My First Willie
Somehow I lived in Texas more than twenty years without seeing Willie Nelson. This had to end.
It’s as big a sin as if I’d never eaten brisket, watched a high school football game, or fired a gun. I’ve lived in Texas for the better part of twenty years, and I have never seen a Willie Nelson concert.
Were I a casual music fan, someone who sees maybe half a dozen shows a year, that might be acceptable. But as a former (and sometime) music journalist, I probably saw a hundred shows a year in the late eighties and early nineties and still hit around fifty now. Mostly, that meant smaller bands or Texas singer-songwriters in smaller venues (that being both my preference and my beat), but somewhere along the way, I still managed to see Dylan, Springsteen, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, and Prince. I caught Buck Owens right before Dwight Yoakam made him famous again, Johnny Cash before he met Rick Rubin, Roy Orbison around Blue Velvet.
But I never saw Willie. It’s one of those mysteries, like the fact that my seventh-generation Texan wife has never seen Giant, or that Texas Monthly executive editor Paul Burka detests chili. I’ve never been to Willie’s Farm Aid or his decades-running annual Fourth of July Picnic. There have been times when I had every intention of catching him at the Backyard, Willie’s stalwart Austin venue in recent years, but something always came up. A big part of this hole in my concert-going life was probably professional: with so many other seasoned Willie-watchers at the various publications that I wrote for (particularly this one), he was not someone I ever profiled or reviewed.
Thus, seeing Willie Nelson in concert became my 2014 New Year’s resolution. And I made good on it within seconds of the year rolling over, thanks to what’s become an annual pair of December 30 and December 31 shows at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater. I think that it was (sorry!) always on mind throughout December for a semi-morbid reason: I was an especially big Roy Orbison fan, and this past December 7 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Orbison’s death, at 52. I feel lucky to have seen him. I also remember immediately regretting having never seen the Grateful Dead when Jerry Garcia died at the age of 53, in 1995.
Because, let’s be blunt (again, sorry!): Willie is 81. His sister and piano player, Bobbie, is 83. He was hospitalized in the summer of 2012 with breathing problems, due to high altitude and emphysema. This past November, his tour bus crashed outside of Sulphur Springs (Willie wasn’t on it, and the injuries to bandmembers Paul and Billy English were minor). Ideally, he will celebrate his one hundrendth birthday on a Texas stage, but it’s long past the point where I can keep saying, “Oh, I’ll catch him next time.”
Part of me worried that that my chosen place and time would not make for the ideal experience. The 2,700-seat Moody has the best sound and sightlines of any Austin venue, but its vibe is certainly not roadhouse. And New Year’s Eve, of course, is amateur night. This concern was borne out on the balcony before the show, when a young, exceedingly polite kid wearing a cowboy hat and a Willie Nelson tour laminate, presumably a musician, crew member, or relative of someone, asked me for a smoke because his e-cig battery had died (that seemed fitting, as, like many potheads, Willie has reportedly switched to vaporizing himseIf). I don’t smoke (and smoking’s not allowed inside the venue, wink-wink, nudge-nudge), so I wasn’t any help. The kid then took his chances with a slick-looking guy in a black suit, who didn’t even hear him out.
“What did that redneck want?” the slickster asked me. Dude, you’re at a Willie Nelson show, not the bar at the W Hotel next door.
But the reality is, despite the occasional appearance at Gruene Hall or John T. Floore’s, you mostly find Willie at casinos, stately theaters, or mid-sized arenas. Plus, the Moody’s proximity to the W aside, where better than ACL? There’s no “Austin City Limits” without Willie. And as show emcee (and fellow Texas Monthly writer) Andy Langer said onstage while introducing him, “we’re on his street. It’s his statue out front. It’s his eighty-first year . . .”
His eighty-first year, and he still went on at midnight. This is not a man who’s lost a step. He may be just as much a brand as an artist (the merchandise booths in the lobby of the Moody—two of them—were the most prodigious I’ve ever seen), but that ends when the music starts. The minute that Texas flag dropped and the band started “Whiskey River,” I was immediately flabbergasted. There he was in the flesh. That guy with the red, white, and blue guitar strap and supply of red bandanas—which he takes off and tosses to the crowd several times over the course of the night, like a sort of Tom Jones in reverse—actually walks the earth. He can still be seen live. I had to stop and just appreciate that. It’s Willie Nelson.
And maybe even more impressively, it’s Willie Nelson and Trigger. And Willie Nelson and the Family. Because as much as Willie makes you think big—about how he invented whole genres (or cross-genres) of Texas music, or inspired an entire city’s vision of itself (or the world’s vision of that city)—once the show starts, it is only about the music, and the craft of playing music. While Willie has played some shows with his son Lukas in the past few years, tonight’s band is as bare-bones as can be. Paul English plays just one drum, with Billy English on additional percussion, and there’s no second guitarist or extra singer, just Bobbie on piano and Kevin Smith on bass. There is nowhere to hide, no shortcuts, no covering for a legend who is not quite what he was, because when Willie sings and Willie gets that gutbucket sound running his fingers over Trigger, there’s no need, any more than there is for Springsteen or Neil Young (and those guys are in their sixties). The comparisons to Django Reinhardt are inevitable and accurate: he is a one-man band, his voice a constant duet with Trigger, everyone else rhythm.
I don’t get quite the same frisson from Bruce or Neil (even though I worship both), or George Strait or Prince—the wonder that a giant, a legend, still walks among us. That’s partly because of their younger ages and partly because Willie really is more sui generis—an unusual combination of giant star and outsider, of legend and working stiff. The history and chemistry of the band is as important as Willie or the songs. Even with its members being in their early eighties, these are people who still do the work, as surely as any local band playing the Broken Spoke or Beerland once a week. “On the Road Again” still applies.
It is, of course, a hits show, which is to be expected and, given my own situation, just right. “Crazy,” with its insane blues guitar break and Bobbie’s piano, once again leaves me in wonder, thinking “‘Crazy.’ He wrote that. That is crazy.” Other songs (“Always on My Mind” and yes, even “On the Road Again”) feel more obligatory. The band really warms up when they get into the covers—“City of New Orleans,” “Jambalaya on the Bayou,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Move It on Over.” Now it feels like a master class in country music, given by a man and his guitar. And with “Georgia on My Mind,” you think, this is as big a deal as seeing Ray Charles.
And finally, inevitably, there was a bit of hootenanny, with the evening’s openers (Delbert McClinton, Willie’s daughter Paula, the Whiskey Sisters) and guest star Tanya Tucker joining in for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the more recent novelty “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” (he may actually mean that, and he’s not talking about barbecue). Willie and Paula also dueted on a torchy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”
“How ‘bout a big hand for the coolest man in the world,” Paula said, which is a mighty cool thing to hear your daughter say about you. And who could argue?
By then, the show was over but for Hank’s “I Saw The Light” (a traditional closer for both Willie and its author), but even at around 1:30 in the morning, Willie still had just a little more to give of himself. “Thank you all, we love you, thank you,” he said, and then, while some fans left the venue, hundreds more streamed toward the stage, and Willie signed autographs, on New Year’s hats, balloons, and CDs, phone cameras clicking everywhere, as the band kept going and going, their night not done till Willie’s was.