Even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I think I fell in love with music sometime when I was kid living in a small apartment in Metairie, Louisiana in the late ’70s. My father loved to entertain. He and my mother always had parties or at least a few couples over for dinner, drinks and laughs. Every time people came over, my father blasted his stereo speakers with the sounds of Willie Nelson.
I can still remember hearing the opening guitar count off for the live version of “Whiskey River” from Nelson’s Willie and Family Live album. It’s a very pleasant memory — something akin to the memory of someone waking up to the smell of frying bacon. But this memory is all about sound. Because of those memories, I bought a Willie Nelson greatest hits collection sometime in college and have been hooked ever since.
So I was excited to see the two-hour, USA Network television special on May 26, Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin’. Nelson was slated to perform with Ray Charles, Kenny Chesney, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Paul Simon, Shelby Lynn, ZZ Top, and a bunch of other superstars. Lost Highway Records has released a CD version of Nelson’s 70th birthday television event. The superb sound quality and production of these live jams helps prove something I’ve suspected all along: Everybody, regardless of the musical genre they listen to most, loves the music of Willie Nelson. Everybody.
His songs are timeless, his voice is unmistakable, moody and heartfelt and his acoustic guitar playing is instantly recognizable. Sometimes people forget about that last fact. Nobody can make their acoustic guitar produce those thick-stringed, Mexican-flavored picking sounds Nelson is known for.
A couple of the songs on Live and Kickin’ flat out knocked me on my ass. When Nelson and “A Song For You” writer Leon Russell sang alongside Ray Charles on Russell’s song, I was floored. First, because I had never heard the song before — one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Second, because the voice of Ray Charles brought tears to my eyes. That’s the same effect Charles had on Nelson when Charles sings the last verse and chorus. I watched Nelson tear up on TV and realized that music affects us all in the same, basic way. Shelby Lynn’s version of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” was another song that transcended the night, the event and the medium. Lynn’s vocal emotion topped the night with rough, hard-living edges and velvety romantic flourishes.
Wyclef Jean and Nelson’s reggae version of “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” was kind of sloppy. Jean’s vocal mistakes tripped up Nelson a few times.
The biggest surprise of the night was Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler dueting with Nelson on the Tyler penned, “One Time Too Many”. Many could argue that Tyler is a soul singer masquerading as a ’70s hard rock frontman, but I was absolutely convinced that Tyler could easily put as much emotion into a pure country song as any blues or heavy metal tune after hearing this CD’s finale.
Nelson is a legend and this type of CD reminds me that he had just the same effect on some of rock and pop’s most famous musicians as he had on me.
Thank you, Willie, and thank you, Dad.