Sometimes clarity comes in the strangest places. On the same evening that—for the first time ever—a woman was accepting the nomination of a major political party for the office of President of the United States, I found myself, an avowed feminist, hard at work reviewing a Willie Nelson concert (yeah, I know, it’s a tough job).
As Willie blew through his setlist—one that I’d seen almost song-for-song several times before—I found myself on Twitter looking for information about Hillary Clinton’s speech. As Willie came onstage and opened with “Whiskey River,” as he always does, in Philadelphia, Clinton came on stage to do something that had never been done by a woman before. And so, I looked around the crowd, at families with small children, at men in camouflage hats and Hank Williams, Jr. shirts, at twenty-somethings in cowboy boots, at the grandparents and at people who looked like me, and I wondered if they were missing the speech as much as I was. Some of them certainly weren’t. This is Utah, after all.
By the time Willie was singing “Still Is Still Moving” Hillary Clinton was talking about the march of progress. And as Willie had a crowd hanging on every word, so too, did Clinton.
Back to that moment of clarity—towards the end of the set, Willie, who is always a man of few words, told the crowd that he was going to sing a song that he thought was “real appropriate for this time.” And, if Willie Nelson says something is anything: it is what he says it is. So, he played “Living in the Promiseland,” the same song he played when he accepted the Gershwin Prize. This is as political as Nelson gets. It’s a song that says, pointedly, “There is room for everyone in the promiseland.” Take that, Mr. Trump.
All of that at the same time Clinton was wrapping up her speech. How’s that for a coincidence? Maybe I was in the right place at the right time, after all.
And as Hillary Clinton will go into history books, no matter how this election ends—so will Willie Nelson. One for being a trailblazer who busted through a glass ceiling, and one for being the closest thing we have to a modern day Pete Seeger who once smoked weed on the White House roof.
Hey, I didn’t say it was a perfect analogy.
And here is an abbreviated version of the review you actually came here to read:
Willie Nelson is a revelation.
The octogenarian is certainly slowing, but he’s not close to being still. Onstage with his trademark braided ponytail, red bandana and trusty road-warn guitar Trigger—which may or may not have been held together by a bungee cord—Willie played a setlist chock full of favorites, including “Georgia on My Mind,” “Crazy,” “On the Road Again” and “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”
Willie was backed, as always, by his band The Family, featuring Sister Bobbie on the piano, harmonicist Mickey Raphael, bassist Kevin Smith, and Billy English, (brother of Paul—of the Willie song “Me and Paul”) on drums. The set went from from one song to the other with such speed, in part because of a lack of onstage banter, that it sometimes felt like one continual medley instead of nearly 20 separate tunes.
Between songs or in downtime, the legend threw sweaty bandanas into the crowd, and at one point, even a ball cap (by the way, to the guy who snatched that hat away from the girl who dove for it, chivalry is dead, and I blame you). He engaged the crowd in sing-alongs and pointed to people in the crowd who were dancing throughout.
And the crowd was into it—some maybe a little too much. There was the familiar smell of weed in the air, and girls who fell down in their short skirts because in their drunkenness they forgot that their cowboy boots have no traction. But, the one thing they all had in common was adoration for Willie. And, even though he tours 150 days a year and has been doing so longer than I’ve been alive, it certainly seems like that admiration is mutual. He’s a true showman.
Willie closed out the set with “I Saw The Light,” said thank you to the crowd, tossed some more bandanas out into the sea of people in front of him and was played off the stage by his band—with Mickey Raphael the only man left standing with his harmonica, until he was joined by his friend and Utah’s own (and KRCL’s) Bad Brad Wheeler.
Perhaps the greatest tell of Willie’s advanced age was the time the show ended. The audience was piling out of the amphitheater by 9:45.
Before the show had even started, I noticed that the music being pumped through the speakers at Red Butte was all Willie Nelson’s own music. A first for me—most artists pick other people’s music. But I realized after the show that 1) Willie Nelson does what he wants. And 2) Maybe he knew he was going to leave us wanting more.