Archive for the ‘News and Reviews’ Category

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.

New Willie Nelson album, “First Rose of Spring”

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
by: Liz Thomson

Listening to Willie Nelson’s latest album is like pulling on a pair of beloved beat-up cowboy boots. The declarative vocal over simple guitar, a touch of Hammond, a plaintive harmonica and then one of those characteristic country music key changes… and of course a distinctive Nelson guitar solo on his battered old nylon-stringed Martin. The song which gives the album its title is the opener and immediately you’re swept away.

First Rose of Spring is Nelson’s seventieth solo studio album (there’s a score of others) and it was originally scheduled for release in April as he turned 87. Breathing problems forced him to cancel some tour dates last year and as a result he’s given up smoking. The album finds him very much on song.

His is a unique voice, instantly recognisable – the sonic equivalent of a face on Mount Rushmore. It’s remarkably secure for a man of his years, even on the melismata, and his clear diction means he’s always the perfect storyteller, whether singing his own classic songs or those of others. Rose features two new numbers co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, another of country music’s greats: “Blue Star” and “Love Just Laughed.”

Nelson is ever the outlaw, and two songs play to that image: “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”, and “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight”, in which a man “in stripes” dreams of life on the outside in a classic slice of two-chord country.

As for “Just Bummin’ Around”, you half expect to hear Patsy Cline’s voice in this wonderfully retro soft-shoe shuffle. There’s a beguiling honky-tonk account of Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In”, with its homespun advice (“Try to love on your wife/ And stay close to your friends/ Toast each sundown with wine”) which Nelson has certainly heeded. Yet from the poignant title track on, there’s an inevitable sense of mortality about the album, emphasized by its closing track, a cover of the old Charles Aznavour & Herbert Kretzmer number.

But “Yesterday When I Was Young” is sung with defiance as well as resignation and the arrangement is gorgeous, Nelson’s guitar picking preceding the entry of lush strings, harmonica, and pedal steel.  

Nelson won’t “go gentle” anywhere, and hopefully not for a long time. In the last few long weeks, many of us have come a bit “unravelled”, as he sings in “Our Song”, and this is an album to help put us all back together. First Rose of Spring is an album that won’t ever lose its bloom.

Willie Nelson’s, “First Rose of Spring” (review by Mikal Gilmore)

Friday, May 29th, 2020
by: Mikal Gilmore

In 2019, with Ride Me Back Home [LISTEN], Willie Nelson seemed to be winding up a trilogy — begun in 2017 with God’s Problem Child [LISTEN], followed by 2018’s Last Man Standing [LISTEN]— that was largely about mortality. It doesn’t seem surprising that an 87-year-old singer should have the subject in mind, though it’s not something Nelson is necessarily solemn about. In God’s Problem Child’s “Still Not Dead Today,” he addressed the matter of death hoaxes that had alarmed fans and plagued his family with a life-affirming honky-tonk beat, targeting in particular a troubling website report that Nelson had been found dead on his property by a groundskeeper: “Well, I woke up still not dead again today/The gardener did not find me that a way…/I woke up still not dead again today.” In Last Man Standing’s title song — another rowdy-sounding contemplation of life’s bound-to-happen closure, he sang: “I don’t wanna be the last man standin’/Or, wait a minute, maybe I do…/Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry/Like heaven ain’t waitin’ for you.”

This isn’t to suggest Nelson didn’t take the matter seriously. In that same title, he sang: “It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out/It cuts like a wore out knife/One thing I’ve learned about running the road/Is forever don’t apply to life. /Waylon and Ray and Merle…/Lived just as fast as me/I’ve still got a lot of good friends left/And I wonder who the next will be.” He was referring to the deaths of his friends — Waylon Jennings, Ray Price and Merle Haggard. When I once remarked to him that his recent records — which, in addition to this trilogy, have included a duet volume with Merle Haggard and tributes to Ray Price, George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra) amount to an extraordinary period for him, his dark brown eyes flinched. “Considering the fact that we’ve lost a lot of good friends, ‘extraordinary’ is one word for it,” he said. ‘Unfortunate’ is another. You get mixed emotions about all those things.” Buddy Cannon, Nelson’s producer and co-writer of many years (they first worked together in 2008), noted at the time that it’s only in the songs that Willie is willing to address the subject. “I haven’t had any, like, ‘death conversations’ with Willie,” he says. “As far as our songs go, we don’t talk about them. We just write them. But it’s pretty obvious, you know? None of us are getting any younger. People are falling away too quickly anymore.”

First Rose of Spring [LISTEN]seems at first a departure from honky-tonk mortality tales. It’s more plaintive sounding, even rapturous at times, and love — in one way or another — is all over these songs. In the title track — by Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson — that opens the album, an acoustic guitar’s gentle lacework and the married tones of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Mike Johnson’s pedal steel (the “wistful instruments,” says Raphael) create a lulling bedding of sound, as Willie depicts a love-struck awakening: “The first time that he saw her/He knew everything had changed/Overnight love started blooming/Like the first rose of spring.” It’s a rendering of hope in a season of birth and renewal, and the music swells with a steady rhythmic accompaniment that works like a safeguard for hope. Over the next few verses a life of fulfillment unfolds for the narrator whose perspective guides the story. The woman “colored his life, opened his eyes/To things he’d never dream…/Gave him children like a garden/They gave ’em all the love they’d need.” In turn, the man is enduringly grateful: “every year he’d bring her/The first rose of spring.” That is, every year he bestowed upon her a symbolic renewal of their original promise.

Then, as the song nears its end, that safeguard rhythm — the pulse of hope — drops out and the steel wails faintly, like a dream’s vestige. “The last time he saw her,” sings Willie, “He knew everything had changed/He said goodbye and let the tears fall like rain/On the first rose of spring.” Days after hearing the track the first few times I told Cannon I found Willie’s delivery of those moments quietly devastating. The tale turned abruptly from an idyll to a heartbreak — a portrayal of a love that lived until it couldn’t live anymore, the dissolution of a marriage in a couple’s later years. The song doesn’t dwell on it — it’s just one concise verse about a marriage that seemed made for the ages but then lost its promise. Then again, the lyric didn’t need to expound: The rose that, at the beginning, was a symbol of hope ends up covered with tears. It’s now more a funeral flower than a blossoming.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Cannon replied, “this may be the song that was the trigger point to get this album started. I’d sent it to Willie a while back, then one day he e-mailed me and said, ‘I love this song — let’s go in and cut it.’ I guess he had been listening to it. That was before we had started recording the album.” But Cannon also told me that my reading of the song was off — there was a different sorrow at work than the one I’d heard. “It’s a true story, about Randy Houser’s in-laws.”

Houser is a Nashville singer-songwriter who has written for Trace Adkins and Jessie James, as well as recording several albums of his own, including 2019’s Magnolia. “’First Rose of Spring,’ he told me, “is about my wife’s grandmother and her grandfather. They lived on top of this building in Melbourne, Australia. The two of them were life partners — you know, soul mates. He grew roses up there and every year he would bring her the first rose out of the garden. He was a very strong man — a man of stature in business, used to running everything — but he knew he wouldn’t have gone anywhere in life if it hadn’t been for his wife. She got cancer — this was a couple of years ago — and when she was near the end, he walked in with a rose, the first rose of spring. He was saying his good-bye. My wife was present and sent a photo of the moment while he was standing there. I got the idea of wanting to write about this I had the melody and the first lines, and then I took it two master songwriters who I knew, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson. That way I knew it wouldn’t get screwed up.” Shamblin had written songs recorded by Randy Travis, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bonnie Raitt and Mark Wills; Beeson had written for Pat Green, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rhimes and Blake Shelton. “I wanted to honor what that couple went through but truth is, I never heard anybody singing the song other than Willie. I never pitched Willie a song before — never thought I had anything good enough to pitch him.”

What was it in Willie’s voice that made Houser write the song with him in mind?

“It wasn’t just Willie’s voice,” he replied, “but Willie’s life. This is a story that a person with experience should be telling — not a 44-year-old singer like myself. Willie asked me at one point, ‘You’re not going to put that song out yourself?’ I told him, ‘Willie, that’s your song. That song was started for you. I don’t believe me as much as I do you on this song.’”

Did I say that First Rose of Spring seemed a departure from the mortality cycle? Instead, mortality is there right at the start — but it sneaks up on us. What makes the moment so effective is how it weaves memory with tense. That is, it’s a past tense song that, in the intimacy Willie’s voice, feels like a present-tense story — like something the singer chooses, or more likely needs, to share with you directly. But he doesn’t tell you what he’s going to tell you until he tells you. It’s a simple but powerful story-telling technique, and Houser is right in thinking that Nelson imbues it with a distinctive believability. This is a trait that Willie has put to good use in his nearly sixty years of record making. He does it so well, in fact, that we sometimes receive a song that Willie didn’t write — for example, “Always on my Mind” — foremost as a Willie song. He share’s this skill with his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra, who is also closely identified with songs he sang but didn’t write, yet we reflexively identify them as Sinatra’s. (Nelson himself recorded a whole volume of then on 2018’s My Way [LISTEN].) Willie, of course, has written dozens of his own evergreens; Sinatra only helped pen one, “I’m a Fool to Want You.” But no matter: Sinatra owned a song when he performed it. “Whatever else has been said about me,” once told an interviewer, “is unimportant. When I sing, I believe.” Nelson employs that same approach — as colloquial as it is musical — in “First Rose of Spring” and elsewhere on this album. It’s as if he is sitting in some room, after midnight, talking to someone — to a friend, to you, to me — sharing a living thought or an enduring memory. That style was one of the reasons that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Nashville producers didn’t figure out how to record Nelson. They thought his singing was too colloquial: It disregarded strict tempo — it would quicken or slacken — though without altering the overall pace. Nashville couldn’t accommodate that idiosyncrasy. Like Sinatra — or Billie Holiday, for that matter — Nelson was trying to tell a story as much as sing a song. Of course, this is now recognized as an essential quality of Willie’s greatness, and Buddy Cannon knows how to accommodate it to its best effect. “Willie’s a jazz singer,” he says, “and jazz player. He’s an improvisational musician. Why play and sing the parts over and over and over? It’s going to be different every time. Get a good one and go with it…. There’s no coaching Willie. It would take someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, at least where he’s concerned, to go out there and try to tell him how to sing.”

