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.
Nights like Thursday were made for rare, once-in-a-lifetime moments. To that end, Richards and his “duet partner” Nelson teamed up for a wondrous “Reasons To Quit"; moments later Chesney joined Nelson (occupying Haggard’s role) on “Poncho and Lefty.” Earlier, jam-guitar maestro Warren Hynes teamed up with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for one of the night’s most fearsome moments, the two firing off a fearsome, blues-rock hurricane rendition of “Working Man Blues.”
Produced in part by Haggard’s widow, Theresa Haggard (“I know Haggard is right here with me onstage,” she said at one point. “We’re all a big Haggard family”) the show was filmed for a future release. And while this often spells a choppy feel to the festivities, the show was instead uncharacteristically smooth and relatively hiccup-free. "Someone needs to pinch me, because I think I'm dreaming,” Tanya Tucker said early on in the evening, -- echoing the sentiments of many in the crowd -- before she laid into a gentle “Farmer’s Daughter.”
Respectful and festooned in “Mama Tried” and “Fighting Side” t-shirts, the crowd unsurprisingly leaned towards the older side. By contrast, however, a breadth of young, diverse performers took the stage all night -- if perhaps only to showcase the reach and longevity of Haggard’s music. The Avett Brothers capitalized on this opportunity by covering one of the Hag’s most famous tunes, “Mama Tired,” with Seth Avett taking the opening verse for a gnarly, grizzled spin. Meanwhile, ountry up-and-comers Jake Owen and Chris Janson delivered one of the night’s most sizzling performances with “Footlights,” Jansen leaning into a hell-bent harmonica solo.
A fair share of sentimental moments transpired; Bentley sang “Merle’s version of a Christmas song” with the heart-strings tugging “If We Make It Through December”; Crow, who called Haggard “one of the greatest songwriters of all-time,” wailed away on the tender “Natural High”; Lambert, wearing a sleek black cocktail dress, sang with clarity and precision on a pristine rendition of “Misery and Gin.”
But it was an overarching feeling of respect, unabashed love and good-times fervor for Haggard that permeated the entire evening. It was there in Mellencamp’s accordion- and harmonica-drenched "White Line Fever.” It was there in the final group medley of “Okie From Muskogee,” Nelson opening with the ironic lyric, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” And it was there when country legend Bobby Bare remarked, “Hello Merle! Ain’t we something?!”
Sill, in spite of all the performers’ best efforts on Thursday evening, at one point Ronnie Dunn stepped to the mic and said what was surely on the mind of everyone in attendance already. “I don’t know how anyone can fill Merle’s boots,” Dunn said with equal parts regret and reverence. He paused, took in the wondrous sight before him and fashioned an affectionate smile. “Not here. Not ever.”