Archive for the ‘News and Reviews’ Category

Willie Nelson, “That’s Life”

Thursday, March 4th, 2021

Willie Nelson Loves Releasing Cover Songs, Even If Labels Say “Nobody Wants To Hear ‘Em”

The 1978 album ‘Stardust’ almost didn’t see the light of day
by: Marcus K. Dowling

Released February 26, That’s Life is impressively Willie Nelson’s 71st solo studio album. The tribute to Frank Sinatra is the second volume of Nelson’s Sinatra tribute collection, following 2018’s My Way. Cover songs have played an incredible role in elevating Nelson from being a country superstar to a global icon with an instantly recognizable voice. However, when it came to Stardust — his Grammy-winning album of American Songbook covers released in 1978 — Columbia Records almost derailed his career evolution towards creating unique interpretations of classic songs.

Read entire article, see more pictures and videos here.

Willie Nelson can’t wait to get on the road again

Thursday, March 4th, 2021
Photo: Dave Creaney

Read article here.
by: Alan Paul

You might think that Willie Nelson, at age 87, would enjoy a chance to slow down his constant touring, after decades of playing about 150 shows a year, two weeks on and two weeks off. But when Covid-19 shut down live performances last year, the self-proclaimed “road dog” didn’t repair to his Texas ranch or his Maui home to relax and wait things out.

“This is the worst time of my life,” he says. “I have never been this frustrated. I try to think positive, but I feel like I’m in jail—I can’t go here, I can’t go there—and that really pisses me off.”

Mr. Nelson remains strikingly prolific, averaging about a new album a year while also writing books. He also oversees a SiriusXM channel called Willie’s Roadhouse and two cannabis companies: Willie’s Reserve, which sells a range of products with THC (the principal intoxicating compound in cannabis) and says it operates “under a simple philosophy: my stash is your stash,” and Willie’s Remedy, which features hemp-based “wellness products,” including CBD-infused coffee, tea and lotions.

“That’s Life,” a big-band tribute to Frank Sinatra released Feb. 26, is Mr. Nelson’s second release of the pandemic, following last July’s sparse, elegiac “First Rose of Spring.” That album made its debut at number five on the Billboard country album chart—Mr. Nelson’s staggering 53rd top-10 album, making him the only artist to have a top-10 country album in seven straight decades, from the 1960s to the 2020s.

That run is particularly amazing for an artist who, early in his career, was sometimes considered too stark, idiosyncratic or downright weird to make it as a country performer. Mr. Nelson’s first triumphs were as a songwriter, most notably with Patsy Cline’s 1961 take on his ballad “Crazy,” which became one of the biggest jukebox hits of all time. He recorded as a solo artist from 1962-72 but didn’t find consistent success until he ditched Nashville, haircuts, suits and alcohol in favor of Texas, long braids, jeans and joints.

Mr. Nelson also bypassed any concept of musical genres, proving equally comfortable in a duet with his “Outlaw Country” buddies Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, the pop crooner Julio Iglesias or the blues and R&B greats Ray Charles and B.B. King. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Sinatra called each other their favorite singers; both shared distinctive phrasing and an ability to make any song they sang their own.

That was clear on “Stardust,” Mr. Nelson’s 1978 album of American standards. Record executives thought that releasing the collection at the height of his country stardom was foolish, but it became a number one album and cemented his place as an iconoclast who transcends genres. “It was amazing that they thought I was crazy, because I can’t imagine anybody not loving those songs,” says Mr. Nelson. “They never get old and never will. There’s one thing about a good song—it’s always good.”

Mr. Nelson had huge hits throughout the ’80s, including “On the Road Again,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (with Mr. Iglesias) and “Always on My Mind.” He also appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, starting in 1979 with “The Electric Horseman.” In 1985, he worked with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to found Farm Aid, an annual concert that has raised millions of dollars for family farmers.

That era of stardom hit a wall in 1990 when the IRS seized Mr. Nelson’s assets, estimating that he owed $32 million in back taxes. Mr. Nelson even feared that the government might auction off his beloved guitar Trigger. He refused to file for bankruptcy; instead, he recorded a two-disc album (“The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?”) of some of his favorite songs, sold initially only by mail order via TV ads and later released in stores. He recorded it alone, featuring just his voice and guitar, primarily to keep costs down, but in the process created a sparse fan favorite. Proceeds from the sale helped him settle his debts by 1993.

Mr. Nelson, who has been married since 1991 to his fourth wife, Annie Nelson, is a sparse but genial conversationalist—until you tiptoe up to the topic of any of his friends and musical collaborators who have died in recent years. He has faced a relentless series of such losses, most recently with the deaths last fall of fellow Texas singer-songwriters Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker. “Yeah, it’s horrible,” he says in a tone that sounds like a door slamming shut.

Mr. Nelson seems to prefer thinking forward, looking toward his next project—and he always has something in the works. He is currently excited about a gospel album that he cut with his sons Lukas and Micah and his daughters Paula and Amy. In June, his 10th book, “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America,” will be published by Harper Horizon (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

That follows up last September’s “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band,” co-written in alternating chapters with his big sister, who was his first musical mentor and has been his piano player since the early ’70s. The two were raised by their grandparents in Abbot, Texas. “She taught me so much,” says Mr. Nelson. “When I was 8 years old, I’d sit next to her on the piano bench and try to learn what she was doing as she played songs like ‘Stardust’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont.’ I look forward to hearing her play every night and take so much comfort knowing she’s over there on the right side of the stage.”

