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Merle Haggard Tribute: 10 Best Things We Saw

From Keith Richards’ heartfelt “Sing Me Back Home” to Miranda Lambert’s aching “Misery and Gin”

Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Merle Haggard tribute

Willie Nelson and Keith Richards sang "Reasons to Quit" at the Merle Haggard tribute concert in Nashville.

Joshua Timmermans for Blackbird Presents

The tribute concert “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard” assembled a cross-genre army of Haggard fans to interpret the late country legend’s most famous songs. Keith Richards, John Mellencamp, Billy Gibbons and Lynyrd Skynyrd represented the rock contingent, while Kenny Chesney, Kacey Musgraves, Dierks Bentley and, of course, Haggard’s running buddy Willie Nelson stepped up for country. It was a moving evening full of once-in-a-blue-moon collaborations, even by Nashville standards. The concert, held April 6th, the anniversary of Haggard’s death, was filmed for broadcast on a network and date to be announced, but we already know which performances are the must-sees. Here’s the 10 best things we witnessed at Thursday night’s Haggard blowout.  

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Jordan O'Donnell

Chris Janson and Jake Owen, “Footlights”

On paper, the pairing of beach bum Jake Owen and country boy Chris Janson may have looked like a mismatch, but onstage it made for one of the night’s best duos – which, in a show featuring Keith Richards singing with Willie Nelson – is saying something. Delivering Haggard’s tale of faking it in the limelight, “Footlights,” Owen and Janson tapped into the angst of being a touring musician, with Owen’s deep, impassioned vocals proving once and for all he knows his way around classic country. But it was Janson who made the song his own, changing the age-referencing lyric from Hag’s original 41 to his own 31 years, blowing a mean harmonica and captivating the crowd with a buttery vocal that carried from the front row all the way to the nosebleeds. J.H.

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Jordan O'Donnell

Keith Richards, “Sing Me Back Home”

Witnessing Keith Richards and Willie Nelson together onstage was an undeniably emotional moment, for both the audience and the icons themselves. Richards and Nelson were each famously close with Haggard, and they joined forces for the on-the-nose “Reasons to Quit,” a song about those glorious bad habits both men possess. Nelson took the lead, with Richards croaking harmonies and the chorus, making for a performance as ragged as the hard-living vets singing it. But it was the Rolling Stones guitarist’s heartfelt solo reading of “Sing Me Back Home” that best embodied Richards’ affinity for Merle. As he told Rolling Stone shortly after Haggard’s death, the song is “my party piece, baby.” J.H.

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Warren Haynes and Billy Gibbons, “Workin’ Man Blues”

Prior to taking the stage, Warren Haynes connected the dots between Haggard and the Grateful Dead, who often covered Hag hits. “He had a way of writing honest songs and I think Jerry Garcia saw that early on,” Haynes told Rolling Stone. “There is a handful of people in the country world that all rockers loved, and Merle was one of them.” Count ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons as one of those rockers. He joined Haynes for an inventive, slow-burn take on “Workin’ Man Blues,” which, when it finally exploded into a twin-guitar duel, made for the best fret fireworks of the night. J.H.

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Alabama, “Silver Wings”

This classic weeper from 1969’s A Portrait of Merle Haggard speaks for itself, just a guy waxing poetic about the metal bird taking his ex away forever and, he admits, “slowly fading out of sight.” Alabama wisely opted not to mess with a good thing. While Randy Owen strummed his acoustic guitar and sang the mournful lines, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook chimed in with lovely, ghostly harmonies, a delicate reminder that the best of Haggard’s songs work beautifully with the simple approach. J.F.

Kacey Musgraves

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Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow Stew”

Like many of Haggard’s more political tunes, interpretations of “Rainbow Stew” will vary depending upon the individual. This utopian world he envisions sounds like it might be intended as pure fantasy, but Kacey Musgraves’ performance of the song during the Sing Me Back Home tribute actually sounded sweetly hopeful while injecting it with a distinctly queer sensibility. “It feels super progressive and ahead of its time lyrically,” Musgraves told Rolling Stone before the show. “Talking about cars running on water and satellites heating our homes … I thought it was fitting. And also, I had a rainbow rhinestone jacket.” J.F.

Hank Williams Jr.

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Hank Williams Jr., “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”

Hank Williams Jr. does nothing small. So even when performing a tribute for his old pal Haggard, Bocephus comes across as the guest of honor. Sauntering onstage as if he owned the place, Williams slung his guitar over his shoulder and lit into the “All My Rowdy Friends” prototype “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” At 67, he hasn’t lost a step, bellowing the boozy lines, mugging for the crowd and delivering a performance that would elicit one of Merle’s signature smirks. In a country format that is slowly losing its legends, Williams stands as sturdy as an oak. J.H.

John Anderson

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John Anderson, “Big City”

Haggard wrote and recorded “Big City,” an appeal for a simpler, slower-paced life, in 1982 after his bus driver Dean Holloway made a disparaging comment about Los Angeles. It proved to be a perfect choice for reliable traditionalist John Anderson – whose 1982 album Wild and Blue put him on the map with the hit title track and “Swingin'” – and his signature pillow-soft Florida drawl that added a touch of wistful regret to the performance. Rather than dreaming about escaping to the big, open vistas of Montana, Anderson evoked a man giving up those dreams and feeling the concrete jungle’s noose slowly tightening around his neck. J.F.

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Ben Haggard and the Strangers, “What Am I Gonna Do”

Haggard’s guitarslinger son Ben Haggard was one of the night’s bandleaders, but he also had his own time in the spotlight, commanding his dad’s longtime group the Strangers with the same swagger of his old man. In a very Merle-like truckers cap, he was the night’s most visible nod to the late legend, and when he sang “What Am I Gonna Do” to start the show, he summoned his father’s famously quavering voice. Yes, Merle may be gone, but there’s something reassuring about knowing that Ben remains to preserve the legacy. J.H.  

Jamey Johnson

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Jamey Johnson, “Kern River”

Released on the 1985 album of the same title, “Kern River” is Haggard at his most haunting, depicting the deceptively lethal body of water where his lover drowned. It requires some serious gravitas, which Jamey Johnson has in spades. His crowd clearly overlaps with Haggard’s – his introduction garnered one of the night’s biggest reactions, at least until Hank Williams Jr. came out. Johnson’s solemn, heavy reading of “Kern River” was tone-perfect, conjuring the quiet menace of a current that can kill so indiscriminately, and the broken man who fled to the relative sanctuary of the mountains near Lake Shasta. He followed it with an equally moving take on “If I Could Only Fly” with Alison Krauss. J.F.

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