Country music legend Merle Haggard plays Sarasota

mclear@bradenton.comJanuary 23, 2014 

Merle Haggard is the country singer and songwriter whose songs have been moving audiences and influencing country and popular music for decades. He'll be at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota on Wednesday. PUBLICITY PHOTO

If Merle Haggard knows what he's going to play for Bradenton area fans at his concert next week, he's not saying.

"We hit the stage with about 300 songs we can play," Haggard said in a phone interview from his California home. "From there, it's just however the spirit moves us."

Haggard, of course, is the country singer and songwriter whose songs have been moving audiences and influencing country and popular music for decades. He'll be at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota on Wednesday.

Haggard had a couple of big country hits in the 1960s, and was one of the progenitors of the "Bakersfield Sound," an alternative to the slickly produced mainstream country of the day, and the later "outlaw" country music movement.

People who didn't follow country music became aware of Haggard in 1969 when "Okie From Muskogee" became a huge crossover hit. It became an anthem for America's blue-collar population, and some of the young people of the era took it as an attack on their lifestyle. Haggard has said in some interviews that the song was intended as satirical and sardonic.

"It is what it is and it became what it is," Haggard said. "The reasons for writing it have probably long ago faded away."

But after pondering for bit, Haggard seems to recall.

"I think pride was really the point," he said. "At the time when I wrote that, 'Okie' had a negative connotation. The song was saying, whoever you are, be proud of who you are."

Haggard could easily fill a concert with nothing but hits and fan favorites, from his early songs such as "Okie," "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Mama Tried" and "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," through "If We Can Take It through December" and into such later hits as "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star." Although he hasn't had a big hit single since the late '80s, his albums, including 2010's "I Am What I Am," have been critically praised and popular with fans of country, folk and rock music.

In his shows, Haggard said, he's mindful that people want to heard a healthy portion of familiar songs.

"You may not have a set list," he aid, "but you have to think about the guy that's buying the ticket. There are staples, 'Mama Tried,' 'Okie from Muskogee' and some others, that people expect to hear."

But Haggard is finishing a new album that should be released in May, so he may introduce some new songs. He also said he'll throw in some "surprises."

"The idea," he said, "is for them to go home with a belly full of what they came for."

Details: 8 p.m. Jan. 29, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets: $52.62-$84.72. Information: 941-953-3368, www.vanwezel.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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