Willie Nelson & Family in Lincoln

by: L. Kent Wolgamott

Thirty years ago, before we had answering machines on our desk phones, we newsroom denizens answered the ringing phones on nearby desks and took messages.

One mid-September afternoon, my phone was ringing off the hook. An AP reporter who happened to be walking by, picked it up and got a shock — it was Willie Nelson calling, out of the blue.

He wanted an update on Farm Aid III that was set to happen at Memorial Stadium a week later. He knew about how things were going on the production side of things — what he wanted from me was a sense of how it was being received and how many people would turn up.

My response, as I recall now, was that people were pretty excited and it would sell out.

My predictive skills were pretty close — the concert sold 69,000 of 70,000 available tickets (1,000 tickets held for day of show didn’t sell) and is still the biggest concert in Nebraska history and very likely always will be.

There’ll be a lot fewer people at Pinewood Bowl Wednesday night, when Willie comes back to Lincoln bringing Dwight Yoakam and Robert Earl Keen along with him.

That show is nearly sold out and will bring about 4,500 to Pioneers Park to catch the now 84-year-old legend.

Over the years, Willie’s played nearly every Lincoln venue of any size — the Bob Devaney Sports Center, Pershing Center, the Ice Box and Haymarket Park.

That said, it’s been a good while since Willie played Lincoln. Scrolling through the Journal Star;s online archive the last Nelson show I found here was at Haymarket Park in 2004 — along with Bob Dylan.

Since then, I’ve caught Willie and his great band, Family, at the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island, in Omaha two or three times and in Austin, Texas, during South By Southwest.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him — well over a dozen for sure. He’s the country artist I’ve seen the most — and up there with The Replacements, Bob Dylan and The Hold Steady among all artists.

He’s also, well, Willie.

In my encounters with him since the late ’70s on his bus, sitting in a dressing room, in a bar, on the phone for more than an hour (Willie knows more dirty jokes than any human on earth) or standing on the 50-yard-line at Memorial Stadium, he’s always been the same guy — the hillbilly Dalai Lama.

Full of wisdom, humor and, as the pre-Farm Aid call demonstrated, always aware of his fans and his personal impact and that of his music, Willie’s a rightfully beloved, known-by-his-first-name, hard-working national treasure.

With most of his peers either retired or gone, Willie’s still on the road — two weeks on, two weeks off — and he’ll be leading a traveling festival later this summer. Plus, he’s, of late, been cranking out two albums a year.

In April, he marked his birthday with the release of “God’s Problem Child,” one of his best records in years that includes “Still Not Dead,” a rebuff to the constant internet rumors of his passing that’s pure Willie through and through:

“I run and down the road making music as I go

They say my pace would kill a normal man

But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway

And I woke up still not dead again today.”

See you Wednesday, Willie.

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