“Our Song” written by Chris Stapleton, the second single from First Rose Of Spring

Indeed, Willie always finds a matchless way with a song, and that includes the ones he hasn’t written himself, by others he admires. (Bob Dylan once noted that when Willie Nelson sings a song, then it has been sung.) One such songwriter is Chris Stapleton, whose “Our Song” Nelson premieres here. Willie’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael had also recorded and performed with Stapleton whose been seen by some as continuing the Outlaw tradition and whose music plumbs depths of loss and love. “Chris is just one of these great songwriters and great guys and great guitar players,” says Raphael. “Willie had heard me talk about him or play some of his music, then he became a fan of his too. It’s kind of a natural fit, the two of them. I was with Chris one time and he said, ‘I wrote this song for Willie.’ He played it for me and I said, ‘You’ve got to send it to him.’ Chris was kind of hemming and hawing, but then he just got out his iPhone and recut a demo right there in the dressing room. I pushed him to send it to Buddy.” The producer immediately liked it. “I sent it down to Willie and he liked it, too,” says Buddy. “I had Chris come in and sing the scratch vocal on it when we cut the track, so I could get it as close to the way I was feeling it as I could.” The result is something that’s brand new yet feels like a pledge of love and grace that’s already indelible in our memory: “In these miles that we have traveled/You’ve watched me come unraveled/And you’ve put me back together again,” Nelson sings in a voice that recognizes the song’s frame of heart. “And when darkness hung around/You kept my feet there on the ground/And you held me like a lover and a friend.” “It’s kind of Willie-esque,” says Cannon. Says Stapleton: “I can easily say Willie Nelson is one of my biggest musical influences. For me it just doesn’t get any better than hearing him sing a song I wrote.”

That intimate manner of Nelson’s — his ability to talk to us directly — and his attraction to telling stories in which the singer and the listener are living in the same moment, also interact with how memory works in two other songs here, including “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight.” The song — a different kind of prison tale — was written by Whitey Shafer and Doodle Owens for an underrated 1974 Merle Haggard album, If We Make It Through December, and it fit that late artist’s persona as a one-time convict. Haggard’s version played as a late-night barroom account, more honky-tonk than doleful, whereas Willie’s feels more chilling: It’s solitary. The song’s title alone seems to be setting us up for a jailbreak tale. Instead, a prisoner takes us inside his mind, where the only escape available to him, night after night, is in the form of dreams and imagination: “These walls and bars can’t hold a dreamin’ man,” intones Willie, “So I’ll be home to tuck the babies in/They can chain my body, but not my mind/And I’ll break out again tonight.” Cannon told me: “The guy’s a little bit out of his mind, but in being out of his mind he found a way to live. It’s how he stays close to the people he loves.”

Internal brooding also figures into “Stealing Home, a song by Buddy’s daughter, Marla Cannon-Goodman (with Casey Beathard and Don Sampson), an unwanted past becomes a haunting present. “Being young got old, I couldn’t wait to grow up,” the singer relates. “When I finally hit 18 I got out of this tired old town.” But on a return visit, the singer realizes that something inestimable got forsworn by fleeing, and can’t be found again: “Little sister’s not right down the hall/Rex ain’t around to fetch his ball/No need to ride to grandma’s down the road/Damn old Father Time for stealing home.” Marla, who also co-wrote “Unfair Weather Friend” on Nelson’s 2015 album with Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmy, wrote the song eighteen years ago and had long imagined Nelson recording it. “I knew he liked it because he told me he did,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘Maybe one of these days, maybe one of these days.’ Then, finally…one of these days.” It proved worth the wait. Like Randy Houser, Marla knew the voice it was meant for. “It’s funny being a songwriter,” she says, “because you hear the song a certain way in your head. But the way it makes me feel in my head now is the way Willie sounds when he sings it.”

The other considerable theme on First Rose of Spring is age. “Blue Star,” which follows “First Rose of Spring” feels of a piece with the prior song, “First Rose of Spring.” Indeed, it could work as a sequel, if death can be said to have a sequel. The music fits the same tone of reverie of the title song, and the lyrics move in the same straits of undying love. “You know I’ll follow you to the end,” sings Nelson, “Whenever that is we both will know. /And I will follow you again/Anywhere that love can go.” The singer is implicitly older than the person he is singing to; he knows he’s the one who could go first: “And if I beat you to the end/I’ve had a big head start its true/We’re just riding on the wind/Still the same ol’ me and you/And when we reach the heaven’s bright/I’ll be the blue star on your right.” The singer is talking to the person he loves, and whom he doesn’t intend to leave forever when life ends. He’ll be out there, waiting.

Willie also mines the subject of age in other key songs here: neo-traditionalist country artist Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” and “French chanteur and songwriter Charles Aznavour “Yesterday When I Was Young.” Keith was 58 when he wrote “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” for Clint Eastwood’s 2018 film The Mule. Both the song and the film are about the same thing: an aged man who won’t let his age impede him. When Toby premiered the song, he related the tale of playing at Eastwood’s Carmel golf tournament in 2018 when he learned that the actor’s 88th birthday was coming up in two days. Toby asked the actor how he planned to celebrate the occasion and Eastwood said: “Funny you should ask. I am leaving tomorrow to shoot a movie for three months called The Mule.” Keith was surprised. At his age and stature, Eastwood could easily have retired. He didn’t have to make or appear in films anymore. Toby wondered where that sort of energy comes from. Eastwood replied: “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.” Keith thought, “I’m writing that.” What Toby came up with was a statement of understanding: He put himself in the shoes of somebody 30 years older than himself and envisioned the person’s mettle: “I knew all of my life, that someday it would end/Get up and go outside, don’t let the old man in.” After Eastwood heard it, he featured the song over the film’s closing credits. And when Buddy Cannon heard it, he wanted to bring Willie’s voice to it. “I think it’s the best song Toby Keith’s ever written,” says the producer. Though Keith wrote “Don’t Let the Old Man In” for Eastwood, it could have been tailor-made for Nelson as his credo. Sings Willie: “I knew all of my life/That someday it would end/Get up and go outside/Don’t let the old man in/Many moons I have lived/My body’s weathered and worn/Ask yourself how old you’d be/If you didn’t know the day you were born.” In Willie’s case, not letting the old man in has been a way of life for some time. Says Toby Keith about Nelson’s recording of the song: “Through the years I’ve always enjoyed the many times I’ve got to share a guitar or a stage or a song with Willie. It’s truly an honor anytime he records one of my songs. ‘Don’t Let the Old Man In’: He killed it.”

Though Charles Aznavour (once dubbed a “French pop deity” by the New York Times) was 94 when died in 2018, like Keith he wrote a masterpiece about old age while he was still relatively young — just 54, in 1964. “Yesterday When I Was Young” assumed the outlook of a man nearing the end of his life, looking back at his younger wastrel years, realizing he’d bypassed his better self and it was now too late to reclaim lost time. Buddy Cannon says he long had the idea of Nelson recording the song, but held off. “I guess I was thinking maybe he wouldn’t want to sing about not being young anymore, but eventually he sent it to me. I was excited about getting a chance to do that song because it is a great piece of material. Willie’s version is like a Sinatra song — a crooner song. The chord structure and melody are more pop than country. You could have plugged that song into the Stardust album. It’s just a classic saloon-vibe.”

“Yesterday When I Was Young” is certainly an interesting choice for Willie Nelson. Some lines fit him well: “Yesterday, when I was young/So many happy songs were waiting to be sung.” Others, though, don’t. When he sings, “There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung…/The time has come for me to pay for/Yesterday, when I was young,” it’s hard to envision Willie with that brand of contrition. After all, almost nobody has sung so many songs. and sung them so definitively. as Willie Nelson. What moves us about this version, though, is that like Sinatra, when Nelson sings, he believes. That’s more than method acting: It’s empathy — which is Willie’s single greatest facet as a singer. He understands the down-deep experience of his subjects because, matchless accomplishments or not, he also has felt such pain and yearning. Willie can commune with regret because he’s felt it — and just as important, he commiserates with those, young and old, who have felt also loss or remorse.

Just as important, Willie Nelson’s singing also signifies affinity for those who feel dispossessed. On last year’s Ride Me Back Home he covered Guy Clark and Roger Murrah’s “Immigrant Eyes. This time he covers something by another giant of Texas songwriting and poetry, Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe is the originator of country music’s 1970s Outlaws movement. Shaver’s larger-than-life and roughhewn, and widely revered — elegant in his words, and loving and compassionate to not just friends but to those in need of tolerance and mercy.

“We Are the Cowboys” is a surprisingly little-known song, first recorded by Shaver on I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal in 1981, and again on an album, Honky Tonk Heroes, by a collective of Shaver, Willie, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in 1999 (produced by Shaver’s late son, Eddy, at Nelson’s studio in Pedernales, Texas). Willie wanted to record a new rendition because, as was the case with “Immigrant Eyes,” this is a statement whose time has come again. Like much of what’s on First Rose of Spring, the song begins in familiar territory then delivers you someplace surprising. “The cowboys are riding tall in the saddle/They shoot from the heart with the songs that they play/We are the cowboys, the true sons of freedom/We are the men who will get the job done.” This is familiar enough iconic imagery, but then the song proclaims the sort creed not heard before in cowboy anthems: “Cowboys are average American people/Texicans, Mexicans, black men and Jews/They love this old world and they don’t want to lose it/They’re counting on me and they’re counting on you.” When Mickey Raphael and I were discussing the song he said, “I don’t know that many Jewish cowboys, but the metaphor there is fabulous.” And brave. We come to think of a cowboy, as Cannon pointed out to me, as “the good guy — the guy in the white hat,” but we might not readily think of the cowboy as standing for equal racial rights and social goodwill. In spotlighting the song, Willie makes plain that that’s what the truly good guys should be doing, for the sake of us all: “The world will breathe easy when we stop the bleeding/The fighting will end when all hunger is gone/There are those who are blind so we’ll all have to lead them/It’s everyone’s job till we get the work done.” If “We Are the Cowboys” is a song overlooked for nearly forty years, Willie Nelson has brought it back alive at just the right time, and he infuses it with the sorrow and hope that our land today calls for.

First Rose of Spring, then, is another remarkable entry by Willie Nelson in a latter-day canon that began with God’s Problem Child in 2017, and has continued through Last Man Standing and Ride Me Back Home. I called those first three albums a trilogy, but with this work (as well as the 2018 Sinatra tribute, My Way) maybe it’s better to think of these as a cycle. At the same time, descriptors like trilogy and cycle are just a critic’s construction, imposed on a continuing series of some of the finest original albums that any artist has produced, in any genre, in his or her autumnal phase. As Buddy Cannon told me, they didn’t set out with the idea of creating a unified body of work. “When we’re making a record we’re just trying to find the best songs we can find and that I can get the singer to agree with me on. They don’t begin as cohesive albums on the front end. It’s more about me finding ten or twelve songs fit well together. If something doesn’t fit, you discard it and find something that does fit.”

Still, the themes are there: mortality, heartbreak, memory and courage and American ideals, with love and death as the great levelers. But then Willie Nelson has always sung about these things, with inimitable insight and grace. A while back, when I brought up the idea of these works as making for a collective whole, Cannon said, “Just think of each album as the page of a book. Willie never stops turning the pages.” Nelson himself acknowledged as much on last year’s Ride Me Back Home: “I’ve got one more song to write/I’ve got one more bridge to burn/I’ve got one more endless night/One more lesson to be learned…/ There ain’t no secrets left to hide/My life’s an open book/Turn the page and have a look.” It’s a testament to the man and his art that we so often find traces of ourselves and our land on those pages.

Read article here.

Willie Nelson, Long May You Run

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

Willie Nelson
by:  James Beaty

A few weeks ago I mentioned how Paul McCartney recently spoke about people sometimes asking him when he’s retiring.

McCartney, who is 76, said when he later ran into Willie Nelson — who McCartney said “is even older than I am” — he asked Willie when he expected to retire.

McCartney said Nelson, who is 85, replied by asking “Retire from what?” That’s all the encouragement McCartney needed.

During the past few weeks, both McCartney and Willie have released new albums — and they’ve both shot up the Billboard album charts.

McCartney’s new album “Egypt Station” debuted at the number one spot on the Billboard Top 200 upon its release.

Willie’s new album of Frank Sinatra’s songs titled “My Way” debuted at number 2 on Billboard’s Jazz Album charts when released two weeks ago and has since remained in locked in the number 2 position because another couple of artists have kept a lock on the number 1 spot for the past couple of weeks — 92-year-old Tony Bennett, whose new duet album with Diana Krall, titled “Love Is Here to Stay,” debuted at the top spot and so far hasn’t budged.

Not to worry though. Willie’s “My Way” debuted in the top 40 of Billboard Top 200 chart, which covers all genres, peaking at the number 36 position. “My Way” is not listed on Billboard’s Country Music Charts. Go figure.

Bennett and Willie are followed on the Billboard Jazz Album charts by Paul Simon, who is 76 and recently completed his Homeward Bound Farewell Tour.

Simon’s not the only musician of his era to say they’re ready to quit the road. Both Elton John, 71, and Joan Baez, 77, are currently in the midst of farewell tours. That’s not the case with Baez’s former companion, Bob Dylan, who at 77 keeps up a relentless touring schedule, with concert stops scheduled for Tulsa and Thackerville, Oklahoma, on Oct. 12 and 13.

