TV tapings can be a drag. But amid the set changes and staged introductions from host Ed Helms at Saturday night’s all-star tribute to Willie Nelson in Nashville, there were some true moments of musical spontaneity — particularly from the guest of honor.
Titled Willie: Life & Songs of an American Outlaw and produced by Blackbird Presents, the concert, which will air sometime this year on A&E, assembled a powerful cast of guest artists to pay tribute to the 85-year-old. George Strait, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Eric Church all performed songs from, about or popularized by Nelson, often in collaboration with the Country Music Hall of Fame member himself.
Chris Stapleton opened the evening — like Nelson has been doing since the Seventies — with Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” adding extra muscle to the song with his patented growl and establishing the tone of the tribute: these wouldn’t be paint-by-number re-creations. Rather, the Nelson catalog had room to breathe, thanks to bandleader Don Was’s versatile A-list house band, which included Amanda Shires, Jamey Johnson, Audley Freed, Paul Franklin and Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael.
Margo Price, with an assist from Bobby Bare, offered a rowdy “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Steve Earle, with Price, cow-punked “Sister’s Coming Home” and Lee Ann Womack added a hint of Countrypolitan to “Three Days.” Following a sublime reading of “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Lyle Lovett even picked up the tempo, joining Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson for a full and funky “Shotgun Willie.”
After joking that this was his first time performing inside the Bridgestone Arena, Sturgill Simpson paid tribute to Nelson with “Red Headed Rounder,” an unreleased song Merle Haggard wrote about his friend. Earlier, fellow Nashville boundary-pusher Jason Isbell nodded to Nelson’s blues influences with “Milk Cow Blues” and also found himself at the center of some entertainment news: The night’s co-host W. Earl Brown, who played Dan Dority on HBO’s Deadwood, confirmed that Isbell appears in the upcoming Deadwood Statehood movie.
But it was the more subdued, stripped-down performances that carried the most emotional weight, including a consecutive three-song set from three of country’s untouchable vocalists. Alison Krauss’s spine-tingling “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” earned a standing ovation, Vince Gill’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” hushed the arena and Jamey Johnson’s booming “Georgia on My Mind” made us all wish — yet again — that he’d release new music of his own.
That less is more approach most applied to Nelson, a famously idiosyncratic vocalist who can get swallowed up by a large band. On Saturday, he was at his best when leading Harris and Rodney Crowell in “Til’ I Gain Control Again” and the entire cast in the finale medley of “On the Road Again,” “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me.” While huge, swelling soundtracks play well in arenas and for TV, Nelson’s continued prowess would be better highlighted backed by a small combo or even his trusty Family Band.
Still, he was in his zone, particularly when playing guitar, on collaborations with Kristofferson and Eric Church (“Me and Bobby McGee”), Dave Matthews (“Crazy”) and George Strait. Remarkably, the Strait duets marked the first time the two Texas stars had ever performed together, and stood as the best of the evening’s pairings, including a spirited “Good Hearted Woman.”
But it was on the new Strait song “Sing One With Willie,” off Strait’s upcoming album, where the pair displayed a mischievous chemistry that underscored the camaraderie of the tribute show. A tongue-in-cheek lament written by Strait, Nelson, Bubba Strait and Buddy Cannon about how the King of Country has never been asked to duet with the Red Headed Stranger, the track found both men pining for the other.
“Now I’ve heard him with Merle, Waylon and Cash/Jones and Toby, that man is totally gracious,” Strait sang. “I’m thinking ‘Damn, why not me?’/we can even sing it on TV — just like him and ol’ Julio Iglesias.”
“Whiskey River,” Chris Stapleton
“Three Days,” Lee Ann Womack
“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Margo Price & Bobby Bare
“Sister’s Coming Home,” Steve Earle & Margo Price
“I Thought About You, Lord/Just As I Am/Time of the Preacher/Bandera/Hands on the Wheel,” Micah & Lukas Nelson
“Milk Cow Blues,” Jason Isbell
“A Song for You,” Nathaniel Rateliff
“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Lyle Lovett
“Shotgun Willie,” Lyle Lovett & Ray Benson
“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” Alison Krauss
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Vince Gill
“Georgia on My Mind,” Jamey Johnson
“Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks
“City of New Orleans,” Willie Nelson with Tedeschi/Trucks
“Bloody Mary Morning,” The Avett Brothers
“Willie Got There First,” The Avett Brothers
“Remember Me,” Norah Jones and the Little Willies
“I Gotta Get Drunk,” Norah Jones and the Little Willies
“Willie Got Me Stoned,” Jack Johnson
“Red Headed Rounder,” Sturgill Simpson
“Me and Paul,” Eric Church
“Night Life,” John Mellencamp
“Funny How Times Slips Away,” Dave Matthews
With Willie Nelson:
“Crazy,” Dave Matthews
“After the Fire Is Gone,” Sheryl Crow
“Pancho and Lefty,” Emmylou Harris
“Til’ I Gain Control Again,” Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell
“Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris Kristofferson, Eric Church
“The Harder They Come,” Jimmy Buffett
“Always on My Mind,” Chris Stapleton, Derek Trucks
“Song One With Willie,” George Strait
“Good Hearted Woman,” George Strait
“On the Road Again/May the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away,” full cast
“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me,” full cast