This Day in Willie Nelson History: Red Headed Stranger Movie Premieres (2/19/87)

February 19th, 2018


On February 19, 1987, Willie Nelson’s movie, the “Red Headed Stranger” premieres in Austin, Texas. Among those attending: Morgan Fairchild, Floyd Tillman and coach Darrell Royal.

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Willie Nelson was asked about the violence in the movie, and about his character killing two women:

“If you like the song, the violence is there,” he says. “You can’t take out violence anymore than you can take evil out of books. It’s all part of life.” Adds Nelson, “This movie covers a lot of territory — from spiritualism to lust — and takes a man all the way to the bottom and back to the top. It does it to a preacher — which is a little bit unusual.”

Life Magazine August 1987 article by: Cheryl McCall

Making a movie of Red Headed Stranger, his 1975 chart-topping country album, was a powerful obsession that wouldn’t let go. From the beginning, its story of love and violence in the Old West was unfolding as a movie in his mind, says Willie Nelson. He dreamed of portraying the preacher-turned-killer on-screen. Universal Studios optioned Red Headed Stranger but eventually let it slip into “turnaround” — Hollywood limbo. So Nelson acquired the rights and spent the next five years shopping for financing. With fellow Texan Bill Wittliff – screenwriter and co producer of Country, Raggedy Man and Barbarossa — Nelson plunged into the risky business of doing their own producing.

Despite the pleading of his wife, Connie, Nelson stubbornly mortgaged property to raise $1 million for the 1879-style wardrobe, props and three Western sets. Friends and neighbors pitched in. Towns were built on land adjoining his private golf course outside Austin, turning the place into a studio back lot. Wittliff virtually ignored his book publishing business, Encino Press, to take on the chore of writing, co-producing and directing. Together, Wittliff and Nelson assembled a crew and pruned more than $11 million from Universal’s original $13.5 million budget.

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Willie Nelson sprays on a little water as he and Morgan Farichild head west. Says the TV acress, “My character just doesn’t have the pioneer spirit.”

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As preacher Julian Shay, Willie Nelson sobers up a besotted sheriff, played by R. G. Armstrong in a scene that both enjoyed in the scorching Texas heat.

They signed a native Texas, Morgan Fairchild, to play the preacher’s faithless wife and Katharine Ross (star of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), 43, as his salvation. The actresses agreed to defer half of their fees. As the cameras rolled, LIFE went on location with Red Headed Stranger.

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“If Willie Nelson is going to kill a woman, anyone in America would forgive him for killing Morgan Fairchild in this movie,” — Morgan Fairchild

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“In a funny kind of way, I just simply stepped into Willie’s dream,” says director Bill Wittliff. “It’s become an obsession for me, too. I couldn’t walk away from it.” The writer fleshed out the record album’s story of stern frontier morality with a script that explores the theme of love lost and regained against a backdrop of sin and redemption. The preacher saves a derelict town from spiritual squalor but pays a terrible price — everything he cherishes in life. By the time his rage is spent, a dozen people are dead. Nelson says he’s not the least contrite about killing two women in this film. Stranger” premieres in Austin, Texas. Among those attending: Morgan Fairchild, Floyd Tillman and coach Darrell Royal.

 

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“If you like the song, the violence is there,” he says. “You can’t take out violence anymore than you can take evil out of books. It’s all part of life.” Adds Nelson, “This movie covers a lot of territory — from spiritualism to lust — and takes a man all the way to the bottom and back to the top. It does it to a preacher — which is a little bit unusual.”

Also unorthodox is the casting of Nelson’s grandson, his band’s drummer, the bass player and a bodyguard in speaking roles. Says Wittliff, “It’s really a homegrown deal. We pulled people off the sidewalk, from restaurants, stores or wherever we spotted them for this.” His Encino Press assistant, Connie Todd, put aside her publishing duties to audition more than 350 local folks. “When we found someone with a spark, we’d work with him or her for several hours,” says Wittliff. The creative gamble has paid off with lively performances from an Austin security guard, a waitress and a computer programmer.

It’s a measure of the loyalty Nelson inspires that his cast and crew are willing to endure 14-hour days on a location as hot and fly-ridden as Calcutta. What’s more, they are remarkably cheerful about it. Explains bit player Bo Franks, a cohort and gun collector, “I’m doing this for free. Everybody is here because they want to be part of Willie’s dream. We’re busting our butts because we wouldn’t think of letting him down.” From the Austin hatter who made and donated dozens of period hats to the realtor who lent a 19th century water drilling rig, friends contributed what they could. img029

Says his daughter Lana, ‘Daddy has set such a good example for everyone that you don’t want to be the one to goof it up.”

