On the canvas of country music, there are no more prolific living songwriters than Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. The Country Music Hall of Famers concluded a six-city tour Sunday night at the Rosemont Theatre before a less-than-capacity audience.
What’s wrong with Chicago music fans?
Pop star Justin Timberlake recognized the importance of this concert. He was backstage before the show taking photographs, apparently for an art project, according to Haggard management. He had to leave before the concert to catch a flight to Europe. Timberlake is from Millville, Tenn, where Haggard recorded his 1981 gospel album “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” And that album features a stark cover of Kristofferson’s ballad “Why Me,” which the duo lifted up like a rugged cross at the Rosemont.
These men are the Rembrandt (Haggard’s human portraits) and Picasso (Kristofferson’s post-impressionism) of country music.
So it snowed Sunday night.
I would have walked to this show.
The concert was billed as an acoustic evening, but Hag and Kris are where they are because of their impulsive nature. They were backed by a stripped-down electric version of Haggard’s band the Strangers, featuring longtime drummer Biff Adam only on a snare and brushes and Haggard’s 17-year-old son Ben on lead guitar (Hag is 72).
For an hour and 45 minutes, Haggard and Kristofferson traded off on subdued versions of each other’s best-known songs, with a couple of new ones thrown in for size.
Haggard’s tone and phrasing were spot-on in the acoustically pristine theater. Acoustics can’t help Kristofferson’s sandpaper-on-metal vocals, and he seemed to be fighting a cold. Still he delivered effortless versions of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” (a hit for Johnny Cash) and “From Here To Forever,” a new lullaby (co-written with the late Stephen Bruton) to his child that is tailor-made for country radio.
Both men were dressed in black, likely as homage to Cash, and there may have been no more chilling moment than the final song of the evening: “Anthem ’84,” a 1990 Highwaymen track composed by Kristofferson and sung by Cash. Haggard and Kristofferson dueted on the metaphoric ballad:
“If you’re lookin’ for a fighter who’ll defend you, and love you for your freedom, I’m your man.
I ain’t gonna leave you for the crazy things you’re doin’. But don’t ask me to lend a helpin’ hand. . . .”
I remember when Chicagoans didn’t go to Cash/Highwaymen concerts either, until Cash linked up with hipster Rick Rubin.
Although they can be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Kristofferson stood in Haggard’s corner all night, strumming acoustic guitar, smiling and singing along. After walking on stage to deliver a solo acoustic version of his “Shipwrecked in the Eighties” (which he dedicated to the late Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter Bruton), Kristofferson introduced Haggard as “the greatest artist in American music history.”
He’s not far off the mark.
Haggard swung through “Workin’ Man Blues,” gospel, a pop version of “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,” and lilting Tin Pan Alley in “Pretty When It’s New” from his upcoming “I Am What I Am” album.
But most surprising were the terse lead guitar lines where he channeled the honky-tonks of his beloved Bakersfield, Calif. He returned to the role of Herb “Trading Post” Henson band member (circa 1963), laying back for a beautiful rendition of Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” He later fueled up for his own “Runaway Mama,” which audience member Jerry Lee Lewis loved a couple of nights ago when the tour stopped at the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City, La. (And earlier in the week, Cher was in the audience at the Haggard-Kristofferson stop in Santa Rosa, Calif.)
Banter was minimal between the two men. They edited most of their jokes and commentary into the music. Kristofferson added lyrics such as, “We get drunk like God wants us to do,” in Haggard’s classic “Okie From Muskogee,” and Haggard knocked around George W. Bush in his loving cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s The Way Love Goes.”
The Haggard-Kristofferson show offered one of the most unique Chicago area evenings of traditional country music since the Highwaymen (Cash, Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings). Haggard and Kristofferson have inspired generations of songwriters. I hope they pass this way again.