Mr. Nelson has been an outspoken marijuana advocate for decades. He credits replacing heavy drinking and a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit with marijuana in about 1971 with changing his life—and maybe even saving it. Mr. Nelson says he dumped out a pack of cigarettes, filled his empty Chesterfield pack with 20 freshly rolled joints and never looked back. After decades working with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a Washington-based nonprofit group, Mr. Nelson says that he is happy to see more of the country coming around to his way of thinking, including legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Nelson’s other key to longevity is probably more mainstream. “If you want to live a long time, you have to take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to pay for the day, every day. As you’ve always heard, if you don’t use it, you lose it. You need to move. So every day, I’ll jog or walk, do some sit ups—just a little something to pay for the day!”

Willie Nelson in Japan (February 1984)

Tuesday, February 9th, 2021

Feb. 21, 1984

American country western singer Willie Nelson, surrounded by a troop of photographers, speaks to the press in Tokyo, as he kicked off his five-city tour in Japan.  He said he intends to offer “both standard and original jazz” to the Japanese audience.

Willie Nelson, “That’s Life”

Saturday, January 23rd, 2021
by: Patrick Doyle

Willie Nelson was a young country music and western-swing fan when he heard Frank Sinatra on the radio for the first time. “Though he was a million miles from western swing, he had a sweet swing of his own,” Nelson wrote in his book It’s a Long Story: My Life. “There was a tenderness to his voice, a purity and ease of phrasing. When he sang the popular songs of the day, I marveled at the natural way he told the story.”

Sinatra helped Nelson find his own indelible style, and the two even went on to play shows together. In 2018, Nelson released My Way, which managed to make Sinatra’s best-known songs sound new again.

On February 26th, Nelson will release That’s Life, another set of Sinatra classics. That’s Life goes a little deeper than his previous Sinatra covers albumin addition to hits like the title track and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” he includes lesser-known songs like “Just in Time” and “The Lonesome Road” from 1959. The album, produced by Buddy Cannon and Matt Rollings, was largely recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where Sinatra recorded a string of classics from 1956 to 1961.

Nelson has released a highly entertaining lyric video for the title track. The video incorporates footage of the artist Paul Mann, known for his legendary movie posters, painting an image of Nelson under a streetlamp.

Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon, “That’s Life” was first recorded in 1963 by Marion Montgomery. Mikal Gilmore, who has written Rolling Stone stories about Bob Dylanthe Clash and more, has authored a deep essay about Nelson and his connection to Sinatra, available to read here. “What Nelson does here on That’s Life — as he did on My Way — is find common ground with Sinatra,” Gilmore writes. “As a result, what binds these singers is an understanding that, regardless of genre, the art of both men is one and the same: giving voice to songs of experience.”

“I’m just glad to be able to do another tribute to him,” Nelson recently said. “I’m anxious to get it out there”

It’s a busy week for Nelson. He also just received his Covid-19 vaccine shot. 

Willie Nelson to speak at SWSX

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021
by: Eric Webb and Peter Blackstock

Willie Nelson: South by Southwest keynote speaker. Rolls right off the tongue. And somehow, it’s never happened before now.

The legendary Austin musician and cultural icon will deliver the keynote for this year’s edition of the city’s marquee festivals and conference, event organizers revealed Wednesday, as SXSW navigates a pandemic-era shift to an online format. In the same announcement, SXSW also revealed dozens of big-name featured speakers, ranging from Austin-based Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey to entrepreneur Richard Branson to music-and-film stars LL Cool J and Queen Latifah.

Rebranded this year as SXSW Online, the March 16-20 event will offer streamed versions of its hallmark events, including conference sessions, music showcases and film screenings. More details are expected in the coming weeks. The cancellation of SXSW 2020 marked the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating effect on Austin’s entertainment scene.

Nelson’s keynote will mark the first time he has appeared as a speaker at SXSW. He was scheduled to deliver the keynote in 1992, but his bus did not arrive back in Austin from a distant concert in time for the 10:30 a.m. speech. To make up for missing the engagement, Nelson performed a surprise set at Auditorium Shores (now Vic Mathias Shores) as part of a free SXSW showcase that night.

”“No individual has had the cultural impact on, or been more synonymous with, the creative vibrancy of Austin than Willie Nelson, and we are incredibly honored to have him as a SXSW Online 2021 Keynote,” SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest said in a statement.

The “On the Road Again” troubadour’s annual Luck Reunion is a popular event each year around the time of SXSW, though last year’s went virtual due to the pandemic. His appearance for SXSW Online will follow the Feb. 26 release of “That’s Life,” his second tribute to the songs of Frank Sinatra in three years. The first, 2018’s “My Way,” won a Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album.

In addition to the keynote, more than 200 sessions were included in Wednesday’s announcement, under themes such as “Challenging Tech’s Path Forward,” “Cultural Resilience in the Arts” and “Transforming the Entertainment Landscape.”

Read rest of article here.

Thank you, Willie Nelson

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

Willie Nelson & Family, Augusta, Georgia (Dec. 4, 2012)

Sunday, October 4th, 2020
by: Don Rhodes

Some 30 years ago in Nashville, singer-songwriter Paul Williams was the keynote speaker at the annual Nashville Songwriters Association International banquet.

He began his remarks by singing, “Worry? Why should I let myself worry? Wondering, what in the world I should do.”

It was interesting that he chose to open his speech by singing lines from Willie Nelson’s classic ballad Crazy (made famous by Patsy Cline) rather than lines from one of his own million-selling compositions such as You and Me Against The World, The Rainbow Connection (from The Muppet Movie), Close To You or Evergreen (from the Barbra Streisand movie A Star Is Born).

But then again, Williams respects other great songwriters, and they don’t come much better than Nelson.

For his song Night Life, made famous by Ray Price in 1963, Nelson wrote, “When the evening sun goes down. You will find me hanging round. Oh, the night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”

And for Hello Walls, made famous by Faron Young, Nelson wrote, “Hello, walls. How’d things go for you today? Don’t you miss her since she upped and walked away? And I’ll bet you dread to spend another lonely night with me, but lonely walls I’ll keep you company.”

