Michael Moore got two pieces of advice from Willie Nelson. The first: "Always get your money up front."
But it's the second pearl of wisdom that Moore takes to heart every night when he hits the stage in long braids and faded jeans as the Red Headed Stranger:
"He said, 'I hope you have as much fun being me as I've had.'"
It's the rare tribute performer who gets the chance to meet his idol, but, then, it's rare for a superstar of American music to be as down home as Nelson is. The two have hung out together with mutual friends on occasion and played "a lot of bad golf," great opportunities for Moore to study Nelson, whom he channels every night in The Highwaymen Live, a tribute to country music's most beloved supergroup: Nelson (The Gypsy) Johnny Cash (The Preacher), Waylon Jennings (The Rebel) and Kris Kristofferson (The Poet). The tour stops in Bakersfield, at the Fox Theater, on July 18.
"If you're a country music fan, there's absolutely no way -- especially if you loved classic country music -- there's no way you're going to walk away from that show and not be very, very happy that you came out," said Moore, 51, who took some time to chat over the phone about the group's upcoming performance, which he calls a "re-creation" more than a tribute.
However, there's something missing from this "re-creation": Kris Kristofferson.
"We haven't found anybody, so far, that really does justice to the Kris Kristofferson character -- as far as looking like or sounding like Kris," Moore explained, his own voice a dead ringer for Nelson's.
But having a tribute band of The Highwaymen without Kris Kristofferson is akin to forming a Beatles act without a George Harrison.
"At this point we're taking it out as a three-piece, and it's doing quite well, actually."
Moore said the act makes do with a tribute in their own manner by recognizing Kristofferson's songs and legacy.
"We do a lot of Kris' songs," Moore said, "(but) we do stop for a moment and remember and recognize Kris, and the songs that (he) has brought into the world and ... enjoyed all these years. Although he's not standing there, we do pay a little tribute, in our own way, nightly. We want to give everybody a Kris, when we can give everybody the best Kris we've got."
The Highwaymen, active between 1985 and 1995, hit the top of the charts with their first album, "Highwayman," and their cover of the Jimmy Webb song of the same name. The success of the group revitalized the careers of each of the individual members, whose solo work is featured in the show.
"Our biggest problem nightly," Moore said, "is trying to decide what big song to not do tonight.
"The audience is in for a very good roller coaster of country music that night. There's a lot of stuff, a lot of B-side stuff, that people have forgotten that we pull out of the wood pile and do."
But the tribute goes beyond the music and look, Moore said. It takes a lot of effort to produce effortless chemistry but he and his fellow performers -- Bob Gill as Waylon Jennings and Philip Bauer as Johnny Cash -- have it down.
"We've prided ourselves on trying to really re-create not only just the music of The Highwaymen, but also the personalities and a lot of the humor that went on between the guys on stage.
"We try to stay as true to the original recordings as we can, but (we) always have to put a little extra punch in there when you're playing live -- you have to have to give it a little bit more of a spark. It's about as accurate as you can get to having the three guys on stage."
Moore has even gone to the trouble of having a hole in his guitar's pick guard -- a small detail that mirrors Nelson's own guitar. Moore jokes that it's his "Sunday guitar, because it's all holy."
The Texas native plans to hang loose and maybe golf -- alas, not with Nelson -- while in our own fair town.
"I've got a little bit of an extended time out there this round, so I got a few days down, which I'm going to get a chance to spend some downtime in Bakersfield to see some things, so I'm looking forward to that."