“Who else could pull together a night like this? Two nights!” declared Sheryl Crow onstage at the Hollywood Bowl during the second of the two concerts Sunday (April 30) to celebrate the 90th birthday of Willie Nelson, the peerless songwriter, singer, actor, author and activist.
“Our national treasure!” said Emmylou Harris, one of the dozen musicians exclusive to the bill of Night Two of Nelson’s birthday bash. The weekend’s concerts were billed as Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90 and the second evening contained no shortage of storytelling, insights into Willie World and unforgettable collaborations.
After Billy Strings once again opened the evening with “Whiskey River” —the song with which Nelson has started every concert for decades—presenter Ethan Hawke spoke of Nelson’s willingness to fly the “flag of equality.” Proof came as Orville Peck emerged onstage, his fringed face mask firmly in place, to sing a song written by Ned Sublette and released by Nelson in 2006 in the wake of the film Brokeback Mountain. Titled “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” the light-hearted ballad has been called the first LGBTQ-themed song by a major country artist.
“Thank you for always bringing people together,” said Norah Jones, who was joined onstage by Allison Russell. It takes exceptional talent and guts to reprise a classic duet originally recorded by Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. But Jones and Russell proved equal to the challenge, singing the epic tale of star-crossed lovers “Seven Spanish Angels,” their voices soaring over the Hollywood hills.
The inspiration for Nelson’s song “Me and Paul” was his longtime late friend and band member Paul English, who died in 2020. Onstage Sunday, Dwight Yoakam described English as Nelson’s drummer, bodyguard and “the Huck Finn to Willie’s Tom Sawyer.” Yoakam said he was “honored that Willie allowed me to do this particular song.” After all, Yoakam said, describing English’s role in Nelson’s life, “Willie wouldn’t have made it to 60” [ITAL] without him.
Waylon Payne introduced himself to the crowd as the son of Sammi Smith, one of the only women of the outlaw country movement and one of Nelson’s longtime friends, and “my daddy Jody Payne,” who played guitar in Nelson’s band for years before his death in 2013. As Margo Price bounced up and down with the band’s rhythm, she and Waylon Payne rollicked through Billy Joe Shaver’s “Fast Train To Georgia,” which Nelson has played live for many years.
Nelson’s son Micah, who performs as Particle Kid, shared the most hilariously detailed version yet of a family tale that emerged from the pandemic. He and his father had been playing dominoes when Willie Nelson came out with a phrase that Micah declared as “the best song you’ve never written.” The father challenged the son to turn it into a lyric. So, Micah recalled, he went into the family’s garage, “got high was shit, and I wrote a Willie Nelson song.” The chorus: “If I die when I’m high, I’ll be halfway to heaven.”
More storytelling came from Rodney Crowell, this time with a local twist. In the mid 1970s, Nelson was playing the Palomino Club on Lankershim Boulevard in Los Angeles when a somewhat spaced-out Crowell heard Nelson introduce Crowell’s song “‘Till I Gain Control Again”—and invite him to come up on stage. “I floated across the room,” Crowell recalled, before performing the song Sunday.
Beck, who stunned the crowd Saturday night with his version of “Hands on the Wheel,” from Red Headed Stranger, sang “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on Sunday. But he also unwound his own wacky tale of connecting with Nelson. The video for his song “Jack-Ass” from his 1997 album Odelay was set in a coal mine—MTV had a lot to answer for, Beck said—with a script that called for a wizard to roll by in a coal cart. “So we called Willie Nelson and he said, `Sign me up.’ I don’t need to tell anyone here that Willie Nelson is the coolest.”
Wesley Shultz of the Lumineers shared a childhood memory of his father playing Nelson’s holiday song of a street vendor calling out to Christmas shoppers “hoping you won’t pass him by” as he offers “pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue” to “wrap your presents to your darling from you.” As he and bandmate Jeremiah Fraites sang “Pretty Paper,” Schultz said he always associated Nelson’s voice “with the happiest moments of the year.”
“Twenty-one years ago, this is the first song I sang with Willie Nelson,” said Norah Jones, turning to the tall, white-haired 86-year singer beside her onstage. “Thank you for writing it.” With that, she and Kris Kristofferson duetted on “Help Me Make In Through The Night.”
