Willie Nelson has always relied on the kindness of his many celebrity friends, whether it’s to perform at the annual Farm Aid concerts or to share a duet with him on the seemingly endless string of LPs he has released throughout his 82 years. In April of 2002, several of those musical family members gathered at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for an informal tribute to the American treasure, with the eclectic lineup including Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight, Ryan Adams, Ray Price, Nora Jones and Dave Matthews.
In addition to all-star performances of some of the Red Headed Stranger’s most iconic tunes, the special also celebrated the release of Nelson’s The Great Divide, the 2002 LP that included several collaborations and featured three songs penned by Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas, who duets with Nelson on “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me),” which became a minor country hit. The more well-known release from the album was the Bernie Taupin and Matt Serletic-penned “Mendocino County Line,” a duet with Lee Ann Womack which made the Top Forty, becoming his first country hit to do so in 12 years. The tune would go on to win a CMA award for Vocal Event of the Year and the Grammy for Best Country Collaboration, and Womack joined Nelson and the house band to perform it during the special.
One of the most dramatic renditions of the night was of Nelson’s massive pop-country hit, “Always on My Mind,” which featured Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. Coming four years before Bon Jovi would top the country charts with Jennifer Nettles on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” the TV show performance featured Bon Jovi, sporting a cowboy hat, taking the first verse and delivering a somber vocal as Sambora and Nelson harmonize. The country great then steps up for the second verse, strumming his faithful guitar, Trigger, and putting his distinctive vocal spin on the song that won him a Grammy and a CMA award.
“Always on My Mind,” penned by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, who died July 20th, was also famously recorded by Elvis Presley, the Pet Shop Boys and many others. In 2013, Nelson revisited the track for his duets LP, To All the Girls…, recording it with Carrie Underwood.