Like a Band of Gypsies

After enduring another cancellation (Amy Helm at the Knitting Factory...I didn't have the energy to wait around another hour for Ruthie Foster's set), it was time for the Crown Jewel of March--the Last of the Breed Show with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price at Radio City Music Hall. I actually took the day off from work in the hopes of securing some autographs beforehand at soundcheck. Unfortunately, I didn't really think through my plan, because if I did, I would have realized that (a) from past experience, Merle Haggard doesn't do soundchecks, (b) Ray Price doesn't really have to soundcheck, and (c) since Willie wasn't playing with his band, he didn't really need to show up for soundcheck either. So, I basically wound up spending four hours next to a guy wearing a black bolero hat with a red feather coming out of it and answering questions about country music because I was voted the day's Expert on All Things Country (which I am decidedly not). And as I waited, Ray Price and Merle Haggard sat in their buses across the street and probably took a nap.

Someone please find me another hobby.

Anyway, it started to rain just after I made the choice to go grab dinner (a decision for which I was mocked by several collectors), so I did one last walk past the buses, where I found a crew member and a collector comparing their signed guitars. I'm intrigued by guitars with tons of signatures on them, so I ogled for awhile. As I did that, a woman was actually able to grab Merle's attention, and he came to the door of his bus to sign stuff. And so I finally got my Merle Hatch Show Print signed. So at least I had something to show for my four hours of standing against a wall. And I got Ray Price to sign stuff after the show. Hooray for me.

But even if I walked away with nothing signed, it wouldn't have made a difference. The seats I purchased through the Willie Nelson Fan Club were unbelievably awesome. Third row in the orchestra pit. And no one seemed to care if you took pictures. So I did. The only things that came close to ruining the seats were the two guys in the first row who snapped instead of clapping (c'mon, really?) and the woman next to them who strolled in during Merle's set and proceeded to make an ass of herself by (a) thrashing around and giving the devil horns whenever Mickey Raphael played the harmonica and (b) making out with her man for an extensive period of time toward the end of the show. She may have been drinking.

But even boorish behavior could not cloud the glory of sitting three rows away from Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price. Ray Price, whose voice somehow still sounds effortlessly elegant at 81, got things started with a set that was so smooth and strong that the show could've ended there and been worth the price of admission. After a quick intermission (which I spent waiting in line to buy a Willie Nelson for President T-shirt), Asleep at the Wheel did a few songs before shifting to their role as the backup band for the rest of the night. The Hag started off with three fiddle tunes, then moved through his best stuff (including "Big City," "Silver Wings," and "Sing Me Back Home") before Willie took the stage during "Okie from Muskogee." Soon, Ray Price came back out to join Merle and Willie, and, then, three rows and a section of stage away from me, three of the greatest men in country music sang a few songs together. Price sang the hell out of "Night Life," Willie sang around "Crazy," they all did "Roly Poly"...it was something to see and hear. Willie and Merle's voices may not have aged quite as well as Ray's, but they all have that country soul that Gary LeVox and Kenny Chesney couldn't buy with all their gold records. And to see three classic voices together on one stage was one of those moments you tuck away for the next time that things don't go so well, ready to remind you that no matter how bad things might get, there are still some times that balance everything out just fine.

Unfortunately, the good times at Radio City had to end, and before you knew it, it was "Whiskey River" time, the standard Willie signal that the show is coming to a close. Willie came back out to do "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and then it was time to head back out into the New York City night.

Willie, Merle, and Ray just put out the "Last of the Breed" CD, and I like it just fine. But to see the three of them in concert, well, that's something else entirely. Glad I got to see it. Wish you were there.

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