As many years as they've been in the music business, you'd think Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson would understand that their current tour is supposed to call attention to Last of the Breed, the first CD all three of them have recorded together. Instead of filling their live show with songs from the new project, though, can you imagine what they're doing? They're playing their hits.
But these three Country Music Hall of Fame members built their careers on breaking rules and defying expectations. The approach has worked for them in past years and certainly did so again Monday night (March 19) during a sold-out concert at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
Last of the Breed, a two-CD set released Tuesday (March 20), is an impressive collaboration, to be sure. Even if the entire concert had only consisted of the 22 songs featured on the CD, it would have been an excellent show. The set list included some titles from Last of the Breed, including Floyd Tillman's "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" and Harlan Howard's "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down," but no one in the audience was complaining when Nelson, Haggard and Price performed their classics.
Asleep at the Wheel had been promoted as the backing musicians for the tour, but it was a pleasant surprise when Price opened the show with his entire Cherokee Cowboys band, including its eight-piece string section.
Price's set alone provided a concise history of country music -- a history he helped form --- from hard-edged honky-tonk through the smooth textures of the Nashville Sound era. Opening the show with "San Antonio Rose," Price was in excellent form as he delivered a staggering series of his hits, including "Crazy Arms," "Heartaches by the Number," "I Won't Mention It Again," "The Other Woman," "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" and "For the Good Times."
At one point, Price announced to the crowd, "I'm 81 years old, and I'm not the father of Anna Nicole's child." On a more serious note during his encore, he said, "We're trying to play the kind of music everybody has been kind of denied for about 25 years." He then paid tribute to Hank Williams, his former roommate in Nashville, by singing "Mansion on the Hill" as his last number with the Cherokee Cowboys.
Following a brief intermission that included some comical remarks from Jimmy Dickens, another Country Music Hall of Fame member, Asleep at the Wheel hit the stage and set the mood for the rest of the night with "Route 66" and "Miles and Miles of Texas." During an instrumental, Haggard ambled onstage and grabbed a fiddle to sing and play Bob Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and "I Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do." If you're going to hear a live performance of Bob Wills' music, there's probably no better combination than Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel.
Haggard eventually got his electric guitar and delivered "Silver Wings," "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "Sing Me Back Home" and "Big City." After a tongue-in-cheek song about the perils of marijuana, he sang "Okie From Muskogee." Reworking the lyrics to say, "We still let our hair grow long and shaggy," the line served as Nelson's cue to walk onstage to help Haggard finish the song.
Haggard and Nelson then teamed for "Pancho and Lefty," "Reasons to Quit," "Ramblin' Fever" and one of Nelson's newer songs, "Back to Earth." Although it might have been because of the sound mix earlier in the show, Haggard's vocals seemed to be slightly thinner than usual, but he sounded strong as he shared vocals with Nelson. Aside from their vocals, an added bonus was the guitar interplay between them. Best known for their singing and songwriting, their talent as guitarists is often overlooked.
Freddy Powers, a Texas music mainstay who has co-produced and appeared on albums by Haggard and Nelson, was introduced to sing a song before Price returned to the stage for another series of favorites that included Nelson's "Night Life" and "Crazy."
Nelson, complemented by longtime sideman Mickey Raphael on harmonica, closed the show with a barrage featuring "On the Road Again" and the humorous "Superman" and "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore." Finishing his set -- as always -- with "Whiskey River," he returned with "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" as the encore.
Bandleader Ray Benson and the other members of Asleep at the Wheel deserve special credit for providing the solid musical backing necessary for a tour like this to be a success. Nelson will always be devoted to the musicians he's toured with for decades, but his band's sound is often loose, to say the least. While there can be a certain charm to that looseness, it was nice to hear him working with musicians who have not been playing the same songs -- night after night -- at more shows than they could possibly remember.
The tour is covering 15 cities in just 17 days, hitting New York, Detroit and Milwaukee before closing Sunday (March 25) in Chicago.