Sheryl Crow recalled that when she was on the bill of Nelson’s 70th birthday concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre, Kristofferson gave her advice about performing with Nelson, given his inimitable vocal phrasing. “Don’t try to sing with him,” Kristofferson had said. “Just sing louder than him.” Crow performed her own gorgeous version of “Crazy.”
“Man, I’m nervous,” Dave Matthews told the crowd as he took the stage for a solo acoustic performance, preceded by his own tale from Willie World. The two had met in 1994 when Matthews played Farm Aid, Nelson’s annual benefit for family farmers. “After we played, we all got on the bus and proceeded to get high. When I thought we were finished, we were just getting started.” Matthews says his mother has a photo on her mantle of him and Nelson, taken that day. “She was so proud of me,” he said. Matthews performed “Funny How Time Slips Away” in a version dramatically different from Noah Jones’ rendition just 24 hours earlier, just one example of how Nelson’s songs have proven so adaptable and enduring
The night’s remarkable collaborations continued. Emmylou Harris, who had sung earlier with longtime collaborator Rodney Crowell, returned to the stage with Daniel Lanois on guitar to sing a haunting version of Lanois’ song “The Maker.” Nelson had recorded the song for his 1998 album Teatro, which Lanois produced. Jayme Johson teamed up with Warren Haynes on guitar and Booker T. Jones on piano and sang lead on “Georgia On My Mind,” beautifully accented by a harmonica solo from Nelson’s longtime sideman Mickey Raphael.
But the most inspired ensemble of the night came next. In 1985, Columbia Records released The Highwayman —an album credited to Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson—which spent 66 weeks on the Top Country Albums chart, reaching No. 1. The album’s title track, a masterful four-verse musical story from songwriter Jimmy Webb, spent 20 weeks on Hot Country Songs, also reaching No. 1. The foursome, who adopted the moniker of the Highwaymen, are still considered country music’s first supergroup. And on Sunday, “The Highwayman” was performed by the offspring of the original group—Lukas and Micah Nelson, Scooter Jennings and Rosanne Cash.
“I see Trigger on the stage,” said presenter Woody Harrleson, after Nelson’s battered yet sturdy acoustic guitar was placed in its stand. Nelson’s show-closing set —which included the crowd sing-along of “Happy Birthday” he had inadvertently cut off on Saturday—seemed to be particularly personal and reflective in his selection of songs and collaborators.
For “Stardust,” the title track of Nelson’s 1978 collection of standards, Booker T. Jones, who produced that massively successful disc, soloed on organ. Then Sheryl Crow reemerged to duet on “Far Away Places,” which she and Nelson had sung together for his 2013 duets collection All The Girls. And Nelson’s longtime producer and co-writer Buddy Cannon—they’re working on their 18th album together—accompanied his friend on the bittersweet “Something You Get Through” from the 2018 album Last Man Standing.
But perhaps the most striking choice Nelson made as the evening drew to a close were duets with two up-and-coming artists—as if seeking to end this celebration of his long life by passing the torch.
Little over a year ago, Lily Merola sang for a few dozen fans at the Beer Garden stage of the Luck Reunion festival on Nelson’s ranch outside Austin. Sunday, at the Hollywood Bowl, she sang a beautiful duet with Nelson on “Will You Remember Mine,” which the two had recorded for All The Girls. Then Billy Strings returned for the spirited “California Sober,” which Nelson has recorded with the young singer for his upcoming debut album.
Of course, Sunday’s show concluded with “On The Road Again,” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and, yes, “Happy Birthday.” But first Nelson had one more old friend to welcome—Keith Richards.
“Thank you, ladies and gentleman,” said Richards, trotting out a well-worn quip. “It’s good to be here; it’s good to be anywhere!” As Willie Nelson was joined by his sons, Lukas and Micah, Richards remarked “I’m surrounded by Nelsons! You guys should get a column.” (One member of the audience noted that only British fans in the crowd got that joke).
Richards and Nelson sang the 1973 Waylon Jennings hit “”We Had It All” (which the Rolling Stones released as a Some Girls album bonus track in 2011). But it was the next song from these two music survivors—Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever”—that brought perspective to the weekend’s celebration. Two aging but vital voices, from Texas and England, came together to sing:
“I’m gonna live forever / I’m gonna cross that river / I’m gonna catch tomorrow, now … Nobody here will ever find me / But I will always be around/ Just like the songs I leave behind me/ I’m gonna live forever, now.”