SING ME BACK HOME: THE MUSIC OF MERLE HAGGARD
BRIDGESTONE ARENA, NASHVILLE, TN
APRIL 6, 2017
Merle Haggard, sometimes, lovingly referred to as “The Hag”, would have turned 80 years old April 6, 2017. Exactly one year ago on April 6, 2016, Haggard passed away on his 79th birthday. Even a year later, his loss is mourned, but fans and artists alike came together to celebrate his life and career at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville at “Sing Me Back Home: The Music Of Merle Haggard”, an event presented by Blackbird Presents.
Upon entering the arena’s concourse, there was no question, these were Merle Haggard’s “people”. A working class crowd. Jeans, cowboy boots, denim jackets and ball caps. The very occasional high heel was as rare as the Hope Diamond in this bunch. We can also say the venue was at capacity as well. According to all the sources I’ve checked, Bridgestone seats 18,500 for end stage concerts and we were often reminded by the evening’s host, W. Earl Brown, who simply likes to be called “Earl”, that we were among a crowd of 18,000, so let’s call it a day, and say it was a near sell out.
The next noticeable thing was the merch table. No. Let me back up. The noticeable thing was the merch hanging ABOVE the table I had to assume the merch must be sitting upon. There were throngs of people standing in semi-disorganized lines trying to see above the heads in front of them. It was a scene of minor chaos. I decided that the Hatch Show Print I really wanted could wait until after, so I headed for my seat.
In what I considered an amazing stroke of luck, I ended up in a great seat. A lower level seat, not too far from the stage and directly in front of the only big screen, the Jumbotron over “center ice”. A simple stage backdrop consisted of a drawing in Merle Haggard’s image. I sipped on my Coca-Coca and got my pre-show “homework” notes together as I waited for the show to begin. Of course, I also took a glance at the screen above me, hawking “Hag” merch now and then. That ball cap was eating me alive. I wanted that thing a little more every time it flashed by. Time was ticking. I had about 15 minutes and I kept remembering that line (or rather that sea of humanity). If they ran out of those caps, OR those Hatch prints, I might kick myself. So I gathered my things and off I hustled to the merch riot scene.
As it turned out, they were already sold out of one of the most coveted black t-shirts, and running low on some other things, so I guess it was worth the trip. I made it back to my seat just in time for the show with the cap and the print, so my advice to all of you concert goers is this, “Life is short. Buy the merch. Early.”
As I said earlier, we had an official show host, and he was SPECTACULAR. I’m just calling him Earl because he called us his friends and he insisted. My name is Patricia, and I insist people call me Patti, so I understand. So, Earl was the best! Even if I hadn’t done an ounce of homework prior to this show, he would have got me through. I want to shake this guy’s hand, and here’s why. I did NOT know he was going to be there, so he’s the ONLY one I did absolutely NO homework on. So guess what? I’m doing homework on HIM as I type this.
Earl Brown, oops, EARL, has done a lot of stuff. He’s funny as Hell, and his IMDb is about the best I’ve ever read, and he’s been on HBO’s “Deadwood”. That’s more than enough for me. He was also the best host for a music show EVER. He kept things moving, gave enough hints as to what was coming, annunciated properly, and clearly has similar pop culture interests as myself. If he ever loses his gig, he can write for Think Country, I’m sure of it. Go read his IMDb though. Killer.
Show time! How better to open this one than with Ben Haggard and The Strangers playing “What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life)? The prettiest guitar work and Ben looks and sounds so much like his late Dad. You can’t help thinking “The Hag” was standing right there on that stage tapping his foot and smiling. There’s nothing forced here either. Ben Haggard doesn’t TRY to put on a “father act”. This is all perfectly natural. This is all him. The genes just run that strong. We can be so thankful for that. I captured no video for this. I was in fan mode and had to drink it in. I apologize, I lost my composure for a few minutes. Ben Haggard was quick to mention the outstanding Norman Hamlet, steel guitar player since 1967. What an opening!
