Don't Take Willie Nelson for Granted, Especially Now

Willie Nelson and Family
Stafford Centre
November 16, 2016

Just when you thought everything there was to say about Willie Nelson (Red-Headed Stranger, Shotgun Willie, the Mayor of Weedsborough) had probably already been said, he finds a way to throw another curveball. The 83-year old has yet to really slow down, constantly touring and releasing new material, including two albums in the last year (Summertime: Willie Nelson sings Gershwin, and For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price). The man is as big a legend as there is in music, and I’m afraid we may be taking him for granted.

For how many of the titans of country music are left? The list of those we’ve lost in recent decades keeps growing at a depressing pace: Jennings, Cash, Wynette, Owens, Wells, Price, Jones and Haggard, to name just a few. Besides Nelson, only Dolly Parton is really on the same tier, and given what a brutal year for music 2016 has already been, we really need to appreciate them and cherish every opportunity to see them perform.

Willie came to the Stafford Centre Wednesday night, and for the first time in the decades we’ve been seeing him live, those eighty-plus years really seemed to be catching up with him. In his 2014 show at the Arena Theater, there were lapses in tempo and the occasional missteps the Family gamely covered up. In Stafford, Willie’s playing meandered more often than not, coming in and out of focus. His voice, still hauntingly recognizable when it rang true, is no longer able to reach those high notes, and for maybe the first time we grudgingly wondered if it might not be time for him to hang Trigger up for good.

Aside: This might be better in the long run anyway, because I think Trigger (his battered Martin guitar) is Willie’s Horcrux, and when he finally plucks it too hard — say during the solo for “On the Road Again” — and the fretboard cracks away and the strings pop, one by one from the bridge, Willie himself will instantly collapse into dust. At which point, all we can do is get our Zig Zags out and remember the man’s last request.

There’s a line in “Me and Paul” that seemed especially poignant. It's about how surprised we'd be to find Willie's "mind's completely sound." To be fair, this still seems the case, but as far as the playing goes, it appears it's the flesh that's not holding up its end of the bargain.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through the hour-long set, it was almost like he got his second wind. “Heartaches by the Number” (a Price tune) was stronger than anything he played all night, as was his version of “It’s All Going to Pot,” a song he lustily introduced by saying, “Let’s do one by Merle!” And then it struck me: for the good of our nation, Willie must never stop playing. We should just prop him up on stage with an IV drip and an electric bong that occasionally forces smoke into his lungs and let him sing forever.

Because make no bones about it, folks: these are desperate times. Now more than ever, we need Willie around to comfort us.

Personal Bias: Listened to Red-Headed Stranger probably a lot more than was healthy for a kid.

The Crowd: A robust mix of (mostly) giltterati and freaks, though only the latter appeared familiar with any song pre-"Beer for My Horses."

Overheard In the Crowd: "So I asked her, 'Have you got any big blonde wigs?'"

Random Notebook Dump: A lot more about horcruxes that frankly, I'd rather not reveal.

Whiskey River
Still is Still Moving to Me
Beer For My Horses
Funny How Time Slips Away
Night Life
Me and Paul
If You've Got the Money, Honey
Georgia On My Mind
Angel Flying to Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always On My Mind
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Hey Good Lookin'
Move it On Over
Heartaches by the Number
It's All Going to Pot
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
We Don't Run
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
I'll Fly Away
I Saw the Light
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar