By Mark Guarino
“Last of the Breed” sounds like the kind of boast thrown around at kennel clubs or upscale dog parks. Yet its promise of something very special is also the title of a recent tour and double-CD on Lost Highway by country music veterans Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price. The tour quietly trekked across the country these past few weeks and at the Rosemont Theater Sunday, made its final stop. Despite how ominous it sounds, “Last of the Breed” was an upbeat affair, the kind of last go-round that confirms yet again why age is an asset and also a source of continuing promise.
A summit between such old school personalities was a pleasure. It also offered some surprises. All three players could readily apply for AARP benefits — Nelson is 73, Haggard is 69 and Price is 81 (“and not the father of Anna Nicole’s baby girl,” he confirmed) — but like icons of the blues, they carried the history of the music’s forbearers in their voices. Country music does community better than any other musical style and indeed, these three men have played with one another in one form or another in the past. But in this nearly three-hour show, they stood onstage not really to compliment the other than to represent the subtleties and showmanship of country music’s past that are certainly lacking in its present.
Price, dressed in a gentlemanly grey western suit and tie, played first. Despite the frailty suggested by his body posture, he sang with gusto in a smooth baritone. With his nine-member backing band the Cherokee Cowboys, he played several of his hits from the 1950’s including his first, “Release Me,” which he would only say was released in “B.H. — before Humperdinck” (it was 1954, Englebert Humperdinck made it famous in 1967). Price also brought history to the stage. He famously took over Hank Williams’ band after the doomed songwriter died in 1953. So Price choose to end his set with “A Mansion on the Hill,” a Williams song.
After a break, Merle Haggard entered as did his backing band, Asleep at the Wheel. Starting with a fiddle and eventually switching to electric guitar, Haggard played the role of a bandleader who could be counted on for switching things up at a moment’s notice. His deep voice was talkative but it also rang with authority. With the chorus of backup singers behind him, “Sing Me Back Home” had the mighty frame of a gospel song, but with Haggard’s deliberate phrasing, it resonated as a soft plea.
Nelson entered, comically so, while Haggard sang “Okie From Muskogee,” his humorous anti-pot character portrait. They made it a duet as they did many songs from that point forward, from new ballads (“Back to Earth”) to old ones (“Pancho and Lefty”). This pairing became the centerpiece of the night. Nelson’s extemporized style of singing — casually dancing around beats — complimented Haggard’s bluesy tones. They gave a song to Texas singer Freddy Powers so they could duet with guitars, from Nelson’s wickedly sharp fingerpicking on his acoustic to the powerful glides on Haggard’s electric.
Price was called out near the end and both Nelson and Haggard treated him like an old sage. The octogenarian sang “Night Life” (a hit Nelson wrote for him in the late 1950’s) and when he finished, he laughed with exhaustion and release, a moving tribute to all those years.