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With legends it's not always easy separating fact from fiction, but Merle Haggard's dossier reads true. No disrespect to Johnny Cash, but he only played San Quentin--Hag did time as part of the captive audience. "I turned 21 in prison, doin' life without parole," he sings in "Mama Tried." In reality he only served 2 years of the maximum 15 years for burglary, but who's quibbling when you're talking the biggest house of all? Haggard seemed destined to soil the memory of a dead father and bust the heart of a beloved mother until he picked up a guitar and started writing songs after his 1960 parole. Thirty plus years later he's amassed a body of work that's seldom been matched, in or outside country. Haggard rejected the massive countrypolitan sound that swept Nashville, and various estimable versions of his band, the Strangers, helped him carve out a hard-edged sound that crossed genres with sophisticated ease. The genius of this gritty, white-boy blues was that it encompassed not only Jimmie Rogers but Bing Crosby too. He stripped down Bob Wills's big-band country swing without dwarfing its soul, and knew his way around Bacharach as well as he did around boogie. His weary, bruised baritone has influenced successive generations of singers from Randy Travis to the late, great Keith Whitley, and his songs are sharp, contemporary, and adult, as complex as the man who wrote them. That's pretty complex considering he's a blue-collar guy who's never had a real job, a trucker's biographer who's seen the road from the back of a tour bus, a brooding loner well acquainted with love and friendship, and an ex-con just looking for a place to call home. Friday, 8:30 PM, Saturday, 5:30 and 9 PM, and Sunday 2:30 and 7 PM, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace; 708-530-0111.

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