And for Funny How Time Slips Away, made famous by Billy Walker, Nelson wrote, “How’s your new love? I hope that he’s doin’ fine. I heard you told him that you’d love him till the end of time. Now that’s the same thing that you told me. Seems like just the other day. Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away?”

Chances are that Nelson will sing all of those songs when he returns to Augusta for a concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, at Bell Auditorium just a few months before his 80th birthday. Tickets are $35, $45, $65 and $85 from the James Brown Arena box office, or (877) 428-4849.

Nelson is larger than life. He’s sold millions and millions of recordings. His songs have been covered by scores of famous singers.

And he has starred or co-starred in successful movies such as The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa and acted in such TV series as The Rockford Files, Miami Vice, Nash Bridges, The Dukes of Hazzard and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

And yet he is remarkably laid-back and down to earth.

During a visit to Augusta in the 1980s, he checked into the Landmark (now Ramada Hotel) on Broad Street and immediately set out walking the length of the street for exercise with only one of his tour members. He nodded and said hello to all of those who recognized him along his walk.

He is known for saying kind things and doing kind things for many people, including the many American farmers he has helped through the Farm Aid concerts that Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young began in 1985.

Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl told me about Nelson coming up to her in October 1976 at the Country Music Association’s awards show.

“I knew Willie years ago when he first came to Nashville,” the country comedy star said, “but I hadn’t talked with him in recent years. Willie looked at me, touched my arm and told me in a soft voice, ‘You have always been one of my favorites, Minnie.’ Then he added, ‘I just wanted you to know I love you,’ and he walked away.”

Besides his own lengthy list of solo hit recordings, Nelson also is known for his many hit duets and group recordings.

Those include The Highwaymen album with Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Wanted: The Outlaws album with Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, and the We Are The World video with Michael Jackson and lots of others.

His list of duet recordings include After the Fire Is Gone with Tracy Nelson (no relation), Heartbreak Hotel with Leon Russell, Faded Love with Ray Price, Old Friends with Roger Miller, Reason To Quit with Merle Haggard, To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before with Julio Iglesias, Seven Spanish Angels with Ray Charles, Outskirts of Town with Keb’ Mo, The Harder They Come with Ryan Adams, Beer for My Horses with Toby Keith, If I Were a Carpenter with Sheryl Crow, Baby, It’s Cold Outside with Norah Jones and This Train with Ziggy Marley.

Once, on his tour bus in 1980 after an Augusta concert, Nelson parted the curtains of a window near where I was interviewing him to look out at a large group of fans who were shouting, “We want Willie! We want Willie!”

Nelson turned back to me and said, “Those people out there like good music. They don’t stop and ask themselves, ‘Is it country or rock and roll.’ If they like it, they will tell you.”

Some things you may not know about Willie Nelson:

• He has performed at the White House several times and supposedly smoked marijuana on the White House roof. He is co-chair of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

• His latest book is Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From The Road.

• He played football, basketball and baseball for his high school in Abbott, Texas.

• He sold bibles, vaccuum cleaners and encylopedias door to door.

• He joined the Grand Ole Opry as a cast member in 1965.

• He holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

• His Martin N-20 classical guitar is called Trigger after Roy Rogers’ horse.

• He has been an advocate for better treatment for horses, has been campaigning for the passage of the America Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, has been against cruel living conditions of calves raised to produce milk for dairy products and has become co-owner of bio-diesel fuel plants in Oregon and Texas.

• He lives in a community in Maui, Hawaii, where the homes only use solar power.

• He has been married four times and has seven children.

• He was inducted into the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1998.

Willie Nelson and Van Morrison at Outlaw Festival (September 8, 2018)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020
by: Scott Tady

BURGETTSTOWN — Well, it was a marvelous night for a moon dance Friday, with Van Morrison at KeyBank Pavilion singing many of his classic songs.

Not that the lazy fans in the second-tier seats got up on their feet to shake and groove until the very end, though it looked rather lively on the lawn.

Granted, Morrison’s 90-minute performance got off to a slow start, bringing initial fears of, wow, what if the 45-year wait to see the Northern Ireland legend on a local stage didn’t meet expectations? Morrison and his band sounded too quiet, especially compared to the guitar-shredding set of alt-country artist Sturgill Simpson that had preceded them.

Morrison seemed to notice it, too, making a few upward pointing gestures, as in, hey, turn up the volume. Morrison played sax on “Benediction (Thank God For Self Love),” and he and his lightly jazzy pop-rock band sounded OK on “Magic Time,” but they were still too quiet and in need of more energy. Sporting a dark suit, tinted glasses and stylish hat, Morrison added harmonica to the blues standard “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” which perked up things. Everything finally started to click — evidently volume adjustments were made — as Morrison’s signature, soulful voice got good and peppy on “Here Comes The Night” by his 1960s band Them.

From there, it truly was a marvelous experience, as the band began to assert itself, including soothing female backing vocals on “Carrying a Torch” then the classic “Moondance,” somewhat re-arranged, with a prominent bass line behind Morrison’s jaunty vocals.

Van The Man even cracked a smile during “Broken Record,” where he and the band imitated a broken record, complete with a scratching, stuck needle sound effect, and him repeatedly singing “broken record, broken record, broken record…”

The excitement grew with a back-to-back “Days Like This” and the classic “Wild Night,” while Morrison played piano for “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

And talk about an epic ending, with the famed “Brown Eyed Girl” sparking the crowd to sing “Sha la la la la la la la la la la, dee dah” — just like that — and then a spry “Gloria,” in all its G-L-O-R-I-A glory, getting even those spectators in the pavilion’s second tier to stand and dance.

Not only did local Morrison fans get to a cross an item off their bucket list, they saw a fine performance.

