I remember being a small child in the back seat of the car on family road trips, pressing my face to the window, and imagining animal shapes in the clouds. Willie Nelson was on the radio. Willie Nelson was on the radio when I was a bigger kid, and my brother and I squished our little sister between us on the hump seat, which we thought was fair because she got away with all kinds of mischief (still does), and took up all our leg room with books and stuffed animals. Willie Nelson was still there when I was a teenager, and old enough to roll my eyes at the twang and ask for something else, anything else, on the radio. Dad would laugh, and switch the station for a while. Sometimes Loretta would chime in, or Kenny or Dolly, but the voice I remember most clearly is Willie’s. We loved wailing along with “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and the song “Whiskey River Take My Mind” always made me sad, even when I was too little to understand it.
I turned against country music in high school, for awhile, and on into college. There was a Cat Stevens phase, a Smiths phase, a Connells phase, and a long, long Pearl Jam phase. Country music came back to me, eventually, after I made it out to Wyoming. At that point, among the Grand Tetons and prairie sage and ranches, I realized that cowboys are real. There’s a whole way of life out there that’s uniquely American, and it still exists, and it’s found its way into our music. I picked up the guitar. I bought a classical guitar rather than a typical acoustic, because it was prettier, even though a couple of people raised an eyebrow about that. Some of the first songs I ever learned to play? “Crazy.” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.” “Angel Flyin’ Too Close to the Ground.” “Always On My Mind.” Willie’s songs.
Hearing Willie Nelson sing was on my life list. For some reason ($$$) I was hesitant to buy a ticket for this show. The ticket was out of my comfort zone, and that of everyone else in my music-going circle right now. “Willie Nelson and Family” also sounded like a risky investment. I dragged my feet. But he is 78, bless his heart, and I am also not getting any younger, and how do you not go hear someone who is on your life list when he is playing in the next town over? I dragged my feet some more. And then I remembered my prize check from Mystery Build, which I had decided to save for something I couldn’t afford. Yesterday, I craigslisted myself a cheap ticket. And just one.
After crying through Tift Merritt last weekend for no reason whatsoever, I wasn’t sure how I’d handle Willie Nelson. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if he put me back in that place where I was the little girl watching the clouds in the back seat of the car with Dad driving, with all the decades in between, and with Dad gone. I didn’t really want any witnesses to this. I got choked up talking about it. I told Julia beforehand, “If he does Whiskey River, I might just fall apart.” She offered me a Kleenex.
I didn’t need it. Willie was great. He started with “Whiskey River,” just jumped right on in, and plowed through all his greatest hits fast, without any banter or pauses. None of it made me sad. He looks his age, with that beautiful weathered face and all, except when playing his guitar like a badass. And he stood for the whole show, and kept a smile on his face, and signed autographs from the stage during his standing ovation. It was a happy crowd, full of families in ten-gallon hats and men with impressive braids. There was a lot of plaid. There was even more singing along. He’s still a bit of an outlaw cowboy, tossing out songs like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” but he was charming and gracious, and he ended with a singalong of “Let the Circle Be Unbroken.” He had a blast. We had a blast.
That’s the way it usually goes; you get a little blindsided by emotion when you don’t expect it, and you brace yourself for an emotional cascade and then it doesn’t appear.
Willie’s guitar, Trigger, is so battered that it reminded me of one of the taxicabs in The Royal Tenenbaums, with a giant hole and some sort of jury-rigged strap holding the thing together. It’s got a giant hole because he chose a classical guitar, too. It doesn’t have that pick guard you see on acoustics, and since he plays the hell out of that thing, it’s taken a beating. It looks loved. It looks broken in. It’s been signed by all of his friends. It’s got to be worth a zillion dollars. When he plays it’s so plaintive, so expressive, that he almost doesn’t even need to sing to get his meaning across.
But of course, if he didn’t sing, you wouldn’t hear the twang, and that would be a shame. If Willie comes to town, take my word for it, you don’t want to miss a note.