Confession: I’ve never really been that big of a Willie Nelson fan.
Still, Willie’s more than just a great singer/songwriter/musician — he’s an icon. He’s a legend. And at 90 years old (or is it “young”?), he’s one of our oldest living legends. And despite years of premature rumors of his demise, Willie yet survives — and thrives!
I woke up still not dead again today.
The internet said I had passed away.
If I died I wasn’t dead to stay,
And I woke up still not dead again today.
My earliest impressions of Willie came from hearing a few tunes his on the radio in the early days of “progressive country” — or “cosmic cowboy” or “outlaw country,” or whatever you wanna call it. Whatever it was, folks like Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker and B.W. Stevenson and Michael (Martin) Murphy and Commander Cody caught our ears and grabbed our attention.
I first saw Willie at his very first 4th of July picnic out at Dripping Springs. Not that I remember seeing him from that day. We got there late and left early after sweltering in the sun so far from the stage we could hardly hear.
It was hot and dusty— and fun. Beyond that, I recall very little.
So, I didn’t really get a good taste of Willie until that fall. A day-long benefit concert for the People’s Free Clinic offered the typical line-up of local bands (I’ve forgotten who) with Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson headlining. Hot off hitting the historic Luckenbach recording of Viva Terlingua!, I hungered for another heaping helping of Jerry Jeff Walker.
Willie was just a bonus.
It was a festival, so of course it ran late all day. Each set change delayed the next act in turn. Our lovely autumn afternoon started to chill down quite a bit once the sun set. By the time Jerry Jeff took the stage at 1:30am, most of the crowd was gone and a few small fires flickered here & there among the remaining audience. still, Jerry Jeff played a rousing set for well over an hour, meaning Willie didn’t even hit the stage till sometime about 3am.
He immediately kicked it off in high gear, starting with “Whiskey River” (of course) and quickly rolling from one song to the next — no patter, just free-flowing, fine-ass music. This time, I was close enough to not only hear him, but see him as well. He highlighted several new songs from Shotgun Willie, his first album since moving back home to Texas. Songs like “Devil in a Sleeping Bag” and the perennial favorite, “Me & Paul.”
Willie played till nearly 4:30 before announcing, “Y’all gotta let an old man get some rest,” explaining he was headed to Muscle Shoals in the morning to record his next album (Phases & Stages).
That was 50 years ago!
That first 4th of July picnic wasn’t my last — but it almost was. After my second picnic (1975) I decided it’s almost always too damned hot to party all day outdoors in Texas on the 4th of July.
Still, I have gone to a couple more since then. I shared my personal 4th of July picnic experiences here, including the day-long drenching in 1985 as well as the cluster-fuck traffic at the 2003 picnic when the Dead joined the line-up.
As is his wont, Willie joined the Dead on stage. You can hear his distinctive guitar, “Trigger,” on recordings of that show.
Recently, Willie’s songs offer the wisdom of an elder when speaking of topics like grief (“It’s Not Something You Get Over“). But he still retains his humor, as displayed “Still Not Dead,” (see above). He has even advised us of his personal post-mortem request, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
It will take two full days of shows for Willie’s “Long Story Short” celebrating his 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl.
Willie’s got a lot of friends coming over to play.
There’s enough performers listed in that line-up that even with a schedule spread out over 2 days, each performer likely gets only 1, maybe 2 songs. No telling who else might show up.
Most likely, Willie will sit in with everyone.
Meanwhile, today and every day, Willie’s advice for a long life:
Live every day like it was your last one —
And some day you’re gonna be right.
Happy Birthday, Willie!