Willie: Life & Songs OF An American Outlaw, A Willie Nelson All-Star Concert Celebration

photo:  Jason Kempin

It takes a village: A star-studded lineup paid tribute to Willie Nelson on Jan. 12 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena as part of the “Willie: Life & Songs OF An American Outlaw, A Willie NElson All-Star Concert Celebration.” The performance will air later in the year on A&E Networks.

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by:  Glen Peoples

On a drizzly, windy Saturday afternoon in January, with Nashville’s honky-tonk bars buzzing a block away, Keith Wortman sits on a leather chair in a small room backstage at the Bridgestone Arena. In six hours, Chris Stapleton, backed by a top-notch group of players led by Don Was (Wortman’s longtime creative partner), would kick off a memorable tribute to Willie Nelson: “Life and Songs of an American Outlaw.” To Wortman, founder of Blackbird Presents, the first song is the culmination of Blackbird’s latest celebration of a legendary musician.

These star-laden concerts are “what I’ve always dreamed about doing,” Wortman says as three people stand in the doorway waiting for a moment of his time. Organizing the concert is corralling a flurry of moving parts. For “Life & Songs of an American Outlaw,” television played an additive role. “The model is an all-star show for an icon – bring out a Who’s Who of artists, backed by an incredible all-star band, and organize multi-platform distribution, which is to say they all become broadcast specials, not just the concert itself.”

Other types of concerts, namely festivals, count on sponsorships to bolster the bottom line. Blackbird has done roughly 25 all-star celebrations to date. In addition to one-off concerts, Blackbird has the Outlaw Music Festival it produces with Nelson and his manager, Mark Rothbaum. In 2018, 17 Outlaw Music Festival concerts averaged 8,887 tickets sold per night and an average gross of $426,160, according to Pollstar data.

Television effectively subsidizes the concert and, apparently, T-shirts that cost only $20 (an amazingly low price for an arena concert). This particular concert will be televised on A&E later in 2019; previous Blackbird concerts have aired on AMC, CMT, PBS, AXS, and more. “It’s harder to make the economics work because there are a lot of moving pieces and the expenses can get pretty significant,” explained Wortman. “So having a budget from a network certainly helps.” Compensation for artists is part of the business model, although Wortman couldn’t reveal specific numbers. “People are compensated through a number of different ways: expenses, fees, royalties on the products we put out.”

“Life and Songs of an American Outlaw” was like a festival in a bottle, a one-stop shop for Willie Nelson music performed by a multi-day festival-worth of talent. Sure, their appearances were typically limited to a song, and not always a duet with Nelson, but each performance had the emotion of a 30-minute set. The crowd hung on every note. Out of about 16,000 fans in attendance, you could count the people who left early on one hand.

Nelson at 85 years old is due for a tribute concert and brought aboard friends with an authentic connection: they know him, recorded with him, toured with him or cited him as an influence. Sometimes the concert was an easy sell. The Avett Brothers “probably said yes before they finished asking the question,” Seth Avett joked before the show. Having a prior relationship to the star is a requirement for his other concerts, too. Typically when doing these all-star events, Wortman will get calls from record labels trying to get their artists on his show to promote their new albums. These are non-starters. “That’s not an honest conversation.”

Nelson’s Rolodex must have made booking artists easier, but choosing the right lineup is crucial to this type of concert. “It’s a big responsibility. You want to honor the artist and their songs in a meaningful way and you want to put the artists on the show in a special position to succeed. Part of doing that is giving them a big platform, the broadcast.” And while the broadcast’s audience is a lure for the performers, Wortman also wants to preserve the show for posterity. “You’re talking about some of the most epic musical moments.”

Many performers were past participants at Nelson’s roving Farm Aid concert or Outlaw Music Festival (produced by Blackbird with Nelson and his manager, Mark Rothbaum): Jack Johnson, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Sheryl Crow.

Nathaniel Rateliff, who performs with his band The Night Sweats, said he tries to be more involved with Farm Aid every year. Rateliff just happened to have a free day before flying to Europe for a tour. “I would have been bummed to be too busy or if our tour had already started.” Lyle Lovett, who performed “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” noted Nelson’s ability to bring people together.

“Willie’s my hero [and] one of the most special human beings that ever walked the planet.” John Mellencamp, who co-founded Farm Aid with Nelson and Neil Young, and Dave Matthews both turned in memorable performances. Both are Farm Aid board members.

Some relationships go back decades. Vince Gill, who turned in a lovely rendition of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” told the audience he opened for some of Nelson’s shows as a teenager. Susan Tedeschi played Farm Aid in 1999. She and her husband Derek Trucks, who perform as the Tedeschi Trucks Band, played “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces.” Tedeschi followed-up with a duet with Nelson on “City of New Orleans.” Tedeschi and Trucks usually enjoy a quiet period that time of year. “But Willie called,” said Trucks, laughing. Some of the legends had signed Margo Price’s guitar by the time she hit the red carpet before the show. “I’ve been walking around making everybody sign it. So I’ve got Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, Emmylou Harris.”

Nearly every song per-formed was written or co-written by Nelson – with a few exceptions. Jamey Johnson wowed the audience with his version “Georgia on my Mind,” written by a close friend of Nelson’s, Ray Charles. Jack Johnson performed “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took My Money,” an original song he debuted at 2015’s Farm Aid concert.

One performer, in particular, lacked a connection: George Strait. Announced to a standing ovation as “The King of Country,” Strait explained he showed up because he and Nelson had never performed together on stage. Strait showed up with a humorous song written just for the occasion. It was a fitting end to the show before the requisite all-star jam closed the evening with superstar performers backed by an orchestra of guitars.

“Life & Songs of an American Outlaw” worked because it adequately paid tribute to Nelson and his legacy. Look for it on A&E – it’s part of the business model, after all.

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