In early April, I called my mother and invited her to join me in mid-May to see Willie Nelson play at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre.
Filling the huge hole left in the bill by Merle’s death, Kris Kristofferson opened alongside Merle’s sons Ben and Noel Haggard, backed by The Strangers-the late Haggard’s backing band.
The hour-long show followed a revue format, in which Kristofferson and each of the Haggard sons took turns on lead vocals, sprinkling some of Kristofferson’s best-known songs with plenty of Merle classics.
Having joined The Strangers on lead guitar at age fifteen-nearly a decade ago now-Ben, Merle’s youngest son, did an admirable job of filling his father’s role on those tunes, injecting them with youthful energy and recounting his dad’s wishes for him to carry on with The Strangers.
Almost four years older than Haggard, Nelson carried on Sunday night as if he could do so forever-and it’d be easy to convince yourself of just that, had it not been for the too-fresh reminder of Merle’s mortality.
Across an hour and fifteen minutes, Nelson barreled through more than two dozen songs with hardly a pause, ripping off nimble runs on Trigger, perhaps none more impressive than on a cover of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” Following along to whichever song title Nelson shouted out, The Family provided rocksteady rhythms, rousing harmonica solos, and barrelhouse piano fills.