Archive for the ‘News and Reviews’ Category

Willie Nelson: Texas Icon (Briscoe Center for American History)

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015


Washington Post Podcast with Willie Nelson

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Welcome to our second Washington Post Pop-Up Pop Podcast in which we discuss the great Willie Nelson and his legacy as a songwriter, a spiritual leader and a very funny dude.

The discussion centers around an interview with Nelson that took place aboard his tour bus in Las Vegas earlier this month. You can read the profile that came from that interview right here and you can listen to our podcast below.

Willie Nelson in Las Vegas (interview)

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Stavros Damos
art by: Stavros Damos
by:  Chris Richards

AS VEGAS — Another Saturday night on Earth. How is this one different?

“Honestly, nothing is distinct after a while,” Willie Nelson confesses. He’s talking about life on the road at 81, when wisdom makes the totality of life feel intensely connected to the present — but also when age makes the details feel slippery.

He’s come to Las Vegas for his seventh gig of the new year. After tonight, roughly a hundred more to go. And if they all blend together, that’s okay, as long as he’s learning more than he’s forgetting, which he thinks he is, which is all that really matters.

When most veteran musicians tour this hard toward the sunset, they’re usually fattening their fortunes, paying down their debts, polishing their legacies, nourishing their egos or simply keeping their loyal employees employed. For Nelson, the road seems more like a spiritual path — an asphalt Mobius strip, the long way to enlightenment or both.

His buddy Kinky Friedman proudly calls him “the Hillbilly Dalai Lama.” His most devout fans think of him as a messenger, or even a manifestation, of God. Sitting on his tour bus before the show, salt-and-cinnamon braids dangling to his belly, Nelson radiates a serene warmth when he says that he embraces these responsibilities without much fuss.

“It’s not a responsibility that’s just mine,” he says. “It’s everybody’s out there. They have the obligation to set an example. ‘Do unto others.’ The old Golden Rule. It’s an easy one to follow. Sometimes.”

There were times when he didn’t, of course. He was once a hot-tempered songwriting ace prone to burning bridges before learning that burning marijuana could calm his screeching mind. But the road from turbulence to tranquility was long and formidable. As a kid, he couldn’t see past 21. At 21, he swore he’d be dead by 40. “Here I am at 81, and everything is cool,” Nelson says.

And here he is in Vegas, for a gig like any other, only maybe not. In many ways, Las Vegas is a luminescent fantasyland designed to provide its visitors with an opportunity to escape their own heads. A Willie Nelson concert won’t allow that. Even when they’re light, Nelson’s songs pull us deeper into ourselves, with Nelson singing about the weight of yesterday and the uncertainty of tomorrow with the easiness of right now. His songs are essentially about time, which makes them about life, which makes them about everything. Older listeners remember. Younger listeners imagine. There’s a lot going on.
“It’s been that way as long as I can remember,” Nelson says of his multi-generational flock. “When you go to church, it’s young and old. The audience, for me, is very similar to a congregation. It’s all ages out there.”

Tonight, plenty of congregants bought their tickets simply to genuflect, get drunk and shout out the words to “On the Road Again.” But many younger fans in the room quietly acknowledge that they’ve made this pilgrimage with bittersweet intentions. They’re here to see Nelson before he leaves this plane, seemingly unaware that their presence is exactly what keeps that from happening.

Born and raised in a peaceful fleck of Texas called Abbott, Nelson learned from his grandmother that, in addition to keeping us alive, the human breath is what carries a song. So he started singing from his diaphragm and picked up the rest from the voices wafting out of his radio. Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams. He especially loved listening to the way Frank Sinatra breathed.

As with Sinatra, so much of Nelson’s magnetism originates in the intimacy of his vocal phrasing. Vocally, he can saunter ahead of the beat, then stumble behind it, somersaulting through his lines, always landing on his feet. And all of this magic still reveals itself in the length of a breath.

To keep fit, Nelson currently rides a bicycle and plays a little golf, but he vows that exhaling music from a stage is the ultimate form of exercise. And while he says he doesn’t meditate, his explanation of why he doesn’t certainly sounds like meditation: “To think about my breathing would defeat the purpose. The object is not to think.”

