JOEL SELVIN, Chronicle Staff Critic
An assortment of properly respectful acolytes honored country great Merle Haggard on Saturday, bringing to the Fillmore stage a live version of a tribute album titled ``Tulare Dust'' that they helped make. But it took the man himself to pull on those muddy boots and walk that dusty road.
Iris DeMent has a big, expressive voice, but when Haggard sang ``Big City'' after her, the pain and remorse behind his lyrics became palpable.
Dave Alvin, who credited Haggard (along with John Fogerty, Tom Waits and Brian Wilson) with writing great songs about California, sang ``Kern River'' admirably, his deep voice rolling along the melancholy narrative. But when Haggard dusted it off later, he moved the song over the edge into morose.
As earnest and sincere as the tributes to Haggard were, only Haggard could actually inhabit those songs and make them come to life.
In his hour on stage, he could do little more than scratch the surface of his enormous songbook, a massive collection accumulated over 30 years of writing and singing country hits. But lots of people have written and sung country hits. Haggard's songs ring like literature with the voice of a great writer.
The world of his songs is a dark, forbidding place, filled with regret, loneliness and sorrow. At the Fillmore, he brought the bleak, moody realm into his performance.
He didn't say much to the wildly enthusi astic capacity crowd. He would just touch the strings of his electric guitar and the band would roll in behind him, off on another song.
He touched such cornerstones as ``Mama Tried,'' ``Lonesome Fugitive,'' ``Swinging Doors,'' ``Sing Me Back Home.'' He ran streams from the blues through his songs. The resonant ghost of '50s doo-wop hovered above some of his melodies. He even played the raucous R&B instrumental ``Honky Tonk.''
But when he strapped his voice across those songs, it was like a belt of old, worn leather, soft but strong, smooth in all the right places, even if the creases show. His timing was poetry, a hesitation here, a stretched-out line there.
These were not just songs being sung. Each was a performance indelibly branded right in front of the audience.
The evening began with a procession of worshipful disciples from the folk-rock field. Tom Russell, Rosie Flores, Peter Case, Marshall Crenshaw, Billy Joe Shaver, Katy Moffatt and Alvin ambled on and sang two songs each -- one of their own and the one they recorded for ``Tulare Dust,'' produced by Alvin and Russell.
They grouped around one another, helping out on harmony vocals and different instruments, with Gene Leisz embroidering the edges with dobro and mandolin.
Then Haggard's band, the Strangers, took the stage and his ex-wife Bonnie Owens chirped ``Silver Threads and Golden Nee dles'' before bringing out DeMent. Owens, his longtime singing partner, could barely restrain her emotion over this tribute concert to her former husband.
But before she could work up a sufficiently dramatic introduction, Haggard, wearing a black, well-worn cowboy hat, stalked out onstage with his guitar. He just emerged from the shadows, plugged in and started up ``Working Man Blues.''
After singing a half-dozen songs, he paused to note the special nature of the evening, having all these younger musicians precede him. ``And I want to thank every gol-blanged one of 'em,'' he said.
Haggard invited the entire cast out to join him for a set-closing ``They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down.''
As expressive and beautifully executed as the earlier performances had been, Haggard stood so tall in the saddle it was like being in the presence of a larger- than-life figure.
Grizzled, balding and bearded, he looked like an old miner walking out of a faded tintype. While the other interpretations made his talents most evident, it was Haggard who made blood run through the veins of his songs.
© 4/17/95 , San Francisco Chronicle, All Rights Reserved, All Unauthorized Duplication Prohibited