When he was a lad growing up in Texas, Willie Nelson drew inspiration from artists as diverse as Ernest Tubb and Frank Sinatra. An equally broad range of musical colleagues has come to regard Nelson as a primary influence, and many of them gathered Sunday night (April 14) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to give voice to their feelings for him.
There were no spoken tributes during the concert, titled Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars and Guitars, and taped for broadcast May 27, Memorial Day, on the USA Network cable channel. Film actor Vince Vaughn, host for the evening, called Nelson “an American treasure” and “a musical pioneer.”
Instead, over more than three hours, the artists paid their respects to Nelson with songs. Some did his songs — or songs from his repertoire. Some did songs of their own. The loudest cheer of the night -– on a night where lusty cheers were routine –- came for Nelson and the rowdy trio of Keith Richards, Hank Williams III and Ryan Adams when they finished the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.”
Nelson always has stood for musical honesty and spontaneity. Mistakes don’t faze him; he treats errors as if they were a natural part of the presentation. The tone of the evening was in keeping with his philosophy. A flubbed verse on the opening number, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” sung with Sheryl Crow, was not a problem. Nelson started early on “Mendocino County Line,” with Lee Ann Womack , and made it work.
Duetting with Ray Price on “Night Life,” Nelson, after one of his signature guitar breaks, looked up expecting to watch Price sing “listen to what the blues are saying.” Instead, he saw Price waiting for Nelson to take the line, which he did, a couple of beats late and as natural as you please.
Only one performance needed repeating –- Emmylou Harris and the Dixie Chicks on “Roses in the Snow” –- because Harris wanted more vocal and guitar in her ear monitor. Since Nelson did not perform with the quartet of women -– bassist Glenn Worf and guitarist Richard Bennett were the only other players on stage –- and since the song does not come from Nelson’s repertoire, “Roses in the Snow” was the most puzzling inclusion of the night.
Vince Gill , on “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and Womack, on “Crazy,” were the only other artists to perform a number without a contribution from Nelson.
The Chicks did sing with Nelson on “Bloody Mary Morning.” Their four-part harmony on the choruses was as bracing as a stiff drink at the start of the day, and Nelson traded salty instrumental breaks with Emily Robison, Martie MaGuire and his harmonica specialist, Mickey Raphael.
Womack stayed on stage to sing “Mendocino County Line” with Nelson. The track appears on his new release, The Great Divide. Also re-creating pairings from that set were Brian McKnight, who warbled beautifully with Nelson on “Don’t Fade Away,” and matchbox twenty’s Rob Thomas, who teamed with Nelson on “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)” a song he wrote. Thomas came back later with the other members of matchbox twenty to sing “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
Toby Keith , towering over Nelson in a white cowboy hat, played the part of Waylon Jennings on the Waylon ‘n’ Willie classic, “Good Hearted Woman.” Jon Bon Jovi and his partner and guitarist, Richie Sambora, also sported cowboy hats when they came out to turn “Always on My Mind” into a power ballad.
Most of the night, Nelson and his guests had musical support from a band that included keyboardist Jimmy Cox, drummer Chad Cromwell, bassist Worf, guitarist Bennett, harp man Raphael and steel player Dan Dugmore. At the end of the evening, Nelson’s own touring band joined him for “On the Road Again” and “The Great Divide.” On the latter, twin guitar work with Jody Payne drew applause.
For the finale, Nelson and the musicians started a bluesy version of Hank Williams Sr. ’s “Move It On Over.” The entire cast soon returned to the stage to sing the response to Nelson’s “move it on over” and “drag it on over.” Richards, especially, seem to take delight in finding himself in Nelson’s presence, on the stage of the Ryman, singing a country classic in the presence of the songwriter’s grandson, Hank III. It was Nelson, however, who was the evening’s big dog, and everyone in the audience and cast knew it.
Set List for Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars & Guitars
“For What It’s Worth,” Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, with Vince Gill on guitar
“Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me),” Willie Nelson and Rob Thomas
“Crazy,” Lee Ann Womack
“Mendocino County Line,” Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack
“Bloody Mary Morning,” Willie Nelson and Dixie Chicks
“Don’t Fade Away,” Willie Nelson and Brian McKnight
“Whiskey River,” Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow
“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Willie Nelson and matchbox twenty
“Lonestar,” Willie Nelson and Norah Jones
“Dead Flowers,” Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Keith Richards and Hank Williams III
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Vince Gill
“’Til I Gain Control Again,” Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris
“The Harder They Come,” Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams
“Always on My Mind,” Willie Nelson, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora
“Stardust,” Willie Nelson and Aaron Neville
“Good Hearted Woman,” Willie Nelson and Toby Keith
“Night Life,” Willie Nelson and Ray Price
“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” Willie Nelson and Patty Griffin
“Roses in the Snow,” Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris
“Most Unoriginal Sin,” Willie Nelson and John Hiatt
“The Worst,” Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and Sheryl Crow
“On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson and Family
“The Great Divide,” Willie Nelson and Familiy
“Move It On Over,” Willie Nelson and cast (finale)