Given the universal appeal and introspective catharsis that marks the best of Willie Nelson‘s work, the sheer range of talent who took the stage to celebrate the life and career of Nelson at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for Willie: Life & Songs Of An American Outlaw should have come as no surprise.
As the dozens of guest performers — from old friends like Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris, to fresher upstarts like the Avett Brothers and Margo Price — came together at the end of the roughly four-hour commemoration to follow Nelson in a closing medley of “On the Road Again” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” it became even more apparent just how ubiquitous the outlaw legend’s hits have become over the last 50 years.
“I think everybody in America grew up with Willie Nelson to some degree,” the Hawaii-born Jack Johnson told Billboard on the red carpet before the event, where he was on hand to perform his song “Willie Got Me Stoned.”
“He was on my radar as a kid just from my parents playing his records around the house, but shortly after I started putting out albums in 2001, I had a chance to jam with Willie at his house one island over from me. Willie is empathetic to the mixture of cultures that come together to create music in Hawaii, and I think that respect to a melting pot of influences has been felt throughout his career.”
The following five performances were highlights of a night that was recorded and is slated to be aired as a major broadcast special on A&E Network in 2019.
A pair of Margo Price duets
A nominee for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards, the current Queen of Americana took the lead mic on a rendition of the 1978 hit “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” alongside Outlaw legend Bobby Bare. It proved to be merely a warmup to a barn-burner of a moment when Bare exited and Steve Earle appeared to join her for a rousing recreation of the Phases and Stages era “Sister’s Coming Home.”
Lukas and Micah Nelson’s trilogy
While Lukas is arguably better known around Nashville, thanks to his appearances at various local events in the wake of the release of the 2017 album Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and his work on A Star Is Born, Micah stunned those unfamiliar with his vocal talents in the future-folk project Particle Kid by embracing the classical and Spanish influences found within the gospel-tinged “I Thought About You, Lord.” He then accompanied his brother on a pair of their father’s standards that span across his career, as Lukas’ talent shined through “Time of the Preacher” (from Willie’s 1975 commercial breakthrough Red Headed Stranger) and “The Songwriters,” a cut from Willie’s 2014 album Band of Brothers.
Alison Krauss stuns
Having previously recorded a cover of Nelson’s 1981 hit “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” for an extended edition of her 2017 release Windy City, Krauss’ vocals filled every corner of the arena, as the audience put away cell phones and stopped speaking in mid-conversation to appreciate a master at work. To quote Vince Gill, who walked onstage to perform “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” as Krauss exited: “Damn, damn, damn!”
Jamey Johnson steals the show
When the bearded Johnson took the stage, several people in the crowd excitedly mistook the singer for Chris Stapleton, who had opened the show earlier with a rousing rendition of “Whiskey River.” The difference between Stapleton’s performance — which was a crowd pleaser, don’t get me wrong — and what the audience witnessed from Johnson’s handling of the oft-covered “Georgia on My Mind” was that the latter resulted in a standing ovation that began a full minute before the final lyrics were bellowed by an artist that deserves much more recognition than he currently has.
George Strait finally sings one with Willie
It’s remarkable to realize that, before last night’s performance, George Strait and Nelson had never performed together. The two reigned as key talents in country music in the ’80s, and Willie has made a career out of performing duets with fellow legends on multiple projects. It made sense, then, that the first time they would share a stage Strait would mark the occasion by debuting a new song seemingly titled “I Ain’t Never Got to Sing One With Willie.” The tune, making light of the two entering their twilight years as performers, had the two arguing over whether this occasion finally made Strait’s career or ruined it.