Trace Adkins and Blake Shelton once told us that “We all got a hillbilly bone”, well, maybe not exactly a HILLBILLY bone, but maybe we’re all at least a little bit country, as evidenced by Aaron Lewis who fronted the rock band, Staind, and is now a country artist. Lewis joined Ben Haggard next to perform 1979’s “Heaven Was a Drink of Wine”. This was one cool duet, proving that 90’s rock can transition to traditional country, and music is a universal language.
It was immediately after Lewis and Haggard that I began to notice this show was going to keep moving in quick order, as I was starting to write REALLY fast to keep up, and Ms. Tanya Tucker was on that stage REALLY fast too! Looking beautiful and sounding as good as I remember back in the 70’s, she started off by saying “Hag, I hope you’re listening.” She belted out a gorgeous version of “The Farmer’s Daughter”.
You know you’re at a show honoring the memory of a legend when someone like Bobby Bare graces the stage. Bare has worked with the likes of Chet Atkins, Skeeter Davis and Kris Kristofferson to name a few. He played 1967’s “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”, and humbly walked off the stage immediately after. No pomp, no circumstance. It was clearly something to witness.
Talk about someone who has worked with just about everyone and still does. How about that incredible lady Connie Smith! I have yet to meet her, but I adore her. She came out next with her voice that simply touches the Heavens and belted out “That’s The Way Love Goes”, but not before letting her gone-but-not-forgotten friend know “We’re here for you Merle.” I’ve read so much on how Smith and her husband, Marty Stuart are there for what seems like every fellow artist in need. She is a wonder, and with the way she sang at this event, I have no doubt that Merle Haggard heard her and was moved to happy tears.
In stark contrast to Connie Smith, out rolled John Anderson, taking the audience to the “Big City”, one of Haggard’s most popular tunes. Looking like many of the guys in the audience, in a black hat and full beard, Anderson brought the house down with this number. In retrospect, I would say this is the point where things began to get interesting.
Don’t think our “friend” Earl was absent in between each of these acts, far from it, he was there every time, but in the interest of keeping this from becoming a novel, I’m holding back and only throwing in a few of his comments, like this one. The next artist was Toby Keith, and Earl once had the opportunity to ask Keith about how to go about singing and songwriting, as he’d dabbled in that too. Keith said he always went back to the same method when he had to write a song. “What Would Merle Do?”
Toby Keith came out in a blue plaid shirt and a ball cap embroidered with the words “WILD SHOT”, Keith’s own double premium tequila. Hey, we’re all for a little self-promotion, and tequila never hurt anyone. No, take that back, it hurt a lot of people. Drink responsibly folks. That stuff can hurt something fierce, but I digress…. Keith’s song was “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)”, a cool song about a really tight, albeit dysfunctional family band. This one didn’t miss a beat.
If there were any younger fans in the crowd (and there were, I was looking), this might have been the moment they were waiting for. Chris Janson and Jake Owen came out TOGETHER. Attired strikingly different, Owen in a shirt and sport jacket, Janson in a black t-shirt, but at this party, it was anything goes, so nobody cared. I for one, couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do. Being a big Jake Owen fan myself, I already knew he was a Haggard fan (he named his dog Merle), so I figured he was happy to be there. They played “Footlights”, and it was just so darned good! When Janson pulled out his harmonica, I think some people dropped over. It just made the whole thing even better. These young guys impressed the skeptics in the crowd. The diehard “Hag” fans from way back were ready to accept anything that took that stage after this.
Anything at all. Oh yeah. Anything at all goes. Gospel. You know the kind of gospel I’m talkin’ about. The gospel where the congregation is swaying and dancing and you almost wish you were in church because it looks like they’re having too much fun? Buddy Miller, The McCrary Sisters and Theresa Haggard (Merle’s widow) came out swinging some gospel with “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”. This was so uplifting! Horns for days… so good.
Let’s mention our friend Earl again. He lives in Southern California now. I know, I’m sorry, but someone has to live there. Just kidding! We love our SoCal friends! Anyway, out there on the Left Coast, they have this little country music festival called Stagecoach. Apparently, a friend of Earl’s asked if he’d ever heard of a certain female country singer. He laughed and said of course he did, he saw her at Stagecoach! He loved her! By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years, EVERYONE has heard of her. Enter one of the reigning queens of country music today, Ms. Miranda Lambert!!