The other pillars of his spirituality remain simple and sturdy. The Lord’s Prayer still comes in handy when he needs his brain to go blank. And his long-standing belief in reincarnation grows stronger each year. “I think everything that’s happened [in my life] enhances the idea,” he says. “Once you invite that idea in and start kicking it around, you see that that’s the only way it could be.”
Ask Nelson heftier questions about life, death and the great beyond, and he begins speaking in Zen zingers. At first, it seems like he’s dodging. But catch up to him, and you’ll realize he’s telling big truths through little jokes.

What goes through his mind when he walks onstage? “Try not to trip over a wire.”

Do his fans truly know him? “I think they think they do.”

Does he have a relationship with God today? “Well, how you doin’?”

That last reply seems to materialize in a moment of octogenarian fog, but in actuality, Nelson is 10 steps ahead: He believes that God speaks through all of us. His sense of humor and his spirituality are inextricable. Life is a joke. The funniest one we’ll ever know.

And while his cosmic wit explains Nelson’s eminence as a troubadour-guru, it says even more about his skill as a country songwriter. Every lyricist on Music Row aspires to think this elegantly, finding ways to pack the universe into pithy, coherent, pleasingly rhythmic bundles that report on the finer details of the human condition in plain English. The words also have to rhyme, and it helps if they’re hilarious or devastating.

In Vegas, Nelson’s set list is teeming with evergreen punch lines, hang-ups and jabs: the misadventures of “Me and Paul,” the delirious regret of “Crazy,” the dagger-twist at the end of “Funny How Time Slips Away.” But the most rousing singalong comes during “Roll Me Up,” a newer ditty that confronts the imminence of death with a weed joke.

Chopping away at his instrument — a famously loyal guitar named Trigger whose soundboard bears a gaping second hole, as if it took a shotgun slug for its owner — Nelson looks pleased as he sings the hook: “I didn’t come here and I ain’t leavin’?/ So don’t sit around and cry?/ Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.”

Visualizing the aftermath of Nelson’s death (breathing him in, breathing him out) should not be this fun, this funny, this comforting or this weirdly poetic — which is the upside-down brilliance of it all. It’s by far his most generous and perverse gesture of the night.
But singing backup is Nelson’s daughter Amy, whose eyes flash with discomfort each time the refrain comes around. Backstage, she admits that it’s hard for her to sing those words. “I don’t want to affirm anything like that,” she says. “So when we sing that song, in my head, I’ll look at him and think, ‘Nope!’?”

Willie Nelson performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York on May 24, 1984. It was the first in a series of six concerts at Radio City, all of which sold out, the first time for a country-western act. (Richard Drew/AP)
Nelson speaks about the need to revive family farming at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6, 2004. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Sure, he thinks there are more songs for him to write. Nelson describes the creative moment as a vibration he catches in the breeze, a friendly signal from someplace else. Being on the road might expose him to more transmissions. Sometimes, they come in clear. Other times, he just hears static.

“It either happens or it doesn’t,” Nelson says of the process. “You can’t push it or rush it. I don’t really think about what it takes to write a song. I really don’t. But if I get a good idea, I try to write it down as quickly as possible. And I have an iPhone now, and it’s easier to get in there and leave some notes for myself.”

He’s always written his lyrics first, confident that good melodies are more plentiful than good words and easier to locate, too. As for cutting his songs, he’s quick. He released two fine albums last year, and when he presses a button on the tour-bus stereo, out jumps a zesty new duet he recorded with Merle Haggard a few weeks ago.

It’s from a forthcoming double-tribute album honoring proto-country star Jimmie Rodgers and Django Reinhardt, the French jazz maestro whose guitar-playing has mesmerized Nelson for decades. In fact, Nelson has been taking guitar lessons of late, trying to decode how Reinhardt’s fingertips once dashed across the fretboard. “You can never learn it all,” he says.

Haggard, 77, might be Nelson’s closest peer in that he’s a legendary country-music agitator who continues to tour relentlessly, even after an excruciating lung surgery in 2008. Haggard has characterized life on the road as a compulsion, an addiction, a disease, maybe even a 50-year mistake.

But for Nelson, touring into his 80s is something else entirely. Somehow, his journey generates more energy than it siphons away.
“The music, and the love of playing, and the love of having the music enjoyed by a lot of people,” Nelson says, “there’s a lot of power in that.”

