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Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard at Hard Rock Live, February 7

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Photo by Sayre Berman

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Hard Rock Live, Hollywood

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Better Than: A cold beer, a shot of whiskey, and a good cry.

All the old outlaws are only getting older.

Last night, though, the Red-Headed Stranger and the Okie From Muskogee proved that they might be wizened gentlemanly grandaddies who sing about love, heartbreak, drinkin', tokin', towin' the line, and lovin' the lord. But they're "still alive." And they're still hard as fuckin' railroad spikes.

Two of the lone remaining country badasses still standing (and singing), Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard charmed men in Stetsons, women in pearls, and children in "I Love Willie" onesies at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Florida.

But hell yeah ... They also joked about death while demanding that the whole world just "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."

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Photo by Sayre Berman

At 7:30 p.m. sharp, Merle the Mule kicked off the show, running and rambling through a half-dozen tunes that cut straight from some latest triumphs ("If I Could Only Fly") to rowdy midcareer brawlers ("I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink") to a string of late-'60s classics: "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Mama Tried," and "Today I Started Loving You Again."

Only two weeks ago, Hag had been hospitalized with pneumonia. And he was forced to cancel a few gigs. But yesterday evening, aside from a little roughness in his voice, he seemed in solid shape, even laughing at the Reaper.

"It's nice to be here," Merle croakily cackled, pausing between ditties. "Well, it's nice to be anywhere."

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Photo by Sayre Berman

"Someone called me up the other day and said, 'I heard you had a heart attack and died,'" the bemused 75-year-old dude shook his head. "I said, 'Nope, still alive.'

"Then," he paused, "we heard Willie was sick. But that wasn't true either." And Haggard laughingly snorted, ribbing his ol' buddy about his medical Mary Jane habit. "Hell, the last time I heard of Willie even havin' a headache was about 35 years ago."

He sang a few more favorites: "Big City", "The Fightin' Side of Me," "If We Make It Through December." And the rhinestone-studded, cowboy-hatted, blue jean-clad crowd hooted and hollered.

But Merle was still musing on mortality. "Do y'all miss Johnny Cash?" he wondered before bellowing through "Folsom Prison Blues," then removing his heavy black hat and tipping it to the sky in honor of beloved J.R.

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Photo by Sayre Berman

Rounding into the final turn of the night's set, Haggard paid tribute to another hero, Bob Wills, with a rollicking run through "Take Me Back to Tulsa," marveling, "Now that is country music, folks."

Then introducing his signature tune and second-to-last song of the evening, Merle delved half-seriously into discussing the origins of "Okie From Muskogee" -- still a funny fuckin' takedown of hippies and other layabouts, even 43 years later.

"This song was written for my father, who hailed from the great state of Oklahoma," Haggard told all those men, women, and children. "But over the years," the old outlaw added, "a lot of people asked me why I wrote that song. And I said, 'Mainly, because I'm the only one who knows the words,'" he cagily explained. "But there were other reasons too."

After Merle finished shouting "We still wave Old Glory" and the Hard Rock crowd's cheers quieted down, Willie walked out. They smiled. They hugged. And the two longtime trail buddies grabbed up their guitars, galloping into the late Townes Van Zandt's song, "Pancho and Lefty," that they made famous.

Hell yeah ... The perfect sing-along for a sunset ride.

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Photo by Sayre Berman

There was a break. A beer run. Some shots.

By 8:54 p.m., though, it was time for the second part of the show as Willie returned and the Texas flag unfurled to the floor behind him.

Wearing a big black hat just like his pal Merle, the 79-year-old Red-Headed Stranger waded into "Whiskey River" with a wide smile on his charming, craggy face. Crooning "Still Is Still Moving to Me," he illuminated the mysteries of being at work while being at rest. And doubling back for another boozy anthem, Willie was "singing whiskey for my men, beer for my horses" with the whole damn place on backing vocals.

But he wasn't just dreaming about a good drink. He was thinking about his fallen friends too. And Merle had already done one for Johnny. So Willie suggested, "Let's do one for Waylon"

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Photo by Sayre Berman

Following his salute to old Waylon Jennings, that legendary, rascally "good timin' man," Willie remarked about "Funny How Time Just Slips Away" before seamlessly shifting into a sweet melancholy medley of "Crazy," "Nightlife," and "Me and Paul."

Then it was just about time to get rowdy again. So Padre Nelson sent his son Lukas into the spotlight. The kid is a country-blues ripper. And when he isn't touring with pops, he fronts a band called Promise of the Real. He's basically got his father's voice. But he sings like Stevie Ray Vaughan's baby brother. He also handles his guitar with more obvious flash than his dad, who prefers complex, indiosyncratically jazzy riffs. "Oh, boy," a gray-haired lady remarked at the Hard Rock. "That boy is very talented."

The younger Nelson stomped through a take on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Call Me the Breeze." (Later, he fret-surfed into Stevie Ray's "Texas Flood.") And a smiling Willie, obviously proud of his offspring's gifts, slipped back to center stage for the slyly chosen "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."

Sure, the kid isn't a cattle rustler. But life as a professional musician just might be even bigger trouble.

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Photo by Sayre Berman

Ambling toward the end of his own rambunctious, beery, teary set, Willie felt like lifting a tribute to another of his country kin. The forepappy. The original outlaw. "Let's sing some Hank Williams."

Starting with the strange creole novelty of "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" and cruising through the sneakily lecherous "Hey Good Lookin'," the Red-Headed Stranger scanned the full breadth of The Drifting Cowboy's songbook in just four selections, finishing with marital-discord anthem "Move It On Over" and an especially touching, masterfully jazzy take of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."

For his finale, though, Nelson honored the lord and the blessed herb he made. "Here's a new gospel song," Wiseman Willie said.

"Well just take me out and build a roaring fire," he sang in a voice filled with hope. "And just roll me in the flames for about an hour/And then pull me out and twist me up/And point me towards the sky/And roll me up and smoke me when I die."

It was a fine smoky moment. A spiritual rave-up. Willie hooted and hollered, "I Saw the Light." And so did we.

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Photo by Sayre Berman

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Hank, Johnny, Willie, Waylon, and Hag are the end of the line for true, badass country music. We will never see another gang of outlaws like them on this Earth.

Merle Haggard's Setlist:

-"If I Could Only Fly"

-"Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star"

-"I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink"

-"The Bottle Let Me Down"

-"Mama Tried"

-"Today I Started Loving You Again"

-"Big City"

-"The Fightin' Side of Me"

-"If We Make It Through December"

-"Folsom Prison Blues" (Johnny Cash cover)

-"Take Me Back to Tulsa" (Bob Wills cover)

-"Okie from Muskogee"

-"Pancho and Lefty" (With Willie Nelson)

Willie Nelson's Setlist:

-"Whiskey River"

-"Still Is Still Moving to Me"

-"Beer for My Horses"

-"Good Hearted Woman"

-"Shoeshine Man"

-"Funny How Time Just Slips Away"

-"Crazy"

-"Night Life"

-"Me and Paul"

-"Call Me the Breeze" (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover by Lukas Nelson)

-"Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"

-"Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground"

-"On the Road Again"

-"Always on My Mind"

-"Matchbox"

-"Texas Flood" (Stevie Ray Vaughan cover by Lukas Nelson)

-"Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" (Hank Williams cover)

-"Hey Good Lookin'" (Hank Williams cover)

-"Move It on Over" (Hank Williams cover)

-"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" (Fred Rose/Roy Acuff/Hank Williams cover)

-"Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die"

-"I Saw the Light"



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