Batting songs back and forth like the old friends that they’ve been for decades, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard played an intimate hourlong set for an audience of about 100 at Arlyn Studios Sunday night to create the pilot episode of “Inside Arlyn,” which Nelson and the studio aim to place on television in the coming year.
Imagine “Austin City Limits” as a house concert and you get an idea of what seems to be the intended “Inside Arlyn” vibe. In a space set up much like a large living room, guests sat at small tables in front of the stage or stood in an adjoining area. Rather than large cameras on wheels and cranes, the show’s crew used several handheld units.
Nelson, who played the “ACL” pilot 40 years ago, is the key figure here, though he and Haggard performed very much as a team with a seven-piece band behind them. The set featured a few of each singer’s signature hits, including Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever” and “Fightin’ Side of Me” and Nelson’s “Nightlife” and “On the Road Again.” A well-chosen opener was Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” which Nelson and Haggard took to No. 1 on the country charts together in 1983.
The two engaged in playful moments at times. “This next number is about marijuana,” Nelson declared as Haggard launched into “Okie From Muskogee.” Nelson offered up his own such number at the end of the set, telling the crowd, “Now then, let’s be serious” as he began his recent hit “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Best of all was “A Horse Called Music,” the Wayne Carson-penned track Nelson first recorded in 1989 and revisited with Haggard for 2012’s “Heroes.” Both men sang with deep emotion on verses that spoke to their lifelong bond with music and the American West.
Among those in attendance was former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who conducted an interview segment taped separately from the live performance. An upcoming second taping, pairing Nelson with local blues-rock guitar star Gary Clark Jr., will further flesh out the “Inside Arlyn” pilot before plans are set for when and where the show will air.