Country Stars Reflect on Merle Haggard’s Influence, Honor His Legacy With Concert
Nearly 30 artists -- Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn, Jake Owen, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Tanya Tucker, Alabama and many more -- took the stage at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night (April 6) to perform in front of 18,000 fans for the Merle Haggard tribute concert, Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard. The show took place on the one-year anniversary of Haggard's death, and what would have been his 80th birthday.
"It’s a very emotional moment in time. It's something that needed to be done," Haggard's widow, Theresa Haggard, shared with The Boot backstage prior to the concert. "To see all the artists coming out and just singing his songs that he sweated and toiled over and lived, and bringing them to life again, is just very amazing.
"It’s hard to put it into words what it really means. It’s very overwhelming," she continued. "It’s bringing him back to life. His legacy’s going to continue and continue, inspire more people and be played, and that’s the way his music should be."
Ben Haggard, the son of the late country icon and a member of his band, the Strangers, for a number of years, quipped that he was the "youngest from the last litter" before kicking off the night with "What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)." He stayed onstage for the evening's first several songs, performing with the Strangers.
Throughout The Music of Merle Haggard, Tucker performed "The Farmer's Daughter," Lambert sang an emotion-packed "Misery and Gin," and Haggard's good friend Bobby Bare played "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive."
"I could sing any of Merle's [songs]," Bare says. "I did another Merle tribute television show about a month or two ago, and I sang "Ramblin' Fever;" that's a real feel-good song. And this time, I wanted to sing something with a Merle Haggard solo."
One of the best collaborations of the night belonged to Chris Janson and Jake Owen, who together sang "Footlights." It's one of the most poignant and personal songs in Haggard's extensive catalog -- and one that rings particularly true for Owen.
""Footlights" has always been one of my favorite songs," Owen shares. "Having had the years I’ve had in the business, and things I’ve gone through -- from my father going through cancer, getting divorced two years ago, my little girl moving back home to Florida -- there’s been so many nights where I’ve felt like that guy onstage that has to put on the Instamatic grin to hide the mood I’m really in.
"There’s a line in there that says, ‘I’m 41 years old, and I ain’t got no place to go when it’s all over.’ Even though I’m only 26 [laughs], I do think about that," he adds. "This career doesn’t last forever. But if I could strive to have something like Merle Haggard’s [career] and write the kinds of songs he did, with the honesty and passion he had behind it, I think I’d do all right."
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Kacey Musgraves, who grew up idolizing Haggard's music and performing it as a child in Texas, chose "Rainbow Stew" for her Sing Me Back Home performance, in part because of the heartfelt message that the song shares.
"Whenever I dug it out and kind of dusted it off -- I knew the song, but I hadn’t really listened to the lyrics in a while," she explains. "I was like, ‘Oh my God' -- it’s very progressive and very in line with what we’re going on in the world right now. I thought it would be something cool to say and sing."
Connie Smith chose "That's the Way Love Goes" as her song, because it was one of her favorite songs to hear Haggard perform.
"I wrestled back and forth a little, because he didn’t write that song," Smith admits. "Lefty Frizzell and Whitey Shafer wrote that, but Merle had such a great version of that song, and he loved that song, and his family loves it, and I love it, so I picked that one."
The song's lyrics -- "Yet you ran with me / Chasing my rainbows / Honey, I love you, too" -- illustrate the friendship that Smith shared with the country music icon.
"Merle was a man who would honor his word," she says. "To me, he was a true friend. If he said he was going to do something, he did. And he was a giver; he gave a lot. He learned a lot from the people that he was influenced by, and then, you can hear any male singer today and you can tell they were influenced by Merle Haggard. His ability and his wisdom that he could see into the soul of society or of a person or of a culture, he just had that gift."
During their time onstage, the Avett Brothers sang one of Haggard's classic hits, "Mama Tried," which was hand-picked for them to perform.
"We had some other songs that were on tap to play, [but] they requested, special-requested, us to do that song," the band's lead singer, Scott Avett, reveals. "We said, ‘We’re in.’ We jumped at the opportunity to play such an important song in his catalog.
"I’m understanding the relationship that we have as far as, a song that’s a very hard truth. I keep coming back to this song that was written about something that’s just really tough, in a very personal way, for a human, for Merle," Avett continues. "We loved the fact that he was that brave, and we look up to that. We idolize it, we admire it, and, in many ways, relate to it, so the song is perfect for us."
Other artists who took the stage to honor Haggard during Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard included Dierks Bentley, John Mellencamp, Keith Richards, Kenny Chesney, Sheryl Crow and Loretta Lynn. A portion of the proceeds from the event benefited the TJ Martell Foundation.
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