Willie Nelson did what you might expect him to do when he celebrated his 90th birthday on April 29, 2023. He was on the road again, entertaining thousands at a packed Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, alongside more than 30 big names across various musical genres.
Willie has a simple philosophy to aging: “I’ll be one of the oldest bastards out there. But as long as people keep showing up, so will I.”
And show up they did. The two-day event was billed Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90 and the Saturday four-hour birthday bash saw the amphitheatre in the Hollywood Hills near to its capacity of 17,500.
“This is one of those weekends that people are going to be talking about forever,” said Lyle Lovett, the first of a handful of stars to walk the backstage red carpet on opening night. “Willie gave permission to a lot of folks like me who came along afterwards to be themselves and not necessarily conform to conventions,” Lovett added.
A fitting tribute to Willie’s enormous influence on such a broad spectrum of music came early in the Saturday concert when among the first of a number of celebrity MC’s, Dame Helen Mirren, declared: “Willie’s musical world is vast.”
Mirren added: “The sheer number and variety of artists he has touched is remarkable. He blends and blends genres; he ignores categories; his timing is his own. He simply follows the spirit wherever the spirit leads.”
And variety was the order of the day at the Hollywood extravaganza. One moment, young bluegrass whizz Billy Strings was kicking it all off with, not surprisingly, Willie’s traditional show opener “Whiskey River.” A short time later a legend from Grateful Dead days, Bobby Weir was interpreting Willie’s first number one single “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” And somewhere in between Norah Jones was playing a piano tribute to Willie’s long-time pianist, late sister Bobbie Nelson.
But fans had to wait more than three hours for the birthday boy to finally make an appearance. He thanked all the artists who had come to “help us celebrate whatever we’re celebrating” before launching into “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” with Neil Young.
The last half hour of the opening night went to another extreme when rapper Snoop Dogg – yes Snoop Dogg – shuffled up alongside his old pal Willie to duet “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” in the “key of smoke!”
Such tributes and all-star collaborations will surely continue for much of the great Texan’s 91st year. He kicks off his annual Outlaw Music Festival tour on June 23 in Somerset, Wisconsin and 30 or more gigs later it ends in Pelham, Alabama, on October 15. Along the way the Willie Nelson & Family band will play together with the likes of Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats , The Avett Brothers, John Fogerty, Los Lobos plus!
“I can’t wait to be on the road with the amazing group of artists joining us on this year’s tour,” said Nelson. “And even more special this year in celebration of my 90th birthday.”
In this day and age where live acts provide a steadier income than streaming royalties, it is not uncommon to find Octogenarian artists still on the road. Kris Kristofferson, who joined up with Rosanne Cash at the Hollywood Bowl bash, is 86, while Bob Dylan – on his never-ending tour – is a sprightly 81. And the ever-travellin’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both turn 80 later in the year.
It is rare for musicians of 90 plus settling in for such demanding concert itineraries.
But Nelson – one of the finest all-genre musicians in modern music – is indeed a
“Your lungs are the biggest muscle you have, so it’s healthy for me to sing,” he said in an interview with Parade. “I get really bored when I’m not working.”
He then recounted his well-told story of his frustration of not being able to tour during the long shutdown during the COVID pandemic. Each day he would look longingly at one of his most favourite possessions, a tour bus, which was parked at his Austin home. “I’d go out there and sit on it sometimes. It’s where I feel comfortable.”
And when not touring, Nelson can probably be found in a studio. He is about to release his 100th studio album and, with live and compilation albums, his overall output is more than 160. And if you multiply this by a conservative 10 per album, you get more than 1600 songs.
And that does not factor in video albums.
Few can match this, which is why Bob Dylan paid Willie the ultimate compliment with a stunning line in his recently-published book, The Philosophy of Modern Song:
“Willie Nelson could, as they say, sing the phone book and make you weep – he could also write the phone book.”
Whether his songs are self-penned or enthusiastic covers, Nelson always seems to take ownership with his gusty-crooner, nasal-like vocals or distinctive jazz-like licks with his famous Martin N-20 classical guitar, known to all as “Trigger.” He once remarked: “When Trigger goes, I’ll quit.”
Dylan again captures Nelson’s unique quality to make any song his own: “He (Willie) sang the song Elvis had a hit with, ‘Always On My Mind.’ All you remember now is the Willie version.” And this is a song – not a Nelson composition – which has seen more than 300 recorded versions.
Nelson’s remarkably ability to fuse covers with his own material is no better illustrated than on Red Headed Stranger, the 1975 album which not only kick-started his career but is considered by many as the finest country album ever recorded. It was a concept album telling the story of a fugitive on the run after killing his wife and her lover. Almost half the 15 songs were Nelson’s own work he composed to advance the storyline. He did so by cleverly integrating them with established songs like the title track, as well as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Can I Sleep in your Arms Tonight Mister.”
But the real significance of Red Headed Stranger was the fact that it got released at all. For it certainly did not meet the country formula of the day. In fact, when Nelson submitted the tracks to his new record company Columbia, the acoustic arrangements were so sparse that the record executives thought they were demos. They were not. Willie and his manager Neil Reshen had negotiated creative control and the songs were released without any overdubbing.
