Last week, I had a chance to meet the musical living legend, long-time marijuana-smoking, back tax-owing, bio-diesel-burning, musical outlaw who changed country music forever. I don’t even have to say his name, and you know who it is. Willie Nelson. I thought his hair would be redder and longer. I thought he would be wearing cowboy boots, not New Balance tennis shoes. I thought he would be obnoxious and arrogant, but he was neither. Willie Nelson was humble, quiet and tiny – but larger than life at the same time.His touring group was small – just five or six folks, most of whom were family members or friends who have been touring with Willie for over 40 years. He had no sophisticated backdrops or instruments, just an enormous Texas flag that hung from the ceiling and a snare drum, bass, piano and harmonica to back him up. His piano-playing little sister Billie, who seemed older than Willie, was escorted from the bus by his close friend Paul, the drummer, who was recovering from a stroke himself (pictured below).
We were told not to expect to meet Willie. The promoter said he didn’t do “Meet and Greet” activities and he wouldn’t stick around after the performance to sign our wall-of-fame backstage. He’s getting old, and he’s tired, and once at a concert someone shook his hand too aggressively and broke a bone. But, out of his bus and into the building he came, dressed in an Alice in Wonderland t-shirt and black denim pants. He walked right up to a small group of ASUMH administrators who had gathered backstage to meet him, and he stuck out his hand to say hello. I actually got to shake hands with Willie Nelson!
I wore my cowboy hat to the concert; the one with autographs of Jerry Jeff Walker, Delbert McClinton and Phil Vassar on it. I had hoped to ask Willie to sign my hat too. But, once I looked into his big dark eyes, I changed my mind. It seemed too imposing to ask. There was a neat moment there, when I felt privileged just to shake his hand and I couldn’t break the spirit of that moment by asking for an autograph.
One of the benefits of my job is that I get to help with the fun stuff on days like this. I ran some errands for the band that day like doing laundry for Bee, the bass player (above) and picking up medicine for Paul. Paul had a crick in his neck that had been bothering him for days. They had hamburgers for lunch and pot roast with macaroni and cheese for dinner. Bee asked to go to a local music shop to search for a small guitar for a friend’s son who had asked for one for Christmas. At the music shop, Bee offered the proprietor tickets to the concert. He sensed a resistance and was visibly hurt to learn that the store owner’s daughter had just died. We went immediately to Willie’s bus for autographed black & white photos for the guy. Bee gave me one too, which was almost as good as getting my hat signed.
Willie’s bus was painted up exactly as you would expect it to be. Slightly over-the-top, the Honeysuckle Rose has southwestern art on every side and the back features a huge eagle with those trademark Willie Nelson eyes…
The highlight of the night was hearing Willie play “Crazy” and “On the Road Again” on his famous acoustic guitar named Trigger, after Roy Rogers’ horse. It has a huge hole in the body of the guitar made from years of strumming and it’s littered with signatures of friends and acquaintances. You wonder how a guitar that looks that bad can make music as beautifully as it does. The same could be said for Willie. His signature red, white and blue guitar strap is worn and dirty and the bandannas he tosses into the audience are covered in his sweat.
There was a big clock in front of the band that counted down the performance to 90 minutes exactly. At 90 minutes, Willie finished a song, walked forward, and started signing autographs. I don’t think anyone in his band or in the crew thought he would do what he did next, but he spent 30 minutes signing hats, boots, t-shirts, posters, album covers, and anything else people put in front of him. I thought they were going to have to pull him off the stage.
It was a night to remember, for sure. Willie Nelson was nothing at all like I expected, and was so much more than I expected in many ways. He was kind, generous and soft-spoken. He surrounds himself with people he trusts, and you can see why he would. He sings his heart out, no matter that he’s sung those songs thousands of times before. He’s a living legend, alright. Lucky for me, his bus pulled through Mountain Home, Arkansas, on the way to somewhere else. I don’t know how many more songs he’ll get out of Trigger, or how many more we’ll get out of Willie.