Willie Nelson anchored a four-hour tribute concert to late Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt Wednesday night at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Only a few living country songwriters can hold a candle to Van Zandt; Nelson is one, and he had two others by his side — Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver. Kristofferson showcased a handful of his best songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Why Me,” backed by a nine-piece band and special vocal guest Janie Fricke. Shaver took the spotlight for two tunes during Nelson’s headlining slot, performing “Georgia on a Fast Train” (with help from Kristofferson) and “You Asked Me To.”
Nelson, backed by his longtime road band, largely selected songs that have been a part of his act for decades. The legendary singer touched on some 35 or 40 songs, including his biggest hits (“Always on My Mind,” “City of New Orleans”), classic originals (“Night Life,” “Crazy”), classic covers (“If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” “Walking the Floor Over You”), gospel numbers (“Uncloudy Day,” “Amazing Grace”) and instrumentals (“Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour?”). He mentioned the night’s honoree only once; that was before launching into Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” a No. 1 duet for Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983.
Folk singer Eric Andersen kicked off the night, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar through three songs, including “Meadowlark,” a tune he co-wrote with Van Zandt and recorded for his brand new album, You Can’t Relive the Past. Nashville favorite Jonell Mosser performed “I’ll Be There in the Morning” and “Tower Song,” both from her 1996 album, Around Townes, an entire CD of Van Zandt material. The concert was emceed by Van Zandt’s widow, Jeanene, and was a fund-raiser for the W.O. Smith Nashville Community School.