2018 was a very good year for Willie Nelson (by Peter Blackstock)

by:  Peter Blackstock

Year 85 in the life of Willie Nelson is just year five for “The Year in Willie,” our annual recap of Nelson’s many activities and accomplishments. I’ve been doing this each December since taking this job in 2014; with Willie, we never have any doubt that there will be plenty to write about.

So, let’s get started. We’ll begin on Jan. 1, 2018, at the same place where Willie’s year will reach its end in a couple of days.


The first two hours of the new year found Nelson onstage with his family band, celebrating sister Bobbie’s Jan. 1 birthday (she was 87 this year) and capping a three-night stand at ACL Live that also featured his sons Lukas and Micah Nelson and their bands. It all goes down again this weekend, with shows on Saturday, Sunday and New Year’s Eve. (At press time, just a few scattered balcony tickets remained.)

Things got a little dicey for Willie just after those 2017 year-end shows. On Jan. 6, he halted a concert in San Diego right after it started, telling the audience he wasn’t feeling well enough to continue. He canceled the rest of his January dates, later also calling off a stretch of February shows as he recovered from what his publicist called “a bad cold or the flu.”


With fans concerned for Willie’s health, his son Lukas stepped up to set folks’ minds at ease on Twitter. Posting a photo of Nelson giving a mighty high kick to a punching bag at his Hawaii residence, Lukas wrote: “My dad is a badass … resting in Maui and feeling much better, according to him … thanks to everyone who’s been asking how he is.”

Perhaps he was simply reaping the holistic benefits of Willie’s Reserve, the cannabis line he launched a couple of years ago. An early 2018 press release trumpeted a new “terpene-rich” strain called SunGrown and quoted Nelson’s optimism about the trend toward nationwide legalization of marijuana.

“We’re on the right side of history,” Nelson said. “People have spoken with their votes and their dollars. Now that we’ve proven regulating and taxing is good for individuals and business and states, it’s pretty clear that pot is good for America.”

Healthy and ready to roll again, Willie returned to Austin in mid-March for his annual Luck Reunion, held on his ranch in Spicewood west of Austin while South by Southwest hit its peak downtown. Guests including Courtney Marie Andrews, Lilly Hiatt, David Ramirez, Erika Wennerstrom, Kevn Kinney, Aaron Lee Tasjan and the Texas Gentlemen played earlier in the day before Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah and, eventually, Willie himself brought the Reunion to a rousing finish.

Back in Austin the next day, Nelson’s daughters Amy and Lana Nelson set up shop at Scoot Inn for a sneak-peek screening of clips from “King of the Roadies,” a documentary Amy is directing with her cousin Trevor Doyle Nelson. Its subject is Ben Dorcy, longtime roadie to Willie and other luminaries, who died in September 2017 at age 92.


Eight years Dorcy’s junior, Willie turned 85 on April 29 and celebrated with the aptly titled “Last Man Standing,” for which he co-wrote every song with producer Buddy Cannon. “It’s remarkable enough that Nelson has continued to tour and record regularly well into his 80s, but his recent increased songwriting activity, spurred largely by Cannon’s input and support, is something rarely if ever witnessed before,” I wrote in my review. The record reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Album Chart.

Also in April, platinum-selling folk-rocker Jack Johnson released the humorous single “Willie Got Me Stoned,” written about a night he played poker with Nelson and lost big time. Partial lyrics: “After Willie got me stoned, took me for everything I had/I had to walk home, I had no money for a cab.” (Johnson wrote it back in 2015 when he played Farm Aid with Willie.)


Though Nelson wasn’t in attendance at the May 25-27 opening weekend of “Outlaws & Armadillos” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, he was featured prominently in artwork, historical displays and film clips at the impressive exhibit. Focusing on the 1970s relationship between Austin and Nashville’s music communities, “Outlaws & Armadillos” will be featured at the museum through February 2021.


A big hint that Willie was going to get a bit political in 2018 came when he tweeted directly to Donald Trump, via wife Annie’s Twitter handle, about immigrant children being separated from their parents on the Texas border. “Let’s go down to a border detention center together to better understand what’s happening down there,” Nelson challenged. A few days earlier, he’d told Rolling Stone magazine, “What’s going on at our southern border is outrageous.”


Willie’s activism continued at his annual Fourth of July Picnic, which featured guests including Ryan Bingham, Margo Price and Edie Brickell & New Bohemians at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. A surprise speaker late in the evening was U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, in the midst of his Senate campaign challenging Texas incumbent Ted Cruz. O’Rourke, who played in an El Paso punk band when he was younger, returned for the finale to play acoustic guitar and sing along on a couple of songs with Nelson and his band.

