Willie Nelson & Family at the Houston Rodeo


by: Georgie Ferrell

From the moment the Houston Rodeo head honchos trotted in on a brigade of horses led by flags of each branch of the Armed Services and the American flag, Willie Nelson night flooded the the air with patriotism. Nelson’s RodeoHouston return coincided with Armed Forces Appreciation Night, drawing members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Space Force to a packed NRG stadium.

The patriotic and lively crowd (70,479 strong for Willie) anxiously awaited the appropriately picked music giant to take the Lone Star Stage as barrel racers and bull riders contested their skills on the dirt. America’s Country Music legend was the perfect serenading star to celebrate a crowd of real American heroes.

Nelson hasn’t made an appearance at the Houston Rodeo since 2017 and before that it had been 13 years since he graced the grand Rodeo stage. Wednesday night’s show marked his 11th RodeoHouston appearance overall — and Nelson made sure it was a memorable one.

After a long standing ovation for those who serve, fireworks burst in the air and elite combat soldiers breathtakingly descended down from the NRG ceiling — and the real anticipation reached a crescendo.

A harmonica started to chime as the giant venue remained dark until finally the sound of a center stage Willie belting out “Whiskey River” ignited the stadium lights and roaring crowd. With his signature braids under a straw cowboy hat and his signature inflecting twang as authentic as ever, the 86-year-old Nelson went to work. His hands nimbly strummed his famously worn out guitar Trigger, his musical sidekick for more than 50 years.

It seemed like a classic night’s jam session for the Willie Nelson & Family crew.

Willie casually transitioned from hit song to hit song with a pause to thank the crowd and a “Do one for Waylon” to kick off “Good Hearted Woman” which turned the spotlight over to his piano playing sister. Bobbie Lee Nelson showed off her ivory tickling talent while her proud big brother strummed in the background and beamed to the crowd about “little sister” being inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.

Nelson then introduced his son Lukas, the long haired guitarist to his left who took it away as he belted out a bluesy rendition of “Texas Flood.” With a tip of Lukas’ trucker hat, which read “American Agriculture,” dad took back over for “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys…”

A nod to Merle Haggard followed as Nelson sang “It’s All Going to Pot.” The long-toking troubadour (apparently, he gave it up in December due to breathing issues) continued his celebration of marijuana with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

After another pause of appreciation to the cheering crowd, Nelson led his family band in more songs that paid homage to fellow music pioneer friends such as Hank Williams.

Willie Nelson performs at the Son of the Cosmic Cowboy concert at Hofheinz Pavillion in Houston, June 22, 1975. ©1975, 2020 F. Carter Smith

As Willie began his last songs, an Americana take on hymns “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” a Nobel Prize winning Houstonian, Dr. Jim Allison, popped up on stage to play harmonica with the set. Allison’s documentary Breakthrough, which details his pioneering immunotherapy research and his fight to cure cancer, boasts music by his now close friend Willie.

As Nelson raised Trigger to the crowd and shouted “Thank y’all very much!! Y’all have a great evening, we love you,” he winced a bit in exhaustion. Its only natural that a nearly 87-year-old legend would grow a bit weary after a heartfelt salute to Houston, but he ended strong as he sang out another powerful chorus before bowing to the crowd and casually sauntering off the stage into a shiny black SUV.

The showman who shows no signs of slowing down, shares the Rodeo’s passion for agriculture. Nelson is known for his longtime support of American farmland and the fruits of the amber waves of grain — and it’s clear he also was eager to champion America’s soldiers.

There is still only one Willie Nelson. Even after all these years.

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