“Good morning, America, how are you?” Such was the question Willie Nelson posed in song to his audience during a sprightly rendition of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”
Gee, since you asked Willie, we’re not doing so hot. There’s that whole Iraq debacle, for one thing. Then there’s that rather poor excuse for a commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, who is rapidly on his way to becoming the worst president in this nation’s history. And finally, there’s that city of New Orleans you mentioned, mostly underwater and descending into anarchic chaos thanks to Hurricane Katrina. How are we? Downright shitty, but still, it was seriously nice of you to ask.
“The City of New Orleans” wasn’t the only reference made to the beleaguered Big Easy that night. Willie’s son and lead guitarist Lucas Nelson took the mic for an impassioned cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood”. Sure, it’s about Texas, but the lyrics (“Flood water keep a rollin’ / man it’s about to drive poor me insane”) were apt, to say the least. And if you wanna get technical about it, “City of New Orleans” is more about a train than it is the actual city. Go figure. A less obvious nod to New Orleans was “Jambalaya”, Hank Williams Sr.‘s Cajun-tinged barnstormer that came later in the set. That’s the one with the jaunty chorus that goes “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou!” Very odd. After all, it was safe to say that no one is having any kind of fun, big or otherwise, on the bayou. Was Willie Nelson being ironic?
Who knows? Anyway, the audience wasn’t there to note the subtleties inherent in Nelson’s set list; they were there to bask in the still-strong glow of a bona fide living legend. Despite a career that’s well past the half-century mark, the seventy-something Nelson sounded as robust as ever. And he looked good too. He may possess a visage as craggy as the red rock formations that surround the amphitheater, but he still appeared positively youthful as he led his band through a 90-minute set of highlights from his storied songwriting career. The classics came thick and fast: tried and true warhorses like “Whiskey River”, “Crazy”, and “On the Road Again” were all amiably trotted out.
The concert also served as a master class in country music history, as Nelson ran through songs by the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. The music was casual and breezy—many of Nelson’s backing musicians (including his sister Bobbie on piano, Paul English on an extremely stripped down drum kit. and Mickey Rafael on harmonica) have been on the road with him for decades. Playing these songs is as natural as breathing for them.
Not to say there weren’t a few curveballs. Willie’s latest release, Countryman, is, of all things, a reggae album. Given that Nelson is—aside from Snoop Dogg—probably the musician most known for his love of ganja, it isn’t surprising that he opted to record an album in Jamaica. What was surprising was how good Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” sounds in Nelson’s hands. It just goes to show that a classic song is a classic song, and a true legend is a true legend, no matter what.