Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard â€” that just would have been easy business. And, put in terms of copyright and back catalog, it would have been a follow-through on “Pancho and Lefty” the hit record they made together almost 25 years ago. But to triangulate them with Ray Price, as the new record “Last of the Breed” does, is to structure a summit meeting on honky-tonk singing.
Photographs by Michael Falco for The New York Times
The three singers are connected by lots of small items like the fact that Mr. Nelson used to be Mr. Price’s bass player â€” but also in one big way. They are all magnetized toward the sound of Bob Will’s Texas swing. Mr. Haggard, for his part, seems drawn to the kind of front man Wills was: a sporadic fiddle player, spontaneous organizer of arrangements and agent of the unpredictable. Mr. Price, for his part, long ago adapted Will’s twin-fiddle breaks, folding them into nearly all his honky-tonk hits of the 1950s and â€™60s. As for Mr. Nelson, a Texan, a country singer and an improviser, Wills is part of his light and air.
â€œLast of the Breedâ€ came out last week on Lost Highway Records. The inevitable short and gentlemanly tour that followed â€” Mr. Price is 81, Mr. Haggard 69, Mr. Nelson 73 â€” would naturally be the live version of the record. Right? There are 22 songs on the album, from the repertory of their favorite â€™40s and â€™50s country songwriters. Wouldn’t it be enough to take that and round it off with some extras? Sure. But what happened at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday was infinitely better.
The beginning of the show was Mr. Price’s, and he played a half-hour set with his backup band, the Cherokee Cowboys. In a gray suit and red tie and moving with slow grace, he sang in his latter-day vocal style over his early-days music. The music was ironbound, honky-tonk shuffles with a steel guitar and twin fiddles; that vocal style was a crisp baritone that never bent notes, ennobling every phrase of “Crazy Arms” or “I Won’t Mention It Again” or “The Other Woman (in My Life),â€ making the deadbeats and emotional anarchists in the songs like stand-up guys.
After a pause Mr. Haggard appeared, with the Western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel as his backup. He looked itchy and inscrutable. He picked up his fiddle, and things got deep very quickly. He ordered up “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” singing in his relaxed, froggy voice, picking the order of soloists, and the band heated up in the out-chorus. They played an old public-domain blues, still warming up the fingers. Then began about 45 minutes of music that represented the best of what you can get, on the best of nights, from experienced, ornery types.
Song after song, with endless differences in the shadings and rhythms of his vocal phrasing, and with modest, clear-minded guitar solos, Mr. Haggard made copyright a dead issue. He used his restlessness to melt down his hits, to undo them and turn them back into process and possibility. He worked within the changing spaces of a flexible band; he sang the first verse of “Sing Me Back Home” by himself. He smuggled the line ‘Honey, don’t worry about what George Bush does into the lyrics of “That’s the Way Love Goes”; he ordered solos in “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”; he engaged Mickey Raphael, the harmonica player from Mr. Nelson’s band, who played short solos and obbligatos as if he were another guitarist.
Mr. Nelson arrived, smiley but wearing a similar inscrutability, and together the two continued the weird work that Mr. Haggard had begun.
“Pancho and Lefty” was served in a businesslike way. But then came “Ramblin’ Fever” with a slashing solo from Mr. Nelson’s heavily distressed guitar, and the demonstration of both singers’ lethal, discussion-ending baritone voices. Cleaning off the table before dessert, Freddie Powers, an excellent soft-tenor Texas singer who has worked with both Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard, sang “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
Mr. Price reappeared for a few songs from the record, including two from the great ark of Wills (“Roly Poly” and “Please Don’t Leave Me Any More Darlin’) and a rising-to-the-occasion version of “Night Life” in which he and the band slowly surged to a thundering final chorus. This was a more orderly part of the show: elegant, old school, moving.
The evening finally turned into the hero-worship stage, with Mr. Nelson taking over. You probably know the coordinates: amiable-vagabond music (“Whiskey River? and “On the Road Again”) and a funny new song called “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore.” It was all better than good. But that delicate, tenebrous, alchemical middle section of the concert: that was something else, something unknowable.