Merle Haggard didn’t mess around Thursday night: He played 18 songs at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, and that was that — no fuss, no muss and no encore after his 65-minute set.
But what a set: The iconic country singer laid out hit song after hit song, spinning tales of heartache and hard living. With help from his band, the Strangers, Haggard dialed in a classic country sound with sheets of pedal-steel guitar, plinking honky-tonk piano and fat, trebly electric guitar leads. Suffice to say the Hag made latter-day country music sound like a bunch of weak posturing.
At 75, Haggard still has a strong voice, and though his performance was plenty business-like, you still got the sense he meant it on rueful tunes like “Mama Tried” and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and he bristled with defiance on “Heaven Was a Drink of Wine.”
When he wasn’t singing about boozing, Haggard was singing about heartache and rocky relationships on tunes like “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” “If We Make It Through December” and Willie Nelson’s “Back to Earth.” He threw in a few traveling songs, too, including “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and “Ramblin’ Fever,” a 1970s outlaw-country song that rolled through quick solos from piano, guitar and even a saxophone player.
Haggard’s youngest son, Ben, handled most of the lead guitar work at first, but the Hag stepped up on “Silver Wings” a few songs in, and held his own on guitar for the rest of the show. Well, apart from “Working in Tennessee,” where he switched to fiddle.
Hag didn’t say much until midway through the set, when he introduced himself. He cracked a few jokes after that, and dedicated “Sing Me Back Home” “to all the ex-convicts” in the house. When the crowd erupted in hoots and applause, he continued, “I knew there’d be a few of us here.”
Haggard ended the set with two of his biggest songs: “Okie From Muskogee,” which has to be one of the most subversive country songs ever written; and “Pancho & Lefty,” the desolate ballad by Townes Van Zandt that Haggard and Willie Nelson took to No. 1 on the country singles chart in 1983.
Merle Haggard’s set list, via Spotify: