On April 6, 2016, country lost one of it's greatest voices. Exactly one year later, some of the most legendary artists in music gathered on one stage to honor the great Merle Haggard.
Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard was a nearly four-hour musical tribute to the Hag that was full of memorable moments. With a songbook as immense as Haggard's, there was no shortage of great tunes to be sung. But there were also multiple performances that transformed his tracks into something new, while still showcasing Merle's incredible artistry.
One of the best examples of that was the duet between ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Warren Haynes' gritty take on "Workin' Man Blues." The guitar-heavy rendition had the 18,000 audience members in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on their feet.
Jake Owen was joined by Chris Janson for a rollicking version of "Footlights" early in the evening. Jamey Johnson performed the stunning "Kern River" before escorting country queen Loretta Lynn on stage to perform Merle's classic hit, "Today I Started Loving You Again." Lynn struggled to keep up with the tune, serving another piercing reminder that our beloved country legends aren't getting any younger.
Miranda Lambert proudly represented the next generation with her powerful rendition of "Misery and Gin," while Kacey Musgraves gave an energetic version of "Rainbow Stew."
But there were also breaks from the music to remind us of the more human side of Merle. Video clips showed his keen sense of humor and incredible impressions. Nashville mayor Megan Berry also made her way onstage midway through the night to proclaim April 6 as Merle Haggard Day in Nashville.
After a short intermission, it was time for one of the night's most anticipated appearances. Legendary guitarist and Rolling Stones member Keith Richards channeled his country side for a heartfelt acoustic version of "Sing Me Back Home."
The crowd once again rose to their feet when he was joined by Willie Nelson, one of Merle's closest friends and longtime collaborator, for "Reasons to Quit."
One of the most surprising duet performances was Nelson's duet with Kenny Chesney. The two took on the classic "Pancho and Lefty," which Willie and Merle first recorded together back in 1983. Chesney did a superb job trying to step in for such a legend. But it was also a bittersweet reminder of the magic Nelson and Haggard once had on stage.
The emotion of the night obviously affected Haggard's wife, Theresa, as well as his youngest son, Ben. He stepped into his dad's shoes and flawlessly played lead guitar alongside most of the night's performers. They stood side by side at the end of the night, soaking in the moment. "I know Haggard's here right now," Theresa said with a teary smile.
Then, all of the night's performers came together for a singalong version of his seminal hit "Okie from Muskogee." It was a fitting way to finish off a night full of music, love and memories.
It's hard to cope with the fact that we'll never see the Hag back in his rightful place on stage. But nights like these prove his music will continue to live on through all of us.