April 07, 2017 06:10 PM

Since Merle Haggard’s death a year ago, his widow, Theresa, says the pain of the loss has been so difficult that she hasn’t been able to turn on a radio for fear of hearing his songs. “It’s been hard,” she says, “to even look at pictures because it’s been too emotional.”

All that changed on Thursday night, as she stood on stage at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena – behind her, a billboard-size portrait of her husband, in front of her, a sea of fans eager for a reminder that Hag lives on in his music.

For the next three hours, a staggering list of stars offered Theresa Haggard – and the world – ample evidence of his immortality in a tribute to the country titan. The concert was held exactly one year after the day of his death on his 79th birthday.

For her part, Theresa alternated between her most familiar spot – singing backup on her husband’s songs – and sitting to one side of the stage and soaking in the performances. The lineup had been long announced, but the surprises came in which mood of Haggard’s music each artist would pick.

A subdued Miranda Lambert channeled the Haggard gloom in “Misery and Gin,” delivering it in a black dress and ending with her hands in prayer, a glance upward and a wave to the heavens. Hank Williams Jr. had no trouble connecting with the reckless Haggard in a raucous “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” Dierks Bentley went wistful – what he called “Merle Haggard’s version of a happy Christmas song” – with a bouncy “If We Make it Through December.”

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Alabama spoke to the mournful Haggard with “Silver Wings,” shunning the all-star backup band and stripping down the song to three-part harmony and Randy Owen’s acoustic guitar. Kacey Musgraves offered Haggard at his most hopeful with “Rainbow Stew.”

Before the concert, Musgraves, 28, told how she discovered Haggard’s music as a little girl “digging through my grandpa’s record collection.” During her teen years singing traditional country on the Texas Opry circuit, she said, she kept his songs in constant rotation on her setlist.

Everyone on stage, it seemed, had a personal connection to the music, if not the man himself. Old friend Tanya Tucker picked “Farmer’s Daughter” – a song she had last performed for Haggard at a long-ago birthday party. Connie Smith took the classic “That’s the Way Love Goes”; last year, the Hall of Famer contributed her voice to Haggard’s funeral at his request.

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Chris Janson, whom Haggard selected to open what would be his final concerts at Nashville’s hallowed Ryman Auditorium, joined Jake Owen for a rousing duet of “Footlights.”

Owen, too, long ago found a kindred spirit in the Hag, and he reveled in getting to sing in the icon’s lower register. “If I could make a career out of singing songs like ‘Footlights’ every night,” Owen, 35, said before the concert, “I’d be the happiest man on Earth.”

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The evening’s lineup crossed genres, as well as generations. John Mellencamp easily found the rock vibes in “White Line Fever,” and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Warren Haynes took “Working Man Blues” literally, turning it into a soul-stirring blues guitar romp.

There was no better proof of Haggard as the great musical common denominator than the appearance of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who entered the stage wearing a classic Haggard fedora.

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“It’s good to be here,” Richards, 73, said, wryly adding, “Good to be anywhere.”

The legendary rocker spurned his own roots and let the whine of a steel guitar guide him through “Sing Me Back Home,” drawing the crowd to its feet. But an even more ecstatic response awaited the next performer, Haggard contemporary and recording partner Willie Nelson.

Richards stayed on stage as stand-in for the Nelson-Haggard duet “Reasons to Quit.” Then Richards departed, and Nelson called in Kenny Chesney to take Haggard’s part in a solemn “Pancho and Lefty.” Re-stoking the stage fires, Toby Keith helped Nelson through a rollicking “Rambling Fever.”

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At evening’s end, Theresa Haggard – who sang, danced and wept through the concert – thanked the artists and said what was on everyone’s minds: “I know Haggard is here right now.”

As most of the lineup gathered back on stage, Nelson stepped to the microphone and with all the irreverence he could muster delivered those immortal country words, “We don’t smoke marijuana …” The stars gleefully joined in to send off the sellout crowd with a howling, cathartic “Okie From Muskogee.”

Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard was filmed by Blackbird Productions for eventual television broadcast.

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