Last Night: Merle Haggard at Stafford Centre
Thursday night at the Stafford Centre, I watched Merle Haggard play some of the greatest songs from arguably country music's greatest period while sitting next to Dr. Frank Mann, a retired veterinarian from Wharton .
The elderly country pet doctor told me stories about his life, from getting a C in military science while a cadet at Texas A&M, barely missing the Korean War that took some of his friends back to Jesus, to being the preeminent vet in his town, looking after 10,000 patients of all shapes and species at one point.
Mann was watching the show aisles away from his son and his friends because of a recent stroke that made his mobility limited. Mann's wife, a former schoolteacher, is sitting in a hospital at the moment fighting an illness.
"We've been married 56 years, but I started dating her ten years before that. I deserve a medal," said Mann, as Noel Haggard, Merle's oldest boy, ended his opening set for his father.
While we all waited for the elder Haggard to hit the stage, Mann pointed out his friends in the crowd: his pharmacist, his surgeon, and his friend that was a former bull rider, who married into money and became the biggest hay merchant in Texas, according to Mann.
Haggard and his son Noel share a band, the Strangers, a sturdy country group that features Merle's younger son Ben on lead guitar -- handling the heavy lifting -- and his wife Theresa on backing vocals.
The legendary Haggard, who will turn 76 on April 6, is part comedian and all troubadour onstage, championing his one remaining lung and praising pneumonia for giving him a great singing voice.
Opening with the classic-country two-fer "Big City" and "Silver Wings," Haggard had the crowd in his hands. The cheers came easily, and the whoops and hollerin' from the balcony were non-stop. Some people screamed entire sentences with requests. The bemused Haggard rolled on.