The Paramount Theater in Seattle must seem like a long way from Beer Can Hill, The Blackboard, The Porthole or any of the other California dance Hall dives Merle Haggard cut his teeth in. There are TV’s out in the carpeted foyer just in case you’re caught outside after curtain rise, ushers in tuxes to help guide you to a cushioned chair. It’s comfortable and I don’t mind being that. It just must be different. I’ve seen Merle enough times to know that like his folk rock counter part, Bob Dylan, I need to leave my expectations at the door. Merle clearly does what he wants, when he wants. I’ve seen him sweet and funny and then whip around and raise a fury. He’s in front of you on his own terms and those terms sometimes change so you better just except it.
The crowd finding their seats are almost as confusing as Merle himself. There’s the older set, who come in stiff jeans and tucked in western shirts, skirts and cardigans around shoulders. The men are skinny and their women are fat. They don’t mingle, they hardly talk and even their joy during the show is muted and augmented only by nodding and occasional clapping. There’s the alt. country folk, the worst of which wear beat to shit straw cowboy hats with the sides squished flat and the front pulled low. You better believe that they spent hours working on that hat and…okay, they bought it just like that earlier from Urban Outfitters. These are the ones who believe in themselves as the authentic lovers of country music. The ones destined to save it from the commercialization and pop sounds of modern day radio. The we have the rednecks who claim Merle as their own. My favorite was a few rows in front of me. A giant wearing a white tee shirt on which he had written with what looked like a magic marker the words “working man”. Fuck buying a $25 shirt when you can make your own. If he didn’t get into a fight that night it wasn’t his fault. Merle also attracts the literates out their who like to think of him as the exception to the rule. They want him to sit down and play songs like If I Could Only Fly and Kern River. Do I have to tell you what the guy a few rows in front of me wanted to hear? Merle plays what Merle wants to play though it seems and no one’s going to get exactly what they want. Neko Case is opening for him tonight and she has quite a few fans in the audience too. They don’t seem entirely sure who Merle is and why she’s opening for him rather than the other way around. Neko, please explain next time. I know you know. And, yes, he did play the Working Man Blues.