Willie Nelson Tribute Show Is a Mix of Music and Memories [Pictures]
They came from all over to celebrate Willie Nelson's musical legacy. George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, Emmylou Harris and Jamey Johnson were just a few of the standout performers during Willie: Life & Songs Of An American Outlaw at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on Saturday night (Jan. 12).
The tribute show began with Stapleton singing "Whiskey River"—the only choice to begin the show, really, as Nelson starts each of his own live performances with the song from the 1973 album Shotgun Willie. The house band supported his soulful interpretation, but this was no list of nobodies. Don Was, Amanda Shires and Johnson were a few of the notable players.
Mac McAnally made an unannounced cameo during Jimmy Buffett's Nelson collab of "The Harder They Come." Trusty harmonica player Mickey Raphael was on stage for most of the show, taking an occasional solo when it was called for.
The night was about the stars, however—friends young and old of the Redheaded Stranger's who came to be a part of the celebration. Before the show men like Ray Benson, Bobby Bare and Lyle Lovett were eager to tell stories of the 85-year-old's generosity and character before talking about his music.
Derek Trucks and Jack Johnson both told stories of Nelson taking their money during poker games, with the folk-rocker performing an original called "Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money." Margo Price struggled to remember a joke she'd heard from the Hall of Famer that was decent enough for public airing. More than a few recalled smoking marijuana with him, or smiled as they tried to.
The man of honor himself didn't appear until just before intermission, meaning he watched standout performances of "Shotgun Willie" (Benson and Lovett), "Sister's Coming Home" (Price and Steve Earle), "Time of the Preacher" (Lukas and Micah Nelson) and "Georgia On My Mind" from Jamey Johnson. Classic images hung above the stage and occasionally a vignette of some of his most memorably on-stage or conversational moments rolled before hosts Ed Helm and W. Earl Brown set up the next segment.
"He got me hooked on golf and some other things," Johnson said offering allowing a low laugh before beginning a Nelson song from Stardust. "But the best thing he got me hooked on was old country music." This performance was a stunner. As the song crescendoes Johnson refused to let go, wrestling the jazzy lyric like an alligator and winning the audience's acclaim.
Norah Jones and her Little Willies ("Remember Me," "I Gotta Get Drunk") were amongst the Act 2 standouts but the full house exploded for Church, Dave Matthews ("Funny How Time Slips Away") and Sturgill Simpson as well. Matthews and Sheryl Crow both paired with Nelson as the night began to wrap. Emmylou Harris joined him for a poignant "Pancho and Lefty," the song Nelson originally cut with good friend Merle Haggard. Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson (with Church for "Me and Bobby McGee"), Buffett, Stapleton and finally Strait closed the show.
Strait and Nelson have never shared a stage, as both admitted, making their performance of "Sing One With Willie" all the more remarkable. Everything spun out of control at that point and it couldn't have been better. The encore was an all-call of "On the Road Again" but that led to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I'll Fly Away" and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die." It all seemed impromptu and unplanned, like television audiences won't be invited to live through it. We'll find out later this year when Willie: Life & Songs Of An American Outlaw airs on A&E.
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