by Terry RolandAt one point during Friday night's show with country legends Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, after a lively fiddle and steel guitar exchange by members of Merle's band, The Strangers, he looked out at the receptive audience, smiled and said, "That's what you call country music." His point wasn't lost on the capacity crowd at L.A.'s Greek Theater on this cool, clear October night. The majority of them needed no introduction even though mainstream country media may in today's 'country market.' It would be impossible to find two living legends sharing the stage together who have done more to stand in contrast to the gimmick laden mainstream country music of modern times. Today, Kris and Merle find their audience in the world of Americana music whose listeners seek out pure and authentic country music. For the last 30 years there's has been a gathering of fans who love the roots of American folk, country, blues, soul and jazz music. These two veterans represent over a hundred years of country music songwriting between them and stand strong in the tradition founded by great American songwriters like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Their opening song reinforced this Americana gathering by performing Townes Van Zandt's classic "Pancho and Lefty" which Haggard, along with Willie Nelson, helped bring to the popular country charts some 25 years ago.
Merle Haggard has always been that 'lonesome fugitive' he once wrote about; always a little outside the circle of country music convention. In the past it hasn't mattered because soon other imitators and disciples would follow the light of his whiskey-soaked honky-tonk magic. On Saturday night, with the help of his band the Strangers, which includes his son Ben on lead guitar, he performed some of the best country songs of the last 50 years including, "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," and "Mama Tried." He also paid tribute to his country-swing leanings with the Bob Wills influenced title song from his new album, "Workin' in Tennessee," which is dedicated to the Martin guitar he donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame that was lost in last year's flood. Behind his shades with his ever present fedora and lines carved as deep as his own San Joaquin Valley on his face, Haggard performed with ease and good humor. His voice has lost little of its country luster even after having successfully fought lung cancer a few years back. His vocals can still melt hearts and fill every corner of a concert venue.
This tour has worked to singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson's advantage. For the last ten years he has toured solo acoustic without intrumental support. This show finds Haggard's Strangers lending Kris a lean and steady back up. His set was filled with his most familar songs like "Me and Bobby McGee," " Lovin' Her Was Easier" and "Why Me," but he performs them with such quiet intensity it feels at times like it's the first time he's played them as he re-discovers the nuances of some of the finest lyrics ever committed to the legacy of American song. Included in his set was a tribute to his on-stage compadre with his own version of "Sing Me Back Home," and a new song, "From Here To Forever," from his latest album, Closer to the Bone, album dedicated to his children and 'their mamas.' One moment in Kris' set that strummed a chord over the current events of today was "Here Comes That Rainbow Again," based on John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, a tale of two dustbowl migrant children and the generosity shared with them between a truckstop waitress and two truck drivers. The song and Kris' performance is a good example of the timelessness of topical songs. Without saying a word about the current political climate, this two-minute song made a strong comment and criticism of the lack of humanity too often found in certain conservative political movements of today.
An important element to this show is bringing Kris on stage together with Merle and the band rather than dividing the concert into separate sets. While this could be a disaster for some younger artists, the love, respect and fun the two artists were having was almost tangible. Friday's audience responded in kind singing familiar lyrics and cheering the two legendary performers on. There was a touching generosity between the two songwriters as they shared the spotlight. At times the show had the loose feeling of a Nashville guitar pull. This kind of informality suits both Kris and Merle well since they work best when there's a minimum of staged show and instead a focus on the singer and the song.
My only complaint is the shortness of the set lasting just under 90 minutes with no encore. With such a huge catalogue of songs, the concert could have easily gone another 30 minutes. While I left a little dismayed by the show's brevity, for that all-too-brief-hour and a half, there's no place on earth I would rather have been. It was a night of pure country song with two of the music's finest ambassadors and a reminder that as fans of American music, it's our roots that keep us strong.