Austin City Limits has been an institution for decades now, but only during the show’s initial years was it considered to be primarily a country/roots program. Probably nobody would have guess that the likes of Flaming Lips or Coldplay would have one day graced the Austin stage, but times changes. Fortunately, the vaults are still there and are finally seeing the light of day through the advances in technology and DVD, allowing fans to see what the program’s original bread and butter proved to be. And they didn’t (and still don’t) come much bigger or better than The Hag. Merle Haggard’s October 1985 show had him picking a decent mix of signature hits with other equally well-crafted material. And while he’s basically mute between songs, it’s the music that Haggard shone on time after time.
Another highlight with these discs is that they are not the abbreviated concert, resulting in many of the concerts going over the 40- or 45-minute mark and not edited down to a neat and tidy half-hour’s worth of television. “I think I’m ready,” Haggard can be heard saying as the titles role by on the darkened screen. And from the opening “Okie From Muskogee’s Comin’ Home”, Haggard and his rather large but spot-on supporting cast are able to mix Haggard’s honky-tonk timbre with a decent blend of Dixieland horns and an almost boogie feeling. Add piano and fiddle, the latter from James Belken, and you have an “Americana” song if there ever was one. Wasting no time before starting into the second song, Haggard is able to make “Texas” a slow, honky-tonk country ditty that has him front and centre.
Throughout it all, Haggard seems to be right at home delivering what could be called a country kind of soul, particularly on the tender, heartbreaking and honest “What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)”. Starting slow and then picking things up just a hair in terms of the tempo, Haggard’s electric guitar polishes off some nice licks, not playing up a storm but saying a lot with a little. And the band seems to feed of that vibe, with each given a mini-moment to strut their stuff. The first real highlight however comes with “Mama Tried” judging by the response from the rapt audience present. “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole,” Haggard sings as the song’s swing-meets-country groove takes off. However, the ensuing “Misery” doesn’t quite measure up while Haggard, with his name visible on his guitar strap around his shoulder, acts like a conductor briefly for this song.
One surprise is how solid the toe-tapping, fiddle-fuelled “Take Me Back to Tulsa” comes across. A bouncy, Texas two-stepper kind of song from the massive Bob Wills catalogue, Haggard seems to let himself go briefly and really gets into the song before Gary Church adds his own two cents worth of sound. But as nice as this song is, I’ll take Cajun maestro Doug Kershaw’s remake of the song “Take Me Back to Mama” any day of the week. From there, the centerpiece of the DVD is probably “Silver Wings”, a slow, almost hymnal song that again has Haggard laying down some intricate and gorgeous guitar riffs, working his fingers up and down the neck. But it always was and always will be how Haggard is able to turn a phrase that has easily put him along the likes of Willie, Waylon and only a few select others. Several lines just cut to the chase, resulting in some honest but dark imagery. A good example is “Misery and Gin” where Haggard sings “Looking at the world through the bottom of a glass/ All I see is a man who’s fading fast.” Try as they might, few country acts today would be able to words together like that half as well.
Haggard moves from fiddle to guitar and back whether it’s the high-octane “Ida Red” that ends just a moment too soon. But he saves some of his best for the homestretch with “Place to Fall Apart” and “I Wish Things Were Simple Again”, two songs that while decades old still have that timeless quality. And if Haggard’s stories of heartbreak, drinking and life didn’t turn your crank yet, he saves a great one for almost the last. Given the time of the taping, Farm Aid was just getting off the ground, and Haggard looks directly into the camera singing “Amber Waves of Grain”. It’s one of his better vocal performances of the 15 songs presented. And if you can’t catch him on the road this year, part of which has him teamed with Bob Dylan, this snapshot of his music is a great addition to any country music lover’s collection.