The Red-Headed Stranger Turns 80 – Happy Birthday to Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson and Jerry Max Lane

The only time I’ve met Willie Nelson was backstage at Ft. Worth’s storied hanky-tonk, Billy-Bobs. This was in the mid-eighties and I was about 18 so I was more interested in Ozzy and Iron Maiden than I was seeing some country singer. Even one as iconic as Willie is.

The thing about that night wasn’t meeting Willie with some floozy fawning all over him. It was his presence onstage and the crowd. How they loved him and he loved them right back. They hung on every classic verse and he was glade to sing it for them as the family, with sister Bobbie on grand piano. They were frenzied, they were moved to tears. They loved him and he them. He did the impossible, he made Texans more proud to be from Texas.

My dad and Willie were drinking buddies. Here they are tight and on the town searching for trouble and material for honky-tonk ballads. Willie became an icon and Dad had a song covered by George Strait. Not too shabby.

Willie and Dad don’t talk much anymore. I don’t think there was a falling out, I just think it’s hard to keep ties when you become famous. I would like it if Willie dropped in on dad as he’s not doing too well. But when you’re on the road 200 plus days of the year it’s not easy to reach back across those miles to the past

Willie turns 80 today and as we mourn another country music legend we are given a stark reminder of how great this music can be if given care and courage. A statue has been erected in Austin bit it’s not near time to write Willie off. He’s just released a new album, “Let’s Face The Music & Dance,” and he’s just announced dates at the Outside Lands festival here in San Francisco and a couple of shows at the Hollywood Bowl with fellow Texas- troubadour Lyle Lovett. The man who wrote “Crazy” will be on the road until his arthritis won’t allow him to hoist ol’ his signature guitar, Trigger.

Well, maybe a few more shows after that.

Wilie speaks out for local farmers, bio-fuel and yes, weed. These are not popular red state subjects but somehow coming from Willie skepticism is lowered and alternative possibilities are embraced. Natalie Maines could learn a lot from her fellow Texan on the nuances of self-expression without torching your fan base.

Willie and Kristfferon are the last Highwaymen staring. Both still out there in the night doing their thing their way. Transcending genre to become purely American music. Though he learned from the greats Hank, Jones , Lefty – Willie has more in common with the masters of the American songbook, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Sure Dylan brought a generation a voice but Willie did the unthinkable. He brought the hippies and rednecks together,

Let’s celebrate Willie by understanding what he means for music and be glade we were live when he vied to witness the transformation. Sure Music City does not reflect his legacy, it’s an industry not a preservation society. As Jason Isbell deftly tweeted “Hate to break it to y’all, but Nashville didn’t “ruin” country music. Lotta good burgers in this town; nobody forcing you to eat McDonald’s” Wilie knew this. He worked the burg line for hers before heeded back to Texas to try his own recipe. Americana and the thriving roots music community better reflects the legacy of Willie, Kristofferson, Cash and Waylon and the draft and love of music beyond trends or current fads. The business will always be there. Beans have to be put on the table. Touring vans don’t run on good will. But business should not be the driving force. That’s a sure road to crap.

Here’s to Willie. activist, actor, author, Texastentialist, and musical legend. Long may your flag wave, hoss.

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