“Who’s gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you? Lord, I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes?”
There are so many artists I’ll never get the opportunity to see live as they’ve already passed on, but with these hard-working folks that take their tributes and impersonations on the road, their spirits are still there. For that, each and every tribute show and story told touches me just a little bit deeper than the last. If you’ve ever been on the fence about going to see a tribute concert, I urge you to take the plunge. These dedicated artists are fans just like us, and though they may not be able to fill the shoes of our favourite legends, they do keep their memory alive and that is just as important.
It was a double feature at River Cree Resort and Casino on January 25th in Enoch, Alberta with the Story of the Hag featuring Jess Lee and The Legend of George Jones featuring Duane Steele. Pairing up the two shows is not a regular occurrence, but it sure was something to see. I would, however, like to see both shows independently of one another to see the entire sets played out in full.
Graham Neil, CTV Edmonton arts and entertainment reporter, wrote the scripts for both shows and narrated at this specific location. Rob Shapiro on keys and Darren Gusnowsky on electric guitar narrate otherwise.
Jess Lee opened the show with The Story of the Hag singing all the hits we know and love from “Mama Tried” to “Silver Wings” to “Okie From Muskogee.” Lee played the part of a tribute artist flawlessly, emulating the time period of the Hag with a fringed jacket, and strong silent disposition between songs as Neil told the story of Haggard’s life between each song. With the stories being narrated chronologically throughout the show, it felt like a documentary of Merle Haggard’s life had been brought to the stage in all the best ways possible.
To the surprise of those of us who know him personally, Mark Whitehead, both Lee and Steele’s fiddle, steel, and acoustic guitarist, broke out into an incredibly lively rendition of Haggard’s “Workin’ Man’s Blues” after telling the crowd of the time he got to speak to the Hag directly over the phone in 1994 thanks to a radio contest. The 2018 CCMA nominated fiddle and steel player had the crowd hooping and hollering in delight while I sat there with a proud smile plastered straight across my face. I’d seen Whitehead play acoustically, but never backed by a full band, and despite how great both shows were, it was Whitehead who made the night for me, but hey, I’m only a little bias.
Lee closed the set with “Mama Tried,” and there was a brief intermission for the bands to switch over for Duane Steele and The Legend of George Jones. As much as I love the Hag, it’s the George Jones set that I was really excited for. Not only because Jones is a personal favourite, but because I’m also a fan of Duane Steele as well and had yet to see him perform live. During the intermission, I noted that there were other young folks out there in the audience for this tribute show. A first for me with a tribute show.
The “Anita Got Married” hitmaker walked onstage to the roar of the crowd and opened the show with “White Lightning” as the crowd sang along loudly, a little rowdier than they were with the first set as everyone had a good buzz going by then.
This time, rather than having Neil narrate, Steele himself told us the stories of George Jones’ tortured life in between his impossibly energetic renditions of Jones’ hits which led to a more natural break in the set. With hits like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Race Is On,” “Lovebug,” “The Grand Tour,” and the heartbreaking “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Steele captivated the crowd and held their attention straight through the entire set. Well, apart from the one obnoxiously loud drunk fellow sitting a couple seats away who could not quit talking to the folks in front of him.
All of you Chris Stapleton fans out there who didn’t know that “Tennessee Whiskey” wasn’t his song can bite me. This was a smooth bop long before his rich perfect vocals graced it. Granted, it wasn’t originally Jones’ song either, as David Allan Coe initially recorded it in 1981, however, with Jones, it peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart two years later, which is why it’s so notably known as sung by him. Ahem, moving right along. I just had to get that out of my system.
Some of my personal favourites were… who am I kidding, all of them. I loved all of them. I’m a shamelessly huge George Jones fan who was living her best life to “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “The Corvette Song,” “Choices,” “One Woman Man,” and “Rocking Chair” to name a few. Steele closed the show with a very upbeat version of “Why Baby Why,” and as he walked off the stage I couldn’t help but wish he’d come back out and sing the rest of Jones’ hits. I would’ve stayed there all night just to hear him sing every last one.
Now, while Jess Lee and Duane Steele were not dead ringers for the legends they were paying tribute to, the spirit of Merle Haggard and George Jones were alive and well that night. I felt them there in the casino crowd with us, smiling at all the fans who loved their songs and cherished the lasting legacy they’d left behind in country music.
My advice to you folks? Go see you a tribute show.