Merle Haggard & Kris Kristofferson’s March 4th gig at Horseshoe Casino was billed as an “acoustic performance.” But, upon first entering The Showroom, the first thing I laid eyes on was a couple of Fender Telecasters sitting in their cradles. Good. Looks like The Hag and The Highwayman are going to sing more then just a few campfire country songs and, instead, give us a little of that Bakersfield sound that Haggard made famous many years ago. Maybe they’re feeling good tonight and waited to start drinking after lunch. Maybe that whole “acoustic performance” billing is the promoter’s insurance policy just incase these boys do decide to start drinking before lunch and don’t feel like standing up all night. Maybe. Who knows. Whatever the case was, it worked. Right off the bat, the feeling was we were going to get more than what we thought we would be getting from these 70-something year old country musicians.
So, after this suited casino employee / stage announcer came out and gave his best Michael Buffer “Are you ready to have fun tonight?” impersonation, the ceiling lights dimmed and the stage lighting took over. Then, moments later, before a raucous audience, Kris Kristofferson calmly walked out into the stage light with guitar in hand. An acoustic guitar I might point out. Also joining Kristofferson onstage were six other band members (whose real names I wish I knew) that consisted of a dobro player who looked like Junior Soprano, a young cat probably not older than 25 on one of two Telecasters, and a silver-haired fiddle player that resembled a young Del McCoury. There was also a keyboarder, an upright bass player, and a drummer to round out the rest of the band. Again, hardly an acoustic performance.
Before Kristofferson could lead into the second song, Haggard would suddenly appear from backstage, quickly making his way to the lone Telecaster still sitting in its cradle. He was dressed in a black pinstripe suit, and seemed eager to play as he waved to the audience and stepped up to his mic.
Even though Haggard’s rowdy and outlaw’ish days are long behind him, he still didn’t hesitate to play the songs that once defined that persona long ago, like “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Daddy Frank,” and “Okie From Muskogee,” a song that was preempted by some candid comments by Haggard on how he misses Mary Jane and how his wife still teases him today with second-hand smoke. He also played a few of his later songs like “Runnaway Mama.” Pretty typical of what you should expect at a Haggard concert I suppose.
After his sixth song, Haggard finally introduced himself along with Kristofferson and the band. Not that anyone in the audience didn’t know otherwise, but it still came with much applause and enthusiasm by the audience.
Over two hours later Haggard and Kristofferson would conclude with a tribute to longtime friend Johnny Cash, with a cover of “Folsom Prison Blues,” with both Haggard and Kristofferson alternating on the verses and chorus. At the songs conclusion, Haggard and Kristofferson left stage almost as quietly as they both came on, even though their band kept playing an instrumental rendition of Cash’s hit for several minutes thereafter. There was no encore song, but I don’t think many people expected one after a two hour plus performance. I guess when you’ve been recording and touring for nearly a half-decade you gotta start cutting out some of the formalities, right?
** Jason Ashcraft is a freelance music writer who focuses on Kentucky's original music scene. Visit his blog at www.TheScuttlebuttHour.com or scan this QR code on your iPhone or smart phone