Kristofferson and Haggard at L.A.'s Greek Theater: Welcome to the Country

by Terry Roland

At 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.

Views: 1460

Comment by Mark W. Lennon on October 10, 2011 at 3:51pm
Nice one Terry, thanks!
Comment by Ronald Virgil Essex on October 11, 2011 at 4:56am
I WAS WITH MERLE AT CAPITOL RECORDS IN HOLLYWOOD IN 1969 WHEN HE RECORDED "OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE". I FOUND HIM A PIANO PLAYER BY THE NAME OF DANNY STONESTREET WHO WAS BEST MAN FOR GEORGE JONES WHEN HE MARRIED TAMMY. MERLE LET ME RENT HIS STUIDO ON THE KERN RIVER THAT YEAR TO REOCORD FOR "COUNTRY HEART RECORDS" DONNA FARGO AND I WERE THE ONLY TWO ARTISTS TO RECORD FOR THAT LABLE. I TOLD MERLE THAT DAY THAT HIS SONG WOULD BE A BIG HIT AND IT WAS. WE HAVE BEEN GOOD FRIENDS FOR MANY YEARS NOW AND I AM 79 AND STILL RECORDING TO WITH <MIKE HEADRICK.COM> AT JASPER,TENNESSEE. WE BOTH HAD A ROUND WITH CANCER    
Comment by Jim Childs on October 11, 2011 at 5:35am
I saw their performance at the Tennessee Theater back if Feb. this year. It was exactly how you described except for the song from Merle's new album which had not been released yet. That night Kristofferson was suffering from a cold or something but he gave it everything he could and it only added to his appeal and even seem to make it a better show oddly. Merle Was amazing. I was disappointed with no encore too but it was still a great show.
Comment by Terry Roland on October 11, 2011 at 5:48am

@Thanks, Ronald for your stories. So glad you've made through cancer are still making music!  That's great!

@Jim, Thanks for your comments. I saw Kris when he had a cold once. He was on stage with the Highwaymen and told the audience he lost his voice. Waylon leaned into his mic and said, "Aw...you never had a voice anyway!"  Kris did the same thing that night; he sang from his heart and received a standing ovation...

Comment by Sledge Hamerly on October 11, 2011 at 6:36am
not afraid to admit that Here Comes That Rainbow Again brings tears to my eyes no matter how many times I hear it.
Comment by Jarrad Hamlin on October 11, 2011 at 6:47am
Good article, but the son playing in the band is named Ben.  Also Merle was treated for lung cancer, not throat cancer.
Comment by Jeanie P on October 11, 2011 at 7:34am
Bob Wills, not Willis.
Comment by Ronn Miller on October 11, 2011 at 10:08am

Ronald, glad you mentioned Mike Headrick, having worked with the legendary Mike Headrick recording some of my songs a few years ago, I must say, there is another legend (who may be a lesser known to the general public), but to those of us who have had the honor of working with him in his studio, having him lay down the HOT LICKS on our songs and knowing how many other albums he has worked on, usually without his name being credited on the product. He is unbelieveable as a musician, very multi-talented and better than most. His playing style is royalty and I only wish I could have afforded to went back and completed all my songs with Mike. I have worked the road for many years and though most of my sidemen were very talented, few come up to par with Mike. Again, thanks for mentioning him in the same article as two of the worlds brightest superstars, he deserves it.

I should say to those who may have felt a little less than satisfied with a 90 minute show, most of us as fans would love to see them perform all night long. However, (1) most single artist performances are based on about 45 minutes. though I know most, including mine often go well over that by at least 15 minutes or more. (2) At the ages of Artist in our age bracket, 45 minutes is about as hard on some of us today as 2 hours would have been 20 years ago. especially when you consider the wear and tear of a lifetime of low paying smokey honky tonks and bars. (3) I would prefer to pay a premium ticket price to see those two do 90 minutes than to pay $10.00 to hear anything on the major labels today do 2 hours and would feel like I'd gotten more than my money's worth to see them. (4) These two are not entertainers and that confuses some. (monkeys are entertainers, trained Nashville robots with half million dollar fireworks shows to cover up the lack of talent by the singers are entertainers) but these two are .... "ARTIST, LEGENDS, TRAIL BLAZERS", to see them perform is like looking at a one of a kind rare painting in a museum that can never be duplicated. And believe me, everyone there will retain their ticket stubs and someday will be telling their children or grand children of the time they were blessed to be in the audience to see this legenday performance, when so many of us who were not, will just have to take your word for how great it was. Not to belittle anyone, just saying.

Comment by bobbo on October 11, 2011 at 10:21am
Had the pleasure of seeing their show at Saratoga Mtn. Winery recently.  Great venue & even greater music.  Only wish Kris had performed a few more solo songs.
Comment by Ronald Virgil Essex on October 11, 2011 at 10:44am
Just wanted to add to Ronn Millers thoughts and good things said about my friend Mike Headrick that he is a very talented musician to my thinking.Thats why I picked him to arrange my music to record as he makes it sound like I'm still out in Bakersfield with Merle,Buck & Wynn Stewart and last but not least Lefty Frizzell. I wanted my fans to knoe that Mike is in the process of building a new Recording Studio next to his house in Jasper,TN and it will get one hell of a new sound out of it that will tear Nashville studio's apart. Try him out some time if you don't believe me fans.Virgil Essex

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.