So this great honky-tonk slog, this never-ending odyssey that requires an increasingly fragile body to breathe melody 100 nights a year — this is actually the thing that keeps him alive?

“Oh yeah,” he says with a firm nod. Then he smiles. The idea makes him feel either deeply contented, a little frightened or nothing at all.

They love Willie Nelson in Palm Desert

Monday, January 19th, 2015

From left: Joan Dale and R.D. Hubbard, Willie Nelson, Jackie Autry and McCallum Theatre Chairman Harold Matzner.
photo: Marc Glassman

by: Betty Francis

The sold-out-with-a-waiting list crowd that filled the McCallum Theatre for last week’s Willie Nelson concert knew exactly what they wanted: The same thing that iconic philanthropists Jackie Autry and R.D. Hubbard wanted … to hear Willie Nelson sing — no more, no less. Both Autry and Hubbard have given millions of dollars to Eisenhower Medical Center, just one of the many nonprofits that they support. Both are big fans of western art and culture and have known Nelson for many years.

When it got close to the 8 p.m. curtain time and Willie wasn’t backstage, both Jackie and R.D. headed to Willie’s bus to remind him about the starting time. The three have been good friends for many years.

Another Hubbard and Autry friend, philanthropist and McCallum Board Chairman Harold Matzner, fully underwrote the performance.

At four minutes past 8 p.m., without fanfare or introduction, four guys in black jeans and T-shirts quietly ambled on stage. Three of them slipped into some seats at the back of the stage, near some drums. One of them remained standing and picked up a microphone. It was Willie Nelson — singing “Whiskey Junction.”

He looked good. For age 82, he looked great! He stood straight and trim, shoulders back, his long, blonde braids hanging below his waist.

His singing slid seamlessly from one famous hit into another, accompanied by a drummer and an electric harmonica. A few songs later, they were joined by a superb pianist, Bobbie Nelson, whom Willie referred to as “my little sister,” and a fifth versatile musician playing a variety of instruments.

From “Good Hearted Woman” to “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” Nelson just stood there singing. He never sat down, changed clothes nor left the stage. He sang, non-stop for 90 minutes.

Occasionally Nelson would briefly introduce a song, mentioning a few words as to where, or why it was written. “On The Road Again”… “Always On My Mind” … “Crazy For Loving You.”

The audience was mesmerized and, except for bursts of applause, you could hear a pin drop. Several of the arrangements allowed Nelson to show off his superb skills as a guitarist, generating additional cheers.

Little sister Bobbie also showcased the family talent with a rousing piano solo.

At one point, Nelson removed his black Stetson and exchanged it for his familiar red print bandana headband. Then he unexpectedly tossed the headband into the second row of the audience where it was caught and triumphantly waved by a joyous young man. Three more bandanas were tossed as the show progressed.

There was only one exception to the program of Willie Nelson singing his hits. Near the end of the show he introduced a number from his latest CD — “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” which showed off the clear intensity of his voice. He’s still got it.

Near the end of the show a pretty young lady slipped on stage without introduction, and joined in on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and a hilarious arrangement of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Nelson referred to her only as “my daughter.”

The show closed in the same simple, direct, no-nonsense way it opened. After “Roll Me Up” and “I Saw The Light” Nelson stepped forward to shake some front-row hands and blow kisses to the audience.

With that, he left the stage with the same stealth as he entered. The curtain dropped. The show was over — right on time.

Virtually every member of the audience was beaming as they left the McCallum. They loved Willie.

2015 Grammy Hall of Fame

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

by: David Beckett
By Kurt Wolff

Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson and the groups Kraftwerk and ABBA are among the artists who will have their songs or albums inducted into the 2015 GRAMMY Hall of Fame.

The 2015 list consists of 14 songs and 13 albums, including Williams’ 1947 single “Honky Tonkin’,” Otis Redding‘s classic “Try a Little Tenderness,” western swing maestro Bob Wills‘ “San Antonio Rose,” Chic‘s “Le Freak” and Aaron Neville‘s “Tell It Like It Is” as well as albums by Nelson (Stardust), Dylan (Blood on the Tracks), Neil Young (Harvest), Leonard Cohen (Songs of Leonard Cohen) and the Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols).

Willie Nelson Fun Facts

Monday, January 12th, 2015

photo:  Frederick Breedon

Here’s a look at the life of seven time Grammy Award winning musician Willie Nelson.

Birth date: April 30, 1933

Birth place: Abbott, Texas

Birth name: Willie Hugh Nelson

Father: Ira Nelson

Mother: Myrle (Greenhaw) Harvey

Marriages: Ann Marie D’Angelo (1991-present); Connie Koepke (1971-1988, divorced); Shirley Collie (1963-1971, divorced); Martha Matthews (1952-1962, divorced)

Children: with Ann Marie D’Angelo: Micah and Lukas; with Connie Koepke: Amy and Paula; with Martha Matthews: Billy (died in 1991), Susie, Lana; with Mary Haney: Renee

Education: Attended Baylor University, 1954

Military: U.S. Air Force, 1950, medical discharge

Other Facts:
Raised by his grandparents.

Sold encyclopedias door-to-door and taught Sunday school.

Has collaborated with Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Lee Ann Womack, Rob Thomas and Snoop Dogg, among others.

Has a fifth-degree black belt in GongKwon YuSul.

1973 – Holds the first annual Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in Texas.

1975 – Wins a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, for “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.”

1978 – Wins a Grammy, with Waylon Jennings, for Best Country Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group for “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

1978 – Wins a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, for “Georgia On My Mind.”

1979 – Makes his acting debut, alongside Robert Redford, in the film, “The Electric Horseman.”

1980 – Wins a Grammy for Best Country Song for writing “On The Road Again.”

1980 – Stars in the film “Honeysuckle Rose.”

1982 – Wins a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, for “Always On My Mind.”

1982 – Stars in the film “Barbarosa.”

1985 – Releases the album “Highwayman” with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

1985 – Organizes Farm Aid, a concert to benefit family farmers.

1988 – Releases his memoir, “Willie: An Autobiography.”

1990 – The IRS seizes Nelson’s property and possessions to settle a $16.7 million tax debt.

1991 – Nelson releases the album, “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?” Sales from the album are given to the IRS.

1993 – Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

1994 – Is arrested for possession of marijuana. The case is later thrown out.

2000 – The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presents Nelson with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

2002 – Wins a Grammy, with Lee Ann Womack, for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for “Mendocino County Line.”

2002 – Releases the book, “The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes.”

2006 – Releases the book, “The Tao of Willie.”

2006 – Is issued a citation in Louisiana for possession of marijuana and illegal mushrooms. Nelson is fined and receives six months’ probation.

2007 – Wins a Grammy, with Ray Price, for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for “Lost Highway.”

2010 – Is charged with marijuana possession after U.S. Border Patrol agents search his tour bus in Texas near the U.S.-Mexico border.

2012 – Releases the book, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road.”

2013 – Nelson donates his collection of awards and personal items to the University of Texas at Austin’s Briscoe Center.

Willie Nelson & Family to Play Austin Rodeo (March 14, 2015)

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

040314 Willie Nelson 0943
photo: Jay Janner

by: Deborah Sengupta Stith


Rodeo Austin released the 2015 music lineup and along with the usual suspects (here’s looking at you Dwight Yoakam), there are some left field surprises. Willie Nelson and Family will kick the party off on March 14 , followed by country musicians Yoakam and Eli Young. Then things get a bit interesting.

Glitzy Vegas-based pop act Panic! At the Disco plays March 17, which incidentally, is the first day of the SXSW Music Festival. The next day the Beach Boys take the rodeo stage providing the perfect spring break soundtrack for Baby Boomer sect of the crowd. Later in the month R&B crooners Boyz II Men play on March 24. (Apparently, it’s a big year for aging men who should no longer be referring to themselves as “boys”). The following night ska-infused ’90s rockers Sublime take the stage. All in all, it’s an eclectic lineup offering Central Texans a diverse selection of musical options to pair with our livestock ogling and bizarre fried food consumption.

Willie Nelson, still an outlaw (even though it’s hard)

Friday, January 9th, 2015

by Jason Bracelin

“Record people nowadays keep spinnin ’round and ’round

Songs about the back roads they never have been down.

