Two of America’s finest country-pop songwriters, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, share the stage and the band (Haggard’s slimmed-down, long-time touring outfit the Strangers) and deliver a master class in songcraft and a rich, often-moving musicological journey. Outside of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” the evening’s crisply-paced two-dozen-plus country classics were penned almost entirely by Haggard and Kristofferson.
On tour together now for nearly two years, the duo performed a tighter, punchier set at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge than in their last pass through Southern California. While the attrition of original Strangers continues, with only legendary steel guitarist Norm Hamlett still onboard, the two singers are augmented nicely by a crack team of ace players, including Haggard’s son Ben, who ably takes on lead guitar duties once so memorably handled by such monumental talents as Redd Volkaert and the late Roy Nichols.
Scott Joss’ dexterous fiddle work is also a big crowd-pleaser, along with the 75-year-old Haggard’s still game workouts on fiddle on such tunes as “Workin’ in Tennessee” and his simple, bold lead guitar parts on rousingly driving uptempo anthems like “Ramblin’ Fever.”
The duo’s easy alternating between lead turns on vocals has also become smoother and ultimately more fruitful, with Kristofferson’s deeply felt, if raspily sung, poems set to music nicely balancing Haggard’s more traditional song forms and still-full and mellow vocal tones.
Haggard barely scratched the surface of his song list and consistently delivered satisfying turns on several of his majestic ballads, such as “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings,” interspersed with feisty, spirited versions of his uptempo barroom odes such “Swinging Doors,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
The sold-out aud was attentive and appreciative as Kristofferson movingly navigated through several meditative and lesser-known gems such as “From Here to Forever,” “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” and “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.”
Not surprisingly, the greatest enthusiasm from the appreciative, cross-generational audience was sparked when the artist dug into their songbooks’ undisputed masterpieces — for Kristofferson “Me and Bobby McGee,” Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” for Haggard his Bakersfield-bred personal tales like “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes.”
But Haggard and Kristofferson aren’t coasting on their status as bona fide legends. Their Saturday night show was an ample demonstration that creative integrity, risk and originality are the essential ingredients required for country music to remain a vital art. And in their four hands, it is.