Capping three evening pairings with Willie Nelson at WhiteWater Amphitheater on Saturday, 15 minutes outside the Central Texas river-tubing paradise of New Braunfels, Merle Haggard thought the audience wasn’t being responsive enough to his “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” line, so he tried it again. A minute or so later, Nelson came out to finish “Okie From Muskogee” with him, for fans who by then were all in on the joke, and from there they both went into what Haggard called a new song “about the same subject”: “It’s All Going to Pot,” off their impending fourth duets album together, Django & Jimmie. After “Pancho and Lefty” and another new tune, they took a break while Nelson’s smaller combo set up. But the night served as a primer on what both great men share.
They both have birthdays coming up, for one thing. In April, Nelson turns 82 and Haggard turns 78. And Haggard’s earlier set was itself preceded by brief turns by two of the icons’ offspring: Paula Nelson opened, finishing her string of covers dueting with her dad on Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”; Noel Haggard’s somewhat stoic set was lengthened a little, since it took some time to lure his dad from the tour bus. Add much younger Ben Haggard backing Dad on guitar and Nelson’s sister Bobbie adding boogie-woogie piano bounce to his songs, and it was quite a family affair in general.
Hill Country trees behind them – WhiteWater’s the kind of venue where people with RVs can camp out – Haggard and Nelson both indulged blues and jazz sides, though Nelson both more blatantly and nonchalantly, and with fewer musicians. Haggard’s set allowed for several sax and harmonica breaks and a good fiddle hoedown, though. He opened with “Big City,” covered “Folsom Prison Blues,” dedicated “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” to “all the female drunks in the house,” and speeded up “The Fightin’ Side of Me” for “all the soldiers fightin’ for us.” But what most got his nine-person combo cooking was Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues.”
Nelson’s band – spiked by standup bass and two drummer-percussionists, one specializing in egg shakers, along with Bobbie tinkling ivories and a frequently gnarly tone from the frontman’s beat-up guitar – was almost all rhythm. “On the Road Again” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” most got a crowd marinated in light beer and other substances singing along, and a Toby Keith-less “Beer for My Horses” shocked the system. But between the “Whiskey River” kickoff and spiritual-choir wrap-up, the real highlights came when sister Bobbie supplied the most groove: an extended “Night Life” and a Hank Williams “Jambalaya”/”Hey Good Lookin’”/”Move It On Over” medley that led straight into “Georgia on My Mind” followed by Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train.” Rock, jazz, blues, gospel, Hoagy Carmichael, it all fed into the same stream – like Haggard’s set, an object lesson for those who believe great country music is about purism, when really it can come from anywhere.