“I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d do it all over again.”
That was Merle Haggard’s answer to a question about his life in an interview that played over the onstage video screens at Thursday’s (April 5) “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard” tribute at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The country icon certainly lived a uniquely rich and colorful one, and the artists who appeared onstage honored him to the hilt.
Taking place on what would have been his 80th birthday and the first anniversary of his death, the night served as a celebration of the art and life of the working man’s poet.
The sold-out show featured more than 30 performances with his son Ben Haggard and Merle’s longtime band, the Strangers, performing with several celebrity guests.
Before the night was over, those musical tributes were provided by Aaron Lewis, Tanya Tucker, Bobby Bare, Connie Smith, John Anderson, Toby Keith, Jake Owen, Chris Janson, Buddy Miller, Miranda Lambert, Rodney Crowell, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Alabama, Hank Williams, Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Avett Brothers, John Mellencamp, Kacey Musgraves, Ronnie Dunn, Lucinda Williams, Billy Gibbons, Dierks Bentley, Warren Haynes, Sheryl Crow, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Willie Nelson. Ben’s mother and Merle’s widow Theresa Haggard sang backing vocals for most of the night.
During an intermission, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and other government officials issued a proclamation naming April 6 Merle Haggard Day in Music City and presented the Haggard family with a medal of honor, recognizing Merle’s dedication to the U.S. military.
And if anyone was curious as to who’s going to fill Haggard’s shoes, several performances showed that country’s future is in good hands. Ben kicked off the night with “No Time to Cry,” an Iris DeMent song Merle recorded for his album 1996. Janson’s harmonica solo and Owen’s rich low-end vocals on “Footlights” received one of the show’s first standing ovations.
Lambert delivered a reverent version of “Misery and Gin,” and Musgraves was relaxed as she lead the band on “Rainbow Stew.” Dierks Bentley appeared onstage to sing Merle’s version of the holiday-inspired “If We Make Through December.”
Other highlights came as Toby Keith, Scotty Emerick and Mac McAnally sang a medley of “Carolyn,” “Daddy Frank” and “Old Man From the Mountain” and Hank Williams Jr. lit up the stage with “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
The music marathon wrapped with Richards and collaborations with Nelson. The Rolling Stones guitarist received the honor of singing the night’s title song, “Sing Me Back Home,” and then Nelson joined him onstage for “Reasons to Quit.” Chesney played Lefty to Nelson’s Pancho on the Townes Van Zandt song “Pancho and Lefty.”
Then rest of the cast joined them onstage for the finale “Okie From Muskogee.”
Ben Haggard, Don Was and Buddy Cannon served as musical directors for the concert. Additional musicians who played onstage were the McCrary Sisters, guitarist Audley Freed and multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush.
Check out some of the photo highlights from Thursday night:
Keith Richards and Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney
Jamey Johnson and Loretta Lynn
Hank Williams Jr.
Buddy Miller and the McCrary Sisters
Chris Janson and Jake Owen
Warren Haynes and Billy Gibbons