For many of the 17,500 or so spectators, Morrison was the main draw, though six other acts made memories at this Outlaw Music Festival, including headliner Willie Nelson, who at 85, still has a charming stage presence. With a huge Texas flag unfurled behind him, Nelson, armed with his trusty and battered acoustic guitar, chugged through classics like “On The Road Again,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and his set-launching “Whiskey River.”

Nelson’s son Micah played drums with brushes, giving the sound a nice country-western shuffle, with Willie’s other boy, Lukas, bringing some smoking guitar and a voice similar to his dad’s on the high notes during “It’s Floodin’ Down in Texas.”

From a Hank Williams medley to a lovely rendering of “Always on My Mind,” Nelson proved he’s still a quality entertainer.

His boys both got to play an afternoon set, with Micah, under the stage name Particle Kid, conjuring an intriguing sound that mixed twangy country, conga drums and psychedelic vocal effects. The crowd loved his “Everything is Bull—-” for which brother Lukas came on and added air guitar before seamlessly starting his own set that showcased exciting guitar and great songwriting.

Lukas and his band, Promise of the Real, connected with the crowd on “Turn Off The News,” a song that begins “I believe that every heart is kind/some of them are just a little underused” before getting to a message of skipping the TV news and doing something positive instead, like planting a garden or spending time with your kids. “We might feel a bit less hardened,” he says.

You’ll hear more about Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real when they appear as the band in the much hyped “A Star is Born” reboot with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

Compared to Lukas Nelson’s set, outlaw country artist Sturgill Simpson and his band seemed too sprawling and self-indulgent, though there were some thrilling moments amid their lengthy jams.

Maybe the finest performance of the day came from Brandi Carilie whose rocking band entertained and delivered a message. Carlile mentioned her two daughters and her wife, saying she feels compelled to talk about them on stage to assert their rights to be a family. Alone on stage at that point, she sang the touching song “The Mother,” with a cute line about her first-born: “the first things she took from me were my selfishness and sleep.”

Carlile uttered something about there being no junkies, just people suffering through hard times, as she set her full, warm voice loose on “Sugartooth,” a song she wrote about a friend who had a drug addiction and took his own life.

Carlile ended her set with an impressive, full-bodied rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”

The sparse crowd entering the gates by 2:45 p.m. saw a wonderful opening set by Pittsburgh’s own The Commonheart. Clinton Clegg’s soul-searching voice, backed by scorching guitar, shined on a few originals and an excellent cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” done Joe Cocker style.

“First Rose of Spring” (review)

Monday, August 10th, 2020
by: Paul Leslie

Whether we’re in the good times or the world is on fire, the only sure thing is that Willie Nelson will release a new album. He’s been doing so year after year since  his debut as a recording artist in 1962. There’ve only been a couple of years where there was no new Willie Nelson record. However, in several years there were multiple Willie Nelson records.

As a recording artist, the great volume of Willie’s output is only matched by the quality. We think of 20/20 as being perfect vision. Looking clearly at the year 2020, I find myself wanting to close my eyes more than keeping them open. But I get by with a little help from my friends.

Speaking of which, my good friend Jeff Pike got on the horn to talk about music reviews. He told me, “You can’t give every album a great review,”PAUSE  “Not everyone’s album is perfect.”  I replied, “Yes, unless you’re Willie Nelson.” Jeff answered “Well, true.”

This phone call with Jeff is what inspired this review of Willie Nelson’s 70th album entitled “The First Rose of Spring,” produced by Buddy Cannon. Buddy has been credited as record producer of almost every single Willie Nelson release since the 2012 album “Heroes,”

I’ll be expressing what struck me about Willie Nelson’s 70th album. 

The First Rose of Spring

The album starts in the soul, which is where Willie’s music lives. The title track, “The First Rose of Spring” tells a mournful story.  We think of roses for their beauty, but so often what is beautiful devastates us the most. Willie’s voice has always been suited for the bittersweet. This song written by Nashville heavyweights Allen Shamblin, Randy Houser and Marc Beeson lets you know that this is going to be an album true to country music’s most important component: hard-hitting emotional lyrics.

Blue Star

“Blue Star,” is the second song on the album, which Willie co-wrote with Buddy Cannon. Sonically, this track is great. The steel guitar gives it a nostalgic quality, but it also seems very youthful, hopeful and idealistic. It’s a soothing track and one of the real highlights on the album. It grabbed me instantly.

Don’t Let the Old Man In

Willie Nelson is not old. Despite being 87, I have never thought of him as an old man. I’m betting this is the case for a lot of you. He’s timeless, and“time” is a constant theme in the songs he writes and those he chooses to cover. On the last album “Ride Me Back Home,” he even called time his friend on the brilliant song “Come on Time.”

Growing old and time is the subject of “Don’t Let the Old Man In” written by Toby Keith. Toby wrote it after having a conversation with director Clint Eastwood. Clint’s sage advice inspired this song. 

Sometimes worlds collide and in this case, Toby Keith, Clint Eastwood and Willie Nelson came together. One moment in time: a simple conversation is immortalized in song. This is the magic and gift that is songwriting and storytelling.

Read entire article here.

Willie Nelson and Family @ Airway Heights, WA (July 31, 2011)

Friday, July 31st, 2020

Photos by Matt Auclair

Opening his set with “Whisky River” Willie Nelson kept the music train rolling for us on the last night of July 2011. The sun was shining down on us with the perfect breeze as the crowd sat in their seats and respectfully loved every song Willie Nelson performed for us tonight. It was a relaxing night of music, that often I caught myself swaying my hips too.  The only thing that was missing was a dance floor.

I couldn’t believe that Willie Nelson still plays “Trigger!” For those of you unfamiliar with Trigger, it is Willie Nelson’s Martin N-20 Guitar; which is so old it has a hole in it! If you can ever get close enough Trigger is even inked with over 100 signatures. Such a cool piece of Willie Nelson.


