In 2003, American icon Willie Nelson was the centerpiece of an all-star 70th birthday tribute with performances from Kenny Chesney, Shelby Lynne, Steven Tyler, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Leon Russell, Paul Simon, Wyclef Jean and more. Captured for a CD/DVD set called Live & Kickin’: Willie Nelson and Friends, the event was taped at New York’s Beacon Theatre and features some of Nelson’s most legendary compositions, including “Crazy” and “Night Life,” along with songs by other writers.
One tune heard during the USA Network special, falling into the latter category, was “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a song penned by songwriter-publisher Fred Rose in the Forties and previously performed by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Three decades later, the mournful ballad would become a signature tune for Nelson when he recorded it for his 1975 concept LP, Red Headed Stranger.
Introduced by Nelson’s longtime friend (and fellow songwriting legend) Kris Kristofferson, one of the most affecting performances of the special was country-pop superstar Shania Twain’s rendition of “Blue Eyes,” which the casually attired Canadian – in jeans, a cap and Willie T-shirt – performed while seated next to Nelson, who was standing and playing Trigger, his trusty vintage guitar. In addition to his distinctive jazz-inspired picking, Nelson adds harmony vocals to Twain’s reverent and expressive performance of the song, which became his first Number One country hit as an artist in October 1975.
Twain, who will celebrate her 51st birthday on August 28th, was riding high on the country and pop charts at the time this special was recorded. Up!, her fourth studio LP and third consecutive album to sell more than 10 million copies, was her first to be released in three separate versions for the pop, country and world-music markets. As a bonus during the TV taping, Twain and Nelson teamed for an exuberant performance of one of the singles from Up!, “Forever and for Always,” which (minus Nelson’s contributions) would go on to become a huge crossover hit in the U.S., and a Top Ten single in Twain’s native land, the U.K., Austria, Germany, Ireland and Romania.