Janis Tillerson, took all these great pictures for us to enjoy.
Something great happened in Washington DC this week. History was made, and it had nothing to do with any bills pending or anything else the lawmakers did this week, if anything. This week Willie Nelson was honored with the the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He is only the seventh artist to receive the prestigious award, and the first and only country music artist to receive it. The presentation came in the middle of a musical tribute to Willie Nelson, by over a dozen artists. The concert and award presentation were filmed, and will air on PBS on January 15th.
The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, named after songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin, celebrates a living performer and/or composer’s “lifetime achievement in promoting song to enhance cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations,” according to the Library of Congress website.
It was magical night, watching the amazing group of artists gathered to honor Willie Nelson and show their respect and love to him. Each sang a song written or recorded by Willie Nelson.
The event was held in the Daughters of Revolution Constitution Hall. Built in 1928, it is the only structure ever erected in tribute to the Constitution. It’s the largest concert hall in DC, too.
Willie and Annie were seated in the hall to watch the concert, from a private box, close to the stage. They came out about 10 minutes before the show started, and as soon as they sat down the audience on the floor under them surged over to take pictures with their cell phones. It was such a familiar site, fans drawn close to Willie when he shows up. But it was fun to see the movers and shakers and law makers of Washington DC wanting to be close to Willie. I get it. Boots and cowboy hats, or three-piece suits and women in pearls — it doesn’t matter. Everyone loves Willie Nelson. There was a stream of fans who came over and lined up by Willie in his private box, and he kindly signed programs, agreed to selfies and hugs. That would have gone on forever, if they hadn’t made an announcement and asked people to take their seats the show was about to begin.
It was so moving to see all these amazing, talented, artists come out and bow to Willie, throw kisses and tip their hats, if they have a hat. There was so much respect. Don Was was the musical director, and played stand up bass for the event. He had a familiar group of Nashville artists on stage with him, and Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica player stood in, too. Mark Rothbaum, Willie’s Management, was one of the producers of the event. I don’t know which musical genius selected the songs that the artists performed, but it was great. They dug deeper and dug way back into his massive catalog and picked songs not as often covered by other artists.
Slide shows were played between some of the songs. Starting in Abbott, Texas, the slide show takes us through Willie’s musical legacy, family and good causes. Willie wife Annie talks about they met on the filming of a movie. Friends Kris Kristofferson and Owen Wilson were in the film, telling stories about Willie Nelson and of their love and appreciation for their friendships. Owen’s brother Luke, and a few other famous faces I recognized were in the audience, along with other celebrities and law makers.
Neil Young, Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson and Promise of the Real kicked off the festivities with a rambling spriited version of “Whiskey River”, just like Willie Nelson kicks off his dance parties. Then they sang a favorite, “Stay All Night”, a nod to Bob Wills and his music, who Willie names as one of his musical influences.
Master of Ceremonies Don Johnson was introduced next. “Only Willie Nelson an bring together Republicans and Democrats.”
Like most of the artists, the actor, singer, told stories about Willie Nelson, their friendship and their projects together.
Leon Bridges performed next, with a beautiful, soulful rendition of ‘Funny, How Time Slips Away”.
Mickey got long extended applause and cheers for his beautiful solo in the song.
The third performer to honor Willie was Raul Malo, of the Mavericks. What a beautiful voice! He sang ‘Crazy’, with the person who wrote ‘Crazy’, sitting right above him watching. How crazy is that.
Paul Simon and Edie Brickell sang a beautiful selection from Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’ album, “Remember Me”. Paul was last year’s recipient of the award.
Rosanne Cash threw kisses at Willie Nelson and called him, “Maestro”. Then she sang, “Pancho and Lefty” the big hit from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
After Rosanne sang, they read a letter from President Carter, talking about their friendship.
“Although we regret we couldn’t be with you today, Rosalynn joins me in congratulating you on receiving the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, a prestigious and well-deserved award. Your music has enriched the lives of people far and wide for decades, and it is only fitting that your life’s work be honored in this way.
Your friendship has been important to us for over 30 years, and we were proud to host you at the White House and in Plains. We also loved having you in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Price concert in 2002. Your music has become the soundtrack of our lives, and we are pleased to see your tremendous talent recognized today.
Please know you have our warm best wishes on this special occasion, and we hope to see you soon!
Appropriately after President Carter’s letter was read, Jamey Johnson performed, “Georgia.”
Jamey looked handsome in his tuxedo and braided beard.
All the performers paid their respects to Willie Nelson when they came on stage. It was really moving.
Mickey Raphael’s solo on “Georgia” was so beautiful, drew a long extended applause.
Up Next, Harry Weinstein, multi-platinum-selling, entertainer, shared a Gershwin Moment, and broke into a few acapela verses of “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Willie recorded the song on the Stardust album in 1978 and it sold millions, and stayed on the charts for several years. Weinstein, dubbed “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, spoke of the Stardust album, and how Willie Nelson helped bring back popularity of America’s songbook. Weinstein serves on the Library of Congress‘ National Recording Preservation Board, an organization dedicated to ensuring the survival, conservation and safeguarding of America’s musical heritage
Recognizing that Willie Nelson has done many other great and important things as well as his musical gift to the world, they played a video of Willie Nelson’s involvement with Farm Aid, with footage from the concerts.
The amazingly beautiful Alison Krauss performed, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Sun,” that gave everyone goosebumps.
Then, Jamey Johnson joined Allison on, “Seven Spanish Angels”, the song that Willie Nelson recorded with Ray Charles and made so famous.
Next, Mexican singer and songwriter Ana Gabriel, from Santiago de Comanito, Sinaloa, Mexico, was introduced. She sang one of the most beautiful songs of the night, “I Never Cared For You,” by Willie Nelson, in Spanish. I don’t know what musical genius had that idea, but it was great. So beautiful.
Next, a video played about Willie Nelson and his contribution to the long running televisions show from Texas, “Austin City Limits.” They showed footage of actor Matthew McConnaughy introducing Willie, when he was inducted into the innaugeral Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, with another concert in tribute to Willie Nelson, when EmmyLou Harris, and Lyle Lovett performed.
The 11th performance of the night was by Buckwheat Zydeco, joined by Paul Simon. They sang a rousing version of “Man With the Blues”, which Willie Nelson wrote, and first recorded as a single in 1959 (B-side: ‘The Storm Has Just Begin.’) He later re-recorded it in 1976. Buckwheat’s accordians were so perfect on this song, just another demonstration of how universal Willie Nelson’s music is, and how genre-less it really is.
After another tribute video to Willie Nelson, the award presenters were announced and took the stage. Official Librarian of Congress, David Mao and several lawmakers presented the award to Willie Nelson.
After Willie Nelson accepted the award, he did what he has been doing for over sixty years, he entertained his fans. He first sang the timely song, “Living in the Promise Land.” At a time when countries all over the world are closing borders and turning away refugees, Willie sang so clearly that there is still a lot of love and room for everyone, living in the Promiseland. Willie doesn’t only talk about his beliefs, he sings about them and lives them. .
Then Willie Nelson introduced Cyndi Lauper and told the audience that the two of them recorded a song for a Gershwin Tribute album, ‘Summertime’, that will be released early next year. They sang a playful version the famous George and Ira Gershwin brothers’ song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” After the song, they got a call from the engineer in the sound booth outside who reported a problem and asked that it be sung again. Everyone loved watching them perform the song again. .
All the artists gathered with Willie at the end of the show for, “On the Road Again.” It was a little strange, no one in the audience stood up to dance, but maybe they don’t stand up and dance at concerts in DC, I don’t know. It was hard for me to sit still, but I behaved myself.
At the end of the show, after the finale, Willie Nelson acknowledged everyone who had performed. They lined up like the fans that we all ares., for hugs and kisses.
Raul Malo Neil Young and Lukas Nelson Jamie Johnson .
At the end of the show, Willie spread his arms and said, “I’m sorry, but there was some trouble with the sound, and we’re going to have to do the show again.” Everyone cheered, we would have all sat there gladly for a do-over.