"I wrote most of these songs in my 20s," Merle Haggard said in the midst of his hit-filled set. "Here I am in my 40s, still trying to sing them."
The hoots and whistles that greeted Haggard all night surged again at the introduction to "Footlights," about an aging musician with that very perspective who's trying to keep his performances lively and interesting.
Now 74 and another generation into his Country Music Hall of Fame career, Haggard has no trouble dragging a night's worth of fun out of his decades-old hits.
After a short opening set by his son Noel, the Strangers hit the stage, warming up the crowd before Haggard strolled out, tipped his black hat to the crowd and picked up his signature Telecaster.
Haggard opened with a relatively new song, 2003's "That's the News," which called out the national news media for keeping the cost of the war in Iraq out of sight.
A rush of hits—"Pancho and Lefty," "Silver Wings," "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star"—followed. Then, with a shout-out to Johnny Cash, Haggard and the Strangers lit into "Folsom Prison Blues," with Haggard joking afterward that being released from his recent stint in the hospital felt like getting out of prison.
In his first performance since being hospitalized for double pneumonia in January (and after postponing several shows), Haggard was spry and sang in a clear, strong voice. The Strangers showed the fruits of longtime collaboration, with Haggard sharing leads all around.
The quick-paced 20-song set had plenty more hits, including "Mama Tried," "If I Could Only Fly," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)," "Are the Good Times Really Over" and the title song from last year's Working in Tennessee, with Haggard switching from guitar to fiddle.
Cowboy hats dotted the appreciative crowd, which heartily joined in singing the night's closer, "Okie From Muskogee."
An icon and still-hard-working legend who's earned countless accolades, Haggard might not exactly strike with the same force as he did in his 20-something outlaw days, but his old glory keeps shining brightly.