As 2020 began, just like many avid concert goers, I optimistically filled out my calendar months in advance in anticipation of the good times ahead. Flipping through its empty pages now it feels as though the cutesy little planner is mocking me and my dependence on live music.
One event in January that quickly made it to my calendar, and thankfully came to fruition, was Willie Nelson at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When the lineup was leaked (yet again) my heart skipped a beat when I saw his name on the list.
Friends and family members graciously made plans to wait in the virtual waiting room to secure a seats. Even though I had seen Nelson at the rodeo multiple times, this was not an event I was willing to miss.
By the time March came around, news and concern over the growing spread of COVID-19 was trickling in and threatening to shut down events all over the world but the Rodeo was still on and Nelson’s show had not been cancelled.
I’ll never forget riding the Metro Rail to NRG as my buddy looked at me and asked, “Should we really be on here right now? Doesn’t this virus seem really serious?” Even though I knew he was right, I told him it was not the time to discuss it as we were already crammed into the rail car with dozens of other people.
I suggested we avoid touching things and try to wash our hands as much as possible, but nothing, not even a mysterious and rapidly spreading virus was keeping me away from Willie Nelson.
In hindsight, yeah it was a little careless, but at the time the information available was confusing and changing rapidly. Hell, only a short week after Nelson’s show officials wisely shut down the Houston Rodeo due to concerns over the virus.
Despite knowing it wasn’t the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, I wouldn’t go back and change it for the world. That night Nelson and his family band were in fine form. Just shy of a month after the death of longtime drummer Paul English, Nelson and his band didn’t skip a beat.
Now I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Nelson in my life, but I can count the times that his shows were particularly different and that night was one of those. For one, Nelson was joined by his son Lukas and father and son jammed on Stevie Ray Vaughn’s classic “Texas Flood.”
There is absolutely nothing more Texan than seeing Willie Nelson at the Rodeo, but add in a Stevie Ray Vaughn cover and the experience transcends into another level of Texan. Nelson and his son were so warm and engaged with one another that it felt like all eighty thousand attendees were chilling with the Nelson’s at home just playing the blues.
This year was Nelson’s eleventh time to play the Houston Rodeo, but he seemed just as fresh and in awe of the magnitude of the event as ever. You could see the small town boy glimmer in his eye as he looked out into the stadium.
Nelson is famously gracious to his fans and often sticks around to throw out bandanas and shake hands but that night it almost seemed like he didn’t want to step off the rotating stage. Nelson walked all around the stage smiling and waving into the crowd with a reflection of the love shown to him that night shining right back at the audience.
It’s a sad, scary and common thought to think every time you see Nelson it might be your last and that night Nelson possibly showed a hint of him thinking something along the same lines.
Last month Nelson told The New Yorker, “I can remember the last show that we did, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. That was back in early March—that’s the last time we got to play music. We had 80,000 people there. I’ll never forget that show.”
Neither will I Mr. Nelson, neither will I. In a year that has been marked by tragedy and the unexpected, the memory of that night and Nelson's familiar songs and voice have comforted me many times over.