Live Music: Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson

Both Kristofferson and Haggard are now into their seventies and it’s worth mentioning that they are both in good enough shape to keep up with the pace of touring.    Over the past several months the Greek has presented several aging rock icons either pushing or in excess of sixty years of age.  It has been remarkable to see how the one thing that every one of them has in common is that they are lean and, having been training for the road, clearly have the endurance to carry a 90-minute or longer set like a walk in the park.   Haggard and Kristofferson are both known, in addition to their great songs, for years/decades of hard living.   While the music documents the lifestyle both men once lived, they are now running just on the juice of being onstage.

Though Haggard and Kristofferson are both country artists they may have once seemed farther apart than they do any more.  Both men became very popular in the 60’s and early 70’s when this country was going through a lot of growing pains.  Issues like the Vietnam War divided people by lines of hip and straight, establishment and counterculture.   People were taking sides and the tension tore people apart.  Kristofferson wrote of stoned people in several songs and at the time it served as a bit of double entendre.   Stone drunk or stoned on pot?  Haggard wrote “Okie from Muskogee” with its lyrics rejecting the hippie lifestyle in terms of style and libations and while continually coming back to waving Old Glory over the courthouse.   Was it an endorsement of the straight life?  An anti-anti-war song or was it perhaps tongue in cheek? It probably was the former at the time it was written.  But on Friday, both men actually looked a bit sheepish as they sang it, because over the years reality has settled in and the lines between the two schools of thought have surely become blurred.

Kris Kristofferson

Kristofferson is probably best known for the exceptional way his songs capture images and powerful feelings with simple language.   Many of his songs descriptively portray the lifestyle of a guy who lives hard, drinks and smokes too much and knows it.  The characters in his songs have regrets and feelings that cut to the bone.   In his set, Kristofferson’s songs were less formally arranged than Haggard’s.   This meant that what Kris was working with to get the songs across was bare bones to start with — his rough yet still tender voice, his sparsely finger-picked guitar, and the undeniable power of his words to put our imaginations in motion.  A song like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” really does strike a chord in people as they can relate to hearing a young kid cussing as he kicks a can, while smelling someone frying chicken and wearing your cleanest dirty shirt.

On the Sunday morning sidewalks
wishing Lord that I was stoned
’cause there is something in a Sunday
that makes a body feel alone
and there’s nothin’ short of dyin’
half as lonesome as the sound
on the sleepin’ city side walks
Sunday mornin’ comin’ down

It’s all in the details…and in the way his stanzas actually take the feeling deeper with every line.  One could almost hear a pin drop in the ripple of the breeze as the audience hung on every word of  “Loving Her Was Easier Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again.”

Waking in the morning to the feeling of her fingers on my skin
Wiping out the traces of the people and the places that I’ve been 

Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard is still a country music giant and has provided some of the most clear and concise commentary on being a regular guy in America that one will ever hear.  His singing voice remains clear, warm and, actually, still beautiful.   Always within himself during his set, he never had to push his range or levels.  This is key to pacing one’s self onstage.  And of course it allowed him to lend nuance to the lyrics of his tunes.   His songs mirror himself and they in turn allow people to do the same with themselves .  Songs like “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink” express the futility and emptiness with drinking out of despair.   These songs work perhaps more profoundly lyrically than musically but, man, are the words ever on the money.   And then there was “Are The Good Times Really Over For Good?” written by a man who has seen things in this country go from simple, plentiful, and available to complicated and not nearly so available.   In this song we hear the same guy who wrote “Okie From Muskogee” lament:

I wish coke was still cola,
And a joint was a bad place to be.
And it was back before Nixon lied to us all on TV.

Wish a Ford and a Chevy,
Could still last ten years, like they should.
Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good? 

People will always have their personal favorite songs, the ones that speak to them most or personify the performer best.  I believe I liked Merle’s “Mama Tried” the most on Friday night.   It is a simple yet classic set of chords with a clever turnaround and the song bounces along appealingly.  But the words tell of a man who deeply regrets letting his mother down by running afoul of the law.  You just wince as you hear it:

Dear old Daddy, rest his soul,
Left my Mom a heavy load;
She tried so very hard to fill his shoes.
Working hours without rest,
Wanted me to have the best.
She tried to raise me right but I refused.

And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
No-one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried.

Merle and the band played through small amps with restrained drumming and this type of sound works very well at the Greek.   Touchingly, Merle’s son Ben plays lead guitar in the Strangers and he had plenty of polished clean twang to pull out of his Telecaster.   True to country and western music, the Strangers feature fiddle and pedal steel guitar.   While the fiddle is a nod to the rural roots of country music, the pedal steel guitar is a wonderful mechanical contraption, bending and sliding chord harmonies into a mesmerizing effect that gained its notice in Western swing music.  It is the signature of most country music and as iconic to the genre as distorted guitars are to rock and roll.

But as clean and tight as the band was, it was the power of the lyrics that connected most directly.    It was inspiring to see these two once hard-living guys still putting the songs over convincingly to a big audience on such a direct level.   Both of their catalogues are impressive legacies.   And those songs will last forever.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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