Can I just fangirl for a paragraph please? On my way downtown, I was, of course, blaring all the Merle Haggard I had on my Bluetooth. “Misery and Gin” is one of my very favorite Haggard songs. In fact, I put in on repeat three times when I was stuck on the Korean Veterans Bridge, true story (#nashvilledrivers). That song just creates such a visual and hits you right in the gut every time you hear it. I was thinking to myself, as I sat on that stupid bridge, “Miranda should sing this one tonight”. When she came out singing that one, first of all, I had a really hard time holding my phone straight to video it (I took one for the team guys) and then, it occurred to me that she could have put that on “The Weight of These Wings” as a cover tune. It would have fit like a glove on that double album. She sang it with a conviction that made me think, “Damn! You could have WRITTEN this song girl!” She was the picture of class in a black dress and didn’t miss a single note. Miranda, if you’re reading this, I’m begging you to record that song and put it on your next album. I’ll buy it and wear it out and buy it again and wear that out too and repeat the process until I die. I promise.
I almost want to stop writing right now, that was just so perfect, but then I breathe and remember that there were some seriously killer moments after, so I’ll caffeinate and ramble on.
Critically acclaimed songwriter, Rodney Crowell came out next and wowed the crowd with the tearjerker “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go”.
In the most hauntingly deep number of the evening, Jamey Johnson delivered the moving “Kern River”. If you were able to lift your eyes from this particular performance, I would be surprised. It was riveting, both visually and musically. Johnson’s facial expressions were that of man conveying a story of a long life that included a personal horror. A standout moment in the show.
Alison Krauss, fiddle in tow, came out to join Jamey Johnson for “If I Could Only Fly”. Haggard’s song catalog goes on forever, and I don’t think there would have been a more perfect choice of a duet for this pair than this. Johnson, with his rugged exterior is the epitome of masculinity and exactly what I mean when I say “Haggard’s people”. Krauss, beautiful with the voice of an angel, as feminine as can be. Their sharp contrasts in physical attributes as well as their voices made this especially beautiful. It was a man and a woman singing together. It was divine.
Country supergroup Alabama came out to play Haggard favorite “Silver Wings”. As always, the harmonies were spot on, and being such a well-known song, quite a few audience members were singing along.
Next up was the song that I was waiting for. I didn’t care who did it, I was just hoping someone would. I was about to win THE JACKPOT! When a guy that goes by the nickname, Bocephus takes the stage, you know things are about to get crazy! When Hank Williams, Jr. starts playing “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”, things DO get crazy! Lights started flashing, people got on their feet, drinks were raised and the singin’ got louder. We were only halfway through this shindig, but the party had officially started!
Legends were plentiful at this show, and one of the biggest of all got a little help on stage by Jamey Johnson. Loretta Lynn sang while Jamey Johnson played guitar. Their duet, “Today I Started Loving You Again”, one of Merle Haggard’s most beloved ballads, kept the crowd stuck to their seats. Despite moving a little slower, Lynn’s voice sounded as good as ever. How lucky we were to have someone of her caliber at this tribute show!
In a short break from the music, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry declared April 6, 2017 “Merle Haggard Day” and the Haggard Family was presented with a Distinguished Medal of Honor Award by members of the United States military, thanking him for his support over the years.
Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd were up next and while they may have been covering a Merle Haggard tune, they were also covering one of their own covers! “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” appeared on their own 1977 “Street Survivors” album, so they were no strangers to this song. Johnny Van Zant pointed out that his late brother Ronnie was a big Haggard fan, so the band was a great addition to the lineup. To put it simply, every one of them showed up and they did “The Hag” proud!
If you looked up at the Jumbotron, you were treated to some old footage of Merle Haggard on various TV programs with other celebrities such as Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Minnie Pearl. There were some laughs and good fun. A clever distraction while some business was taken care of down on the stage.
