by: Brian Mull
Over the last seven decades the American icon has written and recorded songs that transcend genres and generations. He’s influenced and inspired thousands of musicians on the ride and shared the tunes through perpetual touring with his family band. Nelson turned 83 last month and just keeps on playing.
In advance of such a highly anticipated concert at an idyllic venue, we asked area musicians to offer their thoughts on Willie.
Eric Miller is the lead singer and primary songwriter in Wilmington band L Shape Lot, which will open the show for Nelson. Miller was in high school and a self-described “hip-hop kid” when he first heard Nelson’s 1975 concept album “Red Headed Stranger.” Miller describes the opportunity to open this show as a career highlight.
“He’s my all-time hero,” Miller said. “He’s timeless and there’s a purity to who he is as an artist. For a blue-collar musician like myself this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Wilmington singer-songwriter Jim Ashley was one of Nelson’s lucky fans to snag tickets, which sold out in minutes when they went on sale online two months ago.
“I’ve been a big fan since the ’70s,” Ashley wrote in a Facebook message. “I saw him live for the first time in 2012 at Brunswick Community College. And I was blown away! I had heard all the songs, all the albums, I had seen him on ‘Austin City Limits’ and other TV shows. But seeing him live was amazing. His guitar playing especially, he is one of those players that it’s like the guitar is part of him.”
“I don’t play many of his songs,” Ashley added, “and I don’t sound anything like Willie. But I still consider him one of my biggest influences.”
Benji Smith plays stand up bass in Wilmington band No Dollar Shoes.
“For me, growing up, my father only had Willie Nelson tapes and that’s about all he listened to,” Smith said. “I remember blaring that in his old MG convertible driving through corn fields while he would let me steer at 5 years old. Good times.”
Smith’s bandmate, guitarist Jesse Jewell, is also planning to attend the show. He described Nelson as a national treasure who has inspired every musician he knows.
“I’ve always respected Willie for his ability to write serious/heartbreaking songs, all while maintaining the element of fun,” Jewell said. “Lots of songwriters seem to only be capable of either silly or depressing. Willie has always been able to find middle ground.”
Wilmington musician Big Al Hall recalled watching Nelson perform at Farm Aid IV in the late 1980s. There was a revolving stage as the main acts rotated. Nelson spent time there, of course, but also played on the side stage, where he entertained fans between sets. He must have played with 100 different musicians that day, Hall said.
“He’s been a huge inspiration,” Hall said. “I take pride in doing a weekly bluegrass jam (at the Satellite Bar & Lounge). He kept things local when he reinvented himself in Texas. He started a model where a lot of musicians do not have to leave the state of Texas to have a successful touring life. The heart of who he is always comes through in everything he does. His writing is so strong and he approaches music like it’s supposed to be played and shared.”
Wilmington musician and actor Zach Hanner grew up in a musical family in Pilot Mountain, N.C. His introduction to Nelson was also the “Red Headed Stranger” album.
“I just remember listening to it over and over,” Hanner said. “You hear that guitar (Trigger) with the giant hole in it and immediately you know who is playing.”
Hanner lived in New York City in the ’90s, when he saw Nelson play at a club called Tramp’s. Even though Nelson was in his 60s at the time, he played for over three hours.
If you think about it, it’s a phenomenal feat for one person to record songs with artists as diverse as Waylon Jennings, Snoop Dogg, Ray Charles, Keith Richards and Wynton Marsalis and deliver the goods each time.
“I think that Willie has been popular with musicians across the genres because he obviously feels a connection with them, through music,” Jewell said. “He’s such a genuine guy that they feel that connection as well.”