The Red-Headed Stranger pulls an audience together
Willie Nelson has an iron grip. Ask any of the audience members who made it to the front of the stage to shake his hand at the end of his sold-out show. Anyone who was there can also attest to the fact that Willie Nelson is an institution—as much Disneyland as country musician.
There is something otherworldly about the guy. He’s written some of the best-known country songs ever. And at 74, Nelson is still putting out records at a breakneck pace, while easily lapping artists a quarter his age on epic cross-country tours, still playing some 250 shows a year. Not to mention he still attacks his weathered old guitar with the ferocity of a fresh-faced punk rocker.
What was clear at his April 28 performance at Feather Falls is that fans love Willie and Willie loves the fans. In this case, the crowd was mostly a sea of white hair, flecked only with an occasional pompadour and backwards baseball cap.
The Red-Headed Stranger has gone mostly gray himself, save for the long braids that rest on his shoulders. On this night Nelson came out in familiar uniform—black jeans, black T-shirt, a black cowboy hat and, of course, a pair of New Balance jogging shoes with his signature embroidered on the sides.
Nelson was, of course, accompanied by a familiar band, which includes his pianist sister Bobby and longtime guitarist Jody Payne, who hammered though half a century’s worth of songs. From the opening chords of “Whiskey River"—which he played again at the end—Willie and the band squeezed some 30 songs into a two-hour set. If he was getting paid by the song, he surely made out like a bandit.God knows there are plenty of gems to choose from, and all were played with the grittiness of a crackly old 45. “Funny How Time Slips Away” eased into “Crazy,” which morphed into “Nightlife"—the latter providing one of several jaggedly beautiful guitar solos. From there, “Me and Bobby McGee” was given rambunctious treatment, while the “If You Got the Money, I Got the Time” yanked a good ol’ fashioned clap-along from the crowd.
But it wasn’t your everyday Texas hootenanny—like I said, there’s something otherworldly about Willie Nelson. The performance was a cross between a bar band playing a cramped Laredo pub and, dare I say it, a larger-than-life pop group taking the stage to a sea of smitten preteens.
On the rare occasion of a break between songs, there would be a giddy woman peeking up at the foot of the stage with a bouquet of red roses in her outstretched hands. And, of course, there were those who wanted to give Willie … let’s just say they were tiny cylindrical objects that quickly made their way into his front pocket.
You also had the Willie version of the wardrobe change—as he eventually ditched the cowboy hat for his trademark red bandana, which he would occasionally flip to a lucky member of the audience, only to have a new one fastened to his skull faster than you could spark that fragrant cigarette.
Yet, beneath the fanfare, there was just Willie Nelson and a batch of songs that have the uncanny ability to bring together old-timers and young bucks comfortably under one roof. Sure, Willie is larger than life. But the image that will always stick is seeing him wince and smile as his craggy hands squeezed the notes from his equally worn guitar.