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This is shaping up to be quite a sad year for the music world: 2016 has already taken David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Natalie Cole—and today, it took the great Merle Haggard.

He passed away at his Northern California home on his 79th birthday, after suffering from complications from pneumonia.

Merle Haggard was a larger-than-life figure in country music. He was an outlaw in every sense of the word: Theft, bad checks and robbery were part of his criminal past, which eventually landed him in San Quentin Prison, where he began to turn his life around.

In the early 1960s, when Merle Haggard began his recording and performing career, he and Buck Owens were instrumental in forging the Bakersfield sound, a subgenre of country music that protested the commercialization of Nashville’s country-music scene. It’s a never-ending trend in country music, it seems, to commercialize the music of the day by turning it as “pop” as possible; many Americana and alt-country acts today can relate to what Merle Haggard went through five decades ago.

There are many great Haggard songs, but the one he’ll probably always be remembered for most is “Okie From Muskogee,” a controversial song he released in 1969 about how the hippie movement was destroying America. It earned him an audience that would give him thunderous applause whenever he’d start playing the song.

Yes, Merle Haggard was a man who was not afraid to take a strong stance—and tell the whole world about it. However, while he was pegged as a blue-collar conservative, he went on a successful tour with Bob Dylan in 2005.

He’s admired in alt-country and Americana circles as much as he is in the mainstream country world. He’s been referenced in songs. His song “Mama Tried” was often covered by the Grateful Dead. He recorded songs with artists from Willie Nelson to Jewel, and was even on punk label Epitaph Records’ sister label, ANTI-, with people such as Tom Waits and Roky Erickson.

Last year at Stagecoach, Merle Haggard’s surprising performance eschewed much of the Bakersfield sound, as well as the outlaw country sound. Instead, he went for a more polished live presentation with a horn section. Still, he was magnificent and proved that he still had it as a live performer.

It’s worth noting that earlier that day, Merle Haggard was seen on the side of the stage while Sturgill Simpson performed. He seemed in awe of what Simpson was trying to create: yet another country sound that rejects the commercial stuff coming out of Nashville.

The deaths of Johnny Cash in 2003 and George Jones in 2013 were crushing blows to the country-usic world, and now comes the death of Merle Haggard. There are very few of the originals left. It’s undeniable: Merle Haggard is one of the guys who made the genre something modern country musicians can hang their hat on.

The holiday season is upon us, which means things hectic, and you may feel the need to escape—or find something to that doesn’t involve shopping. Fortunately, there are plenty of great events going on in December (especially in the first two-thirds of the month) for people looking to escape, as well as people looking to celebrate the holidays.

The McCallum Theatre has an awesome December schedule. If you missed Merle Haggard at Stagecoach back in April, you’ll be happy to know the Okie from Muskogee will be coming back at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 2. Haggard, one of the creators of the Bakersfield sound, has written an astonishing number of great country songs throughout his long career. Tickets are $77 to $97. At 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 15, there will be a performance of The Nutcracker performed by the Los Angeles Ballet. Tickets are $27 to $87. At 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20, country star LeAnn Rimes perform a Christmas-themed concert. Back in the ’90s, Rimes captured the admiration and support of people everywhere as a star at the age of 13. She’s since carved out a fine career, with two Grammy Awards, a Country Music Association Award, 12 Billboard music awards and an American Music Award to her credit. Tickets are $37 to $87. McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert; 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Fantasy Springs Resort Casino has some great holiday events on the schedule. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 5, you’ll know it’s time for Christmas when Mannheim Steamroller returns. This is the 31st year that Mannheim Steamroller has taken its rock and electric-synth style Christmas show on the road; the concert includes dazzling multimedia effects, too. The group has sold 28 million copies of Christmas albums! Tickets are $39 to $69. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 19, it will be time to boogie for the holidays when The Brian Setzer Orchestra takes the stage. Setzer’s swing/rockabilly holiday shows have become a Christmas tradition; if you haven’t had the pleasure, check it out. Tickets are $39 to $69. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio; 760-342-5000; www.fantasyspringsresort.com.

The Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa has a light schedule, but there are two great events you should to know about. At 9 p.m., Friday, Dec. 4, Mama, the star of Mama’s Family, and comedienne Vicki Lawrence will be performing her “Two Woman Show.” Tickets are $20 to $40. If you don’t have plans for New Year’s Eve, you’ll be happy to know that at 10:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 31, former Runaways member Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (right) will be rocking into 2016. Forget attending those expensive parties where you stand in line all night to buy expensive drinks, and create fond New Year’s Eve memories with a legend! Tickets are $60 to $80. The Show at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage; 888-999-1995; www.hotwatercasino.com.

Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has a great list of December shows. At 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 17, Brant Bjork and the Low-Desert Punk Band will take the stage. Bjork, a founder and former drummer of desert rock gods Kyuss, performed at Coachella back in April. If you call yourself a fan of desert rock, you need to get your ass to this show—because Bjork delivers live. Tickets are $15. At 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 26, you can celebrate the day after Christmas with The Evangenitals. If you had a good Christmas, the Evangenitals will make it even better! If you had a bad Christmas, the Evangenitals will have you laughing, therefore lifting you out of your holiday blues. It’s become a tradition at Pappy’s to have the Evangenitals perform after Christmas, so go partake! Admission is free. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown; 760-365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com.

The Date Shed has some nice things happening in December. At 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 4, things are going to get festive thanks to EeVaan Tre and the “Holiday Show.” EeVaan and the boys have quite an impressive R&B act, so you know their holiday show is going to be something you don’t want to miss. Admission is free. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 5, the vibe will be quite different, because rapper Paul Wall will be performing. The Houston-based rapper has been going since 1998 and has had songs on the charts. Tickets are $20 to $23. If you were concerned the Date Shed’s schedule was initially missing some performers who come back year after year … relax: Ghostface Killah is indeed returning to the venue, at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 19. Ghostface, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, performed a hop, skip and a jump from the Date Shed at Coachella back in April with fellow Wu-Tang member Raekwon. Tickets are $28 to $38. The Date Shed, 50725 Monroe St., Indio; 760-775-6699; www.dateshedmusic.com.

The Hood Bar and Pizza has released a list of nice events for the month. At 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 4 rock/reggae band Fayuca will be stopping by; Machin’ and DJ Alf Alpha will also perform. Admission is free. At 9 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 10, you’ll be happy to know that Chicano Batman (below) will be coming back to perform at The Hood—and, of course, their compadres Slipping Into Darkness are also on the bill. Yay! Admission is free. The Hood Bar and Pizza, 74360 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-636-5220; www.facebook.com/thehoodbar.

Tryst Bar and Lounge continues to diversify downtown Palm Springs’ music offerings, with free shows at 10 p.m. virtually every Tuesday and Saturday. The month’s highlights include Derek Jordan Gregg on Tuesday, Dec. 1; and local metal-punk favorites Gutter Candy on Tuesday, Dec. 22. Tryst Bar and Lounge, 188 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 760-832-6046; www.facebook.com/trystpalmsprings.

Published in Previews

Stagecoach 2015 started on Friday, April 24, with high winds, cooler temperatures—and a lot of great music.

If you’ve never been to Stagecoach, I highly recommend arriving for the opening of the grounds on the first day of the festival. Right at noon, the Monday Night Football theme blasted throughout the grounds, and people took off running toward the Mane Stage. The music also changed to things such as the Benny Hill theme or “Reveille.” Many festival employees stopped what they were doing to film the spectacle with their cell phones. It’s quite a contrast to what happens at Coachella—where they simply snip the caution tape, and people slowly walk onto the grounds without a scene.

The Haden Triplets kicked things off on the Mustang Stage. The daughters of the late jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who are signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records, have a neotraditional country sound—with some Carter Family-style folk thrown in. Their harmonies were impressive, and Petra Haden’s violin playing was quite beautiful.

Pegi Young and the Survivors performed on the Palomino Stage around 2 p.m.—and the sound was similar to what you’d hear in a classic honky-tonk. It was a little bit of country, and a little bit of rock ’n’ roll. Young dedicated her tune “Better Livin’ Through Chemicals” to the pharmaceutical companies; she spoofed the TV-commercial disclaimers that reveal all the nasty side effects—and said that after that, you’d still be “skippin’ through a flower patch” just like on the commercials.

In 2013, The Lone Bellow played Stagecoach for the first time; the band was back this year, and frontman Zach Williams mentioned how special that first appearance was for them, because it was the first festival at which this Americana group from Brooklyn ever played. The Lone Bellow’s performance sounded like country should sound in the modern age: There were folk elements, bluegrass elements and rock elements. The audience in the Palomino Tent was a mix of shirtless cowboys, ladies who wanted to dance, and some old-timers—and all who watched were impressed.