In case you were concerned about our friend Earl, he was just fine. He was being his witty self in between each artist, trust me, and just before this next group of guys he remarked if he messed up their names, his daughter wouldn’t be too happy with him, so very carefully, he pronounced, “The Avett Brothers.” He did it perfectly. He could go home without looking over his shoulder.
Out they came, those Avett Brothers, and there they were, the whole lot of them, instruments in hand, ready to go. Ready to go. We were ready. Let’s go. Nope. Clearly something is amiss…. All I heard was “this guitar”. Alrighty then, cue up the guitar tech! Apparently, someone did that, and within a minute or two, the guitar issue was handled and those Avetts got to work and then some. They broke into the coolest rendition of “Mama Tried” I’ve ever heard, and living in Nashville, I’ve heard that song covered a boatload of times. Yes, they made up for their little delay. Delay? What delay?
Exit Avett Brothers, and Friendly Earl suggests we all sing “Happy Birthday” to Merle Haggard. Why not? So, 18,000 people sang “Happy Birthday” to Merle Haggard. I hope he liked it. I sing horribly off key, so I lip synced. In a town full of magnificent voices, I didn’t want to be the one to throw the whole thing off.
What do you think about John Mellencamp coming out with a guitar and a guy with an accordion? This is Nashville. You can do WHATEVER you want, and if you’re Mellencamp, it’s bound to sound first-rate. They played “White Line Fever” from way back in 1969, and made it sound like it was recorded yesterday. Oddly enough, it was that accordion that made it so slick. As a really weird side note, I could not stop looking at Mellencamp’s wrist. He was wearing what appeared to be a fairly loose gold bracelet on his strumming arm and I was amazed the bracelet didn’t interfere with his playing. I am so easily amused.
She’s one of country’s hottest female artists and she was next. Kacey Musgraves came out in a black dress and black pumps to sing “Rainbow Stew”. I noticed the younger audience members in my section definitely perked up when she performed. Another they were waiting for.
Remember when they used to give out “Perfect Tens” in the Olympics? If I could give a Perfect Ten to any performance of the evening, it would be this next one. It was sung so impeccably. It was so melodic. If silk was audible, this is what it would sound like. Ronnie Dunn came out and sang “It’s All In The Movies” like it was his own. It was breathtaking. I can’t say enough. If Merle was listening, I’m sure he was beaming with pride and joy. Thank you Ronnie Dunn. You were stellar.
Earl introduced Lucinda Williams as “one of the finest poets” in music. Dressed in a black leather jacket, she came out and sang “Going Where the Lonely Go”. Her delivery was that of a woman who was exasperated and tired, and quite simply – done. This was powerful and seemed to be exactly how the song should be sung.
Somebody from That Little ‘Ol Band from Texas escaped for the night and ran over to Bridgestone Arena to hang with the Haggard fans, and we’re all happy he did. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top got the memo to come as you are, because he definitely did. Full beard, fedora, shades, guitar, and he’s ready to go. Backed by the spectacular All Star Band, Gibbons got right on an amazing version of “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”, and if that was something to see, what happened next was truly mind blowing. No exaggeration. I have video to back this up.
Gibbons stayed put and out came Warren Haynes, longtime guitarist with The Allman Brothers, and founder of Gov’t Mule. These two performed “Workin’ Man Blues” and let’s just say it felt like every cell in my body was detonating. To take such an iconic country song and not only do it justice, but amp it up THAT much and show the world just how good and timeless it will always be, takes true talent. Gibbons and Haynes just earned themselves real credibility, in the rock, country and blues genres. Incredible. I have video. You can watch it and tell me if I’m wrong.
You almost had to feel a little sorry for whoever had to follow Gibbons and Haynes, but somebody had to do it. Give that job to Dierks Bentley. Even he admitted he was a little nervous about it, but fortunately, he has legions of fans that love him, and he had a great song, “If We Make It Through December”. It would be tough to make a mess out of things, and he got things handled. You’re a pro Dierks.
