This week in 1993, two of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of all-time, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon, appeared together as musical guests on Saturday Night Live. The previous month, Nelson had celebrated his 60th birthday and hosted Farm Aid VI, in Ames, Iowa. Simon had appeared at the 1992 iteration of the benefit concert, with nearly 40,000 in attendance, performing solo versions of “The Boxer” and “Homeward Bound” before being joined by Nelson for the jubilant 1986 title cut from Simon’s career-rebounding LP, Graceland.
One week after the pair teamed up for the joint SNL appearance on May 22nd, 1993, during which they performed “Graceland” and “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” CBS aired Willie Nelson: The Big Six-0, a splashy celebration of Willie’s arrival into sexagenarian-hood, a milestone he had reached just weeks earlier. Once again, Simon and Nelson performed “Graceland” for the special, which was taped at KLRU’s Austin City Limits studio in the Texas capital. The two were also joined by Simon’s wife, Edie Brickell, who sang harmonies on Willie’s hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
While early 1993 headlines touted Nelson’s settlement with the IRS, his milestone birthday coincided with one of his most acclaimed albums in years. Across the Borderline, which followed the release of Who’ll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes, was no marketing scheme to settle overwhelming debt but instead featured several special guests and a remarkably potent selection of songs. In addition to two tracks by Lyle Lovett (“Farther Down the Line,” “If I Were the Man You Wanted”), a chill-inducing pairing with Sinead O’Connor on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” a co-written duet with Bob Dylan on “Heartland,” and the impossibly beautiful Stephen Bruton tune “Getting Over You,” featuring Bonnie Raitt.
But it’s the first of Paul Simon’s two songs on the album that kicks things off: “American Tune” features Nelson singing convincingly of both weariness and hope while Simon adds guitar accompaniment. Then, mid-record, Simon returns as composer and guitarist for Nelson’s vibrant Nashville-meets-Johannesburg take on “Graceland,” which features Mark O’Connor on fiddle and the great Mickey Raphael on harmonica.
Simon and Nelson would reunite in April 2003 at an event to commemorate Willie’s big 7-0, a concert that was held at New York’s Beacon Theater and featured Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, Shelby Lynne and Wyclef Jean. This time, the pair performed Simon’s “Homeward Bound.” Just two years later, they would team in Nashville at the 2005 CMA Awards, with Norah Jones on piano, as they performed snippets of each other’s songs in an inspired mash-up that had Nelson crooning Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and Simon singing one of Willie’s most legendary tunes, “Crazy,” joined briefly at the end of his affectionate tribute by the Hall of Fame songwriter.