Merle Haggard review: Honky tonks live with an icon’s special gig
Merle squeezed every ounce of sentiment from his well-worn repertoire, featuring classic, tender ballads and rave-ups.

Country musicians worship honky tonks, but precious few stars play in these venues.

There’s more money to be made sharing the bill with, say, Alan Jackson in roomy stadiums or, worse, pitching a tent in Branson, Mo., and placing yourself on automatic pilot for 12 shows per week.

Merle Haggard did the latter, and the effects were apparent when he stepped onstage at Madison’s Dry Bean Saloon and Smoke House Monday night.

Droopy eyes. Hunched shoulders. Almost a frown.

At age 56, he looked older.

A few feet away, his souvenir T-shirts offered the inscription, “The LEGEND Continues,” as if teasing.

Then it all changed. Shortly into his 20-song set, Merle (that’s what it said on his guitar strap) got inspired.

Packed spur-to-spur, Dry Bean’s capacity crowd of about 600 created enough noise to rouse Merle from performance slumber. And once he felt it, Merle squeezed every ounce of sentiment from his well-worn repertoire, featuring tender ballads and rave-ups like “Silver Wings” and “Old Man From the Mountain.”

Merle’s eight-piece band stood crunched together on the tiny stage, which included two bear skins (Dry Bean’s, not Merle’s) tacked to the wall. When songs ended, thunderous applause and hollering followed while people hoisted bottles of Lone Star beer overhead.

Oh, yeah, Merle knew he had ’em hooked – the fan with the American flag tie; the guy who opted to stand in the back of the smoky club rather than take off his cowboy hat so others behind him could see; the middle-aged concertgoer who mused after recognizing one of Merle’s hits from the late ’60s, “I hate to think I’m that old.”

Considering Merle sold out the Dry Bean, at $20 per ticket, in the blink of an eye, could a parade of country stars be stepping into small venues here?

Probably not.

Larry Frank of Frank Productions, which promoted Monday’s event, says Merle’s tour “routing worked out” – meaning he needed a gig to fill between bigger shows.

This weekend, Merle will be back to doing two shows a night at a suburban Chicago theater, but we got him where he belongs in an atmosphere a little dusty where drinks flowed.

And he performed so close to us. What incredible luck to have this chance to see an icon return to decade-old concert roots.

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