Music News & Reviews

Country legend and ex-con Merle Haggard remains true to himself

Merle Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008, but he hasn't let that stop him.
Merle Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008, but he hasn't let that stop him.

Merle Haggard

7 p.m. July 24 at the New Barn Theatre of Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, Renfro Valley. $55. 1-800-765-7464.

One of my favorite recollections of a Merle Haggard concert is from an outdoor performance that the country legend gave at the Kentucky State Fair five years ago.

Early into the ultra-humid Friday evening show, Haggard asked the crowd: "How many convicts have we got here tonight?"

A hearty, unapologetic few held their hands high and many among the majority exchanged uncomfortable glances as partial histories of their concert-going neighbors were revealed.

Of course, anyone who knows the history of Hag will tell you that such an inquiry was hardly a performance joke. Haggard has served several stretches in the slammer, most notably in San Quentin, on charges ranging from petty larceny to burglary. Perhaps the only achievement in his life greater than the outstanding music he created was his personal reclamation. Indeed, listen to Hag classics like Mama Tried and you discover an incarcerated country soul in torment. Then switch to less obvious gems, say Kern River, a devastating account of a drowning, and you find an even greater darkness in the country wilderness outside of prison walls.

Now at age 73 and with a reputation as one of the principal architects of the West Coast-based Bakersfield Sound behind him, Haggard still is chasing demons in his songs. Little seems to stand in his way, either, including his own mortality. Although diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2008, Haggard shows no sign of slowing his performance and recording career.

"I'm no longer a fugitive," Haggard sings proudly on the title track to his sublime new album, I Am What I Am. "I'm just a seeker, I'm just a sinner and I'll be what I am."

Haggard returns to the region Saturday for a concert at Renfro Valley. Only balcony seats remain.

Here are two footnotes to Haggard's Kentucky return:

■ Sift through his extensive discography and you will discover a 1972 album for Capitol titled It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad). The title tune, which became a No. 1 country hit for Haggard in December 1972, was written by Mississippi-born songwriter Hank Cochran.

Although little known for his own performance work, Cochran composed, with Harlan Howard, one of the greatest country hits of all time: the regal I Fall to Pieces, which became a signature hit for Patsy Cline in 1961.

Cochran died last week at age 74 after battling pancreatic cancer.

■ The PBS series American Masters is currently featuring a documentary on Haggard titled Learning to Live With Myself. The filmmakers followed the singer for two years, both on the road and at home.

It premiered earlier this week, but the program can be viewed locally at 2 a.m. July 24 on KET and at 3 p.m. July 25 and 2:30 a.m. July 26 on KET2.

Jesco White

8 p.m. July 24 at Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave., $15. (859) 309-9499.

He's known as "the dancing outlaw" and, perhaps, less menacingly, "the last of the mountain dancers." Jesco White, the dancing entertainer from Boone County, W.Va., has become, during the past 30 years, something of a walking snapshot of rural Appalachia.

As a mountain dancer, he employs techniques that fall between clogging and tap dancing. But White is known as much for words of folksy wisdom as for his footwork. Among the disparate artists who have championed White and referenced him in song are The Kentucky HeadHunters, Big and Rich, Beck, Hank III and Mastodon.

White has been the subject of several documentaries. The first, 1991's Dancing Outlaw, outlined White's performance prowess and the Appalachian poverty he grew up in. The second, Dancing Outlaw 2: Jesco Goes to Hollywood, deals with White's journey to California to appear as a guest on Rosanne.

Coffeehouse bluegrass

Two-time International Bluegrass Music Association guitarist of the year Jim Hurst is back in the region this weekend.

A veteran of country music alliances with Trisha Yearwood and Sara Evans, and extensive bluegrass partnerships with the Claire Lynch Band and, especially, duet work with Missy Raines, Hurst has branched off to make three fine solo albums in recent years. The newest, 2007's A Box of Chocolates, spotlights a deeply lyrical flat-picking guitar sound. Hurst performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 West Broadway in Frankfort. Call (502) 875-3009. For reservations, go to

Bruce is back

Lexington guitarist Bruce Lewis is back at home this weekend. Having lived in Eastern Europe for more than two decades, Lewis is teaming up again with a pack of old friends — including harmonica ace Rodney Hatfield, percussionist Tripp Bratton, keyboardist Lee Carroll, Swells drummer David White and more — for an evening of jazz and groove-inspired fun Saturday at Natasha's Bistro & Bar, 112 Esplanade. (9 p.m., $7). Call (859) 259-2754.

Tift times two

Americana songstress Tift Merritt returns to Kentucky for two performances next week. She will be featured, along with the South Carolina jam band Dangermuffin, at Monday's taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at The Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street. (6:45 p.m. $10. (859) 252-8888 for reservations.

Merritt then moves to the great outdoors of the Harbor Lawn at Louisville's Waterfront Park for a free concert Wednesday with the Los Angeles country/folk ensemble Dawes and singer/multi-instrumentalist Robert Francis. (5 p.m. Free. (502) 814-6518.)

Merritt discusses her new album, See You on the Moon, and the adjustment from her North Carolina roots to writing in Paris and living in New York, in Sunday's Life and Arts section.