by: Mark Hughes Cobb
Willie and Merle: It’s one of those shows where the two names either ring all the bells or you’re a toddler whose parents resist all things country, for fear of seeming provincial, for fear of seeming unhip, or because you’ve heard too much of what’s called “country” for the past decades.
Aside from the names, the legends share other distinctions: voices rough-edged and often called “acquired tastes.” Lyrics and melodies ranging far outside the simple I-IV-V chord structures of most country-pop songs. Signature guitars. Outlaw status.
Both bucked the Nashville system, where purer expressions of plainspoken folk music got mired in syrupy strings and backing choruses to produce the nasal, twangy schlock product that makes many cringe at the thought of listening to anything called country.
Wielding a dark Telecaster and even murkier lyrical outpouring, much of it autobiographical, Merle Haggard helped create the West Coast Bakersfield sound. With a beat-up Martin N-20 named Trigger and a band of gypsies honing musical styles all across the boards, Willie Nelson traveled from being a Nashville insider to the defining face and sound of outlaw country music
Merle, who drew about 5,000 to the amphitheater last year without a superstar co-billing, has had 38 No. 1 hits and numerous other charting songs over a multi-decade career, including “Mama Tried,” “I Think I”ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Ramblin’ Fever” and, in a duet with Willie, “Pancho and Lefty.”
Unlike many musical tough-guy wanna-bes, Merle actually went to prison for his crimes, in San Quentin, in fact, where he heard a country outlaw named Johnny Cash play. That concert is credited with helping turn the inmate’s life toward a brighter path. Last year at the amphitheater, he paid tribute to the memory of the Man in Black with a romping version of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
From last year’s show, I wrote “When he sang ‘I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole/no one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried/Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied/That leaves only me to blame ‘cause Mama tried,’ it’s clear that, with the except of the ‘life without parole,’ hyperbole, Haggard lived that song, earned every teardrop. The show served as a celebration of a man who’s walked himself through several levels of hell, yet at 75 is still out playing concerts almost every night, sounding strong and picking hard, feeding the fever that makes ramblin’ seem like one heckuva fine way to live.”
Willie’s played Tuscaloosa before, but the last time was May 2001, when he drew record crowds to the now-defunct CityFest. That May Saturday night, Tuscaloosa got a healthy dose of what makes him so eclectic and ever-changing, as he requested extra time: Organizers had originally planned a 90-minute set, but Willie stretched it to more than two hours.
With more than 60 studio albums to choose from, there’s little guessing what his setlist will be, other than that his recent shows tend to include a lot of crowd favorites, along with covers of Hank Williams’ songs such as “I Saw the Light,” “Jambalaya,” and “Hey Good Lookin’.”
In his early ’60s Nashville phase, Willie wrote standards such as “Crazy” — best known from the Patsy Cline hit, but covered by dozens since — “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Pretty Paper,” “Night Life” and “Hello Walls,” all of them hits for other singers, such as Roy Orbison, Ray Price, Faron Young and Billy Walker.
Though his songs sold to and for others, Willie’s solo recordings didn’t begin to take off — he’d come close to retiring from the music business in disgust — until he moved to free-wheeling Austin, Texas, where the hippie scene was more conducive to his brand of country, drawing in folk, jazz and American standard influences.
His 1973 album “Shotgun Willie” helped establish that image; Willie later said that album “cleared his throat.” Success grew with a pair of concept albums, “Phases and Stages” from 1974 and “Red-Headed Stranger” from 1975, the latter of which contained his first No. 1 hit as a singer, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”With buddies Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter (Jennings’ wife) and Tompall Glaser, he cut “Wanted: The Outlaws,” the disc credited with popularizing the “outlaw country” style, a purer sound free from studio gloss and songwriting by committee.
Duet hits with Jennings from that era include “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” From his own pen and his love of other songwriters, especially those from the American standards songbook, he’s also had hits with “Always On My Mind,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Whiskey River,” “On the Road Again,” “Blue Skies,” “Stardust,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Let It Be Me,” “City of New Orleans,” “Forgiving You Was Easy,” “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”
Aside from Jennings, he’s also sung duets with Leon Russell, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Webb Pierce, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Julio Iglesias, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Hank Cochran, Carlos Santana, Toby Keith, Emmylou Harris, Snoop Dogg and Merle. Chances are the legends will share stage time Thursday for “Reasons to Quit” or “Pancho and Lefty,” a No. 1 for Nelson and Haggard in 1983.
In April, Willie cut “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” featuring pop, jazz, rock and country standards he and his sister Bobbie, who plays piano in the band, have dug throughout their careers. Just out this month is a duets collection titled “To All the Girls … ” featuring Willie teaming with female singers including Parton, Harris, Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn, Carrie Underwood, the Secret Sisters, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Wynonna Judd, Alison Krauss, Melonie Cannon, Mavis Staples, Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, Lily Meola, Brandi Carlile, Tina Rose and Nelson’s daughter, Paula Nelson.