Willie Nelson, who has shaped American culture over six decades as a performer, recording artist, actor, author and activist, was honored first and foremost as a songwriter at the Americana Music Association’s 7th annual pre-Grammy concert Saturday night (Jan. 25) in Los Angeles.
Although Nelson, 86, was not present for the tribute at the Troubadour, his rich catalog of songs were showcased by those he has influenced, including John Prine, Shooter Jennings, Rhiannon Giddens, Joe Henry, Amos Lee, Andrew Bird, Yola, I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan), Calexico and Iron & Wine, The War and Treaty and more.
“It’s For Willie, man!,” shouted Jennings, who closed the show with an all-hands singalong of “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” a No. 1 hit on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1978 for Nelson and Shooter’s father Waylon Jennings. (The song was written by Ed and Patsy Bruce).
Jennings had been scheduled to end the night in a duet with Tanya Tucker who was recovering from bronchitis before her Grammy Night performance, he explained. Tucker has received four Grammy nominations, including song of the year, following the release of her comeback album While I’m Livin’, co-produced by Jennings and Brandi Carlile.
A number of Saturday evening’s performers are also Grammy nominees in the category of best Americana album, including Calexico and Iron and Wine for Years to Burn, Madison Cunningham for Who Are You Now; and Yola for Walk Through Fire.
Yola, who performed at Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concert in September, brought a rich and husky vocal to “Always On My Mind.” Cunningham introduced “a beautiful Willie song” and sang “Hands On The Wheel.” Calexico and Iron and Wine reinvented “On The Road Again” as a dreamy, white-line reverie. Henry, asking the crowd to “lean in close,” captured Nelson’s sharp heartache in “Funny (How Time Slips Away).” Singer/songwriter and violinist Bird chose a song by Irving Berlin, but immortalized by Nelson, as he sang “Blue Skies.” Lee brought out I’m With Her for backing vocals on “Seven Spanish Angels.”
In an evening of stellar artists singing classic Nelson songs, one performance was sheer magic, as Giddens, accompanied by collaborator Francesco Turrisi on keyboards, sang a spare, elegant, emotional and breathtaking version of “Crazy.”
Prine, who had been honored by the Americana Music Association on the eve of the Grammy Awards last year, will receive a lifetime achievement award this year from the Recording Academy. He played a three-song set that included “I’ve Just Destroyed The World (I’m Living In)” which Nelson co-wrote and performed with Ray Price. “A science fiction love song,” quipped Prine. He brought out Sara Watkins to duet on Nelson’s Christmas season love song “Pretty Paper.”
Prine regaled the audience with a tale of performing at Nelson’s first annual Fourth of July Picnic concert in Austin in 1973 — ”I was 27 years old and what a ball I had” — and he was invited afterward to a party in Nelson’s hotel room.
“Sitting on this one sofa was Willie, Leon Russell, Tom T. Hall, Doug Sahm — and there were two clowns from Ringling Brothers. I had a half-hour conversation with those two clowns,” deadpanned Prine, adding that they later inspired two of his own songs “That’s The Way the World Goes Round” and “The Other Side of Town,” both with clown imagery in their lyrics. “So, thank you Willie!”
Stay tuned for Billboard.com’s complete coverage of the 2020 Grammys, including our live Grammys pre-show that begins on Sunday (Jan. 26) at 5:30PM ET.