Not that anyone needed to be convinced of the depth and breadth of Merle Haggard’s formidable influence — on country music and beyond. But a spectacular case was made for his legacy Thursday night at the Bridgestone Arena here.
One year to the day that Haggard died, more than two dozen artists across genres and multiple generations gathered to pay tribute to the American music legend on what would have been his 80th birthday.
“Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard” featured collaborators and peers (Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn), younger artists (Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves) who aspire to his authenticity and a bevy of pop and rock acolytes (Keith Richards, John Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow) who cite him as an influence.
From the cheeky swagger of Hank Williams Jr.’s take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” — a perfect marriage of singer and song — to the delicacy of Alison Krauss’ intonation of “Sing a Sad Song,” with rich harmonic help from the Cox Family, the three-plus-hour show had an air of both celebration and solemnity.
Veteran character actor W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood,” “True Detective”), a fan and friend of Haggard’s, hosted the event with élan and a broad, booming personality well-suited to keeping things moving.
Guitarist Ben Haggard, Merle’s son, anchored the first part of the show, leading his father’s old band, the Strangers, behind a parade of classic artists who still have plenty left in the tank: John Anderson, Bobby Bare, the still-feisty Tanya Tucker and a full-voiced Connie Smith, who did a gorgeous rendition of “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
Among the younger set, Lambert delivered a note-perfect rendition of the melancholic “Misery and Gin,” an occasional favorite of her regular shows. Chris Janson and Jake Owen were among several artists teaming up to pay homage, with an assured version of “Footlights” that found Janson turning out smoky harmonica wails.
Alabama kept it simple and stripped down for a harmony-laden rendition of the rueful “Silver Wings.” Jamey Johnson gave one of the night’s standout performances with “Kern River,” a hushed tale of both menace and sadness that drew huge cheers from the crowd. The estimably bearded Johnson joined forces with Krauss to tip a cap to songwriter Blaze Foley with a poignant duet of “If I Could Only Fly.” Johnson also offered an arm to help Lynn to the stage for her take on “Today I Started Loving You.”
Interspersed between the sets were tribute videos that included one section devoted to Haggard’s side-splitting appearances on vintage talk and variety shows, doing spot-on impersonations of fellow country stars Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Bakersfield compadre Buck Owens.
The second set had just as much bang for the buck, including Lynyrd Skynyrd's stomp through “Honky Tonk Nighttime Man” and a scorching version of “Working Man Blues" from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule.
The Avett Brothers ably motored through “Mama Tried,” Mellencamp and a core crew (including his former drummer, Kenny Aronoff) performed a haunting rendition of the snarling, desperate “White Line Fever” and Crow soared on “Natural High.”
Richards, a late addition to the lineup, emerged and was his typically shambolic self, lending his piratical charm to “Sing Me Back Home,” which the Stone alone recorded in 1977.
“It’s good to be here,” Richards said, adding with a laugh, “or anywhere.” He also made sure to thank the evening’s truly all-star backing band, which included Aronoff, Don Was on bass, Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and the McCrary Sisters on support vocals.
While the crowd was appreciative of all the performers, the loudest roar was reserved for Haggard’s close friend and collaborator, Willie Nelson, the Pancho to Haggard’s Lefty.
Nelson joined Richards for the ode to bad behavior “Reasons to Quit” and Toby Keith for a raucous “Ramblin’ Fever.” Appropriately enough, Kenny Chesney served as Nelson’s Lefty for the night on the Southwestern-tinged track, a highlight of the Nelson-Haggard canon.
The show came to a rousing conclusion with an all-hands rendition of Haggard’s signature tune “Okie From Muskogee.” It was a particularly fine touch to have Nelson croon the opening line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.”
The concert was recorded for broadcast at a later date on an as-yet-to-be-determined outlet.