For those who may not know Merle Haggard’s story; here’s a little cliff note about Merle before he became “The Hag.” In 1957 Haggard was arrested after trying to rob a roadhouse in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. He then tried to escape from that prison and was later transferred to San Quentin Prison. In his four-year stint in state penitentiaries, Haggard attributed a performance by one Mr. Johnny Cash as the inspiration for his music career.
Now four years can make you really appreciate the little things you don’t have, like the simple luxury of having books to read or even a basic education that may help you later in life once you get out.
Saturday night, at Southgate House Revival nineteen bands paid their respect to Merle at the third annual Hagfest. The ticket proceeds for the festival were donated to the Appalachian Prison Book Project, that help provide books and education to inmates. A cause that Merle would have surely been proud to support.
With three artists playing at all times at all three different stages fans were able to hear a slew of different artists and acts that were all inspired by Haggard and his music. At one point you could walk around and within 15 minutes you could see a bluegrass band, a pain-soaked singer songwriter, or get down to a honkytonk band.
As I was overwhelmed with all the talent, several acts had captivated my attention and I almost couldn’t leave their set. On the first floor you had two bands almost competing for who was throwing a better party at each stage and on the second floor in the Revival Room you had an artist out of Nashville named Nathan Kalish.
Kalish’s set was much quieter and intimate and his songs captured a more personal sound to them. His song had that struggle many artists in Nashville have with breaking through and in what seemed like a bit of drunken set for Kalish he put on one of the more passionate performances of the night.
Down at the Sanctuary stage was probably most exciting performance of the night, which was Redd Volkaert and Bill Kirchen. Volkaert a Grammy winning artist who play in Haggard’s band, and Kirchin may have been one of the oldest acts in age but their ripping performance left the crowd talking the rest of the night.
Volkaert and Kirchin played not only Haggard tunes, but songs from artist that Haggard admired and who he covered himself. With their telecasters the two not only played country music but even had a medley of songs that spanned all of guitar music of the past 70 years, with even odes to Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and surf rock.
One act that was maybe most synonymous with Haggard’s story was Jamie Wynatt. A songwriter out of Nashville, she too spent time in the California state prison system. As her performance went on throughout the night, she gave the crowd incite into each song and much of them had to do with her eight-month stay in prison. Her songs at time’s painful to hear had a lot of hope and beauty in them, much like Haggard’s music did.
A performance I had been most excited to see was perhaps Laid Back Country Picker. Named after the Waylon Jennings tune, this Appalachian-Country sort of take on glam rock is one of the most fun performances I have seen in a long time. With Laid Back fronted by David Prince, a 52 year-old Social Studies Teacher and the mysterious “Honey” who throughout the hour long performance did not break this bad-ass exterior, with a pink-dress and curlers in her white hair to match. This performance was not only entertaining musically, since Prince absolutely shreds on his telecaster, but it was hilariously entertaining, an almost avant-garde take on what country music can be. Laid Back has garnered praise from artists like Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson fellow Kentucky artists.
Finally, as the night began to wind down it was only fitting that Hagfest founder Joe Macheret and his band Joe’s Truck Stop performed and gave their ode to Haggard with their take on songs like “Big City.”
It would be fair to say that Hagfest was success once again and Haggard as he was a “Branded Man,” would have certainly appreciated the cause this festival went to.