photo: Jon Gitchoff
by: Daniel Durchholz
What do you do if you’re a country music lifer and one of your friends and few equals in the field — one that, in fact, you’re supposed to be sharing the stage with right now — suddenly passes away?
You gather your family and friends around you, mourn in your own fashion, and carry on.
That’s what Willie Nelson did Saturday night at the Peabody Opera House downtown. Merle Haggard died last Wednesday, his 79th birthday. The pair had teamed for the recent album “Django and Jimmie” and booked a tour together.
The show went on as scheduled, with singer/songwriters Ryan Bingham and Jamey Johnson hastily added to the bill.
photo: Jon Gitchoff
On Wednesday, Nelson tweeted a photo of himself with Haggard, captioned, “He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.”
In concert, Nelson chose to keep any further thoughts on the matter private. He said nothing about Haggard from the stage, nor much of anything else aside from his usual brief song introductions.
But late in the show, he performed “It’s All Goin’ to Pot,” a pro-marijuana duet from “Django and Jimmie,” with Johnson singing Haggard’s part. They followed that with “Okie from Muskogee,” likely Haggard’s best-known hit, which, when it was released in 1969, was a resounding put-down of the drug culture.
The humorous juxtaposition, plus the version of Nelson’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” that followed, would not have been lost on Haggard, who always reserved his right to change his mind about things, and often did.
The show ended with Nelson’s standard set closer, a medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.” But on this night, it felt like the songs may have had a little extra meaning and were sung in Haggard’s honor, even if no one specifically said so.
Prior to that, Nelson played his regular show of hits and favorites, including “Whiskey River,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” and many others.
Nelson’s sister Bobbie, his longtime pianist, was given the spotlight for “Down Yonder,” while his son, guitarist Lukas Nelson, played and sang a blues-drenched cover of “Texas Flood.”
Nelson’s own guitar playing was — as ever — brilliant and unconventional. He can play with great subtlety and emotion, as he did on Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” and then rattle off a solo on a fast number that is so right, but so idiosyncratic, you’d swear his famed guitar Trigger was falling down a flight of stairs (which, indeed, it looks like it has).
photo: Jon Gitchoff
The heavy lifting of the Haggard tribute was left to opening acts Johnson and Bingham.
Johnson’s set was filled with Haggard classics, and it showed the singer’s deep understanding and appreciation of Haggard’s expansive artistry, ranging from the hard-headed pragmatism of “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and the testy patriotism of “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to the devastating reminiscence “My Favorite Memory” and blue-collar solidarity of “Workin’ Man Blues.”
Johnson was joined by surprise guest Lee Ann Womack, who left her own tour and drove in for the show at Johnson’s request. She provided what was perhaps the evening’s high-water mark with a tear-inducing take on “You Take Me for Granted,” written for Haggard by his wife at the time, Leona Williams.
She and Johnson also sang “Yesterday’s Wine,” written by Nelson, but a hit for Haggard and George Jones.
The set was so impromptu that Johnson and his band often had to huddle and flip through a songbook to decide what to play next. “We got the Merle bible up here,” Johnson said.
Despite that — or more correctly, given that — the tribute was heartfelt, moving, and perfect.
Ryan Bingham also performed the Haggard songs “Old Man from the Mountain” and “Mama Tried” as well as some of his own material and a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” featuring Lukas Nelson on guitar.
Willie Nelson set list
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Beer for My Horses
Good Hearted Woman
Funny How Times Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life
Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Me and Paul
I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train
It’s All Goin’ to Pot
Okie from Muskogee
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away
Jamey Johnson set list
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
The Fightin’ Side of Me
That’s the Way Love Goes
You Take Me for Granted
Down Every Road
My Favorite Memory
Workin’ Man Blues
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star
Ryan Bingham set list
Old Man from the Mountain
I Ain’t Living Long Like This
Tell My Mother I Miss Her So
South Side of Heaven
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