by: Patrick Cassidy
The soundtrack of my memories growing up in the fields and woods of northern Virginia is the music of John Denver and Willie Nelson.
John Denver’s “Country Roads” and Willie’s “On the Road Again” still remind me of where I come from and what lies ahead.
While John Denver died in a plane crash 15 years ago, Willie – who enjoys that rarefied one-name status – is still traveling from town to town, still wooing audiences with his predictable but enjoyable list of favorites.
At 79 years old, Willie returned to the Melody Tent in Hyannis Thursday night to kick off the venue’s summer season, bringing with him that sense of down-home nostalgia his music inevitably elicits.
Despite the heat he rolled through the 90-minute set with apparent ease, plucking at notes and lyrics as if giving them a chance to escape but rarely letting them get too far before sticking them more or less back in place.
The “Whiskey River” opener was obvious, as were the next few songs: “Still is Still Moving to Me,” “Beer for My Horses,” and the classic, conversational medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Nightlife.”
The familiar lineup, however, is perhaps Willie’s greatest draw.
As he entered the tent – the silhouette of his black cowboy hat and his long braids prompting cheers from the crowd – Willie did what comes naturally: He made himself at home.
With his old guitar Trigger riding along and the Melody Tent’s rotating stage putting him face-to-face with his fans, Willie soon replaced the cowboy hat with one of his many iconic red bandanas, quickly throwing each one he wrapped around his head into the crowd. He eased his way into songs and coaxed the crowd along with him in the refrains to “Beer for My Horses” which he wrote with Toby Keith and the Waylon Jennings collaboration “Good Hearted Woman.” The crowd came prepared, rising from their seats for the occasional ovation, some bowing and many ignoring the no cameras rule to get their shots of the melodic minstrel.
Ever the showman, Willie acknowledged a trio of ladies sporting “I (heart) Willie” T-shirts, a Texas flag and a young boy with his mother, tossing not one but two bandanas in their direction.
His banter was equally friendly, if a bit well-worn.
“I wrote a song about me and Paul. I called it ‘Me and Paul,’” he said before playing the song about his travels and tribulations with longtime drummer Paul English.
English, who had a stroke a few years back, played a short bit before his younger brother, Billy, took over.
Nelson’s own sibling, Bobbie, did her part throughout the show, striking just the right notes on the piano during instrumental breaks and as backup to the rest of the band, meshing especially well with the high and tremulous notes of harmonica player Mickey Rafael.
Rounding out the band was relative newcomer Kevin Smith, who took over on bass after the unexpected death in December of Dan “Bee” Spears, who played with Willie for the past four decades. Wearing a large cowboy hat, Smith, who had played with Willie before, fit the band well.
But the real star was, of course, Willie.
While his New Balance sneakers, black T-shirt and grizzled appearance are a stark contrast to his clean shaven, suit-wearing persona during a 1965 appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, the music is much the same.
“His voice is the same as it was 30 years ago,” said Thomas Licursi, 69, of Chatham.
Licursi, who with his wife Josephine is a recent transplant from the Bronx, has long been a Willie fan but Thursday was his first chance to see the man in person. He wasn’t disappointed.
Willie glided through oldies but goodies such as “Georgia on My Mind,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
During “City of New Orleans” the crooner shined his smile in the direction of my mother, who accompanied me to the show. (By the way Willie, she told me only a short time earlier that you were “cute.” Don’t tell my dad.)
The highlight of the show came when the band broke into “On the Road Again” followed by “You Were Always on My Mind.”
He also played a few songs from his newest album “Heroes,” including “My Window Faces South” and “Cold War With You,” both of which could have been written by a much younger Willie.
Closing with the finger twirling crowd favorite “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” Willie left much as he had entered, to cheers and adulation.
From here Willie Nelson and Family gets back on the road, heading first to the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset tonight and then home to Texas for a five-show stretch. As for me, I’ll go home with more memories and a fresh but familiar soundtrack playing in my head.