As the end of the shooting approaches, day drags into night and exhaustion and tension mount. Mistakes are made, lines misbelieved, and the horses — spooked by gunfire — are edgy.

The only uncooperative member of the cast during the whole 39 days of shooting was a balky pony. “Willie, we got a problem here,” crackled a walkie-talkie. “The horse wants to know what his motivation is for pulling the plow.”

Nelson drinks cups of coffee and cracks jokes. Scenes are repeated until all the angles have been filmed. At 5:30 a.m., they break. Twelve hours later, after filming the preacher and the wife traveling west in a covered wagon, Wittliff and Nelson say the magic words, “That’s a wrap!”

The film opens next month, with Willie Nelson singing Red-Headed Stranger songs throughout his movie.

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Paul English and Johnny Bush

February 19th, 2018

Willie Nelson on ‘Kings of Country’ on HDNet on Sunday, February 19, 2012

February 19th, 2018

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“The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart”, by Willie Nelson with Turk Pipkin

February 19th, 2018

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Special Playback Session of New Willie Nelson album, “Last Man Standing” in Nashville March 1 (essay by Mikal Gilmore)

February 18th, 2018
You’re invited!
Special playback session of Willie Nelson’s new album Last Man Standing
March 1st, Nashville, Tennessee
Special Guest Producer Buddy Cannon
RSVP – Elaine Schock or Meredith Louie,  Shock Ink 818-932-0001

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L A S T  M A N  S T A N D I N G

an essay by Mikal Gilmore

Willie Nelson doesn’t want to be the last man standing, he declares on the title track of this new album, made up of eleven original songs co-written with producer Buddy Cannon. After a moment’s consideration, he adds: “On second thought, maybe I do.”The song is a wry concession to an overshadowing truth that accompanies Willie Nelson and his music every step at this stage of his life: He’s an 84-year-old man who is one of America’s most preternaturally active and creative artists, and he keeps on going. He still performs something like one hundred shows per year, and records and releases an average of two top-rate albums per year. (Nelson and Buddy Cannon also regularly write and record more songs than they can release.)

Nelson’s perseverance is not only extraordinary but heartening. Perhaps no other American artist unifies so many disparate listeners across a troubled land in this time. Willie Nelson doesn’t preach or chide; he doesn’t even claim the wisdom of his years as an exemplar for us all. He does something rather different that digs deeper: He demonstrates that every new season, every new night, offers a way forward with fresh promises-maybe joyous, maybe hurtful-until the end. “Life goes on and on,” he sings in Last Man Standing’s most hard-won line, “And when it’s gone it lives in someone new.” That’s both transcendent and down-to-earth truth. We live until we die-you, me, Willie Nelson, everybody-and will go through loving and harsh realities that don’t hesitate. That path is inexorable. Last Man Standing is full of both lively beauty and hard truth, but it also offers grace notes. “There’s hope in the new album,” says Buddy Cannon. “Hope and inspiration and reality.”

With its understanding of life as something that is both evanescent and reverberant, Last Man Standing picks up in the territory where last year’s God’s Problem Child-Nelson’s 72nd studio album across fifty-six years of recording (and one of his finest)-left off: The closing song, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” was a tribute to a fallen friend, Merle Haggard. This time the line of commemorations has grown. In the opening track, “Last Man Standing,” Nelson sings: “It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out/It cuts like a wore out knife/One thing I’ve learned about running the road/Is forever don’t apply to life/Waylon and Ray and Merle and ol’ Norro/Lived just as fast as me/I’ve still got a lot of good friends left/And I wonder who the next will be.”

Despite that rumination, the song doesn’t feel like a requiem: The music works in an entirely different mood and direction, kicking off like a stampede of race horses, headed for a rendezvous at the liveliest honky-tonk in town. The singer says he doesn’t want to be the last survivor among his allies, then thinks twice. The truth is, he’s in no hurry; he’s well occupied with the here and now: “Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry,” he offers, “Like Heaven ain’t waitin’ for you.” It’s a funny line sung with a band that soars (more or less the same excellent musicians-studio pros with a seasoned roadhouse and improvisatory sound that fits Nelson’s free-wheeling inclinations-that Nelson and Cannon have used on many albums in recent years). But only a few moments into “Last Man Standing,” you realize you’re tapping your foot along to the beat of ephemerality, to a black humor that’s nevertheless dead serious about the dead. It’s only in the songs, says Buddy, that Willie is willing to addresses the subject. “I haven’t had any, like, ‘death conversations’ with Willie,” he says. “As far as our songs go, we don’t talk about them. We just write them. When I get a chance to be around him, we usually end up laughing our butts off at some dumb joke or something. But it’s pretty obvious, you know? None of us are getting any younger. People are falling away too quickly. It was sort of a little bit of a chuckle at the sadness of losing your buddies.”

