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From the Country Standard Time Archives

The Hag, Nelson: legends come together

The Astrodome, Houston, Texas, Feb. 18, 2000

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - During a 17-day period in February and March every year, well over a million people pack the Astrodome for 20 performances of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The rodeo is a lot of fun to watch - all the big names are there, and competition is stiff for the $25,000 grand prize awarded to the top all-around cowboy.

But for Houston's country fans, rodeo time is also time to see the biggest stars of country music live. Each rodeo performance is followed by a concert, and although the lineup has diversified somewhat this year to include Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett and Boyz II Men, the focus is still on country, with Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Clint Black, Clay Walker and the Judds all scheduled to perform.

But perhaps the best concert was opening night when two of country's all-time legends - Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson - shared the stage with 57,838 in attendance.

Haggard started with an understated midtempo song, "Silver Wings." The sound was spare and pretty, with just guitar, steel, drums, and sax backing Haggard. His voice, although a little rougher than it used to be, still sounded great.

Haggard sped things up a bit with "Big City" and then "I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," a big hit with the many beer-guzzling cowboys in the crowd. He also played classics like "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," "Mama Tried," and "Okie From Muskogee." He closed his all-too-short show with "Workin' Man Blues."

Just as Haggard has grown older and his voice has declined somewhat, Nelson's vocals are a little less impressive than they used to be. But also like Haggard, no one in the audience really cared.

Nelson is still a great guitar picker, too. He still plays the same old classical guitar with the hole worn through where the pick hits the wood. The hole even seems to have gotten bigger in recent years.

He opened with "Whiskey River" and then performed a sped-up version of "Good Hearted Woman." A highlight was "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," which Nelson performed without the band - just him and his guitar.

"Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" was a bit of a disappointment, since Willie spoke most of the song instead of singing it. But he made up for that with "On the Road Again" and the closer, "Always on My Mind," the best song of the whole show.

Finally, Nelson invited Haggard back onto the stage, and they performed their duet, "Pancho and Lefty," eliciting huge applause from the crowd. It was the perfect end to a great night of classic country music from two of country's living legends.