Last April, singer-songwriter, Willie Nelson, turned 80 years old. Given that he wrote his first song at seven and joined a band at ten, he has been entertaining for an astonishing 70 years. His musical career includes 300 +albums and seven Grammy Awards. He has been inducted in into several music halls of fame and became a Kennedy Center honoree in 1998. In 2000, he earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Willie is in a class by himself and the term “legend” is a meager way to describe his longevity and talent.
His cross-generational appeal was never more apparent to me than two weeks ago as I sat in the audience of a Willie Nelson concert in the northern suburbs of NYC. I brought my 23-year old son with me and there were as many Willie enthusiasts his age as mine. Along with most everyone there, I sang along with songs I feel I’ve known my whole life.
From the moment Willie struck up his customary first song, Whiskey River, to the closing tune, On the Road Again, I was transported back to my college days in the late 70’s, watching him perform in Austin at the now-gone Armadillo World Headquarters.
In between these traditional first and last tunes, Willie sang Funny How Time Slips Away and Crazy, songs he wrote in 1961 while driving from Houston to Nashville. I imagined my parents listening to Patsy Cline belt out the song that would become one of her top hits. (To see clips of Willie and Patsy singing Crazy, and Willie telling David Letterman about the history of this song, here is a story from The New York Times, "Crazy" Three Ways.)
Willie went back further in time, to the late 40s and 50’s as he combined a trio of Hank Williams’ classics, Jambalaya on the Bayou, Hey Good Lookin’ and Move it On Over, songs I am quite sure my parents and grandparents knew well.
Listening to Willie sing and play his very beat up guitar, Trigger, offers a lesson in country music history. But it is also clear that he is far from living in the musical past. One of the most rousing songs of the night, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, is also the name of a memoir he published last year. In addition to Let’s Face the Music and Dance, the album he released concurrent with his birthday, he has another one coming out on October 15, For the Girls…, featuring duets with a roster of incredible female country talent.
Unlike Patsy Cline and Hank Williams who died at 30 and 29, respectively, the world of country music has had seven decades of Willie Nelson. Happy 80th Birthday, Willie, and here’s to many more.
Photo credit: Getty Images