Willie Nelson has appeared on more tribute bills than anyone can count, so it was only fitting that a few heavyweights showed up in his honor Sunday night at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium for “Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars and Guitars.”
Staged by USA Networks and Lost Highway Records, home of Nelson’s new album, The Great Divide, the event’s lineup included Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams III and Ryan Adams, all of whom perform on Lost Highway’s Timeless: A Tribute to Hank Williams. The bill also featured Lee Ann Womack, Brian McKnight and collaborator du jour Rob Thomas, all of whom, along with Crow, duet with Nelson on Divide. Rounding out the list were Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Vince Gill, the Dixie Chicks, John Hiatt, Toby Keith, Aaron Neville, Ray Price, Patty Griffin, Matchbox Twenty and Norah Jones. Missing were ailing Dave Matthews and Lyle Lovett. Actor Vince Vaughn hosted.
The song selection was drawn mainly from tunes Nelson either wrote or popularized, along with several from Divide and some from albums on which he appeared or by artists with whom he shared history. In some cases, performers showed up to duet on their own compositions, as with the show’s highlight moment — when Richards, Adams, Williams III and Nelson, guitars in hand, lined up in front of four mikes and banged out the Rolling Stones classic “Dead Flowers.” They were billed as the “Lost Highwaymen,” a nod to Nelson’s membership in the legendary Highwaymen.
Each time Richards bounded onstage, he effortlessly eclipsed the night’s star. Even a technician’s pronunciation of his name during a mike check drew huge cheers, and performers sharing the stage (including Mark Knopfler’s band, sans Knopfler, as the house players), seemed similarly enraptured.
Following that act was Gill, who did a little “Jumping Jack Flash” riff on his acoustic and joked, “I’m doin’ pretty good. I got the Rolling Stones opening for me.”
Some of the song selections were less explainable: Crow and Nelson opened the show with a ragged version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” — perhaps a nod to Nelson’s Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young, though the classic was penned by Stephen Stills. With Adams — chin bandaged and jaw swelled from a fight the night before — Nelson did the Jimmy Cliff reggae standard “The Harder They Come.” Adams got a special introduction by Harris, who praised him as a songwriter “in an age when the emphasis seems to be on everything but the song.”
Less confounding was the Crow-Nelson duet on “Whiskey River,” one of Nelson’s signature songs and a plug for Old Whiskey River, a new small-batch bourbon he’s endorsing.
Despite the night’s air of subtle shilling, it did have its transcendent moments as well, most notably Nelson’s duet with folk singer Griffin on “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground.” Her sweet, sincere voice sounded more country than most of the show’s acts, and Nelson’s spare harmonies added just the right enhancement.
The tightly paced and scripted show left little room for adlibbing by Vaughn or the artists, but the audience filled in commentary of its own. At one point, someone yelled, “Hey Willie! You rocked the other night!” — a reference to his Friday Ryman performance. As the crowd cheered wildly in response, country’s once-and-future outlaw — who actually dressed up for the occasion in black slacks, boots and a cowboy hat — just nodded and smiled.