Honky Tonk Heroes: Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at Mystic Lake Casino

Mark Brenden

Much of the allure of Country Music comes from the fact that it is essentially the art of suffering. The plight of the Country singer is to turn a broken heart into a song; to reside at Rock Bottom so that we may not, or so we may know someone’s been there too. No two men have suffered greater or sung about it with more saloon-stool eloquence than the two men who shared a stage at Mystic Lake Casino last night, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson.

Their reputations precede them. Each is, essentially, the walking Great American Novel. Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar who turned down a professorship in English Literature at West Point for a janitorial post in Nashville, spending nights in dusty taverns with nothing but a bottom dollar and a geetar. Haggard spent half his childhood hopping trains as a Detention-Center fugitive and, eventually, in San Quentin, where he ran a gambling racket. The draw of their songs is in their cinematic candidness. Kristofferson really did bust a flat in Baton Rouge and walk down a Sunday mornin’ sidewalk wishing, lord, he was stoned. Haggard really did turn 21 in prison and live as a lonesome fugitive. What’s next, literati? That’s right — redemption. And they both got it from the same Deus ex Machina. As an inmate Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin and he said the experience gave his life direction. The Man in Black recorded Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and it won CMA’s Song of the Year in 1970. When Cash died in 2003, Bob Dylan said, “Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him.” After all the places that North Star led these two rowboats, it was sure good to find them shored at Minnesota’s largest casino last night.

Watching the geezers croak their old hits on some of their last tours before they croak it is always a bittersweet experience. I had the same problem when I saw Willie Nelson at the same venue in the fall — it’s strange watching these living legends rot before your eyes. Even so, I’ll take a gravel-larynxed Kris Kristofferson rendition of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” to that of a clean-as-a-whistle Faith Hill any day. At the Casino, Kristofferson was particularly coarse, suffering from five decades of hard livin’ that he mistook as a “cold.” But the “Me” in “Me and Bobby McGee” made no excuses, quipping, “I never could sing” after hitting what we’ll call the “cough register” in the show’s first song “Shipwrecked in the Eighties.”

The format of the show was — forgive me, O Gods of Nashville, for what I’m about to say — rather adorable. The two went song-for-song in front of Haggard’s band, The Strangers, hardly able to contain their boyish admiration for the other as he sang his standards. We heard them all: “Fightin’ Side o’ Me,” “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “The Pilgrim,” and, oh yes, “Okie From Muskogee.” What was perhaps more entertaining than watching these dust-coated antiques was Haggard’s between-song ramblings. The old humdinger has a comedic timing that the stage’s guest next weekend, Jay Leno, would kill for.

The crowd was as you’d expect: pleased with the don’t-wake-the-neighbors decibel level of the show and painfully sober (the source of a show-long joke Haggard poked at the Casino’s dry policy). The two had them mesmerized to a perhaps hazardous degree — sometimes a witty line in a heartbreak song was taken for a joke. There were chuckles after the “The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad / so I had one more for dessert” line in “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which is as good as blasphemy in my (perhaps overly serious) mind.

Unfortunately, Haggard did once or twice utter the most dreaded six words one can hear at a living-legends show: “Here’s one off my new album.” But the Okie’s new stuff is still tough-as-nails and sharp-as-a-blade, and it makes Grammy darlings Lady Antebellum’s brand of “Country” look like the Jonas Brothers on Ice.