Willie Nelson causally stood on stage singing and playing his guitar the entire night. He had a stripped down band on stage with him that featured a harmonica player, bass player, occasional piano player, and a gentlemen on a smaller drum setup. Sometimes the audience was so excited, after or even sometimes before songs would start , they would stand up and scream “We love you Willie” or wave at him. He is quite the legend to have come to Spokane.  At the age of 78 Willie’s still kickin’ right along!

Willie Nelson performed a song for Waylon and one for Hank, along with “Crazy,” “Whiskey River,” “On The Road Again,” “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” “Always On My Mind,” “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Georgia On My Mind – Hoagy Carmichael,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Move It On Over,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Beer For My Horses” and many more. Every song sounded fantastic!


On our way out the door a guy was telling us how pissed he was that he got kicked out from the show for his “good reefer.” We told him we were sorry, but honestly he probably could of just sat by his car and heard the last few songs… it is an outdoor venue. Besides, it’s a Willie Nelson concert no one should get kicked out for that.


Photos courtesy of Matt Auclair.



Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger”

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020


We revisit Nelson’s 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger – his first release on Columbia Records, a record giving Nelson total creative control, and one that tells the story of a fugitive on the run after killing his wife and her lover, told with brief song-poems and minimal backing.


During the mid-1970s, the country music coming out of Nashville was slick, polished, and heavy on string sections. By that time, Willie Nelson had recorded over a dozen albums for RCA, and he’d had enough of Music Row, where ‘they took him seriously as a songwriter, but not as a performer,’ says Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s harmonica player of over 40 years. Nelson moved back to Texas, his home state, and released two albums on Atlantic, including his first concept album, Phases And Stages, only to be dropped along with the label’s other country artists when Atlantic closed its country division. In 1973, when Columbia Records put an offer on the table, Nelson and his manager, Neil Reshen, put it in writing that Nelson would have full creative control over his music, and that the label would accept the finished product as is. The label, of course, had no idea that the result, the stripped-down concept album Red Headed Stranger, recorded with his band, would go against the grain of everything that they had in mind for their first project with the artist, and everything that encompassed the way Nashville made records.

‘Willie wasn’t bending the rules, he was breaking them,’ says Raphael. ‘Using his road band on a record? That was never done. We weren’t studio musicians, so for him to do that was kind of a “stick it to Nashville” coup. And the label turned it down. They said, “This is a great demo. We want to add some voices and strings.” Willie said, “No. This is it. This is the finished product.” They said, “Let’s put this on the shelf. For your first record for Columbia, do another one the way we want you to do it, and then we’ll put out Red Headed Stranger.” Willie basically said “Fuck you.” He said, “My contract says you’ve got to put out what I’m giving you,” and they had to — very reluctantly.’

The concept for Red Headed Stranger began with the title track, a song that Nelson did not write, but that he often sang during his years as a radio disc jockey in Texas. With the song as his centrepiece, Nelson created the story of a man on the run after killing his wife and her lover. Love, infidelity, guilt, remorse, redemption, and love rediscovered are the album’s themes.

Nelson and his band — drummer Paul English, guitarist Jody Payne, bassist Bee Spears, pianist Bobbie Nelson, and Raphael — recorded the album at Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas, with engineer Phil York, who was hired on Raphael’s recommendation. ‘I lived in Dallas at the time, and I had been doing jingles and commercials, which is how I met Phil,’ says Raphael. ‘I had known him for several years. I was working out of Summit Burnett Studios with [banjo player] Smokey Montgomery, one of the original [Dallas-Fort Worth western swing band] Light Crust Doughboys. I was in junior college at the time and I would hang out at the studio after classes. I was really interested in recording and I loved being there. I would sit in the lobby, and people would come in to cut demos and book sessions. The recording engineer would say, “Do you need a harmonica player? Do you want harmonica on this?” If they said yes, he would bring me in. So I’d been in the studio for three or four years by the time we made the album. The fact that Willie wanted to record with the band was pretty exciting.’

Nelson didn’t know Phil York, but he took Raphael’s word, as well as the availability of a modern room in which to work. ‘It was a good studio, so it was, “I’ve got this record to do,” and “Well, I’ve got a studio we can use,”’ says Raphael. ‘It was a brand new, high-tech studio, but it wasn’t a soundstage. It was intimate and small enough that we could see each other. Piano and drums might have been in other rooms, but Bee, Willie, and I were sitting and facing each other.’

The sessions marked the first time that the musicians recorded with Nelson, and the first time that they heard the new songs.

‘Willie would sit there with pieces of paper, start playing these songs, and kind of teach them to us while the tape was rolling,’ says Raphael. ‘The reason the album is so sparse is mainly because we were a small band, and we were hearing everything for the first time, listening and reacting. It wasn’t like he drilled the songs into us, and we rehearsed and recorded them. He was pretty much playing them stream-of-consciousness, and we played the songs a couple of times at the most. They’re easy to play, and I was just glad to be in the studio with him because I love the recording process, but as you can see, nobody is showboating. It wasn’t a vehicle for anyone to show off and play. We really took it seriously. There is just simplicity and so much silence on that record because we were all enamored of Willie and of how beautiful and simple the project was.’

Clocking in at 33 minutes, Red Headed Stranger became Nelson’s breakthrough album, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and selling over two million copies. His version of Fred Rose’s ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ became his first number one single on the Billboard country charts, and the next single, ‘Remember Me’ reached number two.

Over the years, much has been made about the fact that Red Headed Stranger was recorded and mixed in a matter of days, but that timeline is not unusual for Nelson, according to Raphael.