Also joining in that finale, and playing at the Picnic with his band Promise of the Real, was Lukas Nelson, who just a couple of days before taped the “Austin City Limits” TV show for the first time. It was a further sign of just how much Lukas has come into his own the past couple of years; he’s still very much his father’s son, but he’s becoming a star in his own right. He had a small part in the 2018 film “A Star Is Born” and did more work behind the scenes helping actor Bradley Cooper with his role.

Another cup of July news: Nelson introduced “Willie’s Remedy,” a new line of coffee infused with cannabidiol from “organically grown American hemp.” It went on sale in Colorado in September, but like Willie’s Reserve, it’s not available in Texas yet.


Two very different publications published intriguing pieces on Nelson. In the AARP Magazine, Nelson shared his core philosophy on life with writer Rich Cohen: “It’s simple,” Willie said. “Do what you want to do. If I don’t want to do it, forget it. But if I do want to do it, get out of my goddamn way.”

And an online song preview for the hip magazine Garden & Gun detailed Nelson’s involvement in “King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller,” which came out Aug. 31. It features a version of Miller’s song “Old Friends” recorded in early 2016 with Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard, just before Haggard’s death in April of that year.


A month that felt like wall-to-wall Willie was topped by the Sept. 14 release of “My Way,” an album of standards commonly associated with Frank Sinatra. “At 85, Willie still swings with joy and wonder on the buoyant ‘A Foggy Day’ and the bouncing ‘Night and Day,‘” I wrote in my review. “But he’s best on more contemplative numbers: The wisdom of his years inhabits the reflective blue tones of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ and the romantic bittersweetness of ‘I’ll Be Around.’”

The same day “My Way” came out, Willie’s pals in Asleep at the Wheel (who made 2009?s “Willie and the Wheel” album with him) released the disc “New Routes,” which concluded with “Willie Got There First.” Written by Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers, it featured both Seth and Scott Avett guesting with the band on a tune that paid tribute to Nelson’s legendary songwriting career.

Promoting “My Way,” Nelson appeared on ABC’s “The View” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on CBS. On the latter program, Colbert left the studio to interview Willie on his bus. Responding to Colbert’s question as to whether fans boycotting his music because of his political activism bothered him, he responded, “Naw, not really. You know, it’s their prerogative. I might not like their music either, you know, so I don’t hold any grudges against people.”

Nelson played the 33rd Farm Aid concert in Hartford, Conn., on Sept. 22 before diving back into the Beto campaign in a big way, headlining a Sept. 29 rally for O’Rourke at Austin’s Auditorium Shores that drew more than 50,000 people.


At that O’Rourke event, Nelson debuted a simple but catchy new anthem called “Vote ’Em Out.” The message: “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out/That’s what Election Day is all about.” In October, he released it as a digital-only single for streaming and downloads. For all Nelson’s support of O’Rourke, Texas voters chose Cruz by a narrow margin in early November.


The historic music television program “Austin City Limits” launched way back in 1974 with a Willie Nelson performance, so the announcement that he’d tape the show again on Nov. 19 was a big deal. Willie’s made more than a dozen appearances on the show over the decades, but the last one with his own Family band had been in 2000.

Nelson kept it simple for what might be the last full-hour episode he’ll do for the program, though we’d bet he’ll still turn up as an occasional ringer in the program’s annual Hall of Fame all-star lineups. “His 18th appearance on the show had no frills, no guests, no tailored set list,” I wrote in my review. “The taping simply documented Willie as-is, because he IS ‘Austin City Limits.’” The episode will air Jan. 26 on Austin PBS affiliate KLRU-TV.


Early in the month, good news arrived: Both of Willie’s 2018 records got Grammy nominations. “My Way” is up for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, a category he won two years ago for his Gershwins tribute disc “Summertime.” And the title track to “Last Man Standing” is nominated for Best American Roots Performance. The Grammys will be presented in Los Angeles on Feb. 10.

Meanwhile, Willie has a busy stretch ahead. A string of Southeast dates in early January lead up to a huge tribute show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Jan. 12. “Willie: Life & Songs of an American Outlaw” will feature more than two dozen performers, including George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffett, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks, Margo Price, Vince Gill, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, and Lukas and Micah Nelson.

Before that, though, are the New Year’s Eve shows back on the home front. Lukas, Micah, sister Bobbie, harmonica ace Mickey Raphael, drumming brothers Paul and Billy English, bassist Kevin Smith and maybe a spontaneous surprise guest will be on hand Saturday through Monday at ACL Live. They’ll ring in 2019 just like they did 2018, “insisting that the world keep turning our way.”

Leave a Reply