Willie Nelson and Buddy first connected in 2008, when Nelson joined Kenny Chesney for a duet of the 1949 song “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day).” He called Cannon soon after. “He liked the way we cut the track on that song,” says Cannon.

“Soon as he got a copy he called me up and said, ‘This is the best I’ve ever heard this song done. Let’s find some songs and make a record. So that was the way we kicked things off.” Since that time, Cannon has been Nelson’s main producer, and during the making of 2012’s Heroes they began collaborating on songs. Nelson has long sung music in a variety of styles-country, jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley-but until Cannon the productions were disparate. Something clicked between this pair, and Cannon has now produced over a dozen albums of Willie’s, including Heroes, Band of Brothers, Django & Jimmie (with Merle Haggard), God’s Problem Child and he co-produced the Grammy Award winning Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin with Matt Rollings. On Band of Brothers, Nelson and Cannon became a full-fledged songwriting team, and Last Man Standing is made up solely of their collaborations. But there’s a twist in their camaraderie: “The odd thing,” Cannon says, “is we never sit in a room together to write. Never have. We start with our lyrics, and he will text me or email me. Usually text messaging, actually. He’ll text message me a verse and a chorus. He just sends me stuff, and if it’s something I can wrap my head around I’ll work on it and send it back, and we just bounce it back and forth. We kind of make the melody up when I get back with him.” That method yielded seven masterful songs for God’s Problem Child.

This time around, on Last Man Standing, Nelson and Cannon’s unorthodox stratagem yielded eleven original songs, most written in a surprisingly short time span after God’s Problem Child. “Willie’s a jazz singer and jazz player. He’s an improvisational musician. Why play and sing the parts over and over and over? It’s going to be different every time. Get a good one and go with it. These songs we’ve written together,” says Cannon, “they’ve only been recorded one time. We’ve never done any demos on them. We’ll just write them and pretty much hum each other melodies over the telephone. We don’t ever do anything else to it until I get in with the band. It just kind of all falls together then.”

Nelson and Cannon’s method works so well that by mid-2017-fast on the heels of their God’s Problem Child triumph-they had songs for Last Man Standing, to coincide with Nelson’s 85th birthday. The news that there was already a new and substantial body of self-authored work caught some by surprise. Says Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s harmonica accompanist since 1975’s Red Headed Stranger: “When they told me we’re going to do another record, ‘We’ve got all these songs,’ I thought, how good could these things be, coming off God’s Problem Child?’ The tunes and performances there were great. I thought maybe Willie was just bored. I wouldn’t tell him this, but I wondered if we were going in just to placate him. I don’t know why I ended up so surprised. I heard ‘Something You Get Through’ and realized these songs really have a life of their own. This album is every bit as solid and exciting as the last one. Willie’s so prolific, you just have to take advantage of his time. It’s not like thinking, ‘We’ve got this record out; let’s wait twelve months and record another album, and then we can tour behind it.’ We don’t tour behind albums; we tour all the time. So when we put out a record, it has nothing to do with our touring schedule.  There’s really no hiatus in the writing plan. Willie’s in a more creative place now than I’ve ever seen him and his guitar playing is just amazing. I’m lucky to be standing by him every night, watching it.”

The song Raphael referred to, “Something You Get Through,” is indeed at the heart of Last Man Standing-for that matter, at the heart of Nelson’s years of music and meaning. It’s a song about the devastation we feel at the loss of another and are told we’ll get over it-but we know better. Buddy Cannon relates the story of the moment the song was born. “It was about three or four years ago,” he says. “I was down in Austin for one of Willie’s New Year’s Eve shows. I was sitting on the bus, before the show. There were several people there, but there was this lady, who I did not know, who came on the bus and it was obvious that she was very close friends with Willie and with Annie (Annie D’Angelo Nelson, Willie’s wife). The lady sat down on the bench across from Willie, and I was sitting on the couch, behind the driver’s seat. I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I could hear what they were saying to each other. She had obviously lost someone very recently-her husband, or somebody-and she was talking to Willie about it. I had never heard Willie engage in conversations about these kinds of things, but he knew the situation and he had been close to these people. I heard the woman say, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get over this.’ And Willie looked at her and he said: ‘It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you’ll get through.’ That just stuck in my brain. I tried but I couldn’t get that thought out of my head for two or three years. I knew there was a song in there. Finally, one day I texted him about it, and we kicked it around. It ended up being one of my favorite songs.”