It would change country music forever and indeed in the following year result in the emergence of the brigade known as the country outlaws, when Willie teamed up with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser to release Wanted! The Outlaws.
In fact, it was only two years later that Nelson’s reputation for pushing the genre boundaries was really cemented with the release of Stardust, an album of popular standards – a complete antipathy of the outlaw movement. The album took only 10 days to record, yet would remain on the Billboard Country Album charts for an astonishing 10 years. it would also win him a Grammy for his astonishing interpretation of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Georgia on My Mind.”
“I’ve sung practically every kind of thing,” said Nelson. “A good song is a good song.”
In fact, more than 40 years after Stardust, Nelson was still churning out his take on traditional standards. In 2018 he released My Way, a tribute album to Frank Sinatra. It would win him another of his 14 Grammy Awards. This was followed up in 2021 with That’s Life, another album of the great crooner’s songs.
“Frank Sinatra is my favourite all-time singer, and I read somewhere that I was his favourite singer, so for years and years I’ve been a Sinatra fan,” Nelson told Parade. “I don’t think he ever sang the same song twice the same way. He followed his own instincts.”
Only by trawling through Nelson’s astonishing discography does the sheer breath of his work become apparent. One moment you find a gospel album, How Great Thou Art , while next to it is a Christmas release, Hill Country Christmas. A further trawl will reveal a country-twist on pop, Always on My Mind, while further on comes a quirky reggae-merges-with-country release, Countryman. And apparently there is a bluegrass album waiting to go out sometime in 2023.
Added to these are the never-ending collaboration albums, from the legendary – Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson - to the delightful – Hank Snow, Faron Young, Ray Price – right down to the obscure – Curtis Potter, Don Cherry.
And during his sixty plus years of recording, he has always surrounded himself by a core group of musicians who have remained with Nelson through whatever genre he favoured at the time. Sadly, he has outlived most of the originals.
Two in particular were especially close to Nelson.
Drummer Paul English first played with Willie in the mid-50’s and became a member of his regular band when it was formed in 1973. He spent nearly 50 years sitting behind Nelson and was the titular “Paul” in “Me and Paul,” the title track to the popular 1985 album. English died at the age of 87 in 2020.
There is no finer tribute to English from Nelson than this from the song:
I guess Nashville was the roughest
But I know I’ve said the same about them all
We received our education in the cities of the nation
Me and Paul
The other musical constant in Willie’s life was his older sister and lifelong pianist Bobbie Nelson, who died, aged 91, in March 2022, playing her last show with her brother just five months earlier in New Braunfels, Texas. Her influence on his work was powerful and the pair would share collaborative status on several albums. There is no finer example of Bonnie’s piano artistry as when she performs the stunning solo “Down Yonder” on Red Headed Stranger.
“She was incredible,” Nelson told Parade. “I learned a whole lot about what I do just by sitting on the piano stool next to her when I was seven or eight years old, trying to do what she’s doing and never being able to do it as well as she could. She could read and write music and was a better musician than me.”
In fact, Willie’s backing has long been known as The Family, even though Bobbie was the only blood relative on board, before son Lukas joined in 2013. He remained until 2022, when he left to concentrate on his own successful band. Another son Micah replaced him. Lukas and Micah are from Willie’s fourth marriage to Annie D’Angelo. He has five other children.
Occasionally both Micah and Lukas will still join their Dad onstage together, as they did in mid-April – along with Willie’s long-time harmonica player Mickey Raphael - for a well-received medley of Nelson songs at a benefit concert with Neil Young and Stephen Stills at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
“I’ve always said it’s great to have your kids play onstage with you - especially if they’re good,” quipped Nelson.
Outside of music, Nelson has been an outspoken activist for a number of causes, from the legalisation of marijuana to supporting the LGBT community.
But perhaps the most publicised has been his long campaign to support family farmers. It was established as Farm Aid in 1985 and has since raised nearly $10 million for American family farms, helped by the popular annual Farm Aid benefit concert, which once again has seen big names like Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and B.B. King perform onstage with Willie over the years.
Nelson’s long advocacy of pot – he is the co-chair of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – has been more problematic. He has been arrested several times for marijuana possession, though these days he even has own line, Willie’s Reserve, marketed in Colorado. “I used to say, jokingly, it kept me from killing people and I’ve never killed anybody, so it’s working,” he said recently, adding that his dope-smoking has diminished in recent years. “I’d rather have a vaporizer, it’s easier on my lungs.”
However, Nelson’s most infamous run-in was with the Inland Revenue Service, who, in 1990, seized most of his assets declaring that he owned $32 million in unpaid taxes. His lawyers negotiated the sum down to $16m and some reports claimed the amount owning got as low as $6m. It was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount and the debts were seemingly cleared by 1993.
Nelson’s current worth has been listed as in vicinity of $25 million by Celebrity Net Worth, with annual income estimated around $4.5m. Given the popularity of his perennial classics – like “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls” and “Pretty Paper” – the royalties trough is sure to trickle as long as the music icon sticks by one of his best lyrics:
Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded/So I think I will stay where I am
That is as long as Trigger doesn’t give up the ghost.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation
See 20 Great Willie Nelson Songs