Crowd: Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…
Crowd: Don’t let ’em pick guitars and drive them old trucks…
By all means, let ‘ em pick guitars. Oh please let ’em pick guitars. Let ’em pick guitars, and sing, and put on a show like Willie Nelson.
A couple of friends have asked me about the concert last night in the big ballroom at Buffalo Thunder, the big fancy casino up the road from Santa Fe. Well, how does one explain spending an hour and a half in the presence of a legend? You know, how does one explain what it’s like to sit in front of the Mona Lisa? Or to stand at the rail at the running of the Kentucky Derby? Or to perch on a rock above the Grand Canyon?
Too indulgent, too much praise, you say?
Maybe, but if Willie Nelson isn’t country music’s iconic legend — its gold standard — then country music hasn’t got one.
And there he was, last night, right here, onstage in Norte Nuevo Mexico. It felt like about a thousand of us packed into that room above the casino last night, paying some respect for a lifetime of great music that made us move, and, with the exception of a couple of ladies sitting nearby, most of us were having a helluva good time.
It wasn’t one of those fancy stage-show performances from Willie’s past — with a lot of lighting effects and the Grut Big Texis flag backdrop and buddies who show up for a surprise drive-by duet or two and a thousand camp followers backstage. It was just Willie and Family — most of the original hardcore corps — “Little sister” Bobbie, sitting like a bookkeeper in a black hat and tinkling away at the grand piano; Mickey Raphael, looking like a insurance salesman just off a red-eye flight from LA to LaGuardia who’d just pulled his mouth organ from the pocket of his rumpled suitcoat; the bass player Bea Spears, forever consigned, it seems, to the dark places at the back of the stage beside the drum set; and the beat-keeper, whose name I didn’t catch. Except for one song, when the drummer got up and gave his seat to Paul English.
An internet source tells us that English — who went more miles with Willie than probably anybody — had suffered a stroke earlier this year. So it was a surprise to see him climb up there on the drumstand and pick up the sticks for Me and Paul, the song that Willie wrote to commemorate — if that’s the word — the long association and many memories that the two of them have shared, starting way back in the Fifties. “We received our education, in the cities of the nation, me and Paul.”
And that’s what got me thinking, as I sat there watching Willie Nelson, at 77 years old, perform as he’d always performed. Maybe his voice didn’t even try to reach for that high note in Whiskey River, but it was still strong, and sharp. Maybe his fingers didn’t quite get to all of those notes he tried to pick in the midst of the jazz-like instrumental riffs in the middle of Bloody Mary Morning, but then again, they never did. He always muffed a few notes, but that’s because he was always trying to what’s impossible to do with fingers on a fret board. Gawd, can this guy play the guitar…
Sure, it wasn’t quite like the good old days, when we stood packed against each other, singing, swaying, sipping on our smuggled-in bottles of booze and enjoying the wafting odors of the not-so-noxious weed. We mostly sat last night, only occasionally jumping to our feet. We didn’t smoke nuthin. Didn’t even smell nuthin, officer. Nobody seemed to be tipsy, let alone drunk, and certainly not disorderly (well, with the exception of the lady behind us.) Times have changed, but not the memories. Not the memories of the good times of Outlaws, of Merle and Willie singing Pancho and Lefty, and Waylon and Willie and their good-hearted women. Not the memories of the songs he wrote — Crazy, Hello Walls, On the Road Again and Funny How Time Slips Away. Not even the bad memories, like when the IRS confiscators took Willie’s jet plane and his house and most of his belongings but not his voice and not certainly not that Martin acoustic guitar. That guitar he bought for $750 in 1969 and will someday go for hundreds of thousands at auction, the one grafittied by signatures of a hundred lesser legends of country music and sporting that ever-growing hole in the soundbox, opened by a million — billion maybe? — sharp jabs from a plastic pick.
I mean, that was a legend who just walked out on stage last night holding the guitar he calls “Trigger.” No warmup, no announcement, no fanfare, no introduction. Just walked out at the appointed hour of 8 p.m. with his little family, strapped on Trigger, and started playing. And kept playing. And kept playing. New songs, old songs, jump songs, slow songs, sad songs, funny songs — an hour and a half of solid picking and singing and bringing back some good-time memories that those of us who were lucky enough to have lived through are lucky enough to enjoy once again.
The woman sitting in the row behind us apparently didn’t share those memories. When a lady in our row, moved by the moment and the rhythm and the song, stood up to let out a little of her good feeling, the sweet thang behind her said “sit down, bitch, I wanna see, too.” Probably needing a toke. Some people sitting nearby were expecting a fist fight, but that never happened. And next to me on my left was another lady who unfortunately just wasn’t as lucky as a lot of us. She just didn’t get it at all. She sat there all night like a Bible-thumping Tea-Partyer at a Socialist soiree & seance. It was about all she could do to clap, only occasionally and very demurely, at the close of a song. I never saw her foot tap, never saw her body sway, never saw her lips move, even when Willie raised his hand and asked us to sing along to City of New Orleans or Move It On Over (’cause the big dog’s movin’ in), or MAMA!
Oh well, not everybody can have fun.
But everybody should be so lucky to sit a spell with the Mona Lisa, or watch those magnificent three-year-old Thoroughbreds run for the roses at Churchill Downs, or peer down into the Grand Canyon. And everybody should be so lucky as to enjoy a concert with Willie Nelson. Even if you just sit there like a lump.
& Not pickin’, but certainly grinnin’, I’m outta here.