Mickey remembered hearing about the incident as well. “You don’t want to get over that loss,” he says. “It’s now a part of who you are-and perhaps it always will be. You don’t want to forget the person’s memory. You get through it. If you get over it, then they’re gone.”

Something You Get Through” will become one of those songs everybody can find themselves in-unless its truths cut a little too close. Nelson isn’t singing simply about the loss of a romance, or even a single death. In fact, it’s almost as if he isn’t singing at all, but rather sitting across from you, talking straight, telling you what he’s learned about life over the years. It’s a conversational benediction: He’s talking to the woman on the bus; he’s talking to eavesdroppers, to you and me; he’s talking through the shadow of human loss, as somebody who’s been on both sides of the chasm: “It’s not something you get over/But it’s something you get through/It’s not ours to be taken/It’s just a thing we get to do/Life goes on and on/And when it’s gone it lives in someone new/It’s not something you get over/But it’s something you get through.”

If God’s Problem Child was about mortality, Last Man Standing is largely about life-that is, how we endure it, when to persist. That also comes across in the music: It’s largely an inviting romp-two-steps here and there. The lesson of “Something You Get Through” swings-literally, as in Western Swing-into “Ready to Roar,” a workingman’s celebration of a weekend of dancing, drinking, smoking weed, getting arrested and getting out of jail to go back for more. In the country-boogie of “Don’t Tell Noah” Nelson says: “Don’t quit trying to change the government/And make them see how wrong they went.” In other words, don’t stop your opposition; keep on. The hard-waltz “Bad Breath” is the creed of an indefatigable alcoholic; he knows others might recoil from him, but he also knows this: “Don’t think ill of me if my breath melts the wall/’Cause bad breath is better than no breath at all.” In a barrelhouse blues-stomp, “I Ain’t Got Nothin’,” a man who should know better falls for a woman who in fact does know better and gets out with his money and his heart; he’s left to lament: “It’s a lonesome old night and memories linger/Of when I gave you a ring/Then you gave me the finger.” In the Merle Haggard-like, Bakersfield-indebted “She Made My Day” another man-or maybe the same fool twice-ruins his own peace of mind when he yields to an allure: “Well she smiled at me and I did not think twice/She made my day, but it ruined my life.” These are classic country themes and sounds we’ve known since the days of Hank Williams-pairing dance music to portrayals of hurt, because dancing despite agony is another way to get through things. At the same time, the new songs’ age-old veracity is also infused with tomorrow’s regrets.

There’s also the trickier stuff that could only come from the mind of Willie Nelson. The genial-sounding “Heaven is Closed” plays an artful but profound word trick that amiably questions the meaning of all fates: “Could it be hell is heaven and that heaven is hell?” Before it’s over, the singer extends compassion to all of us who are forever confused: “Let’s burn one for those still living in hell/And let’s burn one for those who think they’re in heaven/And burn one for everyone in the whole world/And anyone stuck in between.” That’s a loving thought-an earned enlightenment. That’s good, because the man in the spooky-sounding song that closes Last Man Standing is a broken man who would do anything to get back to the person who broke him in the first place: “You kicked me right in the heart babe/I shouldn’t even be here at all/Trying hard to get back to you/And I don’t have very far to crawl.” That man’s dejection is the way he’s chosen to get through life; it’s his redemption. Let’s burn one for him too.

You have to wonder where songs this vivid and intriguing come from-a lifetime reserve of knowledge or loss? “We would never talk about this stuff,” says Buddy Cannon, “We just never have done that, we kind of write whatever the feeling is, or the sadness that is floating around us. If you’ve ever been wounded, emotionally, I don’t think that memory ever goes away. It kind of sneaks back in on you every now and then. It’s not a matter of trying to think up something sad to write about. It’s just reflecting, reflecting on stuff. Eventually we write enough songs to make a record Willie can be proud ofWillie Nelson has now turned out two latter day masterpieces-God’s Problem Child and Last Man Standing in a year’s span. Apparently, he and Cannon are well on their way to making it a trilogy, or quartet, maybe more. “Just think of this as the second page of a book,” says Cannon. Willie never stops turning the pages. One observer told me about days he’s seen Nelson sing and play in a studio all afternoon, break off to ride a long way on his bus to a show, perform about thirty songs, and immediately get back on the bus to head to the studio and finish what he was working on. “When we finish it,” says Cannon. “then it’s time for the people to get to hear it. Willie’s always thinking ahead, about what comes next, when it comes to recording music.

