- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

It had been only four months since Merle Haggard last played the Birchmere, but a few things had changed by the time he returned to Alexandria for a sold-out show Sunday night.

For starters, the country legend has released a critically acclaimed new album, “Like Never Before,” his best in years. It features a tune called “That’s the News,” an angry critique of the sensationalist media and its coverage of the Iraq war.

The famously combative Mr. Haggard wound up on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” explaining what he meant by the song.

“I’m just giving you the news the way I see it that day,” Mr. Haggard said. “I’m giving you the news in blues tempo, and that’s all it’s intended to be. I’m not against the war or for the war in that song. It has nothing to do with it.”

More recently, Mr. Haggard found himself in the crossfire between the Dixie Chicks and their archenemy, country singer Toby Keith. On his Web site, Mr. Haggard defended the Chicks’ right to dis President Bush and said he’s been trying, unsuccessfully, to patch things up between Chicks front-gal Natalie Maines and Mr. Keith.

So Merle Haggard, improbably, is news again.

How did that happen?

Judging from the craggy look of Mr. Haggard and his seven-piece band, the Strangers, he’s far, far from the cutting edge. Even the black shades beneath the cowboy hat were a stretch: Mr. Haggard is, proudly, no hipster, as his hit song “Okie From Muskogee” attests.

The Methuselah-like journeymen who back him — well, they’re even further from the cutting edge.

His pedal-steel guitarist sports a thick weave of white hair that suggests Col. Sanders. His lead guitarist, Norm Stephens, used to play for Lefty Frizzell — in the ‘50s.

But as soon as Mr. Haggard dug into “Big City” — after a false start, no less — it became clear that the country legend occupies a corner of our popular consciousness similar to that of his friend, the late Johnny Cash. (Mr. Haggard was there for Mr. Cash’s famous concert at San Quentin State Prison — in the audience.)

Like Mr. Cash’s, his sound is hard to pin down. It’s not just country; it’s more urbane than that, drawing from Texas swing, blues and rockabilly. There was even a hint of jazz Sunday night, with the Strangers’ saxophonist-cornetist sounding more like Bix Beiderbecke than a country player.

And, more than anyone, Mr. Haggard defined a distinct form of country music that came to be identified with his birthplace, Bakersfield, Calif.

Also like Mr. Cash, Mr. Haggard has bad-boy cachet and working-class authenticity. When he dedicated “Workin’ Man Blues” to working men (and women, too), he seemed sincere.

He skipped many of his hits but honored a couple of audience requests, with “Swingin’ Doors” and “I Think I’ll Stay Here And Drink.”

Mr. Haggard quit after little more than an hour’s playing and didn’t return for an encore; the show didn’t so much end as it just stopped — not exactly a bang for nearly $50 tickets.

Maybe he had another date with 24-hour news.

Merle Haggard is hot again.

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