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I’ve always felt that Merle Haggard has some of the best and most loyal fans in the world. And so it was that they came to hear the Hag and master songwriter Kris Kristofferson this rainy August night. Despite the early evening’s downpour and the impending threat of more rain, the concourse was full and so were the seats in front of the stage. Merle and Kris were accompanied by a five piece ensemble and the entire entourage was dressed in black. Instruments being played included the mandolin, fiddle, mouth harp, Epiphone acoustic guitars, Fender electric guitars, and the crucial to country lap steel guitar and a Hammond organ.
Cary’s Booth Amphitheater has the nicest, most accommodating staff. The setting is natural which gives it a cozy feel like sitting in the park or a garden. I certainly appreciated my seat on the fifth row in close proximity to the artists. Thanks to the amphitheater’s publicist Teresa Franzen, I was able to experience the concert up close and personal. Mother Nature was on our side as well. The rains held off for the entire two hours of the show.
I was running (and I mean literally) a little behind due to work and family obligations so sadly I missed the opening song. Luckily as I hurried into the venue and down to my seat I caught “Silver Wings”, a beautiful lonesome cowboy song written in 1969 by Merle. Next song up was the popular classic Merle hit “Mama Tried”. Everytime I hear this song I think of my friend Joe Jackson who is a huge Merle Haggard fan. I hope he was in the audience at Koka Booth. With this and with many of the tunes Merle covers tonight, the fans joined in and knew every word.
Kris and Merle teamed up on “Today I Started Loving Her Again” and the crowd really enjoyed this vintage Haggard song. Kris took to the microphone solo for “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, his popular 1970 country ballad. This song was so revered by other musicians that Elvis Presley, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Joan Baez, Bryan Ferry, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded it.
Merle performed his playful song “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” and it was then I noticed just how silver gray he and Kris have gotten. This in turn reminded me of how I’m no longer a spring chicken. Having listened to these songs since childhood, I know that underneath those silver locks are heads full of wisdom and the ways of life.
Merle was joking and giddy throughout the show. He had much more and better interaction and rapport with the audience than at a previous show I attended several years ago. He asked the crowd “Do y’all miss Johnny” (Johnny Cash) and the audience answered with a resounding “Hell yeah”! Then Haggard tore into Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”. Famed fiddler Scott Joss was terrific on this song and any that he fiddled.
Kristofferson followed with “Last Thing To Go” , from the album This Old Road and then came right behind it with “Pilgrim”. Both songs are considered by many to be lyrical masterpieces and I have to wonder if “Pilgrim” is not at least a semi-autobiography set to melody.
The chorus goes like this:
“He’s a poet , he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home”.
Merle continued to stir the audience with his really pretty cover of Willie Nelson’s “Back to Earth” and a song the Hag wrote for his wife Teresa called “Motorcycle Cowboy”. He claimed that his wife “used to be a biker chick" so to “make an honest woman of her” he married her and wrote that song! Next cover for the Hag were two songs about aging and youth. The first tune was “I Never Go Around Mirrors” and the second a song off Merle's new album called “I Wish I Was 30 Again”. Amen, Merle!
Picking the cream of the crop from Kristofferson’s remaining performance I’d have to cite the bittersweet love song of “Loving Her Was Easier” and the poetic gem “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. This song was made even more special for me because my Dad loves this song. I wish he had been sitting next to me so that we could have enjoyed it together. Kris’ cover of Merle’s true story set to song entitled “Sing Me Back Home” was a poignant cover though Kris did stumble at one point through the lyrics. Turning to Merle a couple of times in the night he humbly mouthed “I’m sorry” when he missed a chord on the guitar or a word on the vocals. The crowd was not the least bit offended or upset and, if anything, applauded more heartily for his honesty and humility. As I recall, Kristofferson received two standing ovations during the show.
The audience was thrilled when Haggard played his "Workin’ Man Blues". Merle also told the story of being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. The Hall asked Merle to contribute something special for the display they were building so Merle donated his prized Martin guitar. Fast forward years later when country star Marty Stuart called Merle and asked him if he was watching television. To Haggard’s horror, he watched the station’s coverage of his prized guitar floating down the Cumberland River (during the 2010 flood which occurred in Nashville, TN.)
Merle ripped into the fiddle with his new song and album of the same name, “Working in Tennessee”. Then he broke into the song he is likely best known for “Okie from Muskogee”. The song was written for Haggard’s father who died when Merle was 9 years old. When first produced, the song was controversial but by today's standards it's not considered "outlaw". Merle had fun with it by asking the audience to yell each time he said the word "marijuana" and the audience complied. A female in the audience then threw an unknown object onstage and after the song, Kris picked it up and put it in his pocket.
Around 9:20 PM, Merle and Kris closed out the night with Kristofferson’s 1971 penned song “Why Me Lord”? A country gospel “hymn” of sorts, this highly acclaimed tune has been covered by numerous country stars over the last 40 years.
Merle Haggard is responsible for creating what is known as the Bakersfield Sound. Members of this elite group of crooners and musicians include Buck Owens and The Buckaroos. This outlaw/cowboy ballad style of country is what made Merle successful. In addition to his Country Music Hall of Fame induction, the singer/fiddler/guitarist/songwriter has earned 48 BMI Country Awards and 9 BMI Pop Awards. He was also presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010. Haggard has also accrued 38 Number One Billboard hits.
Kris Kristofferson is a talented musician/singer/actor and prolific songwriter. He has written countless songs for himself and scores of musicians in the last 45 years. In 1977 Kris was inducted into the Nashville Hall of Fame. In 1983 he was instrumental in the creation of a supergroup called The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. Then in 1985 Kristofferson was inducted into the (National) Songwriters Hall of Fame. Finally, in 2004, Kris was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Kristofferson has starred in over 80 big screen film and television movies in the last 41 years as well.
I believe the collaboration of Haggard and Kristofferson has proven to be a great strategic move for the partners and I also feel that the two gentleman are a good musical marriage.
Though I sorely missed hearing Merle's number one hit and in my opinion his greatest song “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” (1969), I thought the concert was very good. The audience was absolutely thrilled to see the two legends and everyone seemed satisfied with the show. As is the case with any concert, a few fans near me were screaming for more songs and I heard others near me also quietly wishing for an encore song or two.
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