‘We do an album now in five days,’ he says. ‘A week for Willie is a long time. I think we cut Teatro in half that time. With Red Headed Stranger, maybe he was still writing it at the time, or we were gigging at night and might have had just a few hours in the day to do it. Regardless, we didn’t rush at all, but those songs were done pretty close to live — first, second, or third takes. Even now, Willie will sing four or five passes at the most, and the band gets it in a couple of takes.’

Raphael and his band mates had no idea that they’d recorded what would become an iconic album.

‘We weren’t doing anything like what they played on the radio, so I thought, “Oh boy, they’re not going to like this one,”’ he says. ‘But the people liked it. Willie chose ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ as the single, and radio picked up on it. There was a buzz already around Willie when the album came out. We were playing the Fourth of July picnics and he was like the King of Texas. When we’d play the Opry in Nashville — not the Ryman, but where they do the television show — all the diehards were there and we weren’t the most popular. But in Texas, the crowds were big. The single went to number one and we began playing bigger dance halls. We were touring all the time. Columbia saw that it was a hit, so they were promoting us, they were working the radio end of it, and now all of a sudden it’s their idea; what a great idea theyhad.’

Legacy Recordings reissued the album in 2000 with four bonus tracks: ‘Bach Minuet In G,’ ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)’, ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’, and ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’.

‘They were outtakes, not part of the album sessions,’ says Raphael. ‘It’s always good to include some bonus tracks on a reissue, and just because we didn’t release those songs before doesn’t mean they should be thrown away. When we go into the studio, we warm up with songs like ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’. Willie will start doodling around and playing and see what direction we’re going in. Now, he’s got a set list of songs he wants to do, but back then we were a little less focused.’

For Willie Nelson, the road never ends as he continues logging countless tour dates every year. Raphael lovingly calls him “the benevolent dictator,” noting, ‘because, in a subtle way, he’ll tell us what he wants. He doesn’t ever really tell you what to do, but we know he’s obviously the boss, but in a very gentle way. Case in point: I love the accordion, it’s my favorite instrument, so I pulled my accordion out onstage, I’m playing it on some ballad, and I thought it was brilliant. Very diplomatically, he turned around after a couple of nights of me playing the accordion, and he goes, ‘You know, Mickey, I really like the way you play the harmonica.’ And I got it. I understood what he was trying to say. He’s a great guy to be around. I love his music. I love his guitar playing. I love his writing. I’m a fan.’

Between touring and recording with Nelson, and doing session work, Raphael is working on a special project: a DVD/three CD live box set of The Highwaymen: Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. The DVD is a remastered two-hour concert, 35 songs, from a 1990 concert at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York. The original concert, shot on film, has been transferred to HD; Raphael mixed it in surround sound. The audio is also captured on two CDs, with the third disc featuring nine songs from Farm Aid. The box set, not yet titled, is expected in time for a summer 2015 release.

40 years later, ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ remains a staple in Nelson’s concerts, while Red Headed Stranger has cemented its place in music history.

‘I think it speaks the truth, and you can’t argue with that,’ says Raphael of the album’s continued success. ‘And maybe people were ready for a change, for a whole new paradigm, when it came out. The establishment at that time, the big acts of the day — George Jones, Mel Tillis, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Eddie Arnold — those guys are classics and I love them, but it was slick, cosmopolitan country. There was a formula for making records in Nashville, and the audience was ready for something different. You had five musicians on a record instead of twelve. It was simple. It brought things back to basics. There’s a lot of breathing room on that album.’

Willie Nelson Makes Billboard Top Country Albums History With ‘First Rose of Spring’

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
by: Andrew Blake

Willie Nelson is first artist to have top ten album in each of the seven decades since they have tracked country music.

Willie Nelson has made history with his latest record by appearing once more on Billboard’s weekly chart of the most popular country music albums, the trade sheet reported Tuesday.

“First Rose of Spring,” Mr. Nelson’s most recent studio album, debuted in fifth place on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for the week ending July 18, the publication reported.

The feat makes Mr. Nelson, 87, the first artist to have a top 10 country record during each of the seven decades that Billboard has tracked the genre’s popularity, the report said.

Billboard began ranking country records in 1964, and Mr. Nelson made his first appearance inside the chart’s top 10 in 1966 with his album “Country Favorites-Willie Nelson Style.”

The so-called “Red Headed Stranger” has subsequently released more top 10 country albums that any other artist at 53 and counting, Billboard reported. Those include three in 1960s, 14 in the 1970s, 19 in the 1980s, one in the 1990s, six in the 2000s, nine in the 2010s, and his latest.

Willie Nelson, “First Rose of Spring”

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

Willie’s Picnic Reboots

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
by: Doug Freeman

2020 meant to reset Willie Nelson’s annual July 4 Picnic. The daylong fest scheduled a return to his Luck Ranch in Spicewood after five years at the unforgivingly hot Circuit of the Americas. Matt Bizar and Nelson grandniece Ellee Fletcher Durniak taking over production as Luck Presents pointed tradition into decade five with youthful reinvigoration.

Instead, the Picnic flipped to a virtual format, yet still managed to provide a day of exceptional music to soundtrack the Fourth of July.

Credit the Luck Presents team for quickly pioneering new streaming modes as soon as the effects of the pandemic shut down live music events. In March, their Luck Reunion Livestream ’Til Further Notice offered the first major post-COVID effort to transfer a multi-hour, multi-artist event online. They followed with the wonderfully haphazard Come & Toke It on April 20, and June’s star-stacked benefit A Night for Austin broadcast on television.

photo: Doug Freeman

Willie’s Picnic offered yet another experiment for the crew, combining live performances from the Luck Ranch with recorded video performances, and then a pre-recorded two-hour finale of artists jamming remotely with an in-person house band led by Charlie Sexton. The promoters also charged for the streaming event for the first time, with ticket access at $45 on the day of the show.

