Merle Haggard, Wild Horse Pass Casino, 9/21/12 (VIDEO)

Merle Haggard @ Wild Horse Pass Casino | Friday, September 21, 2012
We pity the grim reaper on the day he comes to collect the soul of Merle Haggard, because the iconic country musician won't be going anywhere without putting up a major fight.

Without a speck of hyperbole, Haggard is a legitimate badass, a bonafide rebel, and the last of country music's true outlaws. He's got a rowdy and criminal past, including raising hell in his youth, doing time for robbery and escaping from prison. Haggard also one of country's living legends, who helped redefine the genre in the 1960s and has influenced the likes of Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, and Shooter Jennings.

So its no surprise that the 75-year-old got a standing ovation from a raucous, sold-out crowd when he took the stage at the Wild Horse Pass Casino's Ovations Live! showroom on Friday night.

Despite his advancing age, Haggard is a still a scrapper who's kicked lung cancer in the balls, continues to make records while constantly touring, and is infamously outspoken in his criticism of both politics and the current state of country music.

Such contentious topics didn't come up in his stage patter during the concert, however, as Haggard preferred instead to reminisce and crack humorous rejoinders in between songs. Even when he plugged his merch booth in the back of the showroom it was funny.

"We've got some records available over there that are disguised as CDs," he joked. "There might also be some 8-tracks for those of you who are older. And I see a lot of old people out in the audience."

The audience - consisting equally of gray-haired types (who probably have been listening to the musician since the heyday of 8-track tapes) and some far-younger western shirt-wearing brigade and rockabilly cats - laughed at his quips and got plenty noisy through the entire evening, even during a brief three-song opening set by his son Noel Haggard.

They hooted and hollered whenever he trotted out ditties like "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?" or "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," or clapped and waved hands as if they were at an old fashioned tent revival with Haggard as the preacher.

Tellingly, there were few in attendance wearing the sort of glam wear (such as leather cowboy hats, Affliction t-shirts, or bedazzled jeans) that you usually see adorning those at concerts by modern-day country superstars. It also perfectly illustrates how Haggard is a throwback to a bygone era of the genre when songs weren't as overproduced as Top 40 tracks.

Most of songs performed by "The Hag" during the near two-hour affair were similarly old school as he dipped in and out of his lengthy back catalog. Pure A.M. radio gold like "Mama Tried," "Sing Me Back Home," and "Workin' Man Blues" was on tap. As the warble of the steel guitar and Merle's hard-edged bluesy country filled rang out throughout the showroom, his warm melodic twang -- which has lost none of its potency over the years -- filled the audience's ears with lyrics about the perils of the bottle or doing his women wrong.

Songs about troubled times seem more sincere and genuine when they come from the mouth of a man who's been through much in his lifetime, instead of some pre-packaged country musician, as did his rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues" by the late Johnny Cash. (In fact, Haggard witnessed a performance by the Man in Black while incarcerated at San Quentin in 1958, which he credited as turning his life around.)

And while the Wild Horse Pass crowd were more eager to hear Haggard's more energetic and boisterous numbers -- including such favorites as "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie from Muskogee" -- it was his quieter and more lonesome songs like "If I Could Only Fly" and the Townes Van Zandt-penned "Pancho and Lefty" that packed more of an poignant punch as his voice cracked with emotion.

"Don't make me cry, Merle!" shouted one woman in the back as the musician sung a particularly poignant tale of regret.

Setlist: 1. "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" 2. "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?" 3. "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" 4. "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" 5. "Mama Tried" 6. "Today I Started Loving You Again" 7. "What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life)" 8. "Sing Me Back Home" 9. "Back to Earth" 10. "If I Could Only Fly" 11. "Pancho and Lefty" 12. "Workin' Man Blues" 13. "If We Make It Through December 14. "Folsom Prison Blues" 15. "Working in Tennessee" 16. "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" 17. "Fightin' Side of Me" 18. "Okie from Muskogee"

Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Merle Haggard @ Wild Horse Pass Casino Personal Bias: KQSS, one of the country stations in my hometown of Globe, regularly played Merle Haggard when I was growing up. The Crowd: Senior citizens, middle-aged country fans, rockabilly cats, and hipsters in western shirts. Overheard: "If you're gonna drank, you're gonna pay for it tomorrow." Random Notebook Dump: Cowboy music on an Indian reservation seems almost fitting in a way. One More Thing: KSWG 96.3 was the only local radio station to show up at the concert, which one again proves how they're cool.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.