Which is to say that Willie Nelson’s current-day music is in keeping with his current-day life: always moving, never done, pushing ahead, restless. Is he hurrying to get as much done as possible? “I don’t know if he thinks that type of clock is ticking,” says Mickey Raphael, who’s known Nelson for four-and-a-half decades. “He’s always put out a large amount of work. As long as I’ve known him, when one record’s done then he’s got the songs for another. He’s constantly creating material. I don’t think that, because of his age, that there’s some urgency here. It’s how he’s always been. It keeps him young and alive. I guess that’s what the bus is about, in a way. The momentum, the forward movement, is what Willie thrives on. I don’t think that he wants to slow down. He has that fire. He wants to be on the road, he likes it.”

Cannon agrees: “That early genius that was him and his songs is still there. Some of the ideas he sends me, some of these lyrics, are pretty amazing. I don’t know where it comes from. Greatness flows through him, and I think it will keep doing that. Willie thinks very profound stuff, but it’s also very funny, lighthearted, even if it’s a dark subject. I think he’ll do it forever-as long as he’s breathing. He’s about as good at putting words together as anyone who’s ever lived.

“It’s always fun when I get a text from him. It’s either a joke or a piece of a song, and usually I get more songs from him than jokes. I like to laugh, but I love to see a budding song come through my text messages.”

Willie Nelson & Family on Tour

February 18th, 2018

Feb 27 (rescheduled from Feb 18)
St. Augustine Amphitheater
St. Augustine, FL
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Feb 28 (rescheduled from Feb 15)
with Los Lonely Boys
Ruth Eckerd Hall
with Los Lonely Boys
Clearwater, FL
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March 2 (rescheduled from Feb 13)
Pompano Beach Amphitheater
with Los Lonely Boys
Pompano Beach, FL
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March 3
(rescheduled from Feb 10)
with Los Lonely Boys
Panama City, FL
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March 5
Peace Concert Hall
Greenville, SC
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March 6
Mark Smith Concert Hall
Huntsville, AL
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March 8
House of Blues
New Orleans, LA
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March 9
Golden Nugget
Lake Charles, LA
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March 10
Choctaw Grand Theater
Durant, OK
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March 12
Amarillo Civic Center
Amarillo, TX
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April 10
Baxter Arena
with Dwight Yoakum, Brandy Clark
Omaha, NE
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April 11
Wells Fargo Arena
with Dwight Yoakum, Robert Earl Keen, Brandy Clark
Des Moines, IA
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April 13
Six Flags Center
with Dwight Yoakum, Robert Earl Keen, Brandy Clark
Dubuque, IA
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April 14
Coronado Performing Arts Center
Rockford, IL
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April 15
Show Me Center
with Dwight Yoakum, Robert Earl Keen, Brandy Clark
Cape Girardeau, MO
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April 17
Owensboro Convention Center
Owensboro, KY
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April 18
Peabody Opera House
with Brandy Clark
St. Louis, MO
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April 20, 21st
with Robert Earl Keen
Whitewather Amphitheater
New Braunfels, TX
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October 12 (rescheduled from Jan 14)
E Center
Laughlin, NV
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October 17 (rescheduled from Jan 10)
Graton Resort and Casino
with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Rohnert Park, CA
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October 19, 20 (rescheduled from Jan 12, 13)
The Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan
with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Las Vegas, NV
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November 9th (rescheduled from Feb. 9)
IP Casino Resort
Biloxi, MS
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November 10 (rescheduled from Feb 7)
Macon City Auditorium
with Los Lonely Boys
Macon, GA
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November 12 (rescheduled from Feb 12)
Germain Arena
with Los Lonely Boys
Estero, FL
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November 14 (rescheduled from Feb 10)
Marina Civic Center
with Los Lonely Boys
Panama City, FL
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Willie Nelson at the Majestic

February 18th, 2018

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February 18th, 2018

Mardi Gras in the SuperDome, featuring Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett (February 18, 1980)

February 18th, 2018

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Willie Nelson with Friends, the Gatlin Brothers

February 18th, 2018

American legend Willie Nelson

February 18th, 2018

Willie Nelson and Bee Spears

February 18th, 2018

Willie Nelson, “Always On My Mind”

February 18th, 2018

February 17th, 2018

What would Willie do? (love from Kenny Chesney in Key West)

February 17th, 2018

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“Hey Willie. It’s Kenny. This is hanging in a bar in Key West. Couldn’t resist!!

Love you pal,”

Kenny C