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Back to the Barrooms

16 March 2009

It isn’t often that qb goes to a concert, much less a concert in a high-tech, modern orchestra hall like the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts (Amarillo’s answer to the fabulous Meyerson).  Much less even a concert in which qb can match every single word of the lyrics from start to finish.  Last night’s hour with Merle was a thrill – at times poignant, at times just flat rollicking.


Back in the mid 1980s, qb underwrote a vanishingly small part of his college education as a member of the Heber Hotshots wildfire crew on the Mogollon Rim, 30 miles WNW of Show Low, AZ.  Heber is a little Mormon town, so if you wanted to drink, you had to go to neighboring Overgaard.  As luck would have it, the two bars in Overgaard were right across Highway 260 from the USFS compound.  One of the bars – I forget the name – had a little stage and a dance floor.  The building is still there, but it’s barren and empty with a “For Sale” sign on it.  Time moves on.

(Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that my earnings in Arizona were just about completely devoted to Jennifer’s engagement ring.)

On weekends, that little bar welcomed a local three-man band called “Cheyenne” to come in and play a couple of long sets of hard-edged country and some southern boogie.  Somehow word had gotten around among the Hotshots that ol’ qb could carry a Haggard vocals line, and one night Ernie Maldonado, one of our sawyers, walked up to the stage and whispered something to the lead vocalist.  Next thing I knew I was being called up to the mic.  Naturally, I told ’em, let’s go with “Big City.”  And off we went, in retrospect an amusing image:  a preppie college boy born and raised in Big D, forever sheltered from the hard life of too much whiskey, too many wild women, and hard time in San Quentin, singing one of Haggard’s classics.  

Musically, I pulled it off night after night.  But in every other way, there was no truth to it.  And to see Haggard in person last night was to be reminded of how silly it must have looked, and how naive I must have been never to notice. 


What a fabulous time of life, spending half of my fifteen minutes in an obscure bar with an obscure band in a nondescript corner of a desolate portion of the desert Southwest, covering the greatest country singer/songwriter alive, then or now.


He’s not long for this world, I’m sure – although if he’s anything, he’s a survivor.  Ol’ sawbones lopped off a cancerous piece of his lung last November, and when he enters or exits the stage, he sorta shuffles.  The roadies made it clear after a rousing version of the old gospel hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” that there would be no encores.  He’s tired, I guess, and it’s not as easy to breathe anymore.  I felt cheated in a wistful sort of way, not an angry or resentful one.  But as Jennifer and I walked out to the car at 9:40, it occurred to me that if Merle were to sing every one of the songs I knew by heart, we’d still have been there at 2 in the morning.  Merle’s got to be in Santa Rosa later this week, and I’ve got to get home to the boys.

Time moves on.


Until last night, Merle was the only country artist I ever wanted to see that I had never seen live in concert.  I’ve seen George Strait twice, Willie once, Don Williams, and Gary Morris…and Johnny Lee, I think, down at Gilley’s in Pasadena.  But their music never had the effect on me that Merle’s has had.  They call him the songwriter for the common man.  You can’t write like that unless you’ve lived it.  He’s lived it, and it shows in the deep creases on his face.  He was only eight rows away, but it might as well have been a thousand miles.  


He didn’t talk much.  Didn’t have to.


There’s probably something significant in all of this, and maybe I’ll return to it someday soon and reflect on it.  There are strains of incarnation here, of the inevitability of suffering, the mockery that life makes of the too-polished lives paraded before us every Sunday morning.  I can’t help myself:  the modern megachurch seems incapable of granting admission to sorrow, confession, shame, and grief.  We toss the word “process” around as if to pretend there’s a statute of limitations on every evil that comes our way.  It makes me angry.

But for now, I want to thank God that I had a chance to sit in an aisle seat within a jig pitch of a life I never knew…but secretly always wanted to.  Thanks, Merle.  I’ll probably never see you perform live again, and if I don’t, I just want you to know:  you’re the best.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    17 March 2009 10:00 am

    qb, your story reminded me of early days in my own life when Willie Nelson and George Jones (along with Merle) were the musical staples of our existence. I’ve got a soft spot for Willie; this born and raised Texan captured the same spirit many of us felt (feeling?) about the way the world is turning.

    Thanks for the flashback.


  2. 17 March 2009 11:29 am

    Right-O…Willie was Mozart to Merle’s brooding Wagner, perhaps. Maybe it’s a brooding personality of his own that makes qb lean in Merle’s direction.

    Suffice to say this: they don’t make ’em like that any more.


  3. 18 March 2009 10:21 am


    My son has, on occasion, run sound for Willy. When he did, a day or two after performances in or around the Austin area, he was usually invited to Willy’s place overnight for beer, bar-b-que and conversation. My son says that he has a hidden, kind of bluesy Jesus dimension. I believe he has a Methodist background.


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