Baez has said Dylan doesn’t have to worry about the condition of his throat like she does. How do you know, Joan? No telling how hard he’s worked to achieve that sandpaper and gravel sound. (I’ve never known of Dylan canceling a concert because of a raspy, sore throat, though. No problem— just keep singing).

Speaking of concerts, both McCartney and Willie are well-known road warriors — especially Willie, who is constantly on the road again.

Both are also in the midst of current tours — with McCartney performing last night, Oct. 5, during his Freshen Up Tour as headliner for the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas. He’s returning for what is billed as Weekend 2 for another concert next Friday, Oct. 12, before embarking for Japan at the end of the month and then playing selected European dates in December, including a homecoming date in his native Liverpool.

He’s set to return to the U.S. on May 23, 2019, with a kickoff concert in New Orleans. (Alas, no Oklahoma dates are included at this point).

Although Willie is strongly identified with Austin, he won’t be able to join his buddy McCartney onstage next weekend. That’s because Willie is kicking off another tour on Oct. 12 that includes a concert date in Nevada and a swing across California.

Willie’s fans in the Sooner State can rejoice, however, because his tour includes a Nov. 24 concert at WinStar World Casino Resort in Thackerville — the tour’s last stop before he winds it up with four dates in Texas — including a three-night stint in Austin performing with his son, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, a band which often includes another son, Micah Nelson.

So while some of their contemporaries are going into self-proclaimed retirements, I’ll congratulate and encourage Willie, McCartney, Bennett, Dylan and all those who keep on keepin’ on with the title of a Neil Young song.

“Long May You Run.”

Willie Nelson at the Houston Rodeo (2020)

Friday, May 15th, 2020

On March 4, exactly a week before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo came screeching to a halt thanks to the coronavirus, 86-year-old Willie Nelson took to the rodeo stage for the ninth—or, if you count his two early-’90s stands with outlaw supergroup the Highwaymen—eleventh time.

Well before that night’s appearance, before COVID-19 became the biggest public-health threat in living memory, some fans had been wondering if this might be Willie’s last time to grace the rodeo stage. His December announcement that he’d quit smoking pot had seemed like a turning point. And then, a few weeks before the rodeo, Paul English, Willie’s best friend, fixer, and longtime drummer, passed away.

English, who joined Willie’s band in 1966, was known to pack heat in case a shady promoter wouldn’t pay up. One of Willie’s very best songs is “Me and Paul,” written about the duo’s late-’60s touring travails, but he didn’t play it at the rodeo— too soon, perhaps.

Willie’s show drew an announced attendance of 70,479, handily outdistancing significantly younger artists including Midland, Chance the Rapper, Maren Morris, and K-Pop group NCT 127. We were there in the crowd somewhere—something that would be unthinkable only days later, and should have been unthinkable even then— there to once again pay homage to the Red-Headed Stranger, and to take the crowd’s emotional temperature about the beloved Texas icon slowing down.

Haley Matejowsky, waiting in a T-shirt line with her grandmother, told us Willie represents “childhood with my grandpa, growing up dancing on my grandpa’s feet to his music.”

Jordan Michael, a young man from Tomball, echoed her memories. “When I was growing up, my grandfather used to listen to a lot of the old-school country music, Willie Nelson included, on the back porch,” he said. “So for me it’s just that memory of sitting out on the back porch with him and listening to the old songs. I like the old outlaw-country music style, and Willie’s kind of the last of that  generation.”

Jordan’s dad, Steve, joined him on the concourse of NRG Center. “It’s the end of an era, really, so it’s good to come see some of that before the new generation takes their spot, and just reminisce about some of the old days,” Steve said. “It’s all good, old and new, but it’s a genre whose time is coming to an end.”

 You think of the Hill Country, you think of Willie Nelson.

Summer Jackson, a fourth-year rodeo volunteer, was stationed near a merch booth on NRG Stadium’s lower level. “I like that he’s kind of a free spirit,” she said. “I like that he’s not into government control, and I like that he’s kind of like live-and-let-live. I think a lot of people can relate to that no matter your ethnicity or political background.”

An overwhelming number of people we talked to were seeing Willie for the first time. Houstonians MJ and Larry, who grew up northeast of the city in Dayton, were taking a smoke break before the singer went onstage. MJ had tickets to Willie’s last rodeo performance, in 2017, but had other obligations, so he’d passed them along to his parents.

“I’m here now,” he said. “My turn.”

“That’s a piece of Americana right there,” Larry added. “Texas history, Texas art, everything. You think of the Hill Country, you think of Willie Nelson.”

“That’s right,” MJ said.

“The guy’s amazing,” offered Larry. “It just gives me chills thinking about him.”

Dylan Wallace of Katy told us he’d missed the 2017 show as well. “Now that he’s getting really old,” Wallace said, “I wanted to come see him before it was too late.”

While Willie did appear to shed a tear halfway through “Always on My Mind,” he nevertheless gave precious little indication this would be his last rodeo. On loan from his own band Promise of the Real, his son Lukas Nelson made an invigorating addition, particularly on a stinging version of “Texas Flood.”

But the old man more than held his own. He gave faithful guitar Trigger a proper thrashing on “Whiskey River,” lit up sticky-icky odes “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and wryly grinned through 2017’s “Still Not Dead.” “Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play,” he sang. “And I woke up still not dead again today.”

Later in the set, Willie ripped into Johnny Paycheck’s outlaw anthem “I’m the Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised),” a sneer on his lips and impish gleam in his eye. Damned if he won’t outlive us all.

Willie Nelson gives back masks, autographed

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

HOUSTON, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – While making face masks to give out during the coronavirus pandemic, a Texas resident said she also wanted to send some to country music legend Willie Nelson and his wife.

However, as KTRK reports, Nelson decided to pay it forward by, instead, signing those face masks so that the resident could auction them off and use the money for materials to make more masks.

Houston resident Tanya Boike started making masks with the help of a local nurse, Monica Cabazos, as restrictions were being put into place by government officials to stop the spread of COVID-19. So far, they’ve made and given out over 500 masks.

“I remembered about us as a community during Harvey and the flooding we had. I said, everybody was helping each other,” Cabazos said.

Boike told KTRK she met Nelson’s granddaughter, Noelle Ward, several years ago and wanted to send some face masks to the 86-year-old singer and his wife. After sending them, Boike got quite the surprise.

“[Noelle] texted me a few minutes later and said ‘pops would rather sign these and have them auction them off. That way you can get more materials and keep making these masks for free.’ I just lost it. That’s not what I had made them for,” Boike said.

Ward said that’s just how her grandfather is.

Willie Nelson defines American Music

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

photo: Robert Mora/Getty Images
by: Edward Norris

Willie Nelson grew to greatness while country music was also maturing as a distinct art form. He was born in 1933, a month before Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music died, and the same year Bob Wills formed the Texas Playboys. Nelson’s arrival into the world came a decade before the Carter Family disbanded and Ernest Tubb joined the Grand Ole Opry.

Born in Abbott, Texas and raised by his paternal grandparents, Nelson was learning the guitar and writing songs before he reached his teens. He would go on to become one of the most recorded and recognizable figures in the history of American music, regardless of genre. Along the way he would record 70 studio albums, 33 live albums, 25 albums with other artists, and soundtracks for movies he appeared or starred in. The number of singles he’s done for and with other artists are beyond counting.

Between 1962, when he charted his first single, and 2000, by which time his chart appearances as a singles artist had become rare, Nelson charted 117 songs.

Here’s a quick look at the Old Master’s contributions, honors and impacts during eight decades.

The 1950s

Nelson plays in local bands, books artists, promotes shows, and works as a DJ at stations in Texas and Vancouver, Washington. In 1957, he releases “No Place for Me,” his first self-written, self-recorded and self-promoted single. It’s issued under the Willie Nelson Records label. Embedded from

The 1960s

In 1960, Nelson moves to Nashville and signs his first publishing deal. He begins getting major cuts from prominent country artists. Faron Young has a No. 1 in 1961 with “Hello Walls.” Billy Walker takes “Funny How Time Slips Away” to No. 23 the same year. Patsy Cline rings up a No. 2 with “Crazy,” also in 1961.

Nelson signs with Liberty Records in 1962 and proceeds to have a Top 10 that year with “Willingly,” a song recorded with his future wife, Shirley Collie. He does even better with his next single, “Touch Me,” his own composition, which rises to No. 7. That will be his biggest chart success as a recording act for the rest of the decade. But he has accumulated enough stature to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. Embedded from

The 1970s

This is the decade that Nelson develops into full bloom. Chastened by his lack of success as a recording artist in Nashville, Nelson moves back to Texas, where he gradually evolves from the clean-cut, turtle-neck wearing dandy into the hippie persona he will inhabit for the rest of his life.

He stages the first of his cross-cultural music festivals July 4, 1973, in Dripping Springs, Texas. In 1975, he releases his bare bones concept album, Red Headed Stranger (which producer Billy Sherrill described as sounding like “a bad demo”). It becomes a big hit and yields Nelson — by now 44 years old — his first No. 1 single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The landmark song also nets him his first Grammy. Embedded from
The next year, RCA, Nelson’s former label, assembles an album of formerly unreleased tracks by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser of the Glaser Brothers. It’s titled Wanted! The Outlaws and launches the “outlaw” movement.

With future classics like “Good Hearted Woman,” it not only romanticizes Waylon & Willie, but inspires other artists to exert more control over the music they record, including writing or choosing the songs and, often, recording with their own bands rather than with studio musicians. The project becomes country’s first platinum album. Embedded from
Nelson turns out six more No. 1s during the 1970s, two of them with Jennings. In 1978, with his recording success to give him leverage, Nelson records an entire album of pop songs he’d loved in his youth — Stardust. It, too, becomes a bestseller and stays on the country chart for 10 years!

Nelson becomes something of a movie star in 1979 via his supporting role in the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda film, The Electric Horseman. By the end of the decade, he has a total of three Grammys on his shelf, all for his vocal performances. Embedded from

The 1980s

This might be described as the “Willie & Me” decade because it’s bursting with duet efforts. During it, he records albums with Ray Price, Roger Miller, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings (2), Merle Haggard (2), Kris Kristofferson, Faron Young and Hank Snow.

Then there are his collaborative No. 1 hits: “Just to Satisfy You” (with Jennings), “Pancho and Lefty” (Haggard), “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (Julio Iglesias), “Seven Spanish Angels” (Ray Charles), “Highwayman” (Jennings, Kristofferson, Johnny Cash) and “Mind Your Own Business” (Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire, Tom Petty, Reverend Ike). Embedded from
May of his own solo hits during this era are now considered classics: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and “Always on My Mind,” to name a few.

Concerned about the number of American family farms going into bankruptcy, Nelson co-founds Farm Aid in 1985. Except for two years, it has been held annually ever since, always with Nelson co-headlining it. Nelson also acts in several movies during the 1980s, notably Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Barbarossa (1982), The Songwriter (1984) and Red Headed Stranger (1987). He adds three more Grammys to his collection, including the President’s Merit Award in 1986. Embedded from

The 1990s

Talk about emotional extremes! Discovering that his accountants have failed to pay his taxes, Nelson begins the ’90s deep in debt and stripped of most of his assets. With typical resourcefulness, he sits down with just his guitar and records the ironically titled 1991 album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? It doesn’t settle his debt, but it helps, and it nets him tons of useful publicity.

Then, only two years later, he’s inducted the Country Music Hall of Fame. Among the 14 studio albums he turns out during this decade are two with his piano-playing sister, Bobbie Nelson: the gospel collection How Great Thou Art and Hill Country Christmas. Embedded from
His choice of material ranges from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on 1992’s Across the Borderline to his own self-written, self-produced tracks on 1996’s Spirit. In 1999, he turns to producer Daniel Lanois to create the more musically adventurous collection, Teatro, with Emmylou Harris guesting. It features several of Nelson’s earlier but less known compositions.

The 2000s

Nelson begins the new century receiving a lifetime achievement Grammy, then collects another Grammy for “Mendocino County Line,” a duet with Lee Ann Womack. In 2003, he and Ray Price release the album Run That By Me One More Time. The same year, he joins admirer Toby Keith for the single “Beer For My Horses,” which promptly gallops into No. 1. Embedded from
SiriusXM rebrands its classic country station in 2006 from Hank’s Place to Willie’s Place (and, in 2011, Willie’s Roadhouse). Nelson, Price and Merle Haggard return to the studio to record the poignant 2007 collection Last of the Breed, with its pensive track “Lost Highway” winning a Grammy.

In 2009, Nelson tips his hat to fellow Texan and Hall of Fame songwriter with the tribute album You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker. In a more lively turn, he teams up in 2009 with the western swing band Asleep at the Wheel to pump out Willie and the Wheel. As he periodically does, he returns to the Great American Songbook for his final album of the decade, American Classics. It features guest appearances by Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Embedded from
The 2010s

Nelson continues to try his hand with new producers and new backup musicians in 2010 when he pairs with T. Bone Burnett for the album Country Music. (Burnett had worked his career-revivalist wonders earlier in the decade with Ralph Stanley.) The album digs deep in the traditional country repertoire to spotlight such great perennials as “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Freight Train Boogie,” “House of Gold” and “I Am a Pilgrim.”

Nelson reunites with Merle Haggard in 2015 for Django & Jimmie, a loving tribute to Nelson’s idol, the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and Haggard’s chief inspiration, Jimmie Rodgers. Haggard dies the following year. Two albums earn Nelson best traditional pop vocal Grammys: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (2016) and My Way (2018), his hat-doffing to the songs of Frank Sinatra. Embedded from

The 2020s

Earlier this year, Nelson won his 10th career Grammy Award for the title track of his 2019 album, Ride Me Back Home, in the category of best country solo performance. He promises his 70th studio album for July 2020, First Rose of Spring. It rings out with such eternals as “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight,” “Just Bummin’ Around,” “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” and “Yesterday When I Was Young.”

Willie Nelson IS American music — and he’s got the records to prove it.