Keith Richards Helps Memorialize Merle Haggard

They held the Merle Haggard memorial concert last night at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, according to The Tennessean. It was a three hour affair.

Keith Richards was one of the headliners, which makes perfect sense. After all, The Rolling Stones recorded country and country-influenced songs. Country rock is a category. The Grateful Dead put out two albums heavily influenced by country (“American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead”). Haggard’s “Mama Tried” was one of the band’s standard tunes.

Still, it’s interesting to think how the passage of time has made what were serious philosophical differences into vague memories. This memorial was for the guy who wrote “Okie from Muskogee,” which was one of the songs that best characterized the huge social gap between rock and country. That gap is forgotten, of course.

It’s funny that those who live long enough find a way to honor each other. It is as if the divisions that characterize music in the 1960s didn’t exist. But they did. You were for the war in Vietnam or against it. You were for Nixon or against him. You were a hippie or a hardhat.

That is all over. Musicians still are important, but less influential. Part of this is the technology. They speak to their own group. Rock fans listen to rock, rap fans to rap, jazz fans to jazz and so forth. Performers today are preaching to the choir, literally and figuratively. The politics of an artist means less today than it did in 1970. I think that’s a good thing. In many cases, the political positions are really marketing in disguise. The Rolling Stones were never street fighting men. They were counting receipts. It was a contrived conceit.

It’s also important to remember that the differences between blues, country, jazz and rock are much less than we imagine. When Louis Armstrong appeared on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 (talk about a meeting of icons) he described playing with Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, in 1930. Cash and Armstrong recreated one of the songs that Pops and Rodgers played, Blue Yodel No. 9. You can’t get more country than that and, of course, Louis Armstrong was jazz.

The show in Nashville – “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard” – must have been a lot fun. Other performers included Miranda Lambert, Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Billy Gibbons, Warren Haynes and Alison Krauss.

The concert was held a year to the day after Haggard died, which was his 79th birthday.