Country music great Merle Haggard doesn’t do acoustic performances – he’s an old-time honky-tonk man – but he couldn’t resist the invitation from Kris Kristofferson to do three special joint acoustic concerts. Still, Haggard looked a little flustered when he flubbed a line or his teleprompter man posted the wrong song Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.
“It’s hard to know what I’m doing up here without a band,” Haggard said. “I feel like an old stripper without a G-string.”
He may have thought he didn’t have a band up there, but he brought four musicians, not counting Kristofferson, who spent most of the night strumming his guitar, grinning like a crazy fool and looking over his shoulder, just like any other fan but with a better seat.
The two grizzled songwriters don’t have an ounce of show business between them. They are musicians, and they played fresh, real music that lived, breathed and even wheezed a little up there on the Santa Rosa stage. These two don’t sing songs, they sculpt them in the air with their voices; timorous and quavery at spots, not always on the beat, but straight from the heart every time.
Kristofferson was almost giddy. He could barely contain himself, and when he sang, in fact, he threatened to break character at the end of almost every line. Haggard warmed to his chore, and by the time he threw down an unexpected version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” his 16-year-old son Ben nailing the Luther Perkins guitar part, Hag was cruising.
There was no set list. Set list? There was no plan whatsoever. Kristofferson opened the show with a song on his own, Haggard walked out in the middle of Kristofferson’s introduction and the program tumbled along from there. Kristofferson would sing a song. Haggard would do two or three. When he ran out of ideas of what to play next, he would look over at Kristofferson, who would sing a song and quickly turn the microphone back to Haggard.
Haggard was masterful. His version of Jimmie Rodgers’ rarely performed “T.B. Blues” was a stunning demonstration of nuance and command, exactly the sort of material only Haggard would have in his repertoire, perfectly suited to this kind of performance. He did plenty of his standard country and western chart hits – “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Silver Wings” – but it was lesser-known songs like “Rainbow Stew,” “If I Could Only Fly” or “I Wish I Could Be 30 Again” that most benefited from the pared-down arrangements.
Without the conventional arrangements he uses with his band, Haggard almost delicately etched his vocals. The sturdy songcraft and his surgical vocal performance shouldered the entire load, and it was nothing short of a revelation to hear Haggard open up his music to this timeless treatment. His music sounded ancient yet snatched out of today’s headlines at the same time. A song like “Big City” was never more relevant, and his take on Willie Nelson’s recent “I Guess My Heart Just Settled Back to Earth” could have been anytime.
Kristofferson, an old hand at these acoustic shows, sang wonderful songs and supplied a warm, wry and gracious presence to the entire proceedings, but it was Haggard’s night, his coming-out party as an acoustic performer, and Kristofferson couldn’t have been happier playing host to Haggard’s star.
Back in Haggard’s bus after the show, sipping George Dickel whiskey out of paper cups, Kristofferson and Haggard celebrated. “For me, it was like being onstage with Hank Williams,” Kristofferson said.
Haggard, smiling so hard his cheeks are going to hurt, was glowing. “It’s going to be even better tomorrow night,” he said. He is already thinking beyond Portland and Seattle. “We’re going to take it around the world,” he said.
This article appeared on page F – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle