Sticking with Willie
by: Scott Hollifield

I went to a Willie Nelson show and a news event broke out.

In Charlotte, thousands of us hooted and hollered our way through the second stop of the 2018 Outlaw Music Festival, waiting for Willie to close out the festivities with “Whiskey River” and “Amazing Grace” and a bunch of Willie standards in between.

Willie appeared, then disappeared. A little time passed and Willie appeared again, picked up his guitar, set down his guitar, whipped his cowboy hat into the crowd and left. An hour later, the disembodied venue voice informed us that, due to illness, Willie would not return that evening, drive safely, Uber wisely and adios.

The part about whipping his cowboy hat into the audience I later confirmed through a YouTube clip because I was seated far back on the lawn in the only seats journalists can afford when they don’t have press credentials.

“What just happened?” asked one of my lawn mates.

“It’s hard to tell, but I think someone walked onto the stage — might have been Willie or maybe even Crystal Gayle — and threw something into the audience,” I said, squinting toward the stage. “Maybe a hat or a small dog.”

It didn’t take long for the non-show to become a news event. The Youtube clip went viral and media outlets were all over it, some noting that Willie looked more angry than sick in the clip.

The reason doesn’t much matter to me. At 85 years old, Willie has earned the right to stay all night, stay a little longer or turn around and get back on the road again. I stood by Willie more than 40 years ago and I don’t mind standing by him again, especially since I got a refund.

Willie released the “Red Headed Stranger” album in 1975. I had never heard much by Willie Nelson before, but the song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on the radio got my attention and I soon acquired the album, likely from the Columbia Record Club, which I probably still owe.

It was one of the most remarkable records I had ever heard, a concept album that tells the tale of a gun-toting, broken-hearted preacher turned fugitive.I nearly wore it out on my turntable.

“I can’t wait for my friends to hear this,” said young Scotty, flashing a gap-toothed grin and holding the album cover aloft like the Holy Grail. “They are going to love it.”

Turns out that in 1975, western concept albums with sparse arrangements weren’t big with the 11- and 12-year-old set. The top pop songs of the day included “Mandy” by Barry Manilow, “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain & Tennille and “Jive Talkin” by the Bee Gees.

Willie didn’t impress them at that point, but just like the Red Headed Stranger, I stuck to my guns and I kept listening. Eventually, most of the naysayers came around to my way of thinking.

So, I’m sticking by Willie, in sickness and in health. And if by chance Willie somehow reads this and would like to reimburse my lawn mates and me for the $250 we spent on beer, that would be fine, too.

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