Merle Haggard is a man of many legacies — country music icon, creator of the Bakersfield sound, spirit of the Silent Majority — but before he became stitched into the fabric of American music lore, Merle Haggard was an Outlaw. A wild child who played juke joints, found country music in prison, and pillorized expectations with anthems such as "Okie from Muskogee," Haggard has always been an original voice. Fifty years into a career that has seen 38 No. 1 singles, the Hag shows no signs of slowing down.  He has gigs booked year-round, but few of them look better than the all-day spectacular scheduled for July 20 at the La Crosse Oktoberfest grounds. With opening acts the Smokin’ Bandits, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and the Big Wu, Haggard will close down perhaps the biggest night of music La Crosse will see all year. To get the scoop on the whole affair, we emailed Mark Grundhoefer — show promoter, longtime Minnesota musician, and current guitar player for the Big Wu. This is an edited excerpt of the exchange.

Second Supper: What is it about Merle Haggard, a country singer born in 1937, that resonates with younger audiences?
Mark Grundhoefer: I'd say it’s his ability to connect to people with music, telling the American story. Roots. Family. “Workin’ Man Blues.” His music and message are strong and direct, bringing us back to a simpler time before the distractions of our current day. Merle’s music says it best: "The roots of my raising run deep." It connects and reminds the youth of the generations before and tells the continuous story of the American struggle. Many of the subjects and stories that Merle touches on in his songs are still very real and relevant to this day.
SS: Haggard is 76 years old and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Does he still tour heavily?
MG: Yes. Just this last year he toured the states and Canada—impressive for a man of his age, and exciting for the La Crosse area! He tours in two-week stints, on and off throughout the year. It’s great to see he's still out there exploring new territory and giving us the chance to see this country music legend in action!
SS: Haggard wrote a number of songs that were covered by contemporary counterculture rock bands — i.e. “Mama Tried” by the Grateful Dead — and are still covered by counterculture rock bands — i.e. “Workin’ Man’s Blues” by the Smokin’ Bandits. Fifty years into his career, why do you think musicians still enjoy playing his music?
MG: I'd say because not only is it great country music, but his catalog has roots and influences from many different styles including blues, Cajun, western swing, waltz, rock & roll and even jazz. I can tell you firsthand that when you play a Merle song, people’s eyes light up. It takes the audience to another time and place and gives the band an opportunity to carry on that Outlaw Country tradition. And when all said and done, it’s just a good time!
SS: Do you expect there to be sit-ins or collaborations during the La Crosse show?
MG: Expect? No. But we certainly welcome it! When this many great musicians are in the same space, anything can happen. All of the opening groups (Bandits/ Wu/ Horseshoes) have all worked together many times, and enjoy performing together. We’re just gonna let Merle do his thing, and it’s going to be great no matter what happens!
SS: This will be an all-day event featuring a country music legend and three of the bigger jam/bluegrass bands in the Upper Midwest. Conceivably, you could have thrown this show anywhere. Why La Crosse?
MG: It just feels right. All of these musicians have the utmost respect for the Hag, and so does this region of the United States. La Crosse also has a special place in my heart, coupled with diehard support of the local music scene, it’s a perfect fit for this epic event. You’re right, we could have promoted this a number of different places, and Merle could have taken other shows as well. But when putting this show together, I told Merle's people: “For what it’s worth, this show will be open air, good vibes and a working class crowd that lives and breathes Merle’s message."
We also must say a big “thank you” to all of the businesses and partners that have helped make this work from the start — including Oktoberfest, La Crosse Tribune, Tree Huggers Co-op, Pearl Street Brewery, Del’s Bar, KQ98, The Cow 97, KNEI 103.5 Bluff Country, Festivals Foods, Second Supper, Miller Beer and many, many more! Since the day we announced the show, the outpouring of support and excitement from the community has been and continues to be incredible! Furthermore, this is the first of many classic events we plan on bringing to the La Crosse area! Stay tuned for our next big announcement right before the Merle show!
SS: Three years ago, Second Supper published a long interview with Andy Miller, bass player for the Big Wu — the iconic Midwestern jamband that you joined as a full-member right around that time. Back in 2010, Andy was excited about the new dynamic — and the two-guitar harmonies — you would bring to the band. Now that you’ve been with the Big Wu for a few years, how would you assess the band at this point in its career?
MG: It's the “Break of Day,” a new lease on life. I'm very excited: new songs, woodshed rehearsals, and Big Wu Magic hittin’ every time we hit the stage. This band’s talent is indisputable. The Big Wu is back. In April we went to Denver for a special show at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, where we performed the Big Wu's 1997 debut "Tracking The Buffalo Through the Bathtub" in its entirety.  This May we also returned to some of the classic Big Wu markets (Madison/Milwaukee/Chicago) to large and rowdy crowds and will be returning to Alaska for Salmonstock in August! We have big plans for this year’s Big Wu Family Reunion XIII, welcoming our good friends Leftover Salmon back to Minnesota, and we've just confirmed another very exciting headliner that will be announced in the coming days.!

Ohhh ... and, of course, we are fulfilling a lifelong dream of Big Wu guitarist and founding member Chris Castino: Opening for Merle Haggard!

Merle Haggard will perform at the La Crosse Oktoberfest grounds on Saturday, July 20, along with supporting acts The Smokin’ Bandits, the Big Wu, and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. Doors open at 3 p.m.  General admission tickets are $45 in advance, $55 day of show, with reserved VIP tickets still available.