On Wednesday evening, two faces descended from country’s Mount Rushmore for an acoustic song swap at the lovely Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California. They were Kristofferson and Haggard, and each got a standing ovation from the sold-out (and disproportionately elderly) crowd just for entering the theater.
Kris and the Hag are at the point in their careers where you figure they’ve probably already done just about everything. But on the first night of a three-night run up the West Coast, taking the stage together in an acoustic setting was clearly something new. The singers seemed almost giddy at the new experience, smiling broadly and maintaining a good-natured rapport as they felt their way somewhat tentatively through the evening.
For Kristofferson, who has been touring solo acoustic for years, the main change was Haggard’s presence. For Haggard, who favors a full band with lots of jazzy improvisation and instrumental interplay, the changes were two-fold: sharing the stage and performing familiar songs in new stripped-down arrangements. Like a good sportsman, Kris allowed the less-experienced Haggard to bend the rules a bit by bringing a four-piece band (including electric guitar) to an acoustic event originally billed as Two Legends – Two Guitars. Even with this added support, Haggard joked that the mostly-acoustic setting made him feel like “an old stripper without her g-string.”
G-strings or no, neither of these two men has lost a step. Kristofferson’s voice has only grown weightier with age, allowing him to imbue his poetic lyrics with more depth and humanity than ever. Haggard – who underwent lung surgery not long ago – sounded even better than he did on a swing through this area a couple years ago. Partial credit goes to the acoustic setting, which laid bare the full character of his voice and all the nuances of his phrasing. Rattled from his routine full-band shows, Haggard also relied less on stock introductions and showed more personality in his stage banter. There was more Merle and less of the showman/bandleader on display.
Like great pairings before them, the two men succeeded by meeting in the middle. Gone were some of Haggard’s more acerbic topical songs, though staple “Are the Good Times Really Over” made the cut. Gone were most of Kristofferson’s more overtly political songs, though he still found time for a jab or two. Instead, it was mostly a night for middle-of-the-road classics like “Mama Tried,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” – you know, some of the finest songs country music has to offer.
Above all else, it was a night for camaraderie. Kris tried on occasional (apparently spontaneous) harmony vocals for Haggard. Haggard provided some hot acoustic guitar solos for Kris. They threw it back and forth, each listening intently and reacting along with the audience to the other’s songs.
There were some false starts, a few bum notes, some rushed conversations as they planned and reorganized the show on the spot. But when you have two of the most important songwriters ever onstage together, it’s hard to go wrong. In fact, there was probably as much songwriting talent on that stage as there has been on any stage in history. That’s a big claim, but theirs (collectively) is a colossal talent. And they put on a show worthy of it.
The luxury of doing a concert review on a blog is that I have the freedom to digress. If you think I won’t use it, you are wrong. Let’s talk about “Okie from Muskogee” for a minute.
Although it has been widely interpreted as a rallying cry for small-town conservatism, it’s not hard to detect satire in the lyrics. Passages like “leather boots are still in style for manly footwear,” “pitchin’ woo,” and “we don’t make a party out of lovin'” sound particularly tongue-in-cheek. Some of Haggard’s stories about the song support the satirical interpretation: he wrote it while rolling past Muskogee with a bunch of musicians (known to partake of marijuana, by the way) in a bus, he wrote it about his Dad, and so on. However, he has also shown some willingness to say – and not say – certain things about the song depending on his ever-shifting political inclinations and the audience he’s addressing.
On Wednesday night, with “left of that” liberal Kristofferson standing at his side, Haggard introduced “Okie” as a song about his Dad, thus distancing himself somewhat from its message. (He offered no such preface when I saw him solo.) In one of the few parts of the show that seemed pre-planned, he also had Kristofferson come in with a verse from his satirical version of the song. That’s the version that appears on the 1972 recording of Kristofferson Live at the Philharmonic (Amazon). On the record, Kristofferson ends by saying “We always have to do that one with apologies to our good friend Merle Haggard, who is neither a redneck nor a racist. He just happens to be known for the only bad song he ever wrote.” Kristofferson was just one of many left-leaning acts to poke fun at the song in the years immediately following its release.
Knowing that history, it was interesting to see them perform the song together 40 years after its debut. It was a bit surreal, an original and a parody all in one. Haggard kicked it off: We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD. A few lines later, Kristofferson came in with lines like: We don’t shoot that deadly marijuana/We get drunk like God wants us to do. The joke being, of course, that the small-town hypocrite doesn’t even understand the things he judges so harshly. In light of Haggard’s own political shift over the years, this version of the song might better reflect the way he feels about it today. Case in point: for at least the past several years, he has been removing his hat to reveal his own shaggy ‘do on the line We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.
“Okie” was also notably the only time during the show that the singers attempted anything like a duet.
As the show rolls up the coast – and hopefully across the country if this short run is successful enough – Haggard and Kristofferson might polish their act, iron out some of the wrinkles, work up more proper collaborations. They might even deliver better shows. But it’s hard to imagine them delivering another as refreshingly off-the-cuff and genuinely heartfelt, bristling with all the newness and uncertainty of this first acoustic pairing. There’s something really inspiring about watching a couple old legends try something new for the first time.