The very lovely Sheryl Crow’s song “Natural High” was a really good choice, as it had a female component to it when Merle Haggard recorded it back in the 80’s. Janie Fricke provided background harmonies. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have guessed it was a Sheryl Crow song. It really fit and sounded much like her style.
The fans knew he was in the building somewhere. I mean, his name was on THE SHIRT. His name was on the Hatch Print. The clock was ticking, so he had to be coming out soon, and this living legend was coming out right NOW.
He didn’t jump out with a screaming electric guitar. He walked out on stage. He kind of said “Hi”. He’s Keith Richards. Yes, THAT Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones. You may have heard of him. Only this time, he was very low key, and there to salute a legend other than himself, and he got THE song. He sang “Sing Me Back Home”, which was the name of the event itself. He played the song and he sung it as it was supposed to be sung. He didn’t trick it out or create a spectacle of it. It was really interesting and I gained a new respect for Keith Richards for doing things the way he did. A very humble man, who seemed almost thrilled that he was invited to participate in this event.
When you have the legendary Keith Richards in the house, do you let him cut and run after one song? Well, NO you don’t! You tell him to stay right there until you can get WILLIE NELSON out there to sing with him of course! Together they break into “Reasons to Quit”. This was just too much fun for words. Lyrically, this was perfect for this duo. I would love to just type them all here for you, but again, we have that space problem. If you are unfamiliar with the song, download it. In fact, go buy up all kinds of Merle Haggard music if you don’t own any. I’m on a mission to turn everyone into a Haggard fan.
Imagine now, we’ve had Keith Richards singing with Willie Nelson, what could be more surreal? First, remember you’re in Nashville, where anything can happen, and then picture this, Willie Nelson doing a duet with KENNY CHESNEY?! Oh yeah. It happened. It gets weirder. Willie Nelson as Pancho and Kenny Chesney will be playing the part of Lefty. Yes, Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney singing the super country classic “Pancho and Lefty”. It was like lucid dreaming folks! It was the best lucid dream I’ve ever had. Was it good? How did Kenny Chesney do replacing Haggard as Lefty? Whoa…. back that train up! He wasn’t REPLACING anyone. He was simply STANDING IN, as everyone will until the end of time when singing that song. As a STAND IN, he was excellent. They just had a ball, and so did 18,000 friends, including Earl, so make that 18,001.
Trending lately – fake news. You know all those stupid fake ads you see on social media. Olivia Newton-John is dead. Really? I heard she was playing Vegas or something? That should be a pretty amazing show. Willie Nelson is on his death bed. Really? I saw him play not one, not two, but a bunch of songs in Nashville on April 6, 2017. That’s some trickery.
Willie Nelson stood his ground while Toby Keith marched back out to join him for “Ramblin’ Fever”. If Willie Nelson is on his death bed, he’s the best dead guitar player ever. I’d put him up against a lot of living ones any day. It becomes almost hypnotizing watching him play. He and Keith gave this song all they had. You knew this was just about the end of the show, and they held nothing back.
This was it. There was one more song left. You could see people were coming back out on stage. All of them. This was going to be the finale. What song would they sing? There were a couple that people were shouting out and hoping for, but the one that I seemed to hear most ended up winning. That stage loaded with some of the most talented artists in the world all gathered together to sing the best ever “Okie From Muskogee” along with just about every person in Bridgestone Arena. It was the perfect ending to a pretty perfect evening.
Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, and whether you believe that Merle Haggard was looking down from the Heavens or not, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is knowing that his music and his life will never be forgotten. People loved him. If they knew him personally or not, they felt like they did because his songs spoke to them so deeply. New generations of people are discovering his music. His sons are carrying that music on. It’s timeless because it talks about real life. Real life and real stories that hit you in the heart. That kind of thing doesn’t change.
If you’ve always been a Merle Haggard fan, you have the music, and you know. Share it with someone who isn’t familiar. Turn them on to it. If you’re just getting started, go buy some of his records. I started with one a few years ago. It becomes an addiction. You get one, and you need more. That’s an addiction that nobody needs treatment for either. Go get yourself a good habit, and then turn someone else on.
Final thoughts. This was THE concert of 2017 in Nashville.