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Willie Nelson's Country Throwdown

(21 Jun 2011: Red Rocks Amphitheater — Morrison, CO)

Willie Nelson knows how to throw a party. That’s, of course, one of the many reasons why he’s stayed on top for so many years. Ever since he started to find success in the mid ‘50s, Nelson has continuously been one of the top names in country music – and, to be fair, pop culture as a whole. At this point, there is hardly reason to try and list his accomplishments in music because you’d inevitably leave one out, and even if you were able to name all of his musical feats, you’d still struggle to pinpoint everything else: his activism, his acting, his prose, his poetry. And even then, you’d definitely forget something else that is seemingly insignificant, like one of his nicknames, but that still defines a man who has been in the forefront of our world for more than 50 years. The Red Headed Stranger. 

So when Willie Nelson puts his name on something - for instance, a nationwide tour of country music acts - you pay attention. If there’s a question in your mind, it should be “Willie Nelson is throwing a party, why wouldn’t I go?”. At Morrison, CO’s Red Rocks Amphitheater on Tuesday, the smell of chewing tobacco and the sight of cowboy hats and cut-off jean shorts were enough to make even the most weathered cowboy say something along the lines of, “Well, my God, this is a party”. From miles away you could taste the cheap beer and hear the clack of cowboy boots on cement.

The day was scheduled for a 3 pm kick start, though most of the crowd sauntered in sometime after the work day ended – about 5 or 6. But the sun was still bright, there was plenty of beer to go around, and by then only a few bands had played at the two smaller stages on the top platform of the amphitheater. The feeling that anything was missed by showing up late was far from being on anyone’s mind.

Even at 7 pm, when Randy Houser took the main stage, there were a lot of stragglers who hadn’t found their way to a seat. But Houser made short work of that, as he and his band turned the volume up just about as high as it would go. Houser does something that you might think a lot of country artists do – his music pays respect to classic country but still has that modern crunch. His set found energy in the walking bass with a shuffle, but was able to slow down without losing steam. With two impressive slide guitarists by his side, and a keyboardist who may or may not have doubled for Jason Lee at one point, Houser set the stage perfectly for the rest of the evening.

Jamey Johnson is a bulk of a man. His long hair and deathly stare are hard to miss, and on stage he easily catches your eye. But it’s his true country voice that really grabs you. It’s dark and deep but he’s not afraid to take it high once in a while, or get a little softer. His cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” came just before his cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”, and they both fit right into his repertoire – hard hitting country music with a sense of humility. His set started in daylight and ended in moonlight, but the dimming sun did not dull the crowd’s energy. It could have been the music or the gallons of beer that did it, but they were revved up for the main act.

Willie Nelson led his band – comprised of various artists from the day’s events – onto stage quickly, and dove right in without hesitation. It took a few songs for the band to tighten up, and at times it was questionable if they had even rehearsed together. A medley of “Funny How Time Sleeps Away”, “Crazy”, and “Night Life” hardly changed tempo or key, but you could tell the change in verse by the unforgettable lyrics. Slowly and surely though, they found the rhythm and were able to pull it together. The set, less than an hour long, comprised nearly all of Willie’s hits – from “Me and Paul” to “On the Road Again” and “Bloody Mary Morning” – but seemed far too rushed. His music needs time to settle before it builds, and unfortunately this time it was built before it settled. But even that is a testament to the man: despite the shortfalls, it was still a hell of a performance. The man can do whatever he wants with hardly any possibility of losing his stronghold. His still-fresh voice, even at the age of 78, and his timeless songs were enough to put a classic country end to a classic country day.


Jonathan Kosakow has been a regular contributor for PopMatters since 2009, and became Associate Events Editor two years later. He contributes to Glide Magazine's Hidden Track blog (, both on his own and as a member of the editorial collective Three Grown Men. His writing has also appeared on and, but most of it can be found on the floor of his apartment or stashed away in files on his computer. Jonathan recently earned his Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Denver, and does his best to be an active member of the music and writing community in the Denver/Boulder area. He is the Director of Operations at the Boulder-based company Eco Vessel, and is the co-founder of the music-related website, and the beer-related blog, both currently in production.

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