Willie Nelson joined other artists to help honor Merle Haggard in Washinton DC last night, when he received the Kennedy Center Honors, along with Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Herman and Paul McCartney. President Obama and Mrs. Obama hosted the event.
by Pat Gallagher
Merle Haggard sat amongst four other talented trailblazers Sunday night, December 5, as they became the most recent recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, awarded by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
As a recipient of the 33rd annual national celebration of the arts, the 73-year-old country legend sat in the balcony of the Kennedy Center Opera House joined by composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, dancer, choreographer and director Bill T. Jones, songwriter and musician Paul McCartney and producer, television host, actress and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey as they were honored in an all-star performance by their peers. Also in attendance, President and Mrs. Barack Obama, along with Gen. and Mrs. Colin Powell.
As the lights dimmed and the performance began, the evening had a magical feel, with each honoree watching as their friends and colleagues took turns singing their praises in recognition of their respective place in the performing arts. When Merle’s tribute began, the 73-year-old was clearly moved to tears.
Country superstar Vince Gill took his place at the podium on stage to speak about Merle’s legacy. “I’m proud to be here to see my old friend — on a personal note, my lifelong favorite — Merle Haggard receive this great Kennedy Center Honor,” Vince began. “But I really don’t know what to say. Merle has already revealed everything we need to know about the man. It’s all in his songs. What can I add? I can say that I admire how he writes for all of those who lack voices of their own: society’s forgotten or pushed aside. He captures their dignity as they struggle to make ends meet as drifters, factory workers, farmhands, fathers, sons and prisoners-and as they fight the demons we all know.
“His writing is not glamorous; just real,” Vince continued. “Hag tells it like it is. He’s the ‘Poet of the Common Man’. Through words and music, he tells his life story, which is, in many ways, America’s story — a quest for the simple things: a decent job, self-respect, a place to call home. And one common thread through all of it … is truth.”
“This is already more spoken words than you’d hear in a year of Merle Haggard concerts,” Vince added, eliciting laughter from the audience. “I know what Merle is thinking right now … he’s thinking, ‘Vince, shut the hell up and get to the music.’ I’m almost there, Hag. I look up and see this fellow Okie sitting with the President and the First Lady and the others, and all these people here tonight honoring you, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, sometimes we get it right. We sure got it right tonight.’”
Each recipient enjoyed a video presentation that covered their humble beginnings and spotlighted their many professional accomplishments. Willie Nelson narrated Merle’s biography, as a drop-down video screen revealed photos and video of Merle’s life from childhood to present, explaining how his family had traveled west from Oklahoma, driven out of the dust storms and the Great Depression.
“In Oildale, California, they were outsiders, Okies, his father proud, independent, steady as a rock,” Willie began in the taped piece. “His sudden death threw a shadow over everything. “I couldn’t keep my mind at rest,” Merle said as pictures of his childhood began to tell the visual story. “I’d hear the train whistle, grab my guitar and off I’d go.”
“All he found was trouble,” Willie continued, “petty crimes, two-bit robberies, and a stretch in San Quentin [prison]. Merle swore he’d never lose his freedom again. One night Johnny Cash came to sing for the inmates, and Merle understood that he could find his way with music. The honky-tonks were filled with working folks, whiskey and Saturday nights. Merle didn’t talk much but when he sang, they stopped to listen. He started writing about his own life. The words were never fancy, but always true … Merle’s heart always took his voice where it needed to go.”
At the end of the video, his surprise guests loaded the stage in twos: Kris Kristofferson and Miranda Lambert began their tribute singing ‘Silver Wings.’ Vince Gill came back on stage with his friend Brad Paisley to sing ‘Workin’ Man’s Blues,’ followed by Sheryl Crow and Willie belting out ‘Today I Started Lovin’ You Again.’
Willie, Jamey Johnson and Kid Rock sang ‘Rambling Fever,’ later joined by the whole group to finish out the song with a standing ovation from the entire audience.
The 33rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors will be shown on CBS on December 28 at 9:00 PM (ET).