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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.  

Kacey Musgraves

Jordan O'Donnell

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.

Jordan O'Donnell

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

Jordan O'Donnell

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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Jordan O'Donnell

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

Jordan O'Donnell

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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