I arrived in the middle of the first song of the night, Kristofferson’s “Shipwrecked in the 80’s”, which he dedicated mid-song to the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what really tripped me up was the quality of Kristofferson’s voice.
Kris Kristofferson isn’t a great singer. He’d be the first to tell you that. But he is, without debate, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. And his gruff and worn voice is the perfect vehicle for the tales of heartbreak he weaves into his songs.
But this night, his voice wasn’t gruff and worn. It was weak, shaky, scratchy and cracked and broke almost once per line of lyrics. I couldn’t tell if he had a cold or if this was just how his voice sounded and his records were made up of multiple “good” takes.
After the opening song, Kristofferson introduced Merle Haggard as “the greatest American singer-songwriter,” comparing him to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. For the record…the intro is absolutely correct.
Merle came out with his longtime band, one of the best live bands in the business, The Strangers, and slid into “Silver Wings”.
Throughout the night, Merle and Kris casually shared stories and traded songs. “There’s a lot of songs up here, between me and Kris”, said Hag at one point.
Haggard cracked lots of jokes:
“I see lots of folks from my own age group tonight. Well, everyone else is COMIN’ OUT….we may as well come out, too!”
“My wife has a respiratory condition and has a card that says it’s legal for her to grow marijuana. That means I’m married to a marijuana farmer. And you know what, that contact high ain’t too bad!”
Haggard stopped the songs several times; once due to technical glitches, but much more often to crack wise or emphasize a point. After the big marijuana set-up, Hag played “Okie From Muskogee” and after the first line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”, stopped and said, “Hold it…I didn’t get enough feedback there. So put your hearing aid back in and pat your chest a little bit”, then started the song over.
After the second verse of “Okie From Muskogee”, Kris added a new verse:
We don’t smoke our draft cards in Muskogie
We ain’t never heard of pitchin’ woo
We don’t inject deadly marijuana
And we get drunk, like God wants us to
Haggard changed the lines of “Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)” from the original lyric (“Back when a girl could still cook and still would”) to the tongue-in-cheek, “Back when a girl could still cook and chop wood.” And, “are the good times really over for good” became, “and the good times ain’t really over for good.” For good measure, Haggard re-emphasized the point the first time through the chorus. “I said the good times AIN’T over for good!!!”
Each of the men threw asides into the classic songs they shared. In “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Kristofferson sang, “I fumbled through my closet for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt,” adding, “And I’m wearin’ it!”. At one point, mid-concert, he sang a line about “feeling like I’m dyin’”, after which he added, “It SOUNDS like I’m dyin’!!”
Eventually Haggard explained that Kristofferson had lost his voice just before starting the tour. He said they did the first five or six shows and he “hadn’t heard so much as a whisper from Kris..but he sounds real good tonight.” Haggard also explained that the dobro player’s amp was broken.
The setlist relied more heavily on Haggard’s music, and I got the feeling that it wasn’t just because of the state of Kristofferson’s voice. While both men were complimentary of each other throughout the show, Kristofferson was clearly honored to be sharing the stage with Haggard. At one point he said, “You guys should know, you’re all part of a dream I’m having; a dream where I’m onstage with Merle Haggard.”
I was curious to see who would make up the audience at a Merle Haggard/Kris Kristofferson show in 2011. There were old folks, young folks, college students, bikers, burnouts, old hippies, longhairs, bald heads, good ol’ boys, and guys who were taking a much – and probably infrequent – break from their long days workin’ on the farm. At least in the place I was sitting, almost everyone in the audience sang along with nearly every tune.
Perhaps my favorite part of the night is the fact that I was sitting behind a grandma with big hair, who was sitting next to her teenage grandson. Grandma, who was clearly a Hag fan from way back, gently clapped her hands along with each of his tunes and had a ball.
All in all, it was a perfect night. The flaws, gaffes, and technical difficulties were forgivable. Haggard, one of the greatest vocalists in all of country music, is showing age in his voice, but that just adds a warmth and realness. The state of Kristofferson’s voice was regrettable, but ultimately didn’t matter. What did matter is that this two road warriors showed up. That they’re still doing it. That they told great stories from great lives. And that they had a good time.
We all got to share that. And have a good time with them.
Shipwrecked in the '80s (Kristofferson)
Silver Wings (Haggard)
Going Where the Lonely Go (Haggard)
The Bottle Let Me Down (Haggard)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kristofferson)
Just the Other Side of Nowhere (Kristofferson)
Mama Tried (Haggard)
Back to Earth (Haggard)
Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) (Haggard)
The Pilgrim: Chapter 33 (Kristofferson)
It's Been a Great Afternoon (Haggard)
Big City (Haggard)
Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kristofferson)
Working Man's Blues (Haggard)
They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down (Haggard)
Loving Her Was Easier (Kristofferson)
I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink (Haggard)
Momma's Prayers (Haggard)
Okie From Muskogee (Haggard)
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kristofferson)
I Am What I Am (Haggard)
Why Me (Haggard, written by Kristofferson)
Pancho and Lefty (Haggard and Kristofferson, written by Townes Van Zandt)