I went to Las Vegas to be a Parrot Head over the weekend.
Instead, I came home having had an epiphany about Willie Nelson and his legacy in music. Now he is “Always on My Mind.” After what I experienced in Las Vegas on Friday night, it is crystal clear to me that Willie Nelson is the greatest country singer in the history of country western music. The sheer size, scope and depth of the man and his music not only begs for him to be considered the greatest of all time, but the record demands it.
To some of you, that may seem obvious. He started singing and playing music over 60 years ago. In the 1950s he was writing classic country songs like “Crazy” for the legendary Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” among others. His legendary songs, his leading role in popularizing Outlaw Country and then performing with the seminal Highway Men is known to everyone.
What we have seen and witnessed is an amazing history of growth, production and musical metamorphosis unmatched in the annals of country music. We have witnessed Willie Nelson first-hand for over six decades. We have watched and chronicled the transformation and growth of Willie Nelson from a raw and unproven disc jockey in Pleasanton, Texas to the megastar legend he is today. It is unfathomable to comprehend this robust career with all its twists, turns and layers.
This man has evolved into more than just a country music singer and song writer. He likes jazz, the blues, blue grass and all forms of music. He is a big Frank Sinatra fan. But what I didn’t know is how well he can the sing the blues. I found out he is a master blues singer on Friday night.
What we are witnessing right now is the life and times of a legend. We shall never see the likes of a Willie Nelson again. He is a national treasurer that we should embrace and honor while he is still alive.
Willie is 86 years old now. His voice is not what it once was, and he has had to make adjustments to his playing and singing style. I think he realizes his life has passed before him, and he is coming to grips with his own mortality.
On Friday evening, Oct. 18, I got to witness one of the great moments in time of a legend putting on a performance different from any he has ever done before. I saw Willie Nelson say goodbye.
Miss Kasey and I went to Las Vegas to see Jimmy Buffet play on Saturday night at the MGM Grand, but on Friday evening we found out Willie was playing at the Venetian. I called the box office and there were a few tickets left — although the seats were not together. Miss Kasey overheard my conversation with the box office and quickly chimed in that it didn’t matter to her if we sat together, what was important is that we see Willie before he is gone. We got our tickets, hopped into a cab, and got there just before the show started.
And what a show it was. It was more than a concert; it was a bravura performance. It was a moment that only comes along once in a blue moon. It was a man playing past his prime, but it was Willie Nelson playing with a sincerity and passion that transcends generation and boundaries. He played with the knowledge and love of his craft in a different genre of music — the blues — and with a depth and feeling you seldom see.
It was not Willie Nelson singing his old songs. It was Willie Nelson singing the blues. His songs, Hank Sr. songs, and many others. But he sang it in the genre of the blues, and his voice was perfect for that style. His bluesy renditions of old favorites, Hank Sr., and some of his latest songs on his album “Ride Me Back Home” was stunning. Up on the stage, Willie was singing about his life with a depth and feeling that I have not seen in him before. His ballads reflect the wisdom of his life and his coming to grips with his own mortality. It was stunning to watch and hear. Everyone who was there was in awe of this man and his life as he stood up on stage and told us his life story. And he did it with all the class and dignity we have come to expect from Willie over his long and storied career.
While listening to Willie play, I couldn’t help but see some of the parallels in my own life. Willie is coming face-to-face with the reality he will not be with us a lot longer. His lyrics reflect that. He has come to grips with his own mortality, and he is made peace with it. I too have faced death squarely in the face in the last five years with cancer, and the reality of your death can’t help but change and transform you and your outlook on life.
Willie has. His latest album, Ride Me Back Home, is filled with songs and ballads reflecting on his life, times and loves. It is a marvelous album and one everyone should listen to. The title track of “Ride Me Back Home” is a homage to the reflection of life and its boundless possibilities when you are younger. He pays homage to his immigrant grandfather in “Immigrant Eyes.” “My Favorite Picture of You” is an insightful look at the loves of his life. “Seven Year Itch” is a blues masterpiece in and of itself.
But the real clincher on the reality of losing Willie is “Come on Time.” In it, Willie writes and sings about the role of time, and the realization that he doesn’t have much of it left.
Time is my friend, my friend
The more I reject it, the more it kicks in.
Just enough to keep me on my toes.
I say come on time—I’ve beat you before.
Come on time, what have you got for me this time.
Time, you’re not fooling me
You’re something that I can’t kill
You’re flying like a mighty wind
You’re never standing still.
Time, as you’ve passed me by
Why did you leave these lines on my face?
You sure have put me in my place
Come on time, come on time
It looks like you’re winning the race
On Friday night, Willie Nelson said goodbye. I took the measure of the man and felt his pain, reflection, wisdom and peacefulness. It was powerful and moving. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the end.
In his own way Willie is telling us all that the end is near. His performance and lyrics gave searing insight into the man and his life as the sun sets on the horizon. He is at peace with himself and his life. There is joy and happiness in seeing this in Willie, just as there is melancholy and sadness at the realization of the inevitable end of our own existence.
His message should resonate with all of us who contemplate our future and our own death. Willie Nelson has shown us his way, and I think it is a great blessing to hear that message and be able to take the wisdom and grace from it.
And please Willie, you wrote on your album that you have one more song to write. Please write it, and many more for all of us to witness and give testimony to having seen the greatest country western performer of all time.
Thank you, Willie, for being a small part of my life. You will be missed for the ages.
Godspeed Willie Hugh Nelson.
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