Here's my 4/20 column... by popular demand. And by "popular demand," I mean that my friend Kelly requested I post it.
Long Live Willie Nelson!
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Willie Nelson is the soundtrack of my youth. I probably wouldn’t have admitted it to my friends then, but how many times did I dance in my parents’ basement to “Good-Hearted Woman”? Play pool under the fluorescent lights to “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”? Belt out “On the Road Again” during family road trips?
Countless, that’s how many. And so it was with a fair bit of excitement that I walked into Mayo Civic Center for my first-ever Willie Nelson concert on Saturday night.
As my friend Lisa and I settled into our seats, we checked out the crowd. We noted a decidedly older demographic (there was a cane hanging on the railing blocking the stage)—though there was a respectable showing of children and 20-somethings, as well.
From the balcony, we admired the inhabitants of the first row with wonder (“How do you get those seats?” and “Look at those sequins!”) as a man behind us starting singing. “Waylon, Willie, and the boys…” he crooned, before yelling out, “C’mon! Everybody!” I thought the woman at the end of our row was going to join in, but instead she yelled, “We love you, Willie!”
And then, as if that’s the signal he’d been waiting for, the lights dimmed and Willie Nelson appeared. Wearing sensible tennis shoes, black jeans, a zip-up sweatshirt and a cowboy hat, the 77-year-old legend walked quietly on stage. Like an alternate-world Mister Rogers, he slipped off his sweatshirt, hung it on the table behind him, and put on his guitar—with its trademark red, white, and blue shoulder strap. And then, simply, he began playing. Just like that. No theatrics. No fanfare. No introduction. Just Whisky River.
And yet the crowd exploded—and I was transported. Like the smell of Bay Rum aftershave or the feel of riding a 10-speed on gravel, hearing Willie Nelson’s distinctive voice—live, in person, right in front of me—brought me straight back to RR 1, Box 294B, Thief River Falls, Minn. I might’ve been in section 10, seat 10 at the Mayo Civic Center, but I was also spinning around the pool table at my parents’ house, playing air guitar on a cue stick while my dad drank an Old Milwaukee and my mom twirled my little sister under her arm.
There’s a reason Willie Nelson doesn’t require fireworks or a grand introduction. His music is enough. We know all these songs—even if we didn’t know we know these songs. For 90 minutes, Willie sang back-to-back-to-back hits, without pause: Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. Good-Hearted Woman. Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground. On the Road Again. You Were Always on my Mind. I’ll Fly Away. Georgia. City of New Orleans.
It struck me during the concert that Willie Nelson is the original crossover star. I’m not suggesting that his sound was ever confused with pop music. No. But he draws fans who might otherwise never lay claim to country music. Thirty years ago, when my dad first forced the Red-Headed Stranger onto his family? The long row of albums under my parents’ stereo housed The Doors, the Beatles, Peter Frampton, Janis Joplin, George Carlin. Willie Nelson was the delicious anomaly.
Because here’s the thing—and if I didn’t know it then, I know it now: Willie Nelson is cool. Like crazy cool. He can amble on stage, throw on his guitar and play 90 minutes of solid tunes. Utter a couple of thank-yous. And then smile, sign a few hats, and walk back off.
And still make me nurse a sizable crush—and hum Good-Hearted Woman for the next three days. And counting.