JAM Magazine Concert Reviews

March 12, 2011
First Council Casino
Newkirk, OK USA
Review by Ronny Graham
Photos by Brian Denton

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson

There's country music royalty. There are country music legends. And then there are musical titans. Two of those figures, 74-year old icons Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, paired up for an amazing evening of pure country gold when they stepped out on stage at First Council Casino in Newkirk, Oklahoma.

The historic pairing of these two musical institutions wasn't lost on the crowd. From wide and far, the old folks, young folks, college students, bikers, burnouts, old hippies, longhairs, bald heads and good ol' boys came to pay their respects. Like the master singer / songwriter he is, Kristofferson's songs touch every note in a life with its share of sadness and pain. This particular evening, Kris kicked off the night's festivities with "Shipwrecked in the ‘80s." Dedicated to veterans of both the Iraq and Afghan wars, it was a sober reminder of intensity this songwriter can bring to a song.

Trying to identify one highlight of the show would be difficult at best. Both men stayed on stage while the other performed their own mini-sets to the delight of those in attendance. One particular set saw Haggard perform "Silver Wings," "Going Where the Lonely Go" and "The Bottle Let Me Down." These three songs truly represent Merle's unique ability to draw on a colorful life that can be cruel as well as kind, sad and yes funny. The moment wasn't lost on the crowd. When Merle's backing band, The Strangers, broke into the opening chords of "Me & Bobby McGee," Kristofferson's gruff and worn voice proved the perfect vehicle for the tales of heartbreak he weaves into his songs.

Though the whole evening was a highlight, some of the better moments didn't include music, but dialogue leading into songs. As Haggard surveyed the audience, he commented on the demographics of the crowd. "I see lots of folks from my own age group tonight. Well, everyone else is coming out; we may as well come out too! My wife has a respiratory condition and has a medical card that says it's legal for her to grow marijuana. That means I'm married to a marijuana farmer. And you know what -that contact high ain't too bad!"

As the crowd simultaneously laughed and whooped it up, Haggard launched into "Okie From Muskogee." After the first line, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee!' Merle stopped and said, "Hold it. I didn't get enough feedback there. So put your hearing aid back in and pat your chest a little bit. We're going to start the song over." After the second verse of "Okie From Muskogee," Kristofferson added his own wrinkle to the classic. We don't smoke our draft cards in Muskogee / We ain't never heard of pitchin' woo / We don't inject deadly marijuana / And we get drunk, like God wants us to

Both men stayed on stage for the entire show. During the Kristofferson classic, "Sunday Morning Coming Down," Kristofferson sang, I fumbled through my closet for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt, adding dryly, "And I'm wearing it!" At one point, mid-concert, he sang a line about ‘feeling like I'm dyin'' after which he added, "With this voice, it sounds like I'm dyin'!" Eventually Haggard explained that Kristofferson had been fighting off an illness that left his throaty voice a tad shaky, but consistent.

The 90-minute set relied heavily on Haggard's classics. And that was okay. All in all, it was a perfect night despite the forgivable flaws, gaffes and technical difficulties. Though Merle, arguably one of the greatest vocalists in all of country music, is showing age in his voice, his tenor also adds warmth and sincerity to the music. The state of Kristofferson's voice was regrettable, but ultimately it took a back seat to what really mattered -two venerable road warriors doing what they do best -entertain.

Set List:
Shipwrecked in the '80s (Kristofferson)
Silver Wings (Haggard)
Going Where the Lonely Go (Haggard)
The Bottle Let Me Down (Haggard)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kristofferson)
Just the Other Side of Nowhere (Kristofferson)
Mama Tried (Haggard)
Back to Earth (Haggard)
Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) (Haggard)
The Pilgrim: Chapter 33 (Kristofferson)
It's Been a Great Afternoon (Haggard)
Big City (Haggard)
Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kristofferson)
Working Man's Blues (Haggard)
They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down (Haggard)
Loving Her Was Easier (Kristofferson)
I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink (Haggard)
Momma's Prayers (Haggard)
Okie From Muskogee (Haggard)
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kristofferson)
I Am What I Am (Haggard)
Why Me (Haggard & Kristofferson)
Pancho and Lefty (Haggard & Kristofferson)