Everyone leaned whole-heartedly into the virtual conceit, beginning with the house band in Luck’s Saloon surrounding an antique TV that screened the piped-in artists. In a feat of pure 2020 meta moments, fans watched a screen of a screen of a screen, with the footlights of the stage reflecting on the television just to add to the sense that everything was occurring in real time. It worked like gangbusters, too.

Not all went off without a hitch, however – or rather a glitch.

Rounding into the final 30 minutes, Sheryl Crow’s version of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” turned into a Max Headroom remix that scattered and skipped through the McCrary Sisters’ contribution before resetting back to Crow unsuccessfully. Thankfully, the closing set with Willie and a masked Family Band inside Pedernales Studio regrouped, and the production team quickly worked to make all the performances available online.

Until Crow, the stream proved both spectacular and flawless. Nelson scions Lukas and Micah hosted the five-hour live portion from the Luck Clubhouse with rambling, informal, and at times hilariously stoned segues between the live sets and recorded video inserts.

Charley Crockett’s impeccable country ballads and high-sliding banter (“Even if you ain’t got a dime, you can support Charley Crockett and the boys just by paying attention”) kicked the show into gear with a breathless 40-minute set from the Saloon stage. The Peterson Brothers then raised holy hell in the tiny Luck Chapel with smoking blues and funk riffs. Shakey Graves rolled the bones solo atop his suitcase kickdrum, dishing latest timely track “Look Alive” before rising Ft. Worth songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson justified hype back in the Chapel.

Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel closed out the live block with the full eight-piece band prior to Lukas and Micah bidding adieu with a gorgeous rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

To tie together the two-hour finale, the team threaded an oral history of Willie Picnics through the performances. Nathaniel Rateliff kicked off with “Whiskey River” as interviews with Freddy Fletcher, Turk Pipkin, Mickey Raphael, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others began laying out the often chaotic early years of the event. Robert Earl Keen offered the highlight of these reminiscences with the legendary tale of his car catching fire in the parking lot of the 1974 picnic, followed by a great performance of “Dreadful Selfish Crime.”

The stars rolled through their single song offerings backed by Sexton’s House Band: Beau Bedford, John Michael Schoepf, Ricky Ray Jackson, and Joshua Blue. Some dealt requisite Willie set covers (Devon Gilfillian with “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and Particle Kid’s tripped-up “Goodnight Irene”), with the best being Ziggy Marley rastafizing “On the Road Again” (“Like a band of rastas, we go down the aiway!”). Hits from Lyle Lovett (“Farther Down the Line”), Hubbard (“Redneck Mother”), and Steve Earle (“So You Wannabe an Outlaw”) fed into the historical arch.

Kinky Friedman and Jon Doe joined the house band in person, the former for his recent “I Only Love You When It Rains” and the latter kicking out X’s “Burning House of Love.” Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck delivered a great take on “City of New Orleans” as Raphael huffed harmonica rhythm from a side television set. Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers paid homage to Willie’s late roadie legend on “Ode to Ben Dorcey,” while Lukas streamed in his band Promise of the Real for a socially distant cover of “Woodstock.”

Willie’s closing finale proved uniquely spectacular once the glitches corrected. With Lukas, Micah, and Sister Bobbie anchoring the local five-piece, and Raphael streaming in as needed, Willie cut through a medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life” as well as “Good Hearted Woman” and “I Never Cared for You.” The performances played out tight, spirited, heartfelt, and fun, especially when Lukas scatted Roger Miller’s “You Don’t Want My Love.”

Although the show ended abruptly at 11pm with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” instead of traditional closer “I’ll Fly Away/Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” by that point fireworks and other flammables had been adequately sparked. Ideally, next year will convene the Picnic once again in-person, but in the meantime, Willie Nelson and Luck Presents continue creating and pulling off innovative ways to keep the music flowing.

You can’t say Willie Nelson without smiling

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020

You just can’t say Willie Nelson’s name without smiling. The Texas icon is known for taking country music to the world and in turn he brought the world to country music. On the occasion of the release of First Rose of Spring, (his 143rd album by the count of Texas Monthly), and of course because of his long-running Fourth of July Picnics, CMT recognizes Nelson as a legend we love.

During his long career, Nelson may be best known for his good works, for his extraordinary songwriting, his mastery of many music genres, and for the durability and strength of his live performances. As a singer, songwriter, all-around entertainer, bandleader, consummate duet partner, actor and social activist, he has no rival in the world of popular music.

Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. His parents divorced and he and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents. Willie learned guitar and his sister played piano. While Willie was in high school, he and Bobbie played in the Bohemian Fiddlers. After high school, he joined the Air Force but was forced to leave due to a back condition. He also briefly attended Baylor University in Waco. In 1952, he married Martha Matthews, the first of four wives.

Throughout the 1950s, Nelson continued to hone his musical skills by playing in honky-tonks and working as a DJ in Fort Worth and Houston, as well as Vancouver, Washington, where he made his first self-released records.

In Houston, such songs as “Family Bible” began to attract attention. He moved to Nashville, where songwriter Hank Cochran signed him to Pamper Music. His songs soon became legend: “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billy Walker, and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young were a few.

But he could not succeed as a recording artist. Nashville producers complained that he sang behind the beat, that his guitar playing was crazy, and that he just plain did not fit in with Music City’s then country pop sound. Only two of his early singles reached the Top 10: “Willingly” (with future wife Shirley Collie) and “Touch Me,” both in 1962.

One night, he lay down in the middle of Lower Broadway in front of Tootsies Orchid Lounge and waited to be run over. Nothing happened, but he decided he really did not fit in. His house burned outside Nashville and Nelson later confirmed the old story that he rushed into the conflagration to rescue his battered guitar case — which contained his stash of marijuana. But the house fire solidified his idea to move back to Texas and become a farmer.

