Merle Haggard, left, and Kris Kristofferson perform at the StateTheatre.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

Monumental country music

  • Article by: JON BREAM
  • Star Tribune
  • July 26, 2012 - 5:51 AM

If Mount Rushmore could sing, it would probably sound like Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson did Wednesday night at the sold-out State Theatre in Minneapolis: wise, weathered and wonderful after all these years.

If Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash were still alive, it would have truly been the Mount Rushmore of country-music songwriters (although some might argue for Willie Nelson instead of Cash). No country songwriter has articulated the thoughts and plight of the common man more effectively than Haggard. No other writer has surpassed the deep, penetrating poetry of Kristofferson, whether he's singing about God, loneliness or a hangover.

In concert, Haggard's 75-year-old face looked like a road map of a hard life, and his voice sounded like he knows better now. At 76, Kristofferson has the demeanor of the Clint Eastwood of country, tall and tan, a big forehead and lantern jaw and a thin-eyed stare that cut like a Bowie knife.

For the first hour on Wednesday, these giants were indeed Rushmore-like -- all presence with no personality, just great song after great song. A couple of tunes sung by Haggard, his voice too soft or just off-microphone too often, then a couple tunes by Kristofferson, his voice -- which was never much to begin with -- sounding more assertive than his last two trips to the Twin Cities. Both were backed by Haggard's ace band, but, frankly, the performance felt too business-like. Missing was the nonstop witty banter of Haggard that made their collaboration last year at Mystic Lake Casino -- when Kristofferson was fighting a bad cold -- so memorable.

Then something Wednesday set off Haggard, always a contrarian with a sharp tongue. The band had started "That's the Way That Love Goes" and after the opening instrumental line, the boss shouted, "Hold it." "Most of the songs were written when we were in our 20s," he told the crowd. "And now we're in our 40s." The crowd laughed and the drummer got the message -- slow down the tempo. Then Haggard flawlessly crooned his sweet romance ballad as Kristofferson just watched and marveled at Merle being Merle.

For the final half of the 110-minute set, it was pretty much everything a fan could have hoped for. Haggard delved into social commentary with the still-relevant 1982 recession salve/salvo "Are the Good Times Really Over," which featured a rousing patriotic reprise followed by a standing ovation and Kristofferson whistling with two fingers in his mouth. The whistler responded with "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33," his portrait of a down-on-his-luck poet and dreamer. Before long, the outlaw brothers in black with over-the-collar silver hair teamed up on the engrossing "Pancho and Lefty," a tale of a Mexican bandit and his abetting buddy that was actually written by Townes Van Zandt.

These two great songwriters weren't afraid to cover the works of others. Haggard and the Strangers waltzed into the Western swing of Bob Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" (complete with a silly ad lib by Hag about "she pulled up her petticoat and I pulled up to Tulsa"). Kristofferson threw his own curveball by breaking into Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home," which seemed to surprise Hag but he had the last word by ending the tune with his most expressive and best guitar solo of the night. The only real surprise from Kristofferson was his eschewing "Lovin' Her Was Easier," one of his best-known compositions.

The second half was full of highlights, including Kristofferson's hangover classic "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" with Haggard's bittersweet guitar coda and 1969's rollicking "Okie from Muskogee," which Haggard started twice and stopped to toy with the crowd before tearing into the sing-along anthem, complete with a silly new verse from Kristofferson.

Who knew that Mount Rushmore could smile and laugh?

Set list: Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719

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