Willie Nelson Abandons Usual Routine for Special Performance in Nashville

Country Legend Surprises Fans With Unexpected Musicians and Set List

Willie Nelson is certainly a treasure trove of American music and a master interpreter of all styles. As if to prove this, he departed from his normal routine to play a concert dominated by cover songs Thursday night (Nov. 5) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that he didn’t use his usual touring band for the show.

Leading up to the sold-out show that was opened by Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, there was no mention of the special performance, but it became obvious after seeing the stage that something different was going on. There were no drums in sight and the instruments that were onstage didn’t add up to a typical Willie Nelson concert, aside from a stand holding the famously battered Martin guitar Nelson calls Trigger.

Once the anticipation finally ended, Nelson took the floor just before 9 p.m. to an extra-excited audience. He mentioned how good it felt to be on that particular stage, saying simply, “Now, let me find something to play.”

After the pre-requisite “Whiskey River,” his quickly-formed band of Nashville session musicians, including Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, deftly felt their way through songs that seemed to just pop into Nelson’s head. The band itself eventually turned out to be a nine-piece outfit and offered instrumentation that was bluegrass in form — if not in function. It included fiddle, mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitars and upright bass and featured only one member of Nelson’s band — Mickey Raphael on harmonica.

Even though there were rumors that the musicians hadn’t practiced with Nelson at all, no one in the audience seemed to notice — or care. In fact, Nelson is at his best when he improvises, and the crowd cheered him on and shouted encouragement even when he admitted to being lost in a song.

“I haven’t learned to do this one,” he said, introducing Bob Wills’ “Gotta Walk Alone.” Losing his place once, he quickly regained footing with his group of experts following in support. No harm, no foul — as if he could do any wrong by this audience.

The crowd actually seemed somewhat subdued for a Willie Nelson show, partly because they were kept on the edge of their seats wondering what he would do next and partly because it sounded so good that no one dared interfere with the moment. Since Nelson was just playing whatever he felt like, he led each song in sparse arrangements, showing that his vocal cords have lost none of their strength or control during tunes like Ray Price’s “You Done Me Wrong.” He also added just the right hint of fear to Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” a song that deals with the ever present danger of a coal mining cave-in.

And if anyone has wondered how he’s handling that guitar nowadays, he showed off his familiar “where is this going?” solo technique to great effect on a rendition of the Louvin Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone.” In fact, Nelson did tend to take a conservative approach to his solos, possibly because the songs were off the cuff. Not that the songs were new to him, though. In fact, he remarked in an apparent moment of realization, “Many of these songs are by old buddies of mine.”

One of those songs was Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind” and another was Bill Mack’s “Drinkin’ Champagne.” Nelson said Mack had “huge cajones for putting this line in a love song — ’I never loved you much when you were mine.'”

That brings up another point worth mentioning: His sense of humor and quick wit are still very much intact. While segueing into “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” he said, “Here’s one that kinda jumps out at you,” to which one of the more free-spirited female audience members replied with something to the effect of, “I’d like to jump on you, Willie!” With a cocked head and a sly grin, he countered, “Really?”

Other songs seemed to be chosen in respect of the Ryman itself. Nelson played a number of tunes from artists who had graced the stage of the fabled hall, including Hank Williams’ “House of Gold,” Jimmy C. Newman’s “Cry, Cry Darlin'” and Johnnie & Jack’s “Poison Love.” He also offered a few standards like “Freight Train Boogie” and “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

After finishing Buddy Cannon’s “Dream of Me” (sung with Nelson’s distinctive vocal warble) and “Trouble in Mind” (which gave Miller and the rest a chance to offer solos), it was on to a few of Nelson’s classics. That’s what the crowd was waiting for, and they happily stood to sing and clap along with “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

That ended his 75-minute set, but Nelson stuck around to sign autographs at the foot of the stage for anyone who wanted one — which was pretty much everybody in the auditorium. It goes to show that even at age 76, he’s still a wonderful performer and gracious entertainer who truly loves what he does. Just don’t assume you’ll always know what to expect at his shows. He could decide to play an entire show of reggae songs from his Countryman album or maybe some jazz standards with Wynton Marsalis. After all, with a bag of songs as deep as his, it’s good to stir things up from time to time.

View photos from the concert.
Writer/producer for CMT.com and CMT Edge. He's been to Georgia on a fast train. He wasn't born no yesterday.