In Austin, he happened to discover the Armadillo World Headquarters, an old National Guard Armory that had been converted into a sort of hippie concert hall with a beer garden outside. The audience, Nelson soon saw, was a strange combination of hippies and cowboys who both liked what was then considered “progressive country music.” Which was exactly what Nelson was writing and playing.

He was quickly accepted and gone were any ideas of giving up music. Within six months, his appearance changed completely. Gone was the Willie Nelson who looked like a short-haired insurance salesman wearing a conservative suit. In his place was Willie, resplendent with long hair, beard, and denim.

In 1973, Nelson held his first Fourth of July Picnic, as a sort of progressive music celebration. It was staged outdoors in Dripping Springs near Austin, the site of the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion, which Nelson had played. The Fourth of July Picnics continued for decades to come — but not always annually or in the same city, and sometimes not even in Texas.

In time he invited Waylon Jennings to come and play the Armadillo. Jennings and Nelson were labelmates at RCA Nashville and were both chafing at the bit and seeking musical independence. Nelson would achieve his by leaving RCA and Nashville; Jennings started his own bid for freedom in Nashville. Their alliance led to the Wanted: the Outlaws which would shortly become a landmark work.

Meanwhile, Nelson was recording a sparse, mostly self-written concept album at a little studio in Dallas. Red-Headed Stranger collected Nelson’s originals, old gospel tunes, and the early 1940s song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose.

Stranger was released in June 1975; Outlaws followed in February of 1976. Both forever changed the course of country music. A compilation with Nelson and Jennings as well as Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, Outlaws quickly became the first million-selling country album and that forever altered the balance of power in Nashville. The producer had previously ruled that world. With Outlaws, the artist began to seize power.

Stranger hit a million in sales after Outlaws, but more importantly, the first single from the album became Nelson’s first No. 1 song. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” established Nelson as a major solo artist in 1975. He was 42 years old at the time and hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in 13 years.

In 1978, he again confounded the music world when he switched gears completely and released Stardust, a collection of pop music standards produced by Booker T. Jones. Two singles from the album — “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies” — topped the country chart.

He continued on his eclectic way, cutting duet albums with Jennings, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Leon Russell. His duet with Julio Iglesias on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” again hit No. 1. His tours and albums with Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen were successes. His later duet partners ranged from Sheryl Crow to Norah Jones. He recorded gospel, reggae, jazz and never stopped experimenting.

In 1978, he again confounded the music world when he switched gears completely and released Stardust, a collection of pop music standards produced by Booker T. Jones. Two singles from the album — “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies” — topped the country chart.

He continued on his eclectic way, cutting duet albums with Jennings, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Leon Russell. His duet with Julio Iglesias on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” again hit No. 1. His tours and albums with Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen were successes. His later duet partners ranged from Sheryl Crow to Norah Jones. He recorded gospel, reggae, jazz and never stopped experimenting.

His magic touch as a songwriter and musician and his generosity in recording duets with artists of lesser wattage than he led to a flurry of novelty country singles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, including David Allan Coe’s “Willie, Waylon and Me,” comic George Burns’ “Willie, Won’t You Sing a Song With Me” and Ray Price’s “Willie, Write Me a Song.”

However these decades proved among his most fruitful, with No. 1 hits like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and “Always on My Mind,” along with chart-topping collaborations such as “Heartbreak Hotel” (with Russell), “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Just to Satisfy You” (with Jennings), “Pancho and Lefty” (with Haggard), and “Seven Spanish Angels” (with Ray Charles). In 2003, he rallied back to No. 1 at country radio for six weeks as a duet partner with Toby Keith on “Beer for My Horses.”

Along the way, his acting credits included the movies The Electric HorsemanHoneysuckle RoseThe SongwriterRed Headed StrangerAustin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged MeZoolander 2Wag the Dog, and The Dukes of Hazzard, as well as several TV series in which he often appeared as himself.

In 1990, the IRS declared that he owed almost $17 million in back taxes. To pay them, he was forced to sell off many assets, some of which were bought by friends, who gave them back once the debt was erased. His Who’ll Buy My memories (The IRS Tapes) album helped knock the debt down. He finally settled with the IRS for $12.6 million.

With Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson co-founded Farm Aid in 1985, an annual all-star concert benefit to support family farmers, and he stayed active in the organization for decades to come. In the ’90s his radio career dimmed, yet his album output remained remarkable, with titles such as Across the BorderlineSpirit, and Teatro, to name a few. The first decade of the 2000s brought forth Countryman, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, and Last of the Breed, with Haggard and Price.

Among his late-career albums were 2014’s Band of Brothers, 2015’s Django & Jimmie with Merle Haggard, and 2017’s God’s Problem Child, which all debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country album chart. In addition he won Grammys in the category of Best Traditional Pop Album for 2016’s Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin and 2018’s My Way.

Nelson’s recording of “Ride Me Back Home” earned him his 10th Grammy for performance. Three more Grammy awards were honorary rather than competitive: Lifetime Achievement (2000), Grammy Legend (1990) and the President’s Merit Award (1986).

In 2013, Berklee College of Music presented him an honorary doctorate. Two years later the Library of Congress awarded him its Gershwin prize. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001.

Either as a solo artist or in league with others, Nelson scored 21 No. 1 singles, including “Highwayman.” Even in his early 80s, Nelson toured and recording incessantly. On tour, the ritual remained the same: stepping out in front of a huge Texas flag backdrop, Nelson & Family (with Bobbie on piano) would kick into the first strains of “Whiskey River,” written by his old pal Johnny Bush. Then it was off to the races. As he would often quip: “All I do is play music and golf — which one do you want me to give up?”

Nelson will forever stand as country music’s ambassador to the world — as a social activist for aid to farmers, for the anti-war movement and for the use of biodiesel. And, finally, he will always be considered a major innovator in both country and pop music.