Live review: Merle Haggard & Kris Kristofferson at the Greek Theater, October 7.


Dave and I are tailgating in the parking lot at Dave's pickup, which has a tailgate.

John walks up saddle-kneed after parking his hog, pulls a green bottle out of the ice chest, takes a swig. Takes another swig. "This doesn't taste like beer."

It's not, it's a beerless beer reserved for Rogers, who doesn't drink anymore. We put the bottle back, figuring Rogers won't mind sharing.

He doesn't mind, it turns out. He walks up through the mud (it rained yesterday), late from his TV production job. He drinks the non-beer, smokes a few cigarettes. "My wife and kids are out of town. This is me going crazy."

Dave and Rogers: Levi jackets. John and me: bomber jackets.

At the vid shoots these days, John makes the younger guys haul the crap around. Dave's desk job gives him backaches; he's been to the chiropractor three times this week. There's a memorial Sunday for an artist we all sorta knew; I'm the only one going.

We talk about the times we've seen Merle or Kris. It probably adds up to a dozen, but never the two legends together, because the shows they've been staging the last couple years have been their first co-bills.

Dave remembers when he and I caught Merle at the Universal 20-some years ago. We'd been drinking beer & Jack for hours beforehand, so when we got there we were impaired. We had close seats that time. Merle came out and started playing all his slowest songs, and Dave dozed off. He jerked awake thinking, "Oh my god, Merle's 30 feet away, what if he saw me?" Then he looked down the row, and some other guy was curled up in a seat, snoring away; the guy shifted position, and a pint fell out of his back pocket and clanked to the floor.

At the Greek, we're not so challenged. (Jumpin' J, it's work to get drunk these days.) And in this crisp outdoor air, we won't drowse.


We don't know what to expect in terms of format, because the publicity has been ambiguous. When Kris comes out and starts strumming by himself, we figure it'll be two sets, but after the first song he brings on Merle & the Strangers, who back up both as they switch off lead vocals throughout the night.

Since Merle & Kris have been working this act for a while, the transitions are smooth, and it's an entertainment bonanza. Merle requires a few tunes to warm the chill off his voice, which he facilitates by shout-rasping the high notes. After that, although he lacks the butterfly delicacy of his youth, he's down into every syllable like an old boot. Same with Kris, whose talkin' baritone has actually regained some lost resiliency.

What I really notice this time is the words. When Kris drags through "Sunday Morning Coming Down," I feel the hung-over outsider's despair like a dank shroud. When Merle sings "Silver Wings," for the first time I hear the forsaken guilt as deeply as the regret. Kris' "Why Me, Lord?" is the humblest this humble song has ever sounded.

There's levity, too, of course. "The Farmer's Daughter" gets a leering introduction from Merle. And Kris inserts his own verse into Merle's redneck-pride anthem "Okie From Muskogee":

We don't smoke our draft cards in Muskogee
We never even heard of pitchin' woo
We don't shoot that high-grade marijuana
We get drunk like God wants us to do.

It's a quiet revelation to hear how Merle has come to deal with his status as an outlaw icon. Sure, he plays to the hee-haw crowd with booze references, and he joshes that he never used to team up with Kris because "This is the first time we're out of jail at the same time." But he's grown to know what bullshit it is to glorify criminality. When he sings "Mama Tried," he now understands the broken mother's viewpoint a lot stronger than the young killer's. "Sing Me Back Home," the tale of a condemned man's last request, now resonates with less dignity and more pure sadness.

Merle & Kris stick almost entirely to the hits, though Merle has a new album (Rogers digs it), and though the last time I heard Kris, he was leaning heavily on his more recent political-protest material. The choices sit just fine: "Me and Bobby McGee" (Janis vividly acknowledged), "He's a Pilgrim" (rededicated to Kris' son), "The Bottle Let Me Down" (ever truer), and all the rest. The songs sound, if you please, not only timeless but almost new.

Forget not the Strangers. After white-hatted fiddler Scott Joss strokes out an especially sensitive solo, Rogers (a drummer) turns and says, "When you play like that, there's nowhere to hide." John grunts "Son!" when he hears some neatly carved Telecaster work, not consciously referring to the fact that the lead guitarist is a feller named Ben Haggard. And just as impressive, in a less flashy way, is the ever-skillful fretwork of Merle himself, who demonstrates his love for Kris' melodies by plucking them like orchids.

A memorable night, and I didn't even take notes. Kind of reminds you that authority doesn't always arrive with a gun or a gavel.