“Thanks for coming to my dad’s birthday party,” said Micah Nelson, a few songs into an all-star tribute to Willie Nelson at the Hollywood Bowl, attended by a sold-out house happy that Willie had found a way to schedule the 90th anniversary of his birth on a Saturday night. With roughly seven decades of songwriting and recording to commemorate, though, the party is stretching over two nights, bundled together and sold as a single ticket, where by the end of Sunday night everyone will have heard about 50 artists perform a total of about 75 songs.
Ironically, one of the first numbers performed Saturday evening was young Texas country artist Charley Crockett doing a cut that Nelson had a hit with as a budding songwriter in the late ’50s: “The Party’s Over.” That title proved as un-prescient for Nelson’s career 65 years ago as it proved unprophetic for the scope of the Bowl celebration this weekend. But a little irony is always welcome in Willie’s world.
Saturday’s show climaxed with Nelson emerging more than three hours into the 220-minute proceedings to join forces with George Strait, Neil Young and Snoop Dogg, symbolically representing how welcome Willie has been in the worlds of country, rock and cannabis, respectively. In the preceding hours, he was serenaded by such disparate musical figures as the Chicks, the Lumineers, Ziggy Marley, Miranda Lambert, Beck, Chris Stapleton, Tom Jones, Norah Jones, Bob Weir, Jack Johnson, Margo Price and the rare surviving figure that can still count as one of his actual contemporaries, Kris Kristofferson. (Scroll through for a complete setlist from night 1.)
It was a savvily assembled mixture of talent and song choices — some of them very, very deep cuts — that paid tribute to a songwriting mastery that began in the Eisenhower era and will end well into the legal weed era. Except you can’t really say it paid testimony just to the writing, since Nelson had so many substantial hits with songs he didn’t pen himself, too. It was a tribute to the persona as well as the pen, of course… a salute to Zen made flesh.
Although the lineups for each night were not announced in advance, a majority of the artists announced are appearing both evenings, as it turns out, albeit not repeating the same numbers from night to night. Some of those who played Saturday will not be returning for night 2 — like Stapleton, obviously, who is headlining Stagecoach on Sunday. Some other big names had not yet appeared by the end of night 1, like Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris. Sheryl Crow and the Avett Brothers.
Oh, and how about a couple of surprises that may yet be in store: Attentive fans in the merch lines noticed that the T-shirts being sold for the two-nighter mention Keith Richards and Justin Timberlake in the fine print. Did those two titans cancel before they ever got a chance to be announced, or are they being held back for a last-minute surprise — to everyone except the thousands of people who bought a poster Saturday?
The most emotional moment during Saturday’s opening night came not while Nelson was on stage for the final stretch, but literally hours earlier, when Rosanne Cash brought out Kristofferson to join her for a song he wrote, “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” Kristofferson’s longstanding issues with memory took him off the road years ago, and his voice wasn’t built for sweet harmony singing even in the best of days. But how sweet it was, regardless, as Cash gave her spiritual uncle all the support he needed to make this sad memory song feel like a warm, communal hug.
Asked on the red carpet about her song picks for the two nights, Cash said, “Oh, I got in there early, man, and asked for what I wanted!” — “Lovin’ Her” (or “Him,” in this case) on night 1 and the Townes Van Zandt-penned “Pancho and Lefty” for night 2. “I got to sing that for Willie when he got the Gershwin Award, and it was so much fun, I asked for that again… the ultimate story-song.” Of Nelson’s enduring appeal, Cash cited his command of multiple genres, his authenticity and, last but maybe not least, “his perseverance. You know, it’s not just about talent, it’s about showing up for work every day. And that’s what he’s done… Getting to witness him reaching 90, reaching this momentous point in his life, and he’s still gonna go out and play and sing? I mean, how many people get to say that they do that?” What would her dad be thinking? “I think he would’ve been jealous.”
For a comic high point, there might’ve been a tie, late in the game. It was hard to top Snoop coming out for their duet on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” with the rapper doing a rare instance from his career of pure singing… and not sounding that bad at it. The crowd proved particularly suggestible during this number. “Is anybody out there smoking tonight? Roll one for Mr. Nelson,” Snoop suggested, and within 30 seconds, the amphitheater was filled with an obvious aroma. You might have expected that to happen a lot earlier, without any prompting, but maybe much of the crowd was like Nelson himself — long since moved on to edibles or other means of consumption that boomers took up to protect their lungs — but clearly many in the crowd had been bogarting the traditional stuff until this moment.
The other purely comedic number was the actual finale, where Nelson called an audible. The official backstage setlist showed the birthday boy finishing with “On the Road Again,” a gospel medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and a round of “Happy Birthday to Me.” But then, with most of the cast on stage, perhaps feeling there was not enough levity in closing it out with something quite so seriously self-celebrating, he felt compelled to add, “I know what we’re gonna do. You all have to help me sing this one. My old friend Mac Davis wrote it.” That was the prompt for “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” a tune that’s so ridiculous a seminal humble-brag, it actually kind of counts as humbling.
Strait also provided his share of light-heartedness a bit earlier by joining Nelson on “Sing One With Willie,” the ultimate meta song, inasmuch as the 2019 track literally has as its sole subject Strait and Nelson finally getting to record a tune together. A bit more solemnly, they followed that with a duet of “Pancho and Lefty” (beating the aforementioned Rosanne Cash to that pick by one night).
Neil Young and Nelson shared the stage, backed by Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real, for a loose version of “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?,” a track from Young’ mid-’80s Americana album “Old Ways.” Prior to Nelson making his first on-stage appearance as a sorta surprise guest midway through that number, Young and Stephen Stills teamed up for two numbers they had done together the previous weekend at the Greek at a benefit for an autism charity, “Long May You Run” and “For What It’s Worth.” These were outliers in the evening’s setlist, as far as neither of those numbers having anything ostensibly to do with the night’s honoree — although “Long May You Run” makes for a good birthday song. It would’ve been cool if Young had whipped up a Willie cover, but Neil’s ways are not our own, and the crowd did not register any objections.
Norah Jones had one of the most justifiably well-received mini-sets of the night, with a strong two-fer that showed off the more rollicking and/or gospel-inflected part of her piano range. On the first number of the two she did, Jones was actually paying homage to a different member of the Nelson family, Willie’s not-so-long-lost sister and longtime house pianist. “I would’ve done anything they asked me to do,” she explained on the red carpet. “There’s no bad song choices here. But I got asked to do a tribute to Bobbie Nelson, and so I get to play ‘Down Yonder’ on the piano, which is a real thrill because she was a huge influence on my piano playing, and I just loved her so much. From the first night I met Willie and the whole family and the whole crew and band 22 years ago, she was always so sweet to me, so I’m thrilled to be doing that. And also I get to sing one of my favorite songs, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’” — a song that only grows more resonant each year for anyone cognizant of their own aging… and yet, for Nelson or any of his faithful interpreters, utterly tranquil in its wistfulness.
Jones was the only participant of the night who actually started a band named after Nelson: her side project the Little Willies. “It started out as a Willie Nelson cover band,” she recalled on the carpet. “We ended up opening it up to different songwriters as well, but that’s how it started. I knew Willie would get a kick out of it, and we thought the Little Willies was a funny name. Well, the guys didn’t, but I thought it was.”
Billy Strings was the only performer of the night who could lay claim to having released a record with Nelson this very weekend: their duet on a Strings-cowritten original, “California Sober,” which happens to be the neo-bluegrass artist’s first release for Reprise. On the red carpet, he allowed that this collaboration might get a performance of some sort for night 2, although he did two other songs, the Nelson standard “Whiskey River” and “Stay All Night,” to kick things off Saturday.
Said Strings, “What happened is, I was on the Outlaw tour (Nelson’s annual multi-artist outing), and then after that, I was just so into him, I was listening to ‘Redheaded Stranger’ exclusively for a couple weeks. So when I was sitting out by the burn pile at my house, I was ripping off a piece of cardboard to start my fire, and I came up with ‘I’m California sober, as they say’ and I started writing this down on the piece of cardboard that I ripped off. I said, ‘Man, this is such a Willie tune.’ We finished the demo of it and I sent it to Willie, and he said, ‘Hell yeah.’
“We went and cut it down in Austin. There was one moment where he sat down and was like, ‘Do you want me to do the first verse, do you want me to sing harmony — what do you want me to do?’ To have Willie Nelson sit down behind a microphone with his coffee and say, ‘All right, what do you want me to do?’ — I froze. But it was great. I mean, he’s 90 years old and he kicked ass on it. And when I was in the studio with him, I started hearing his younger voice — his younger self — coming out when he started singing on a couple certain takes.”
The new duet seems to reflect Nelson’s philosophy about weed, versus other substances. “Well, yeah, that’s in the very first verse: ‘I don’t get to acting mean when I keep my buzzes clean / Keep the hard stuff and the whiskey from my head.’ That’s another reason why I thought me and Willie could do this song, because it’s been like seven years since I’ve had a drink, but I smoke lots of weed and I’m like, well, who else is like that?”
Margo Price, whose earliest releases established her as part of Nelson-and-company’s outlaw country tradition, discussed her picks on the red carpet. For night 1’s “I Can Get Off on You,” “which is a Willie and Waylon (Jennings) song that I have loved forever, I recruited Nathaniel (Rateliff) to sing the harmony with me. And then tomorrow night I’m singing ‘Georgia on a Fast Train’ with Waylon Payne,” Jennings’ son.
Maybe even more so than most of the performers, Price has had a lot of Nelson songs in her repertoire in the past, as regular parts of the set or one-offs. “Whiskey River” has often been part of a medley with her own seminal signature song, “Hurtin’ on the Bottle”; she’s covered “Shotgun Willie” and “Sister’s Coming Home” live; and for a Spotify Sessions series of singles to commemorate Nelson’s 90th, she recorded “Hands on the Wheel,” which she calls “one of my favorite songs ever. There’s just endless Willie songs that we have learned — it’s like trying on a dress, and seeing how it fits,” said Price. “It’s like a masterclass in songwriting.” Her favorite part of the catalog is “that ‘Outlaws’ record he and Waylon and Jessi Colter had, with the country-funk stuff.” (Price has produced a yet-unreleased Colter album.) “To me, the really funky kind of vibe that he had, that’s what we’ve pulled from the most. And the way that he is unafraid to kind of talk about anything that he is going through … (yet) I like that Willie does not explain what any song is about. If you ask him, he won’t really tell you, because he wants you to find your own interpretation of it.”
Some of the most authentic-seeming “outlaw country” moments of the night came from a pair of true I-did-it-my-way performers, Jamey Johnson, who sang Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” and Sturgill Simpson, who did “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” a song popularized (or semi-popularized) by Nelson that Simpson covered for one of this own albums. They were the two performers on the lineup least likely to crack a smile, but the authoritative air they both brought outweighed whatever they didn’t bring in the way of party hats.
“I didn’t have the nerve to say this to his face,” Simpson told the crowd, “but there’s only one reason I went to Nashville to make country records, and that’s because I grew up listening to country records made by Willie Nelson. And I wanted to make country records that were outside of the box of what most people think a country record can be. I only signed a record deal with Atlantic Records because Willie Nelson made those records on Atlantic. That didn’t work out too well for me,” he said, referencing his problems with record labels over the years, “but everything else did, thanks to you guys.”
Jack Johnson was one of the few Saturday night to perform an original song instead of a cover. “I wrote a song called ‘Willie Got Me Stone and Took All My Money,’ and it’s a true story,” he said on the carpet. “I’ve played it over the years and this is a perfect night to be playing it again… It’s probably about 10 years ago that it happened. It was one fun night in Maui where I borrowed a little money from my dad because I didn’t have any in my pocket at the time, and Willie took it all. It was well worth it. I had a lot more me great memories from that night than the amount of dollars that that left my pocket.”
(Strings also shared a similar story, saying, “He took a thousand dollars from me (at poker). I thought he was a nice guy. (But) I’d spend another couple grand to sit there and shoot the bull with him and his buddies who’ve been sitting there playing cards for 50 years.”)
The Lumineers sang “A Song for You” on night 1, which Nathaniel Rateliff will get to on night 2; on the second night, they’ll be doing the sad holiday perennial “Pretty Paper.” They remember growing up on Nelson and trying to figure out how his unusual phrasing fit into the musical pantheon they were otherwise being exposed to.
“He doesn’t have the traditional timing of like most singers,” remarked Wesley Schultz on the carpet. “I would say it’s almost like on Valium or something. It’s just like, ‘I’m gonna say it when I want to say it and it still feels correct, but you have to get used to it.’ That’s probably why as a kid, when you first hear it, you’re like, ‘That guy’s just doing whatever he wants to do right now!’ … It’s rare that I hear a singer where I know them by the first note they sing and by the first note they play on their guitar.”
Miranda Lambert covered one of the best-known Nelson songs (or Nelson and Jennings, that is): “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” “Yeah, we’re going for the big guns,” she said on the carpet, while confessing, “It was hard to pick and I just picked randomly. Because you can’t really go wrong with anything you pick, you know?” As a native Texan, she said, “It’s the sound of my home and it always has been.”
Lambert had a lot of company from other Texans on the bill, like Crockett. “Tonight I’m doing ‘The Party’s Over’ and tomorrow night I’m doing ‘Yesterday’s Wine,’ the title track to his first concept album,” said the rising star. “There’s 50 Willie Nelson songs I would’ve been honored to sing tonight.” And Crockett really does know a lot of them, from close proximity, from their touring together.
“I played about 30 shows with him last year, and I was side-stage on every one of those nights and I never missed a single song. And he made me cry every night, because all of those songs that he was doing were a soundtrack to our lives,” Crockett said. “I’m not missing a single word because I never got to see him” growing up. Even as an adult he’d only seen him once, at Luck Ranch in 2016, “until he called me up out of the blue and asked me to start playing shows with him. And it’s not even that I just want to watch this iconic master play. It’s that those songs are so deeply ingrained in us, as Texans growing up, that it was bringing things out in me listening to him that I just didn’t even know were there.”
Lyle Lovett sang the early hit “Hello Walls” Saturday and will follow that by covering “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” for the closing night. “I have never performed the songs that I’m singing this weekend, and I’ve always loved them, but when you learn what a song, you, it speaks to you in a different way. You appreciate everything about it — the construction, the choice of words, the choice of conjunctions. Down to the finest point, you realize that every word was intentional and it just makes you think. I’ve always thought of ‘Hello Walls’ as the perfect song… I’ve always pictured somebody sitting alone in his apartment house, a guy like me, and he writes what’s around us” — even if that’s just feeling the walls closing in around him as his only friends to talk with. “I mean, it’s just really just looking around and writing something that specifically poignant… that’s focus.”
Added Lovett: “You learn a lot from bumper stickers, but ‘What Would Willie Do?’ is a great way to approach writing a song as well.”
The full set list for Saturday’s show at the Hollywood Bowl:
Billy Strings: “Whiskey River,” “Stay All Night”
Charley Crockett: “The Party’s Over”
Particle Kid with Daniel Lanois: “The Ghost”
Edie Brickell with Charlie Sexton: “Remember Me”
Lyle Lovett: “Hello Walls”
Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff: “I Can Get Off on You”
Beck: “Hands on the Wheel”
Norah Jones: “Down Yonder,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Warren Haynes: “Midnight Rider”
Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson: “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”
Lukas Nelson: “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground”
Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr.: “Night Life”
Gary Clark Jr.: “Texas Flood”
Jack Johnson: “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money”
Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps: “Healing Hands of Time,” “Time of the Preacher”
Ziggy Marley: “Still Is Still Moving to Me”
Tom Jones: “Opportunity to Cry”
Jamey Johnson: “Live Forever”
Bob Weir: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
The Chicks with Keith Sewell: “Bloody Mary Morning”
The Lumineers: “A Song for You”
Nathaniel Rateliff: “City of New Orleans”
Sturgill Simpson: “I’d Have to Be Crazy”
Miranda Lambert: “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”
Chris Stapleton: “The Last Thing I Needed the First Thing This Morning,” “Always on My Mind”
Neil Young and Stephen Stills with Promise of the Real: “Long May You Run,” “For What It’s Worth”
Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson with Promise of the Real: “Are There Any More Real Cowboys”
Willie Nelson and George Strait: “Sing One With Willie,” “Pancho and Lefty”
Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg: “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
Willie Nelson with ensemble: “On the Road Again,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”/“I’ll Fly Away,” “Happy Birthday,” “It’s Hard to Be Humble”