Livin’ right and bein’ free: Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson & Sturgill Simpson

Though age hasn’t quite taken the toll on Merle Haggard’s throat that it has on his posture, his force and accuracy have ebbed enough that his old pal Willie sings him under the table without raising his voice on their newish and OKish duet album, Django and Jimmie (#1 country, how about that?) But last night at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, Hag compensated with a wicked sense of phrasing and benefited from the close proximity of Kris Kristofferson who, as ever, couldn’t carry a tune if it was lashed to his back with heavy rope.

At 79, Kristofferson looks about 10 years younger than the 78-year-old Haggard, who in black fedora, shades and dark suit was pretty much a white scarf and 50 pounds away from passing for Van Morrison.* But Kris sounded about 20 years older than Hag, creaking amiably through his classics with the humble poise of a talented guy who’s never stopped being amazed that people consistently pay him to do something he quite literally cannot.

Merle’s choices were solid if unsurprising, with Lefty’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and a faithful “Folsom Prison Blues” mixed in with the likes of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home.” His work on guitar and fiddle was hot, and so was the current incarnation of the Strangers, even if that saxophone was occasionally more Saturday Night Live house band than Texas Playboys.

But no “Working Man Blues” on Labor Day? And both of his classic hippie-bashers? Not even sure what squirrelly guys “Fightin’ Side of Me” targets these days — Glenn Greenwald maybe? When Merle introduced “a song about marijuana,” I was hoping for the recent Willie duet “It’s All Goin’ to Pot.” But nope, ‘twas ye olde “Okie from Muskogee,” which is essentially camp at this point  distaste for short hair, weed and sandals sounds more like a straight-edge punk’s ethos than a country music fan’s.

As for Sturgill Simpson  look, I get it. Virtuoso musicianship and macho nasality never go out of style. For a certain kind of country fan, an outlaw is someone who follows the rules and to be real you’ve got to be an imitator. Yeah, guitarist Laur Joamets smokes and sure, “Turtles All the Way Down” is a helluva trip. But Simpson sang like he had a CD of Honky Tonk Heroes lodged in the back of his throat that he was trying to expel through his nose, and I’m sure he could add a few more hooks and consonants to his repertoire without being accused of aping Luke Bryan.

Simpson doesn’t really interpret When in Rome’s “The Promise”  he just kind of countrifies it  but I’d still like to hear what he can make of someone else’s songs. My own preferred New Waylon, Jamey Johnson, had the good sense to cut an album of Hank Cochran copyrights a couple years ago. You know, Billy Joe Shaver’s still writing a bunch of good songs. And I’m pretty sure Waylon done it that way.

* For those unfamiliar with Hag’s interest in fashion, a recording of Bob Eubanks repeatedly informed us that Merle crop-top baby t’s were available at Hag’s General Store.

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