PENDLETON -- Wheeling oxygen tanks, leaning on walkers and wearing rodeo princess hair -- sometimes all at once -- they were determined to get down the long hall at Wildhorse Resort & Casino.
Those without tickets were out of luck and those with tickets were impatient to surge into Rivers Event Center inside the casino, jam-packed even on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
It was time for the Merle Haggard concert and folks would not be denied, it seemed. They sported plenty of cowboy boots and hats to prove the right to listen to the legendary country music star.
Chris and Taylor Malpass are the opening act for Haggard's 2010 tour. The brothers -- both too young to sign for a rental car and both wearing pompadours -- come from North Carolina and pride themselves on serving up a generous helping of long-ago country.
Using what Haggard referred to in a recent interview as "Mississippi Elvis mode," the boys dished out old favorites like "Who Will Buy the Wine" by Charlie Walker and "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," by Hank Williams.
By the time Haggard took the stage, the audience was thoroughly transported from Eastern Oregon to Good Ol' Country. At 73, the singer-songwriter is still master of the genre and the crowd took to its feet to say so. Cell phones and cameras flashed like Fourth of July sparklers in the darkened room.
The star attraction slowly smiled and tipped his black cowboy hat in return.
Haggard and his band, The Strangers, are promoting Haggard's 76th album. "I Am What I Am" gives listeners bits of Haggard's autobiography in song, including "Oil Tanker Train," which details his early life spent living with his parents in a boxcar by the oil fields of California.
The grizzled veteran of the "outlaw country" movement also gave this audience the history they came for. Backed with rich chords from his 17 year-old son, Ben Haggard on lead guitar, as well as saxophone, steel guitar, fiddle, keyboard and more, Haggard laid out the standards that brought him fame. Beginning with "Silver Wings," he layered on "Working Man Blues," "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" and "Mama Tried."
"We're lucky to be here," Haggard quipped between songs. "Normally we're just a dance band."
Before long the singer's voice showed effects of a cold he's been fighting in the past week or so, which canceled some earlier shows and gave the singer a case of "Loren-gytis," as he called it. "And Loren's the worst of them boys."
That didn't stop him from playing with his fans, some who seemed there for the chance to banter with him. One man asked him if Haggard remembered a time spent in a bar in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1967.
"Sixty-four," Haggard corrected him.
"Sixty-seven. It was '67," the man responded.
"Sixty-four," the singer tossed back. "It's my life."
That earned a roar of laughter and applause from the audience, with one woman hollering out, "I love you, Merle."
With a shake of his silvered hair, he answered, "If you knew the shape I was in, you wouldn't love me." Which matched an earlier response to a similar proclamation -- "I want some, too, honey," Haggard replied, his craggy face creased further with a wry grin. "I may be too old."
When he launched into "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," his fans supplied the percussion with their hands, while the steel guitar coated everything with musical honey. The star eventually segued into more recent fare, including "Runaway Mama."
"I wrote this song about my current wife ... Oh! I'm not supposed to say 'current.' I wrote this song about my wife, who's not here today by choice. She chose to stay and clean the bus."
His latest album landed on Billboard's chart at higher than anything he's done in 25 years, Haggard told the crowd. "We try to play songs for who we're playing for," he added, referring to his work about a convict headed for death in "Send Me Back Home."
When the laughter came, the singer's eyes crinkled yet again. "Touched a nerve, didn't it," he drawled.
As the set wound to a close, Haggard sent out another question. "Do you folks grow any herb up here?"
At the affirmative roar, he began closing the concert with his infamous "Okie From Muskogee," the song that landed him in the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame and sent him into Top Ten charts for weeks in 1969.
"Those of you who don't like to do it, why, dodge every doobie you can," Haggard advised as fans rollicked and sang backup on the chorus.
He tied the bow on the afternoon show with the title track of his new release, singing of no longer being a fugitive on the lam. "I do what I do, because I do give a damn ... I am what I am."
With that what Haggard was, was gone, to almost palpable disappointment from his Eastern Oregon fans.
But it was what it was and that meant getting a few hours of the life of a country star...one who shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.