You know how the last song of the morning commute sometimes gets stuck in your head for a couple of hours? Lucky me. Today mine is Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up the Tempo,” and it couldn’t be more appropriate on this, Willie’s 79th birthday.
Willie has been one of my heroes for a long, long time. I found my way to Willie Nelson in the late 1970s, and I’ve never looked back. In those days I was burned out on most pop and rock music. Except for Bruce Springsteen, everything and everyone sounded manufactured and fake. As disco worked its toxic tendrils into everything, even The Eagles started sounding like they’d been hanging out at Studio 54.
Then someone—I wish I knew who—gave me that RCA compilation Wanted: The Outlaws featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. That album was exactly what I was looking for. I explored more of Waylon’s catalog and found it raucous, rough, and completely devoid of anything disco. And then I heard Willie Nelson’s album The Sound in Your Mind, and nothing has been the same since.
Here was a sound so pure and simple that it made everything else maudlin and hypocritical. Willie’s guitar sounded like no other instrument. His Family band sounded like what you might hear on a Friday night at a bar not many know about. And Willie’s voice sounded like it came straight from the soul with a quick detour through the nasal zone. Over these past thirty-odd years not many weeks have gone by without me listening to some Willie Nelson music.
The more I know about Willie the more I like him. Some anecdotes gleaned from my reading: (1.) Willie says anyone can be his friend as long as they don’t litter; (2.) Willie says the only prayer he ever says is The Lord’s Prayer, and he pretty much says it all day long; (3.) When Willie had his troubles with the IRS, his wealthy friends lined up at the auction of his belongings, bought as many as possible, and gave them back to Willie.
While most country artists crank out albums that are simply collections of songs, Willie Nelson albums usually have some kind of unifying concept—either a specific narrative, genre, songwriter or some other purpose. My favorite Willie Nelson albums, in no particular order:
• The Sound in Your Mind
• Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson
• Shotgun Willie
• VH1Storytellers (with Johnny Cash)
• Yesterday’s Wine
• To Lefty from Willie
That list skips a lot of great albums. Amazon currently lists 461 different Willie Nelson albums, and there are gems scattered throughout his discography, but those few albums hold together for me really well.
Seeing Willie in concert any number of times has been one of life’s blessings. The first time was at the Cattle Congress Barn in Waterloo, Iowa in those same late 1970s. Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker did a rousing version of “Momma’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” that included Willie and Jerry Jeff stomping on each other’s hats.
Another memorable show was July 1, 1978 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City where Willie brought his 4th of July Picnic show with Waylon, Jessi, Jerry Jeff, Emmylou Harris, and The Grateful Dead. “Memorable” is probably the wrong word because, to tell the truth, my memory is a little blurry on that one. But I know I had a good time because I’ve seen the pictures.
Willie Nelson concerts are always the same and always different. Willie is a smiling enigma, the Dalai Lama of country, and his shows still spark connections between generations and demographic groups, awe at his senior-citizen energy, and genuinely inspired aisle dancing.
Happy birthday, Willie – and many, many more! Any other thoughts or memories about Willie? I’d love to hear them.
I’ll close this by adding a piece I wrote and sent out to a few people in 1997 after a Willie Nelson concert.
- Willie Nelson at Hemmens Auditorium (Elgin, Illinois): November 2, 1997
Hemmens Auditorium in Elgin is a wonderful place to see a concert. When the house lights are up, I’m sure the performers can count freckles on the faces of any one of the 1,100 lucky people in the audience, even those in the last row of the balcony. This increased intimacy is reflected in the ticket prices, which Willie Nelson seemed to know when he sang, “If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time” for a sold-out audience on Sunday night.
The curtain opened on a subdued Willie, typified by an oversized black slouch hat pulled down low over his eyes. He began with “Whiskey River,” followed by “Stay All Night,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life,” as he has every time I’ve seen him going back twenty years. In the early going, he seemed not to fully inhabit his songs, instead simply suggesting them through spare arrangements, offbeat phrasing, andvariations on original melodies. This had the effect of making the songs seem full of tension and ready to burst, which is fully appropriate for these songs about losers, denizens of the road and the night, and other societal misfits and philosophers.
Pretty soon though enthusiastic audience members started throwing Chicago Bulls hats on stage, and Willie–wearing each one in turn–began to beam. He showed that in his sixties he’s still about half-crazy by high-kicking a microphone out of its stand a couple of times without missing a strum, then watching with a contemplative gaze as a nonplused stagehand kept coming out to replace the equipment.
“Bloody Mary Morning” was the first song Willie really tore into. It roared from its beginning through an extended, almost epic guitar solo to a crashing finale.
The set list for this two-hour-plus show is astounding, but the most moving songs were a pair from his recent, wrongly-overlooked Spirit album and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” Each of these selections began with just Willie accompanying himself on guitar until the rest of the band filled in quietly and smoothly at appropriate
And Willie played the blues! At one point late in the show, he took off his trademark Spanish guitar–which looks like something found curbside after being put out in someone else’s trash–traded it for an electric guitar, and positively smoked and howled through “Milkcow Blues Boogie.” If I hadn’t seen and heard this in person, I would not have believed it.
By this time the crowd was completely in Willie’s hands, and he pushed his considerable spiritual energy and presence through the roof with “I Saw the Light,” “Amazing Grace,” and a ringing “Uncloudy Day.”
This show built, developed, grew, and then exploded. Willie made stops all along the road map of American popular music–paying homage to Hoagy Carmichael, The Carter Family, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson, for example–as well as at all the places where his own career carved out unforgettable songs, phrases and ways of looking at “dreams that just fell by the way.”
Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer
Good Hearted Woman
Funny How Times Slips Away
Down Yonder (Bobbie Nelson)
Living With My Dreams (Jody Payne)
Me and Paul
If You’ve Got the Money, Honey
Working Man Blues (Jody Payne)
Help Me Make It Through the Night
Me and Bobby McGee
Loving Her Was Easier
Bloody Mary Morning
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Under the Double Eagle (Instrumental)
Georgia On My Mind
All of Me
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
Angel Flying too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always On My Mind
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
She Is Gone
Sitting Here in Limbo
The Harder They Fall
Milkcow Blues Boogie
Pancho and Lefty
No Teardrops Tonight
My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It
I Saw the Light