Last week at Coachella, I mentioned being blown away by a gentleman who performed named Sturgill Simpson: He was magnificent, he managed to woo the Coachella audience with his country sound. At Stagecoach, in the Palomino tent following The Lone Bellow, he put on just as awesome of a performance—and while some boot scootin’ went on, the Stagecoach crowd was nowhere near as generous to Simpson as the Coachella crowd was. Simpson has denied sounding like Waylon Jennings—but he definitely does sound like Jennings, albeit with Simpson’s own originality and creativity.

The Time Jumpers, featuring Vince Gill and Kenny Sears, followed Simpson—and even one of their collaborators, Riders in the Sky frontman Ranger Doug, was in Oregon and didn’t perform with them, the old-time country band, with all its jazzy and country roots elements, was magnificent. It was a feel-good, throwback country show.

Steve Earle took the Mustang Stage at 7 p.m. and started with some of the blues material from his most recent album—but he still performed the classics. Stagecoach was a long time coming for Earle, and his hour-long set was a delight. During his biggest hit, “Copperhead Road,” a group of line dancers cleared a space and put on an impressive routine that got a lot of attention. Unfortunately, after “Copperhead Road,” many people wandered off to other stages, and Earle finished with a smaller crowd than he started with.

Closing out the Palomino Tent was a true icon of the Bakersfield sound: Merle Haggard. Haggard was about 10 minutes late for his 7:45 p.m. set, but considering Earle was closing out the Mustang Stage, and many people who had spent all day in front of the Mane Stage were walking over to hear Haggard, it was wise to give attendees some extra time. While Haggard was magnificent, a polished horn section removed some of the edge and twang from his songs. Still, it was fantastic to hear the legend in top form toward the end of the first day of Stagecoach 2015.

Scroll down to see photos from Stagecoach 2015's first day.

Published in Reviews

While the 2015 Stagecoach headliners are larger than life, there are a lot of other acts you should include in your schedule. Here are our suggestions.


Friday, April 24

Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys

It’s always a good thing to hear the upright bass and banjo at Stagecoach. Featuring singer-songwriter Lindsay Lou, this folk group has a beautiful sound—and Lindsay Lou can sing.

The Lone Bellow

These days, the term “alt-country” is (over-) used to describe country music that doesn’t fall in with the mainstream. Well, The Lone Bellow is often described as an alt-country band, so take that for what it’s worth. Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., this group has some great tunes that are heartfelt—and isn’t afraid to rock.

Steve Earle

Sugarland wrote a song called “Steve Earle” for a reason: The chorus goes “Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me.” He’s one of the best songwriters in country music; heck, he’s even written a novel. He’s also a sensible lad who has written a lot of politically themed songs championing left-wing causes. (Check out our interview with him next week here at CVIndependent.com.)

Merle Haggard

The legendary Merle Haggard is one of the champions of the Bakersfield sound—and he has quite an extensive history that includes a stint in prison, making him a true outlaw. While Haggard has written some tunes that have angered some people, such as “Okie From Muskogee,” he’s still mentioned in the same breath as Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Willie Nelson.


Saturday, April 25

Old Salt Union

There’s a touch of bluegrass in this group’s acoustic rock sound. In fact, Old Salt Union was named the Best Bluegrass Band by St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, and the band has toured all across the country. Show up early to take these guys in.

The Cadillac Three

If you’re looking for some Southern rock, The Cadillac Three are your band. The group has even recorded with Dierks Bentley (who is also performing). These guys have a dirty Southern sound that would make Lynyrd Skynyrd proud; listen to their song “I’m Southern.”

ZZ Top

I last saw ZZ Top about 15 years ago when I was living in Cleveland—and I left disappointed. Here’s hoping they’ll put on an epic show at Stagecoach. The beards of Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill are legendary, and the group reportedly refused millions of dollars from Gillette to shave them. They remarked: “We’d look ugly without them.”


Sunday, April 26

Ben Miller Band

Confession: I’ve been fruitlessly hoping that The Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band would be booked at Stagecoach for the past couple of years—but the Ben Miller Band is not a bad consolation prize. Both groups excel with washboards, spoons and a vintage blues sound. These guys should bring the house down on Sunday.

Oak Ridge Boys

In 2013, I had the honor of interviewing Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys. These guys have stayed relevant for four decades, making great music throughout their career. This is one of the vintage country acts you need to see at Stagecoach.

The Band Perry

The Band Perry, likely to appear on the main stage, is excellent. The group has some hints of bluegrass with a Nashville sound. This family act features Kimberly Perry on vocals—and she has earned her stripes as a powerful voice in Nashville.

Published in Previews