God bless Willie Nelson.
The 86-year-old, Abbott, Texas native made his 11th appearance at RodeoHouston 2020 (nine solo, two with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash as the Highwaymen) on March 4 in what could very well be his last appearance at Houston's premiere music event. Don't tell that to the 70,479 ticket holders though, as Nelson played a tight, hour-plus set that ran through decades of hits and cover songs to an appreciative crowd.
What's there to be said of one of the most legendary country singer-songwriters in the history of the genre? A roll-call: 13 Grammy Awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award, 11 Country Music Awards, six Academy of Country Music Awards, seven American Music Awards, 40 million albums sold, and dozens of timeless songs written for other performers. Nelson has seen and done it all.
There's really no reason for him to play RodeoHouston. But that's the power the event has over country's biggest stars — it convinced Garth Brooks to return to the road and it brought George Strait out of retirement. It's also the perfect setting for Nelson to share his fantastic songs. Texas and Willie go together like chips and queso, barbeque and beer, cowboys and broncos.
The big question was how much could the octogenarian bring it on the star-shaped center stage, especially after the vim and vigor of relatively young bucks, Midland, the night before? Based on the audience response, it wouldn't have mattered of Willie walked on the stage and read the phone book. His fans were out to pay their respects to the red headed stranger, many bandanas visible throughout the audience.
“Whiskey River” from the 1973 album Shotgun Willie — released when he was 40(!) — opened the proceedings with a down-home shuffle. Nelson, wearing his requisite tan cowboy hat, was backed up by his ever-present son, Lukas, his sister, Bobbie Nelson, and three other backup players. It was a pared-down, unassuming set-up compared to the previous evening, which spoke to the man’s personality, proving you don’t need much to put on a good show.
“Still is Still Moving to Me” from 1993’s Borderline was a bluesy waltz with a piano and harmonica strut, Nelson playing his trusty, beat-up acoustic, held on with its signature red, white and blue strap. He next kicked into “Beer for My Horses,” the Toby Keith song that he appeared on back in 2002.
“Let’s do one for Waylon!” declared Nelson, launching into the old school swing of Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman,” his son on backup vocals. The instrumental “Down Yonder” from the stone-cold classic 1975 breakthrough Red Headed Stranger gave Bobbie, a chance to shine on piano. At the conclusion of the song, Nelson took a chance to acknowledge she was just nominated for the Texas Music Hall of Fame.
Willie’s son Lukas Nelson’s then took a turn to shine on a 12-bar blues number, featuring blistering guitar riffs from both father and son. The ACM Song of the Year in 1978, “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” drew massive applause, and never was there a better song to be played in the dirt and dust of the rodeo arena.
“Now let’s do one for Merle!” Nelson cried out, the band ripping through the Willie and Merle Haggard duet “It’s All Going to Pot,” released on April 20, 2015, by the unabashed marijuana aficionado, the first single from the duo’s album Django & Jimmie. That segued nicely into “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” from the 2012 album Heroes. Nelson leaned into the concerns of his old age with a smirk and a grin with the 2017 song, “Still Not Dead,” lamenting “I woke still not dead again today/The news said I was gone to my dismay” making it known that his sense of humor was well intact.
Going really old school, Hank Williams was honored with a few numbers, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” from 1952, “Hey, Good Lookin’” from 1951, wrapped up by “Move It On Over” released in 1947, pointing towards Nelson’s influences, the country meets backwater blues ditties bringing the most dance worthy moments of the night.
“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” from the 1981 film soundtrack, Honeysuckle Rose, transported us all back to the time that Willie Nelson was an inescapable force in pop culture. It also showcased some of his best guitar playing. His most well known hit, “On the Road Again,” followed and while he can’t reach those high notes anymore, he sure sounded great, like an old gunslinger with one last gunfight in him.
“Always On My Mind,” the most heartfelt and timeless song in his catalog from the 1982 album of the same name brought extra poignancy, the loss of his longtime drummer and friend, Paul English, only weeks ago in the minds of those in attendance. Nelson pointed to the sky several times as cellphones lit up the stadium, the air definitely getting a bit hazy in NRG. The crowd gave a long standing ovation at the end of the song, Nelson visibly moved by the reaction as much as many audience members — grown men included — were by the moment.
Veering away from the pr-show setlist, the band performed “It’s Hard to Be Humble” from Nelson’s latest album, Ride Me Back Home followed by “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” first released by Atlanta James in 1975 before being made famous by Johnny Paycheck two years later. “I’ll Fly Away” the 1929 hymn covered by many country stars wrapped up the set, gorgeously performed by Willie Nelson and Family, getting people up and clapping, applauding the man of the hour as he gave his curtain call around the star-shaped stage.
While he could have easily performed many more of his hit songs, including the much missed "Georgia on My Mind," it's not a surprise that Nelson choose to cover so many songs by his heroes and friends. Having worked for a time as a disc jockey in Pasadena, Texas in the 1950s, it wasn't hard to envision a young Willie playing many of these classic tunes over the airwaves on a hot Texas night.
And for the huge crowd packed into NRG Stadium, there were no regrets in trekking out on a somewhat chilly and overcast night to see Nelson play one more time, hoping that it won't be the last time we see him on a RodeoHouston stage.
“Still is Still Moving”
“Beer for My Horses”
“Good Hearted Woman”
“Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”
“It’s All Going to Pot”
“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
“Still Not Dead”
“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”
“Hey, Good Lookin’”
“Move It On Over”
“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”
“On the Road Again,”
“Always On My Mind”
“It’s Hard to Be Humble”
“I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”
“I’ll Fly Away”