As Willie stood at the front of the stage, I couldn’t help but stare at that guitar-my god, that guitar-that has forty plus years of road wear dripping from the bridge to the headstock. If it could talk, it would sound like Sam Elliott. And on top of everything else, you won’t find an octogenarian as cool as Willie. This is after all, the man who got former president Jimmy Carter to sit in on harmonica, and introduced him by saying “play it Jimmy!” THAT my friends, is clout.
The look on my wife’s face was one-third shock and two-thirds bewilderment. Hustling through the concourse at the airport in Austin, Texas, I’d just revealed to her that despite my love of bouncing around to see live music in different locales, this was the first time my feet were actually on the ground in Texas. “Really?” she said, confused by the revelation. So naturally, in order to scratch the Texas-itch, we jumped boots-first into the Lone Star state experience, where I realized that yes, in fact, everything is bigger. And so it seemed that the only way to really get this state would be to roll up the sleeves on my western shirt (metaphorically of course, the western look wouldn’t be kind to me.) and go to Austin and ring in the arrival of 2015 with Texas’ favorite son, Willie Nelson. Coupled with the fact that the show was a double bill with Sturgill Simpson, currently the single best thing in country-or any music for that matter-I was sold.
Arriving in Austin it was rainy and cold, and while it was winter time, I still expected to at least see some sunshine. I wanted a big, round, Texas sun to beat down on me, but the gray sky and spitting rain would have to suffice. Gray skies, ok, i’ll deal. But once we were on the ground I was a little underwhelmed at how un-Texas things seemed. The weather was gloomy, and there wasn’t exactly a burst of energy running down 6th street. The buzz in town was nowhere to be found, so I chalked it up to a city nursing the holiday hangover. No big hats, no boots, and no one stopping me on the street, unprompted, to tell me why Texas should just say screw it, and be it’s own country. I wasn’t quite feeling Texas.
As we walked up to the Moody Theatre though, things changed. Perhaps it was the people who had gotten dressed up in their New Year’s blingy best, the 8-foot tall bronze statue of Willie Nelson outside the theater situated on Willie Nelson Boulevard, or seeing Jesse Plemons, who most of us know as Landry from the Austin-centric show Friday Night Lights, but now…..now we were in Texas. There was buzz, there was action, and I thought dammit, maybe this place just should be it’s own country.
The corridors of the theater, lined with portraits of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin, buzzed and it was obvious that while this is the more recent home of Austin City Limits, the thirty-eight year tradition of the longest running music show in American history isn’t lost on anyone. Not having a ten gallon hat or a good pair of boots made me feel a little left out. My ball cap and pair of New Balances wasn’t cutting it. Although, Willie’s affinity for New Balance did give me some redemption.
It’s hard to write anything about Sturgill Simpson that hasn’t already been said. A Kentucky native who found his way to Nashville after a spell in Utah as a railroad worker, he’s a country music throwback who is burning white-hot at the moment. His album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was perched atop every album of the year list that music critics love and musicians loathe. His voice sounds hauntingly like the whiskey-stained timbre of Waylon Jennings, something Simpson has grown tired of hearing but has learned to accept. My iTunes account has long given up keeping count the number of times I’ve played the album.
There are few musicians who I’ve become a bigger fan of in a smaller amount of time than Simpson. And while he is country, he’s twisted the script a bit, singing country songs about LSD and other altered-state musings, broken hearts with the proverbial painful breakup song Water In A Well, and has covered the 80’s classic The Promise. I could spend another three paragraphs extolling the virtues of Sturgill Simpson, but I won’t bother. Just listen.
My fear in seeing Willie Nelson for the first time, at his age, would be that he’s moved beyond the point of playing, and just going through the motions. There’s no shortage of legends who maybe went on a little longer than they should have. And while Willie hasn’t ever been a jump around the stage kind of guy, I wanted to at least get the impression he was still in it because he loved it. As The Redheaded Stranger strolled out to the stage with signature braids and cowboy hat, and the massive Texas state flag hung behind him and his band, my fears were assuaged. He was nimble, he was smiling, and didnt waste anytime giving the house what they wanted and how they wanted it. All the classics from start to finish with The Family behind him. The crowd went berserk, and it was clear that yes, Texas loves Willie and in turn, Willie. Loves. Texas.
He dove head first into a set that reminded me just how many damn Willie Nelson songs we all know. He’s forgotten more songs than I’ve ever heard. Everyone knows the standards, but I had completely forgotten about Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. I’d forgotten that he made Crazy one of the quintessential American country songs, not Patsy Cline. And find me someone who hasn’t teared up during Always On My Mind and I’ll show you a liar. After breezing through the low gears,Willie put his foot on the clutch, and up-shifted into Good Hearted Woman. The place lost their collective consciousness. One of the greatest sing-alongs of all time, it was Austin and it was Willie. The crowd was firing the chorus right back at him, and Willie and the audience were carrying the place at their we’re-Texans-dammit best. I even violated my self-imposed concert edict to never use a phone to record, ever. Sometimes you bend the rules. The only thing missing was the smell of whiskey, tobacco, and a big-haired bartender named Linda slinging Lone-Stars and Shiners.
Finding Texas took a day, but Willie was the kickstart required really get down to the nitty-gritty of the place, and see it for all it is. I stood outside the famous state capitol, the only capitol in America taller than the US Capitol. Because of course it is, it’s Texas. I walked past the 11 foot statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, drove past the empty shell of a building that used to be Antone’s, the iconic club that launched Vaughn’s career and was home to The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I drove across the campus of UT, threw up the hook ‘em horns sign, and drank a Lone Star, which is nothing more than Pabst Blue Ribbon with a Texas twist. I saw the weirdness of Austin, which is weird, not just a catchy phrase to slap on a bumper sticker. How many cities have a funeral home, gas station, taco stand and million dollar home all on the same block? And my wife and I spent an afternoon driving around to the filming locations of Friday Night Lights, letting out our inner TV nerd. It was a slow start, but we did Texas. And when we got on the plane to head home, I figured despite a slow start, the Lone Star State wasn’t going to let me down, and it didn’t. On the road again, Willie. On the road again indeed.