Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in concert at Anaheim Stadium (Oct 28, 1980)

by:  Scott Harrison

Country music greats Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard headlined the six-hour Country Fall Festival event at Anaheim Stadium. Los Angeles Times staff photographer George Rose and columnist Robert Hilburn covered the concert.

Hilburn wrote in his Oct. 28, 1980, Los Angeles Times review:

…“Welcome to Anaheim Stadium,” said the recorded voice over a loudspeaker at the entrance to the facility Sunday afternoon. “No bottles, cans, alcohol, lawn chairs or weapons allowed…”

Lawn chairs or weapons didn’t seem much of an issue among the country fans, but limitations on the alcohol caused some alarm.

“You mean we can’t drink beer!” shouted one fan with an ample belly pressing over his faded jeans. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to a Willie Nelson show and not drink beer.” The group with him hooted in agreement.

“No,” a female usher explained quickly. “You can drink beer inside. You just can’t bring cans and bottles into the stadium.”

Relieved, the group moved into the stadium and took their place at the end of the long beer line.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” a stadium concession worker said later about the beer-drinking. “These people are drinking more beer than the Rams crowd. We’ve gone through 52 cases already.”

Fifty-two cases? That didn’t seem like a lot for a crowd of 30,000.

“I’m not talking about the crowd,” the employee responded. “That was just for backstage.”  …

To avoid damage to the football field Sunday, the crowd had to remain in the stands. Besides limiting mobility, the move reduced contact with the performers. The stage was at second base, roughly 150 feet away from the closest fans. As a result you could barely see performers without binoculars. …

By the time Haggard went on stage, the audience seemed ready to party, regardless of setting.

Though the quality of his recordings sagged in the late ’70s, Haggard rates with Nelson and Waylon Jennings as one of the three most important male artists to enter country music since the ’50s bonanza that produced such giants as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and George Jones.

The good news is that his work has rebounded this year, first with the wry “Misery & Gin” hit from “Bronco Billy” and now his new “Back to the Barrooms” album. Opening with “Misery & Gin” and two songs from the LP, Haggard was far more dynamic than in his journeyman-like Country Club appearance last March. …

He’s such a gifted and convincing singer that he still makes it work, but Nelson should consider revising things. He and the audience would benefit from a few surprises in what has become a familiar ritual.

Predictably, the evening’s strongest response came during Nelson’s outlaw-oriented tunes. As soon as the band went into “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” most of those in the audience leaped to their feet, waving hats and celebrating. …

Haggard’s performance was recorded and released in the 1981 album “Rainbow Stew Live at Anaheim Stadium.”

Other performers at the Country Fall Festival included Alabama and Emmylou Harris.


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