They go and call it country, but that ain’t the way it sounds.

It’s enough to make a renegade want to terrorize the town.”

The song’s “Hard to Be An Outlaw,” voiced by a true one.  Willie Nelson.

Is there a performer alive who simultaneously defines and subverts a genre of music quite like Nelson does country?

The lyric above, taken from Nelson’s latest studio record, “Band of Brothers,” released in June, is a little ironic, in that it paints Nelson as something of a traditionalist, a man who chafes at what country music has become — at least the stuff that gets played on the radio these days.

In this case, Nelson would have to be one of the all-time most nontraditional traditionalists.

After all, it was Nelson who left Nashville, Tenn., in the early ’70s after getting fed up with banging his head against the country music industry’s narrow artistic constraints, moved to Austin, Texas, partied with hippies and bohemes and emerged as the whiskered face of the then-burgeoning outlaw country movement alongside Waylon Jennings.

He directly challenged what it meant to be a country music artist, choosing to define things on his own terms.

Country music, as Nelson would have it, became kind of like punk rock when it emerged a few years later — less about a sound than an attitude, a way of life, an identity.

Superficially, then, Nelson doesn’t have much in common with contemporary stars such as Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean, but on a deeper level he does: For better or worse, those acts are reimagining country, incorporating new sounds (arena rock, hip-hop, even touches of electronic dance music) and agitating purists.

Nelson did all those things decades ago — and was among the very first to do so.

His influence has become so vast that it even extends to artist who aren’t directly influenced by him soundwise because he changed the very way country music viewed itself.

All these years later, look at what an outlaw Nelson remains in a genre he’s helped shape.

He’s cut a blues album with Wynton Marsalis, rapped with Snoop Dogg, founded his own biofuel company to run his tour bus on vegetable oil, had cameos in cult stoner flicks (“Half Baked”) and is the only musician to ever be inducted into the National Agricultural Hall of Fame.

He wrote his first song when he was 7 years old, performed with Bob Wills at 13 and released nearly 70 studio albums.

He’s served in the Air Force and worked as a cotton picker, saddle maker and Bible salesman.

All these life experiences are embedded in “Band of Brothers,” a personal, poignant record on which Nelson sheds a few tears, has way more laughs and stands firm and defiant in the face of mortality.

“White lightning is the horse I ride pedal to the floor / He blows hot from his nostrils and runs like Man-O-War,” Nelson sings on “Outlaw,” his voice warm, his passions hot. “Someday we both may wind up in some junkyard on the side / Until that day you bet your ass we’re gonna win that ride.”

At 81 years old, you’d expect Nelson to do plenty of reflecting on “Brothers,” but really, that’s not what the record is about.

He views the past as a smoke ring, something that manifests itself briefly and then it’s gone.

Mostly, “Brothers” is a forward-looking album.

So, what lies ahead?

Whatever trouble country music’s greatest insurgent chooses to make next.

“We are a band of brothers and sisters and whatever / On a mission to break all the rules,” he sings on “Band of Brothers.” “I know you love me, ’cause I love you too, but you can’t tell me what to do.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.

Willie Nelson & Family in Anaheim (Jan 6, 2015)

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

photo: Joshua Sudock

No living country music performer has thrilled audiences at such creative heights for as long as Willie Nelson.

Now 81, the legendary Texan and his five-member troupe performed a fast-paced and never-less-than-thrilling 75-minute concert at City National Grove of Anaheim on Tuesday night. The night saw Nelson perform two dozen selections with a mix of well-known hits, inspiring lesser known gems and instrumentals, making for an especiallymoving and balanced show.

Nelson’s distinctive vocals and unique phrasing, as well as his virtuoso work on his weathered acoustic guitar, were strong from his opening salvo, “Whiskey River.” But the show only got better. Soon Nelson and company were off to the races with the up-tempo country rocker “Beer for My Horses” and affecting “Good Hearted Woman” (a song co-written by Nelson and the late Waylon Jennings).

“Good Hearted Woman” was the first of several songs that really showed off the nuanced power of the group, with Nelson’s vocals and intricate guitar blending with the piano playing of his sister Bobbie Lee Nelson and harmonica great Michael Siegfried “Mickey” Raphael.

The concert included all kinds of highlights, including a fantastic tribute to Hank Williams – a medley of “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over.” His intricate and extended solo on “Funny How Time Slips Away” and easy ability to move into the blues for medley of “Crazy” and “Night Life” displayed his freewheeling spirit of bringing different styles of music into his outlaw sonic brew.

Perhaps the most stirring moment of the night followed a fun and spirited take on his hit “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” when he suddenly and effortlessly segued into a beautiful “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” His beautiful touch on the guitar and heartrending singing quieted the crowd and the stirring feeling was tangible. With the mood set, Nelson and his band then lifted spirits again with the upbeat “On The Road Again.”

Nelson spoke little throughout the night, but was obviously having a wonderful time and often acknowledged the enthusiastic crowd with smiles and several times flung one of his headbands into the waiting crowd. After finishing up the concert with a moving version of “I Saw The Light,” he spent six minutes at the front of the stage signing album covers, posters, slips of paper and even a cowboy boot for excited fans.

Willie Nelson & Family @ Celebrity Theater in Phoenix (Jan 4, 2015)

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

article and photos by:  Jeffrey Lowman

Willie Nelson performs with his Family at the Celebrity Theatre o

Watching Willie Nelson, at 81, leading his Family through freewheeling versions of “Good Hearted Woman” and “Funny How Times Slips Away” — which segued straight through “Crazy” into “Nightlife (Ain’t No Good Life)” — it would be hard to imagine him not falling in with the outlaw country movement.


There was nothing Nashville smooth or slick about the legend’s Sunday night performance in Phoenix, which started, in keeping with Nelson tradition, with a trip down “Whiskey River,” Nelson wrangling the first of many mercurial solos out of Trigger, his trusty acoustic guitar with a hole worn through the wood.

Few names are more synonymous with country music, but the man’s approach to phrasing — both his singing and the way he handles Trigger — is closer in spirit to jazz, the way he rushes through key phrases, stretching others out, arriving at the end of each line in his own time, on his own terms. It’s an approach that makes for more expressive presentations of familiar songs while lending a more conversational feel to the lyrics. At Nelson’s Celebrity Theatre show, that approach led to highlights as varied as a naked, emotional take on “Always on My Mind” and a truly hilarious version of “Me and Paul.”

Willie Nelson and Family (NYE) (Austin)

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015


photo and article by: Peter Blackstock

It was the first show of 2015, and all others are going to be chasing its trail for the next 364 days.

You pretty much know what you’re going to get in a Willie Nelson and Family show at this point. But Wednesday night’s 70-minute set that launched at midnight with the arrival of Father Time (on a floating armadillo) and Baby New Year stood out, and not just because the guest guitarist at stage left was Billy Gibbons.

It helps that Willie’s sister and pianist Bobbie Nelson was born on New Year’s Day, which makes these occasions all the more festive and requires the standard opener “Whiskey River” to be preceded by a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.” And then there were the red, white and black balloons, pouring from the rafters as the band closed with a bang on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” plus an “I Saw the Light” chaser.

The latter tune wasn’t the only nod to Hank Williams, who died on this day 61 years ago but lives on through the likes of “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over,” which Willie delivered in rapid succession just past the show’s halfway mark. Earlier, he’d hollered “Let’s do one for Waylon,” and then launched into two classics he used to sing with the late Waylon Jennings, following “Good Hearted Woman” with “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

We also got signature tunes ancient (“Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again”) and recent (“Beer for My Horses,” “Roll Me Up”), as well as the now-obligatory Willie-classic medley (“Funny How Time Slips Away”/”Crazy”/”Night Life”), and a couple of instrumental numbers. More family and friends came out to sing along on the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” just before the big balloon drop commenced.

Throughout, sister Bobbie, percussion brothers Paul and Billy English, bassist Kevin Smith, harmonica ace Mickey Raphael and ringer guitar-slinger Gibbons provided perfect support. They kept on playing for several more minutes after Willie set down his lovingly worn Trigger acoustic guitar and greeted audience members from the lip of the stage with handshakes and autographs.

