Old Friends, Cozy Moments Create Warmth On A Cold, Cold Night
If night one of “Long Story Short” seemed a cavalcade of stars, night two was the intimate love fest that felt more akin to Nelson’s own everyman – albeit an everyman with braids, a license to toke and wicked songwriting skills – being. Kicking off again with bluegrass next waver Billy Strings doing “Whiskey River” into “I Gotta Get Drunk,” the notion of making music with his friends landed front and center.
Fringe-masked, queer country game-changer Orville Peck took the stage, praising Willie for being brave, for recording the song he was about to sing – and for creating a world where people could be the person they were meant to be. Then Peck launched a deliciously robust “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” savoring every entendre and phrase turn.
Part of the second night’s magic was how many artists found their own journey reflected in Nelson’s commitment to his muse instead of trends.
Dwight Yoakam spoke of how Willie showed him the way, then befriended him as a young turk. Playing the loping “Me & Paul,” a tale of Nelson and his best friend and longtime Family drummer Paul English, Yoakam dedicated his performance to the late musician.
Norah Jones again homaged Nelson’s sister Bobbie, who passed in March 2022 on the piano lead-in “Down Yonder.” She also honored Bobbie Nelson, playing piano while taking Ray Charles’ part as she joined Allison Russell for the Nelson/Charles No. 1 “Seven Spanish Angels”; taking romantic devastation in the Old West to the ultimate resolve.
Inclusion Night 2 meant outspoken outlier Margo Price joining Waylon Payne, the openly gay son of Family guitarist Jody Payne and torch outlaw chanteuse Sammi Smith, for Billy Joe Shaver’s raging shuffle “Georgia On A Fast Train.” A song of pride and defiance, they delivered Shaver’s autobiographical song of growing up poor, but with a strong sense of self with real joy.
Those family moments were literal, too. Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson brought their fathers’ No. 1 “Good Hearted Woman” to life with a swagger that says the future is sound. Pressing the tempo, they sat hard in the saddle, owning one of Texas country’s true anthems.
Later in the evening, the pair would be joined by Rosanne Cash and Particle Kid – as Micah Nelson is known – for a searching take on Jimmy Webb’s reincarnation spell “Highwayman.” Watching the next generation sing a song of rebirth that defined their father’s legendary supergroup spoke to the regeneration of the genre when commitment to music is strong. Cash, especially, as a Madonna rising, seemed to bless the moment as she delivered the song’s most zen final verse.
It was also peers and comrades. Cash delivered Townes Van Zant’s “Pancho & Lefty,” melting time and returning to the ‘80/’90s when legendary Texas songwriters Van Zant, Guy Clark and his wife Susanna were the epicenter of the best music Nashville had to offer.
Emmylou Harris, too, and Rodney Crowell were part of that scene. Harris would do both the riveting, atmospheric “The Maker” with Daniel Lanois, who produced Nelson’s Teatro. For a woman who is the soul mother of what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music,” she book-ended Nelson as a Queen of the Outlaw Movement in the ‘70s, merging country with bluegrass, rock and Appalachian music.
When she emerged to sing the admonishing female verse in Rodney Crowell’s hopefully resilient “It Ain’t Over Yet,” the crowd burst into cheers. Even unannounced, her presence is strong – and her impact undeniable to roots music lovers of all generations.
Crowell also has a pronounced presence. Once married to and the producer of Rosanne Cash’s seminal mainstream country albums, the Grammy-winning artist introduced “a song I wrote 2/3 of a lifetime ago,” by confessing going to “the Palomino Club on North Lankershim Boulevard. I’d been smoking some weed, and Willie said, ‘We’re going to play a Rodney Crowell song. Why don’t you come sing it with me?’ I thought I’d been knighted.”
“Til I Gain Control Again,” the song in question, is about the wavering space between breakup and getting oneself grounded. Vulnerable, knee-buckling in places, Nelson’s No. 1 version gave men a space to be weak without being wimpy when it was released all of four decades ago.
Nelson’s willingness to be strong in his humanity was a revolution in a genre where “kickin’ hippies’ asses and raising hell” was the forward face of redneck country.
To that end, Lyle Lovett in a cowboy hat and well-tailored suit created a poignant “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” As was often the case, these performances opened up the nuances in Nelson’s vast catalog, introducing the conflicts and depth of the humanity Nelson conjured. Broken, yes, but heroic, Lovett’s “Cowboys” endured with real dignity.
Dignity defined Tom Jones’ take on Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline,” title track to Nelson’s 1993 Don Was-produced classic. A tale of migrants’ dreams, desires and ravages of chasing a better life, Jones offered the essence without overplaying the harshness of the lyric. Measured, it created a space for hard reality and pain that held the tension with melodramatics.
Beck, too, imbued the pain in “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” with an ache that cut one open. Rising as an alternative iconoclast, here he was a witness of a deeper, slow-burning ache.
That pain also surged in blazing neon when Warren Haynes burned “Night Life” to a crisp. An almost cathartic vocal, reinforced by his singeing guitar work, Haynes represented the Allman Brothers Bands’ drive to push a song’s limits. He also served as a reminder the Allmans and Nelson were two artists who helped put President Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Cutting edge, bigger than life, Willie Nelson quietly is both. It’s why Dave Matthews, the Avett Brothers and especially Nathaniel Rateliff could create their own space in Nelson’s repertoire. For Farm Aid co-leader Matthews on “Funny How Time Slips Away,” it was a journey to self-recognition, while the Avetts’ “Pick Up The Tempo” poked every sleepy honky tonk band in the ribs. Rateliff, whose night one “City of New Orleans” was a warm campfire moment, turned in a soul-twisting “Song for You” that gave Joe Cocker vibes without contortions.
Sheryl Crow, in a red dress delivering “Crazy,” was an homage to Nelson the writer. All things Americana and chanteuse, sophisticated and Sinatra smooth, she defied genre.
Jamey Johnson teamed with Booker T. Jones for “Georgia.” From the Jones-produced Stardust, the album that made Nelson ubiquitous, he took the sweltering torch ballad to a place that had as much erotic drive as it did straight tribute to the Peach State.
And then the Willie & Friends segment culminated the night. Nelson hosted a rotating group of friends in a guitar pull fashion. He and Jones reprised “Stardust” with all the American Songbook reverence; longtime producer and multiple Academy of Country Music/Country Music Association Song of the Year winner Buddy Cannon shared the strong in the face of disappointment “Something You Get Through” as songwriters will; finally Bill Strings offered the high octane humor of “California Sober.”
They provided what mere mortals never see: creators swapping song. What more could anyone expect?
That’s when Keith Richards strolled onstage, head swathed and wicked spark in his eye.
Though word had leaked, the appearance of the Rolling Stone took the night over the top. Two naughty pirates, he and Nelson did a tough-tender lament “We Had It All.” But it was Shaver’s “Live Forever,” a gospel song that bubbled over with the reality of existence beyond the grave and the promise of ongoing life in the hearts of others, that served as a jubilant final song. What needed to be said was sung, the audience joining in – and the musicians taking the stage for that euphoric moment. Yes, a gospel medley and “Happy Birthday” followed, but “Live Forever” shut the night down.
Like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson transcends. Only he could’ve brought these folks together. Only he could’ve fielded gay, queer, black, young, old, (blue)grass, rock, legends, hippies, groundbreakers and country icons for a moment like this.