Thursday (Apr. 6) would have been Merle Haggard’s 80th birthday. That it also happened to be the one-year anniversary of the country icon’s death seemed almost a cruel irony. Inside Nashville’s sold-out Bridgestone Arena, however, a celebration of the grandest order was underway.
There was sadness, sure. But a love for the singer and his music took center stage. “It’s so good to be here,” Keith Richards -- adorned in a green blazer and black bowler’s hat -- said as he strapped on an acoustic guitar and proceeded to unspool an impassioned cover of “Sing Me Back Home,” one of Haggard’s most poetic numbers and the one that inspired the show’s name. The Rolling Stones’ guitarist then laughed, adding, “It’s good to be anywhere.”
This emotional dichotomy -- sentimental remembrance combined with ebullient, cheerful celebration -- rested at the heart of “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard,” a three-hour-plus all-star tribute to the late country singer that featured a jaw-dropping set of Haggard covers, as performed by his peers and admirers, including Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Chesney, Sheryl Crow, Kacey Musgraves, Toby Keith, the Avett Brothers, Dierks Bentley, and Lucinda William. Merle’s youngest son, Ben Haggard, led a rotating house band throughout the evening, which featured super-producer Don Was on bass, country singer Jamey Johnson on guitar and bluegrass maestro Sam Bush on fiddle.