”
Joltin Jim McCoy, 84, was in attendance on Wednesday. He remembered booking Haggard when he was a rising star, and it only cost $400 for two days.
“He was great,” he said.
Sheila McKee, 50, of Stephens City, said she liked Haggard’s traditional sound.
“His songs my dad and I used to listen to in the car,” she said. “He brings back a lot of memories from my childhood.”
Her friend, Linda Riley, said she liked everything about Haggard.
“He’s just an icon,” she said. “He’s been around forever and everyone knows him. You don’t get to see too many stars up close, so we didn’t want to miss it.”
Winchester resident Billy Clements, 58, and his band Billy Clements and the Pickups, travel around and sing classic country hits by singers like Haggard.
“He’s the poet of the common man,” Clements said. “He basically sings about everyday life and how it is to get up and work all day.”
— Contact Rebecca Layne at firstname.lastname@example.org