Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the State Theatre, 7/25/12

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the State Theatre, 7/25/12
Photos by Erik Hess

See also:
Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at Mystic Lake Casino, 2/27/11

Merle Haggard and the Strangers
With Kris Kristofferson
State Theatre, Minneapolis
Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Talk about bang for your country music buck; seeing legends Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson share a single bill, sitting in on their lengthy shared set, is a firecracker. The two have been pairing up to co-headline shows backed by Haggard's band the Strangers for some time now, Kristofferson playing a hit and Haggard reciprocating with one of his own, and last night the gang treated the sold-out State Theatre to a fast-paced, nearly two-hour show.

Kristofferson took to the stage at 7:30 sharp and to little ado, solo, flanked only by his acoustic and harmonica, the houselights barely rolled down. But it took the audience just a split second to realize it was him, and jump to its feet. The man has himself only recorded a few chart-topping hits, but this audience knows him as more than a onetime Streisand co-star and often music documentary pundit; they know Kristofferson to be one of the greatest songwriters of our time, writing straightforward, powerfully moving anthems like the tune he played to kick off the show, 1986's "Shipwrecked in the Eighties."

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the State Theatre, 7/25/12

He then introduced Merle Haggard and the Strangers, lining Haggard up alongside Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie in calling him one of the greatest songwriters of all time -- the highest praise coming from a writer as fine as Kristofferson. Kristofferson's always-sunny disposition meets its competitor in the gruff Haggard, who belted out a deadpan "Good mornin'," after slipping on a pair of sunglasses, and before launching into his 1977 hit "Ramblin' Fever."

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the State Theatre, 7/25/12

We caught Merle sans Kris last weekend at South Dakota's Deadwood Mountain Grand, a Big Kenny Alphin-backed casino and entertainment venue located in the Homestake Mine's 1906-era gold-processing slime plant. Where his raucous, fast-paced (and very short) set in Deadwood was befitting its rowdy Western crowd, last night's just-west-of-the Mississippi show proved to be largely subdued and intimate, as theatre shows are wont to be.

The Strangers of Deadwood were all beer-swillin', Bakersfield honky-tonk band, while the Strangers of the State were all polish, playing to a tame, wine sippin' crowd checked-in for the 7:30 go-time, and home in time to relieve the babysitter and catch the 10 p.m. news. Case in point: as the venue brought up the house lights for the audience to sing along with the chorus to Haggard's 1980 single "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," it seemed the crowd had had a few too few to respond with the drunken enthusiasm the song warrants. On the bright side, the few cowboys present in Minneapolis were refined enough to remove their cowboy hats -- not the case in Deadwood.

If Kristofferson, Haggard and company had a set-in-stone, firmly-rehearsed set list, you wouldn't know it. Haggard would point a trigger finger at Kristofferson when it was his turn to sing, and near the end of the set, Kristofferson played just a few bars of 2009's "From Here to Forever" before interrupting himself and asking the audience, "Did I do this one already?" They seemed to shoot straight from the hip all night, based upon their own whims and the mood of the audience as the two traded licks, Merle strumming out lead guitar solos as Kris sang, Kris strumming along on acoustic and playing harmonica when it came Merle's turn.

Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at the State Theatre, 7/25/12

The clear highlight of the show was to come when Merle sang Willie, and Kris sang Merle on the 1983 Haggard/Nelson cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty." All told, the tit-for-tat of the set list was awesome, but the straight-up duet took it up a notch. Haggard followed it up with some Western Swing, playing fiddle alongside Tiny Moore protégé Scott Joss for an original, "Working in Tennessee," and then the Bob Wills standard, "Take Me Back to Tulsa," complete with Wills-style Ahhhhs and Aw yeahs. 2011's "Working in Tennessee" is fresh, especially considering its traditional style, and reflects Merle's very much still-alive appreciation for the Western Swing form, proving above all that he can still write a fine country song. And the denouement to follow this swinging climax? Kristofferson aptly chiming in with "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."

Consider finally that Merle Haggard is 75 years old, Kris Kristofferson 76. To say the least, they've entered their wiser years. And yet when taken in comparison to someone like George Jones (just a few years their senior), and even when compared to most musicians younger than them, they have all the attitude and ability -- and then some -- of their younger years. Merle, a brooding legend, is of course a must-see time and time again, reflecting earnestly the sadness he's endured since childhood. Kris is always a pleasure, his positivity and smile by comparison lighting up a whole room. They complement each other well.

Critic's Bias: In case I haven't given you enough reason to appreciate these two, check out a couple reasons why I love 'em:

(Note, at the time he appeared on Glen Campbell's show in 1972, Merle was married to Buck Owens' ex-wife, Bonnie Owens. The two clearly remained friends in spite of this.)

(Boner alert: Uh-guh. Love's a helluva drug.)

The Crowd: Whoa. Never seen so many Emmylou Harris doppelgängers assembled in once place.

Overheard In The Crowd: Woooooo we love you Kris! - Again, and again, and again. Yes, we all know he has pretty eyes, boys, but let's show Merle a little love, too.

Random Notebook Dump: I'll be damned if he's even turned twenty yet, but Merle's youngest son Benny Haggard has truly come into his own alongside the veteran Strangers lineup, pulling lead Tele duties with a Bakersfield tone and style that makes you wonder if he wasn't a session musician hailing from California's central valley in another life.

Shipwrecked in the Eighties (Kris)
Ramblin' Fever (Merle)
Silver Wings (Merle)
Mama Tried (Merle)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kris)
Here Comes that Rainbow Again (Kris)
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star (Merle)
I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink (Merle)
Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kris)
The Promise (Kris)
Going Where the Lonely Go (Merle)
Workin' Man Blues (Merle)
If I Could Only Fly (Merle)
Folsom Prison Blues (Merle)
(This one has eluded me...anyone know what he played?) (Kris)
Sing Me Back Home (Kris)
They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down (Merle)
That's the Way Love Goes (Merle)
Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) (Merle)
The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 (Kris)
From Here to Forever (Kris)
Pancho and Lefty (Merle and Kris)
Working in Tennessee (Merle)
Take Me Back to Tulsa (Merle)
Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down (Kris)
A Moment of Forever (Merle)
Okie from Muskogee (Merle)
Why Me (Merle and Kris)

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