How Willie Nelson Made 'Kris Kristofferson: All Star Concert Celebration' Happen

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Kris Kristofferson performs during NSAI 50 Yearsof Songs at Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 20, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. 

Willie Nelson gets an assist for making The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson: All Star Concert Celebration a reality.

Nelson was participating in a John Lennon 75th birthday celebration during Dec. 2015 in Nashville when he approached producer Keith Wortman of Blackbird Presents. "Willie and I were chatting and he said, 'When are we gonna do one of these shows for Kris? Aside from him being my best friend and partner in the Highwaymen, I think he's the greatest songwriter that ever lived,'" Wortman tells Billboard. "I sort of made a joke about it, but Willie took me aside and said, 'Get crackin' on that, kid.'"

Four months later, on March 16, 2016, Blackbird gathered a stellar cast -- including Nelson, Kristofferson himself, Eric Church, Lady Antebellum, Dierks Bentley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Darius Rucker, Hank Williams, Jr. and more, plus a band led by music director Don Was -- for the event at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The show will also air at 10 p.m. ET Friday on CMT and be available in a variety of audio and home media formats that day as well. 

"Kris had been part of a few of our prior shows," Wortman recalls, "and one thing that always struck me was that every time he took the stage he got by far the largest, longing standing ovations from our audiences. The second thing I observed is all the other artists gravitate towards him. They want to touch him and talk to him. He's this very humble, very sweet guy who's arguably our greatest living songwriter -- certainly on the Mount Rushmore of songwriters with the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, maybe Bruce Springsteen. So it felt like the time was right to celebrate these songs given that love for Kris and the significant inspiration cited by all these other artists."

Wortman says that every artist he called to be on the show was an instant yes, "without even checking their schedules," and he even had to to turn down some who volunteered simply for lack of time and space in the concert. The "jaw-drop" moments were many, ranging from Jennifer Nettles' delivery of "Worth Fighting For" and Eric Church talking about how Kristofferson's "To Beat The Devil" inspired him to make a last-ditch, successful effort to land a publishing deal to Rosanne Cash's deeply emotional and personal take on "Loving Her Was Easier." "She grew up on his knee," Wortman notes, "We all know that Johnny is mostly responsible for putting Kris on the map and recording his early songs and giving him a life. She in many ways looked to him as a second father and as a guiding light at a time when maybe it was hard for her and her own dad. There was a through-line, the family thread of Johnny Cash and Kris, and having Rosanne sing that song was very moving."

Kristofferson himself duets with Emmylou Harris on "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33" and with Nelson on "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down, and he joined the full ensemble for a show-closing "Why Me." "Kris really is such a humble guy," Wortman says, "but in a private moment he and his wife took me aside and thanked me for giving him the greatest professional night of his life, so hearing that is obviously a pretty significant moment. And it's so gratifying when the person whose songs we're playing is able to see it and experience it and genuinely see the love. When the person is in the room celebrating with you, that's a holy grail right there."

The 81-year-old Kristofferson's latest album, The Cedar Creek Sessions, came out during June of 2016 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Blackbird -- whose previous events include celebrations of Waylon Jennings, Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris, Gregg Allman, Dr. John and Lynyrd Skynyrd -- is working on a release for Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard from earlier this year and is producing All In For The Gambler: Kenny Rogers' Farewell Concert Celebration on Wednesday in Nashville with Dolly Parton, Lady Antebellum, Lionel Richie, the Judds, the Flaming Lips and more. The company is also planning a 2018 edition of Nelson's Outlaw Music Festival, which Wortman promises will be expanding from this year's 10 dates. 

The full track list for The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson: All Star Concert Celebration includes: 

"Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends" Buddy Miller
"Kristofferson" Jessi Alexander, Jon Randall & Larry Gatlin
"Here Comes That Rainbow Again" Martina McBride
"The Taker" Ryan Bingham
"The Captive" Jessi Colter
"Nobody Wins" Lee Ann Womack
"Jesus Was A Capricorn (Owed to John Prine)" Jack Ingram
"Worth Fighting For" Jennifer Nettles
"Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" Rosanne Cash
"Chase The Feeling" Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
"The Pilgrim: Chapter 33" Emmylou Harris & Kris Kristofferson
"From the Bottle to the Bottom" Dierks Bentley & The Travelin' McCourys
"Help Me Make It Through The Night" Lady Antebellum
"Under The Gun" Darius Rucker
"For The Good Times" Jamey Johnson & Alison Krauss
"Casey's Last Ride" Alison Krauss
"If You Don't Like Hank Williams" Hank Williams Jr.
"To Beat The Devil" Eric Church
"Me And Bobby McGee" Reba McEntire
"Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson
"Why Me" Kris Kristofferson & Full Ensemble