On the Beat

With Kristofferson, Merle shares stage for classic country in Cary

Merle Haggard at his ranch at Palo Cedro, Calif.
Merle Haggard at his ranch at Palo Cedro, Calif. AP file

Aug. 9, 2012

Cool and goofy rarely go hand in hand, but there are rare exceptions. One of them sauntered onto the Koka Booth Amphitheatre stage Tuesday evening: 75-year-old Merle Haggard, resplendent in fedora and shades as he strapped on an electric guitar and surveyed the audience.

“I’ve had too much to drink already, “ he deadpanned, ever the affable barfly. The crowd was still laughing as he started in on “Ramblin’ Fever, “ and before you knew it the bucolic outdoor setting was transformed into a smoky late-night honky-tonk. The Hag tends to have that effect.

Nowadays Haggard is touring with his fellow icon, singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson, although the setup was a bit unconventional. Rather than opening the show with a separate set of his own, Kristofferson shared the stage and backup band with Haggard, and they alternated songs for 90 minutes.

Kristofferson never had the prettiest voice to begin with - as a singer, well, let’s just say he’s a great songwriter and leave it at that - but he’s learned to use that to his advantage. By now, Kristofferson’s wounded, ravaged yelp fits songs like “Help Me Make It Through the Night” more appropriately than his voice of 40 years ago ever did. He did most of the signature tunes you’d expect, including songs made famous by Johnny Cash (”Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”) and Janis Joplin (”Me and Bobby McGee”).

Still, it was Haggard’s night, and he broke out some Man-in-Black mojo of his own with an ace cover of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Haggard’s latest version of his backup band The Strangers features his teenage son Ben on lead guitar, but it’s hardly nepotism because the kid has already figured out how to add just-right decorative flourishes while knowing his place and keeping out of dad’s way.

“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, “ Kristofferson observed during the younger Haggard’s guitar solo on “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”

Alas, Haggard and Kristofferson’s duet take on “Okie From Muskogee” was kind of a train wreck, mostly because it wasn’t clear everyone onstage actually knew that one. But plenty of others hit the mark, including “Mama Tried, “ “Today I Started Loving You Again, “ “I Never Go Around Mirrors” and “Working in Tennessee.” During the latter song, Haggard put down his guitar and took up a fiddle to saw away.

“It’s all country music, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. Undeniably, that it was.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi