Willie Nelson Is Everything To Everyone

Most of us won’t have a 90th birthday. Honestly, a good portion of people probably won’t ever even attend a 90th birthday party. The gravity of 90 years was in full effect over the weekend as fans and friends of Willie Nelson filled both the seats and the backstage of the Hollywood Bowl for Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90, a two-day, eight-hour concert that featured dozens of Willie and Willie-adjacent tunes performed by legendary compatriots.

It isn’t just that Willie Nelson has survived 90 years on Earth. It’s that he’s still thriving. Woody Harelson, one of the event’s many Hollywood-certified MCs, introduced Willie for Sunday’s performance by noting that even in the last year, he’s still releasing albums at a rapid clip, still touring the country, still winning Grammys, still smoking younger men under the table. Sure, when Willie did take the stage near the end of each night, time’s undefeated nature was visible, but once he started playing, flashes of his greatness still appeared frequently and without qualification.

Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg
Joshua Timmermans

The night also provided the rare opportunity to give Willie his flowers while he is still here. It wasn’t just that everyone was playing songs he wrote or recorded, giving passionate and emotional speeches about what the music of Willie Nelson meant to them and how the man touched their lives. What stood out as artists such as Neil Young, Keith Richards, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, George Strait, and many more played tunes and spoke about Willie, was how many different interpretations and relationships with the man exist.

There is Willie the father, as both of his surviving sons, Lukas and Micah, took the stage frequently throughout the event. Micah, who performs as Particle Kid, recalled a bit of wisdom his dad once passed off nonchalantly, with his response that it was the best song that Willie Nelson never wrote. “You should write it,” Willie told him, and so he did, going into the garage and coming back with the endearing “High When I Die.” Lukas, rather, left his sentiment more for his delivery, earning a standing ovation with his solo version of “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.” Later, both Nelson boys would team with Rosanna Cash and Shooter Jennings for a kids-of-legends version of the parents’ “Highwayman.”

There is, obviously, Willie the toker, which came up almost as much as his music. Everyone from Jack Johnson to Dave Matthews recalled stepping into Willie’s trailer and coming out of it changed men, while a Saturday night appearance from Snoop Dogg highlighted how the most unlikely friendships can spark from common interests.

Margo Price took her chance to shoutout farmer Willie, noting that his decades-long commitment to Farm Aid could have been the greatest lasting legacy for nearly anyone else, while Miranda Lambert made sure she paid homage to cowboy Willie, delivering a singalong of the iconic “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” that Willie recorded with Waylon Jennings. There was Texan Willie, as artists like Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr., and MC Ethan Hawke all represented, while another Texan, Owen Wilson, was sure to note the importance of friend Willie, a man whose relationships have spanned decades, with most of those who appeared during the weekend considering him exactly that.

Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson
Randall Michelson

But while poker Willie got a lot of laughs — Jack Johnson performed the true story “Willie Got Me Stoned” both nights, to hilarious effect — and activist Willie was underscored by Orville Peck doing a version of “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other” — Willie’s 2006 version became the first-ever LGBT-themed mainstream country song by a major artist — Willie the musician remained the focus of the event. And, with around 80 songs played over the two nights, it’s hard to get into everything that happened. So, a few highlights.

  • Beck, whose Hollywood Bowl history includes his father as a former conductor, offered up stunning renditions of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and “Hands On The Wheel,” proving that country Beck is the best Beck. We don’t talk about Mutations, his best album, enough.
  • Norah Jones is always an MVP of this sort of event, but on night two, she followed a gorgeous duet of “Seven Spanish Angels” with Allison Russell with “Help Me Make It Through The Night” with Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson is also showing his age a bit these days and needed to be helped through his performances, so Norah showed a ton of grace by holding him, locking eyes to keep him in the moment, and taking the lead when needed. It reminded me of Lady Gaga helping Liza Minelli through their Oscars presenting gig. It’s a lot of responsibility that few are cut out for, taking on the duty of making sure a legend makes it out of a public appearance without embarrassment, without tarnishing their giant stature. Truly special stuff.
  • Neil Young and Stephen Stills performing together was maybe even more emotional than Young performing “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” with Willie. With their longtime bandmate David Crosby recently passing away, it was special to see these legends jamming through a very loose “For What It’s Worth.”
  • Many played Willie faithfully, but it was the artists that brought their own sensibility, in particular Dave Matthews, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson, that felt like some of the best purely musical moments of the event.
  • And, though I didn’t expect to be shouting out The Lumineers of all bands, they hit on something unique in their pair of songs. “A Song For You” quieted the Bowl down to a whisper on night one, but then on night two, the band’s leader Wesley Schultz spoke about his introduction to Willie Nelson, via an omnipresent Christmas Album, Pretty Paper, that features a Nelson original of the same name. As someone that also grew up with the record in holiday rotation, it was truly a treat to hear, delivered with an extra ounce of longing that can only come from Christmas tunes in April.

And that was my big realization at these concerts, that perhaps the first Willie I ever heard was his Christmas music, or maybe it was via Patsy Cline singing “Crazy” via my parents’ car tape player on family vacations, or maybe it was through a ubiquitous “On The Road Again” playing in elementary school music class. The ways that Willie Nelson permeated culture through countless avenues is staggering, enough that most probably don’t know when or how they first heard Willie. He is simply someone that always had been, and presumably, always will be. Every once in a while during the weekend, a song or a speech would hit on the sad fact that we have less time left with Willie than we’ve already had. But then again, everything about these concerts was proof that some people do get to live forever, that if your life is good and your art is true, immortality is possible.

Willie himself let everyone else do the talking. When he did appear to perform near the end of each night, it was with a smile but also with purpose, almost seeming a little shy about all the attention he was getting. If anything, Willie Nelson seemed most into the event for the hang, for the backstage cloud of good feeling that most of us didn’t get to see. But surrounded by his family, his collaborators, his allies, and his proteges — not to mention thousands of adoring fans — Willie Nelson left his 90th birthday party knowing how much he is loved, and knowing just how big of an impact he’s had on the world.

Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson
Randall Michelson

Setlist, Night 1

Billy Strings – Whiskey River
Billy Strings – Stay All Night
Charley Crockett – The Party’s Over
Particle Kid, Daniel Lanois – The Ghost
Edie Brickell w/ Charlie Sexton – Remember Me
Lyle Lovett – Hello Walls
Margo Price w/ Nathaniel Rateliff – I Can Get Off on You
Beck – Hands on the Wheel
Norah Jones – Down Yonder
Norah Jones – Funny How Time Slips Away
Warren Haynes – Midnight Rider
Rosanna Cash, Kris Kristofferson – Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)
Lukas Nelson – Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr. – Night Life
Gary Clark Jr. – Texas Flood
Jack Johnson – Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money
Tyler Childers – Healing Hands of Time
Tyler Childers – Time of the Preacher
Ziggy Marley – Still Is Still Moving to Me
Tom Jones – Opportunity to Cry
Jamey Johnson – Live Forever
Bob Weir – Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
The Chicks – Bloody Mary Morning
The Lumineers – A Song for You
Nathaniel Rateliff – City of New Orleans
Sturgill Simpson – I’d Have To Be Crazy
Miranda Lambert – Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Chris Stapleton – The Last Thing I Needed the First Thing This Morning
Chris Stapleton – You Were Always on My Mind
Neil Young, Stephen Stills – Long May You Run
Neil Young, Stephen Stills – For What It’s Worth
Neil Young, Willie Nelson – Are There Any More Real Cowboys?
George Strait, Willie Nelson – Sing One With Willie
George Strait, Willie Nelson – Pancho & Lefty
Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson – Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
Willie Nelson – On the Road Again
Willie Nelson, Everyone – Will the Circle Be Unbroken? / I’ll Fly Away
Willie Nelson, Everyone – Happy Birthday to You
Willie Nelson, Everyone – It’s Hard to Be Humble

Setlist, Night 2

Billy Strings – Whiskey River
Billy Strings – Stay All Night
Orville Peck – Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other
Charley Crockett – Yesterday’s Wine
Allison Russell, Norah Jones – Seven Spanish Angels
Dwight Yoakam – Me and Paul
Margo Price, Waylon Payne – I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train
Particle Kid, Daniel Lanois – (Die When I’m High) Halfway to Heaven
Rodney Crowell – It Ain’t Over Yet
Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris – ‘Til I Gain Control Again
Rosanna Cash – Pancho & Lefty
Warren Haynes – Night Life
Lyle Lovett – My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Jack Johnson – Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money
Beck – Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Tom Jones – Across the Borderline
Bob Weir, Margo Price, Billy Strings – Stay All Night
Lukas Nelson, Shooter Jennings -Good Hearted Woman
Lukas Nelson – Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
The Avett Brothers – Pick Up the Tempo
The Avett Brothers – Heaven and Hell
The Lumineers – Pretty Paper
Norah Jones – Down Yonder
Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones – Help Me Make It Through the Night
Nathaniel Rateliff – A Song for You
Sheryl Crow – Crazy
Dave Matthews – Funny How Time Slips Away
Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois – The Maker
Jamey Johnson w/ Booker T – Georgia (On My Mind)
Lukas Nelson, Particle Kid, Shooter Jennings, Rossana Cash – Highwayman

Willie Nelson, Booker T – Stardust
Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow – Faraway Places
Willie Nelson, Lily Meola – Will You Remember Mine
Willie Nelson, Buddy Cannon – Something You Get Through
Willie Nelson, Billy Strings – California Sober
Willie Nelson, Keith Richards – We Had It All
Willie Nelson, Keith Richards – Live Forever
Willie Nelson – On the Road Again
Willie Nelson, Everyone – Will the Circle Be Unbroken / I’ll Fly Away
Willie Nelson, Everyone – Happy Birthday to You