Merle Haggard at Mesa Arts Center

Go to see a few country legends in concert and you begin to notice a strong correlation between the number of drinkin' songs in those artists' catalogs and the condition of the specimens on stage. George "No Show" Jones, for example, looked about how you'd expect a man who first had a hit in 1959 with a song about Moonshine when he played Celebrity Theatre recently. Loretta Lynn, who frequently has a certain preachy MADDishness to her songs, on the other hand, was remarkably well preserved.

Merle Haggard's Sunday show at Mesa Arts Center demonstrated the old outlaw to be an outlier. The California native didn't play a long set -- just a little over an hour, actually -- but he looked and sounded great, despite songs like "Tonight, The Bottle Let Me Down." Furthermore, his nine-piece the band, The Strangers, is as good a group as you'll see, putting The Hag in position to shine, something an appreciative crowd rewarded them for with an impromptu standing ovation.

As I witnessed interviewing Haggard to write a preview of the show, the 73-year-old has been in a contemplative mood, and that carried through to the show. The hits -- "Okie From Muskogee" among them, of course -- were there, but the real feel of the show came from the rest of the setlist.

"Kern River," for example, really struck a chord, telling a "Last Kiss" style tale of young love ending in accidental death in the river that runs from the contiguous states' highest peak, Mt. Whitney, through Haggard's native Bakersfield. Likewise, "That's The Way Love Goes," a beautiful song slightly blighted by that mid-80s country/synthesizer sound that's rendered most of Kenny Rogers catalog worthless, was excellent.

Especially poignant was "If We Make It Through December," a song recorded during the economic troubles of the early 70s -- troubles that almost seem quaint by today's Great Recession standards. The closer, which Haggard waved off a roadie cleaning up the stage to sing alone, was the title track from his latest record, I Am What I Am.

As NPR noted when making the song part of it's regular feature, First Listen, "Haggard rejects the labels that others have given him -- tramp, drifter, fugitive, prisoner -- and ends up deciding to be who he wants to be. Ultimately, he sings, "I'm just around / I am what I am."

That's more than good enough for me.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Merle Haggard at Mesa Arts Center

Better Than: Sorry, George.

Personal Bias: Like Merle, I'm an embittered Hillary supporter.

One More Thing: It was nice to see such a big crowd for a Sunday night show in Mesa -- and on mother's day, not really a big day for outlaw country music.

Further Listening: The Hag's new record, I Am What I Am, is very, very good. I'm especially fond of the first song, "I've Seen It All Go Away."

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