Willie Nelson Jumps in the Ring for Country Throwdown

Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Lee Brice Join Summer Concert Tour

Willie Nelson‘s Country Throwdown tour aims to compete for fans this summer by pairing heavyweight champ Nelson with a strong, all-day field of younger, edgy middleweights in support.

Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and Lee Brice are working their way up to a shot at the title every night while Craig Campbell, Brantley Gilbert, Drake White and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real get the crowd warmed up for the main event. Add to that a tent for singer-songwriters to test their skills, and you’ve got an event that keeps the punches flying.

Each performer brought something unique to the event when it stopped just outside Nashville at the idyllic Woods of Fontanel Mansion on Friday (June 3).

Nelson’s headlining show inspired reverence in the crowd as the stately icon took the stage and delivered the classics that made him famous. Many fans wore T-shirts from Nelson’s previous tours, and when the huge Texas flag unfurled behind the 78-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member and he strummed the opening guitar riff to “Whiskey River,” there was no doubt this was the Willie Nelson show they had come to know and love.

He took the stage with an easy-going and self-assured demeanor, making him seem almost like a politician greeting a group of supporters. Grabbing his guitar, he energetically flipped through songs like they were pages in a well-read book, but it never seemed that he was rushing through the show or merely going through the motions. Rather, Nelson’s much-loved songs take center stage in place of today’s special effects, so why not keep them coming?

Some of the highlights included “Good Hearted Woman,” “Crazy,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Beer for My Horses” and “On the Road Again.”

The other advantage that keeps Willie the champ is his musicianship, and that of his band. Featuring players like Mickey Raphael on harmonica and his sister Bobbie on piano, Nelson’s show lacks nothing in authentic country sounds. He uses just a snare drum for percussion instead of a whole drum kit. And Trigger, Nelson’s battered and scarred Martin guitar, sounds as warm as ever during its nightly improvised solos and accompaniments.

For this tour, his son Lukas also joins the band as a guitarist since the younger musician’s own band, Promise of the Real, has an opening slot earlier in the day. At one point, Lukas stepped to the microphone for a swelling and receding cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.”

After a simple send off — “We’re glad y’all came out to see us!” — Nelson’s set culminated with a group singing of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” that brought Johnson, Houser and some other friends back to the stage.

For his part, Johnson proved to be a crowd favorite. Stoic and subdued, he took the stage just before Nelson and proceeded to say everything he wanted to say through his songs. His only other words to the audience were in introducing his buddy, Houser, three-quarters of the way through the set for a defiant rendition of “Can’t Cash My Checks.” That actually seemed to connect with many in the crowd, though, who discussed and admired Johnson’s realness.

His part of the show featured the biggest band of the night — 10 pieces at one point — and that resulted in the fullest sound as well. Guitars, fiddle, organ and an extra percussionist added to the texture. Many of his songs were drenched in steel guitar, like the weary sounding “That Lonesome Song” and a cheerfully (for Johnson) extended cover of Don Williams‘ “Tulsa Time.”

Other highlights included the down-trodden “High Cost of Living,” Merle Haggard‘s “Misery and Gin” and Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes Aren’t Selling This Year,” again featuring Lukas Nelson.

But the stand-out number came with Johnson’s biggest hit, “In Color.” With cell phones and lighters waving in the air, nearly everyone sang the words with enthusiasm, even a very young girl onstage. She appeared to be Johnson’s daughter Kylee, and she stood off to the side with her own pint-sized microphone stand. Johnson looked on adoringly as she sang along, sometimes even topping his vocal power with her own. At the end of the song, they shared a long embrace, and she stuck around until the band took its thankful bow.

Earlier in the day, Houser entertained through the hazy sunset. His high-energy song list included fan favorites like “Boots On,” “My Kind of Country” and “Whistlin’ Dixie.” The burly singer also previewed a new song, an upbeat tune with a rock-bottom theme called “Lowdown and Lonesome.”

Mentioning he was fortunate enough to work on a few tribute albums in the past year, Houser launched into his contribution to Sweet Home Alabama: The Country Music Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Simple Man” was met with the loudest response of the night and featured Houser and his lead guitarist dueling in true Skynyrd fashion during the song’s well-known instrumental breaks.

Brice used his time on the main stage to play his hits “She Ain’t Right” and Billboard‘s No. 1 country song of 2010, “Love Like Crazy.” He also reminded the crowd he has had great luck in writing songs for other artists, proving his argument with “Crazy Girl” (recorded by the Eli Young Band) and “More Than a Memory” (a No. 1 for Garth Brooks in 2007).

A large side stage primed the crowd for the main event with Campbell (“Family Man” ), Gilbert (“Country Must Be Country Wide” ), White and Lukas Nelson and his band.

Plus, the Bluebird Songwriters tent was there to provide a little shade and introduce the aspiring songwriters Austin Lucas, Dani Flowers, Caitlyn Smith, Adam Hood, Heather Morgan, Brett Cobb and Erin Enderlin.

With so much music to take in and three stages to choose from during the Country Throwdown tour, fans can catch a jab of the old with Willie and a flurry of the new with his traveling gang of Outlaw-inspired singers.

Look for the group to take the fight for summer concert-goers all across the nation.

View photos from the Country Throwdown concert.
Writer/producer for CMT.com and CMT Edge . The devil made him do it the first time, the second time he done it on his own.