Many of those fans had been there for the long haul, arriving early for an opening set by Cilantro Boombox and the revved-up soul sounds of Vintage Trouble, whose showmanship and groove won over the crowd despite the significant difference in genre from the headliner.

Outside, near-freezing weather and the threat of rain had grounded the city’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display. Within the halls of ACL Live, nothing could stop the celebration: It’s 2015, and Willie Nelson and Family are still going strong.

Willie Nelson gets it right again

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014
by:  James Bealy

Willie’s Nelson’s new album “December Day” is as smooth as lightly-falling snow and warm as a glowing fireplace on a winter’s afternoon.

Nelson already scored a number one hit earlier this year with “Band of Brothers,” an album filled with backing by ace session musicians and featuring slick production.

The new “December Day” album is subtitled “Willie’s Stash Vol. 1” by “Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie.” It’s vastly different than “Band of Brothers.” With a few exceptions, the only musicians on most tracks are Willie on guitar and vocals, his sister, Bobbie Nelson, on piano and band member Mickey Raphael on harmonica.

This album doesn’t feature the rollicking outlaw who is in the forefront on “Band of Brothers.” Instead, envision Willie and Bobbie Nelson sitting around playing songs they love, without worrying about commercial consideration. Some songs are so laid-back, they make Nat King Cole sound like punk rock — but in this case, that’s a good thing.

The album has only two upbeat numbers and they bookend the 18 tracks on “December Day.” Still, the number of ballads doesn’t bog down the album, but instead sets a mood.

This is not country music per se, but more of a throwback to Willie’s great 1978 album “Stardust.” The new album is a mix of lesser-known gems from Willie’s back catalogue and standouts from the Great American Songbook, with a few of his newer songs spicing the mix.

One of the best things about the album is it’s filled with Willie’s signature guitar playing on his classical Martin guitar, Trigger. He’s been heavily influenced by jazz great Django Reinhardt and it shows.

Willie fills “December Day” with a number of memorable guitar solos, which makes me wonder why he’s not included more often on lists of the all-time best guitarists.

On “December Day” his vocals are mixed way up-front, along with his guitar. Raphael’s harmonica adds atmospheric shadings throughout the album.


Album of the Year: Willie Nelson’s, ‘Band of Brothers’

Sunday, December 28th, 2014


“No melodrama, no sentiment, just humour, wisdom, wit, introspection, and lyrical precision.

This isn’t music that goes over the top; it gets under the skin.”
by: Tim Cumming

You’d have to go back almost 20 years, and to 1996’s Spirit, to name a Willie Nelson album with more than one or two original new songs. The nine for Band of Brothers was a real cause for celebration. He may be 81, he may not fly over to perform in the UK again (I hope to be proved wrong) but he’s not lost form.

These new songs sound like they had to be written, and from the inside. They’re co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, and the working method was for Nelson to send Cannon demos of the songs, around which Cannon arranged a sympathetic acoustic band line–up of seasoned sessioneers – a couple of drummers, couple of steel guitars, keys, upright bass, acoustic guitarist, Nelson’s finger on his Trigger, the iconic guitar of an extraordinary career, and the mournfully laid-back harmonica of longtime band member Mickey Raphael, whose sound is always there, at the back of Willie Nelson’s music since the early 1970s.

The stridently confident opener, “Bring It On” has the singer facing off the spectre of death, the lyric carrying the folksy, complex simplicity of his best songs, while “Guitar in the Corner” is a song-player’s prayer to a returning muse and departed lover, and “The Wall” a tale of challenge and triumph, and clearly drawn from life. Further in, “Wives and Girlfriends” is up-tempo and upbeat, with an old-fashioned, probably illegal approach to relationship dynamics, while “Send Me A Picture” and “Used To Her” are dark, complex internal dramas of love, hurt and heartbreak, the latter a deceptively upbeat twin to Dylan’s “Love Sick”.

The choice covers include a cracking duet with Jamey Johnson on Billy Joe Shaver’s “The Git Go”, with a groove that could make a dead man dance on his own grave, while Nelson handles a second Billie Joe cover, “Hard To Be An Outlaw” with seasoned aplomb. Vince Gill’s “Whenever She Comes Around” is almost troublingly heartfelt, while the mock-heroic “Songwriters” has some of the album’s funniest lines. This isn’t music that goes over the top; it gets under the skin. No melodrama, no sentiment, just humour, wisdom, wit, introspection, and lyrical precision. If you want to hear the voice of experience, this is it.

Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper”

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

(Editor’s note: During the holiday season, thoughts turn to fond memories of friendships past and present. Chet Flippo, CMT’s longtime editorial director who died in 2013, will always be remembered as a friend of country music and its artists. To celebrate his life and legacy, we’re continuing a holiday tradition by sharing one of his classic Nashville Skyline columns first published in 2009.)

Roy Orbison made it a standard of his forever when he recorded it, but Willie Nelson wrote his lovely Christmas song, “Pretty Paper,” about a guy I knew slightly. He was a man who had lost both his legs above the knee and — in those pre-miracle artificial limbs days — had his leg stumps covered with heavy leather padding and wore thick gloves to pull and slide and scoot his way up and down the sidewalk by the palms of his hands and on his stumps.

He sold pencils from a tin cup affixed to his back and also peddled paper and ribbons at Christmas time, as I recall. He mainly worked the sidewalks by Leonard’s Department Store in Fort Worth, Texas, where I was working part time in high school. I have sadly forgotten the man’s name, but he always had a smile for everyone and a great sales pitch, and I sometimes would stop and say hello when I would see him. Every time I hear “Pretty Paper,” I see this man in my mind’s eye, to this day.

Willie, who was then also living in Fort Worth (I met Willie years later and asked him about the source of “Pretty Paper”), obviously noticed this man, too, and was affected enough to write a lasting tribute to this now-anonymous, handicapped street peddler. Willie later recorded the song, but when Orbison found it in 1963, he made it famous worldwide. Other artists who have recorded the song include Glen Campbell, Kenny Chesney, Chris Isaak and Freddy Fender.

Here are some of the lyrics to “Pretty Paper”:

Crowded streets busy feet hustle by you
Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk
Hoping that you won’t pass him by
Should you stop better not much too busy
Better hurry, my, how time does fly
And in the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue …

Merry Christmas. Staff

The story behind Willie Nelson’s, “Pretty Paper”

Sunday, December 21st, 2014
By Bud Kennedy

The mystery of Fort Worth’s Christmas song is solved.

It took help from readers in Palo Pinto County, plus one surprised family in Conroe.

I wrote last Christmas how for almost 50 years, we’ve heard Willie Nelson’s sad ballad Pretty Paper, about holiday shoppers rushing past a disabled street vendor selling pencils and ribbons while crawling “all alone on a sidewalk” downtown.

Dozens of readers who shopped at the old Leonards Department Store remember the man whom Nelson wrote about in 1963, after he left a local radio career for Nashville.

But we never knew the vendor’s name.

Several readers remembered that the man commuted from Santo, in Palo Pinto County, to take his place outside Leonards, where he drew sympathy as he crept along the sidewalk on all fours, wearing clunky gloves and kneepads made from old tires and a custom leather vest with a pencil rack and coin box sewn into the back.

Finally, rancher Bob Neely, 82, of Santo called about his former neighbor, Frankie Brierton.

“You could always hear him in town, dragging himself along the gravel street,” Neely said.

It turns out that Brierton refused a wheelchair. He chose to crawl because that’s what he learned growing up after his legs were weakened by a spinal disorder, said his daughter, Lillian Compte, 84, of Conroe.

She couldn’t figure out why anybody would be asking about her father, who died at 74 in 1973. He’s buried in Mineral Wells.

I told her that I think her father is probably the man in the song, selling gift ribbons and “hoping that you won’t pass him by.”

“It’s a pretty song,” she said.

“But I just never thought of it being about my father.”

Brierton worked as a street vendor in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, she said. Besides his Leonards corners at Second and Houston streets or Second and Throckmorton streets downtown, he sold pencils at the Stock Show, at the State Fair and on Main Street in downtown Houston.

He earned a living without government assistance, Compte said.

“He was my father — that’s all I knew,” she said.

“He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”

Her son, Rick Compte, 58, said he admires his grandfather. And Rick Compte spilled one more secret: Brierton was married seven times.

“You might say,” Rick Compte said, “that he really liked attention.”

He never knew about the song.

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