Halfway into his recent nonstop 2-hours-plus set at San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore, Willie Nelson eased into one of his more romantic hits, “You Were Always on My Mind.” Begging for another chance with a neglected paramour, he promised .”.I’ll keep you satisfied” – and a surprising thing happened: women all around me raised a lusty whoop, and some shouted, “Oh yahhh, WILLIE!” And it occurred to me that this 77-year old, gray-braided, grizzled music legend might be the world’s least likely sex symbol.
Of course, he’s much more than that – in the pantheon of American musical icons, he is to country music what Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Miles Davis have been to their genres – young rebels who came to epitomize the best at what they do. The legendarily cranky Miles even called Nelson his favorite singer — high praise indeed.
Born in Texas in 1933, Willie got his start as a songwriter in notoriously tradition-bound Nashville, penning some of the most-sung tunes in country music like “Night Life” and “Crazy,” but could not get accepted there as a singer himself and moved back to Texas. There, he went his own way and led the “outlaw” country scene in the 1970s. He’s released scores of albums, covering many genres with varying success – the reggae collection from a decade or so back was not so well-received — but every few years producing some sort of masterpiece amidst the multiple Grammy and other awards.
From the prairie to the White House, it seems most everyone loves Willie. Outside the Fillmore, young autograph hounds waited, posters and LPs in hand, in clouds of cannabis smoke one might expect outside an old Grateful Dead show. The Dead show resemblances did not stop there – inside, tie-died hippies of all ages air-guitared and space-danced among the hardcore cowboys, bikers, African-American families, elderly folks wielding canes, and just about every other kind of person you might imagine, boogieing, two-stepping, and yes, smooching away.
With his two drummers, vast catalog of songs seemingly at his fingertips, and versatility – the concert included not just country but blues, gospel, rock, jazz and more, all expertly rendered by his superb veteran band which includes his ‘little sister’ Bobbie on piano and son Lucas on guitar – the old slogan “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” came to mind, and it sure applies to a Willie show too. He’s even covered some Dead songs, notably on his fine “Songbird” CD done with young alt-country star Ryan Adams a few years back. And Willie’s superb lead and rhythm guitar playing, picked out on his old acoustic ‘Trigger” with a hole worn in the front from decades of use, even conjured none other than Jerry Garcia, ranging from pure twang to psychedelic space and back in a single song.“Thank you music lovers!” he yelled at one point, and everybody yelled right back.
Reverence, fun, and yes, love was in the air, along with the greenish smoke. It’s all centered on an old guy who gets busted for pot regularly, is a poet, book author, actor who plays himself and others loosely based on him (including an iconic “Historian Smoker” in the pothead classic “Half Baked”), tax scoundrel once accused of owing $32 million to the IRS, and father of seven kids with four wives. But he’s also an veteran and wide-ranging activist, not only with his famous Farm Aid festival helping non-industrialized farmers, but as an early adopter of biodiesel in his vehicles, an animal welfare advocate, and for gay rights with his 2006 song “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other.” Of that one he said “The song's been in the closet for 20 years. I'm just opening the door.”
Ever current, just last fall after his most recent and futile pot bust, Nelson formed the “TeaPot Party.” It’s a bit unclear what they will stand for or do, so maybe they are not so different from other such parties.Of course, at bottom it’s all about the music, and as Willie and the band ran enthusiastically through his version of the Great American Songbook — “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Georgia,” “Blood Mary Morning,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “City of New Orleans,” and onward – his slightly ragged voice, more ragged skin, and well, anything about him that might be worse for wear and tear didn’t matter. For whatever else it is, a Willie Nelson show is a major all –American love-in. ¥¥