Country's Old Lions, In Full Roar

Ray Price, above, shared the bill at Merriweather Post Pavilion with Merle Haggard, below left, and Willie Nelson. Their collective age is 225.
Ray Price, above, shared the bill at Merriweather Post Pavilion with Merle Haggard, below left, and Willie Nelson. Their collective age is 225. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 8, 2007

In rock-and-roll, living past 30 used to threaten a performer's credibility. But in country, longevity is a point of pride. Hence, "Last of the Breed," this year's boastfully titled album from Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price. At Merriweather Post Pavilion Thursday night, the trio of legends -- collectively aged 225, but really, fellas, you don't look a day over 200 -- delighted fans with three hours of Texas honky-tonk served with enough brio to remind us of what we'll have lost when they're finally gone.

Not that their departure seems imminent. Price, the senior of the pack ("I'm 81 and I ain't quit yet!"), went on first, crooning a dignified 40-minute program of his '50s-'70s hits, including "City Lights," "Make the World Go Away" and "I Won't Mention It Again." His band, the Cherokee Cowboys, rescued these ballads from the often-syrupy arrangements of their myriad recorded versions, trading cellos for fiddles and lap steel. But the real surprise was Price's supple-but-authoritative baritone, weirdly undimmed by age. The expressive, controlled delivery Ray practices is a dying art, and the fact that he can still do it seems miraculous. Clean living?

Well, relatively speaking: Next up, a lupine and mischievous Merle Haggard donned a fedora instead of a cowboy hat (a misdemeanor in Texas, probably, but he's from Bakersfield, Calif.) and lit into "Workin' Man Blues," scratching out single notes on his battered guitar as his longtime band, the Strangers, fell into line. On his defining "Silver Wings," Haggard aped Willie Nelson's vocal style; a more explicit tribute came when he sang Nelson's new "Back to Earth," one of the evening's highlights.

If there was something a little uncharacteristic in the way the onetime juvenile delinquent kept doffing his hat to us, Haggard shook it off in his set's rowdier second half, picking a fiddle and turning "Motorcycle Cowboy" into a manifesto. "Mama Tried" was a predictable triumph, but even better was a brilliantly timed walk-on by Nelson during "Okie From Muskogee" -- Haggard's immortal reflection of his dad's anti-hippie stance, and rather at odds with Nelson's own biodiesel-powered, IRS-taunting lifestyle. The Nelson-Haggard recitation of "Pancho & Lefty" that followed was less successful, but Haggard's set still offered the evening's best mix of sweetness and bristle.

Finally, Williepalooza: 75 genteel and occasionally inspiring minutes that felt more like a rehearsal than a show, lassoing in sometimes comically brief takes of all -- really, all-- of his warhorses. Nelson's lower register rode into the sunset long ago, making him swallow even more lyrics than he skipped, but his songs are so sturdy they still move us. An express train of hits found him drifting frequently on autopilot, but he still had a few tricks up his hemp-lined sleeve. The excellent newish songs that closed the show, the mortality lament "Superman" and the very funny vanished-love lament "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore," had a vigor his earlier performances had barely hinted at.

Through it all, Nelson's increasingly Dylanesque phrasing was everywhere all at once. Band, schmand; Nelson is his own timekeeper. But you know, he always has been.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company