Last stop for country's 'Last of the Breed,' for now

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(The Chicago Tribune, Published March 23, 2007

There are two kinds of country fans: those who like the old-school stuff, and those who like the countrypolitan Rascal Flatts. This show is not for the latter.

Seeing legends Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price and western swing band Asleep at the Wheel on Sunday night at the Rosemont Theatre will feel nothing like the slick, showy concerts that constantly roll through town. There will be no pyrotechnics. No sex symbols.

What you will get is an education in what country music was like when the instruments were simpler, the lyrics were controversial and the politics weren't always popular. Nelson and Haggard are leaving their bands at home this time to keep the concert as straightforward as the music.

During a call to his Redding, Calif. home, Haggard, 69, told the Tribune he has a set list of songs he needs to do for those fans. "It'd be wrong not to do the songs they're expectin'" said Haggard. "You'd think I'd have a favorite one, but they all kinda run together. Though I do like 'Big City' and 'Workin' Man Blues.'

"On familiar tunes such as those, it will be interesting to hear if age has seasoned or crippled the voices of these stalwarts.

Haggard also confessed that he only listens to satellite radio now. "I don't listen to commercial radio anymore, because that's not really what I like ... The songs don't have no melody," he said.

Who's influencing the influencer these days? Haggard says he listens to Bob Wills, Bing Crosby and George Benson.

While Haggard had done a farewell tour back in 2002 ("I'm just living longer than I thought I would now," he admitted), the three heroes show no signs of slowing down.

The 73-year-old Nelson has been at it since the early '70s. These days he's co-writing a song with Mariah Carey, and promoting a new anti-war-pro-troops single called "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth." Evidence of Nelson's image as a hippie troubadour is in his Martin acoustic guitar, which has been strummed it so much that a hole has been worn in the body.

And at 81, Price's commitment to touring is as legendary as he is. He has said that this breed is so important because "With the exception of George Jones, we're really the only three who are still alive."

And Haggard? His career timeline may have more awards on it than tour stops, starting with his 1965 ACM Top Male Vocalist kudo to his 2006 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, even after all that success, Haggard keeps active. "I've got a bluegrass album fixin' to come out, and I'm working on a new one for Cracker Barrel," said Haggard. "That's all got [me] pretty busy."

Price thinks this music bridges the gap to a different time, when country music wasn't crossing over, or looking so slick, as he said "People are dying to hear music like this again."

Newbies talk about sonic outlaw power

The music of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price has been around for decades, but its fans? Not so much. Today's youngest-and-hottest artists are jonesing for this rootsy sound. Here's what they told the Tribune:

Miranda Lambert "Real fans know that these guys founded country music. They're the reason we're out there, because of what they did 30 years ago. I loved that my record went to No. 1. But meeting Haggard was the real highlight of my career. His 'Red Bandana' is my ring tone."

Dierks Bentley "Willie, Ray and Hag are like aristocracies for the workin' man. They tell stories in a way that's classy, with a different kind of groove that's not just straight up and down strumming. Hag's 'Misery and Gin,' or Ray's 'Crazy Arms' are a couple of my favorite tunes. Man, I'd love to see their show."

Gretchen Wilson

"I was raised on Willie and Hag. The core of my songwriting is getting back to that traditional old-school music. I still soak up so much from their charisma, the way they handle an audience. My favorites are Willie's 'Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground' and Hag's 'Honky Tonk Man' remake."

Josh Turner "Merle lives up to his moniker of 'poet of the common man.' I saw him down in Nashville, and it was just one hit after the next. And I've always been a student of the old school, so I listened to Ray Price when I started my own songwriting."


Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Asleep at the Wheel

Pioneering outlaws band together. ----------

onthetown@tribu ne.com

Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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