Anytime an individual of note — particularly an artist whose music has been so essential to the trajectory of modern music for well over six decades — marks a landmark birthday, it naturally becomes an occasion of special significance.
So it was no surprise that when Willie Nelson’s fans, admirers and fellow artists anticipated the arrival of his 90th birthday, it was considered an excellent reason for celebration. A special concert was held on May 1, 2022 at Luck, the sprawling venue and homestead owned by Willie himself located in the Texas Hill Country.
The only problem was, it wasn’t actually Willie’s 90th birthday, but instead, his 89th.
“There was no real plan,” recalls record producer, manager and artist participant Bruce Robison, who ended up overseeing the musical portion of the proceedings.
“They called me and said, ‘Let's do a party for Willie’s 90th birthday. We’ve got to do something.’ That night I was having dinner with a friend of mine who does a column for Texas Monthly magazine. I told him, ‘Man, I got big news! I'm going to be the bandleader for a party for Willie’s 90th birthday.’ Again, this was in 2022. And my buddy Dave said, ‘It's not his 90th. That’s next year.’ So after dinner, I called the person who was putting the whole thing together, and said, ‘I think we might be wrong about this.’ About 15 minutes went by and I could hear them conferring on the side. Then they came back on the line and said, ‘We want to do it anyway.’”
So, with the wheels in motion, Robison enlisted a backing band.
“We hadn't booked any guest artists yet, but at least we had a band and a date”, Robison remembers. “That was it. I didn't know if it would be 100 people showing up, or for that matter, what we were going to do. But I didn't care because I knew it was just going to be fun. And then it just steamrolled from there. It was serendipitous. Every little thing we needed just fell into place. I really felt like I was the right guy to do it.”
Once Robison began putting the band together, the Luck venue booked the artists that would be involved. “Everybody just kept saying yes,” Robison remarked. “We had this big, crazy bill. And at that point, Willie said he wanted to play afterwards… then it just turned into a whole other thing.”
In fact, that whole other thing took on a life of its own, one that has materialized as a new album that captures the music performed that evening. Dubbed One Night in Texas - A Tribute to The Red Headed Stranger, it’s being released under the aegis of Robison’s production company, The Next Waltz, on Friday April 28. The line-up of artists consists of Willie’s various friends and admirers - among them, Margo Price, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Shinyribs, Nathaniel Rateliff, Sheryl Crow, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Phosphorescent, Vincent Neil Emerson, Emily Gimble, and Robison himself.
Nevertheless, Robison insists that the project more or less came together on its own.
“We didn't really get to rehearse with the acts beforehand, and so it was just really a kind of a loosey goosey sort of thing,” he says in retrospect. “But we knew the songs really well. And all of that just seemed to come across in the music. It was a little looser than I was used to hearing as a live thing, but it felt really good to me somehow.”
According to Robison, the choices for the set list came about naturally, too. “It was a process, but it was really fun,” Robison remarked. “I knew all the Willie songs already. We got together a couple times just for fun and plowed through a load of iconic Willie songs, as well as a bunch of songs that I, as a big fan, had never heard him play live on stage. So between the iconic songs and the ones that I wish that I could hear him sing, it became kind of obvious. We came up with a shortlist of songs we needed to try and play. It was a little rocky at times, but when Willie signed on, we got his setlist, so could pull those of our own.”
“Then we went to the artists one by one and looked at some songs they had done online. I saw on YouTube that Margo Price had done ‘Shotgun Willie’ live before, which she wanted to do again for the record. I got with the artists one by one and gave them a list of songs to see which resonated with them.Most of the artists did only one or two, so the ones that are on the album offer a really good representation of what happened that night.”
Coming on the heels of covid, there were other reasons to celebrate as well.
“When we got together for the rehearsals, there were decades-long friends of mine that I hadn't really hardly seen at all due to the pandemic”, Robison notes. “We were able to be around each other for the first time in a long time. I won't say it wasn't about Willie, but for me, it was less about him and more about the community and what his music meant to us; about the idea of Willie and what he stands for. That's what it felt like, because it was this crazy celebration. It was this amazing feeling and he was the impetus and the reason for all of us being able to get together and celebrate this music that had changed our lives.”
As expected, that feeling was shared by all the participants.
“‘Shotgun Willie’ has always been one of my favorite Willie Nelson recordings,” Margo Price mentions. “It’s got such a sick groove and cool, abstract lyrics that to me, define country funk as a genre. This song was one of the recordings that influenced my work because it so seamlessly blended genres. Willie helped push the boundaries of country music beyond the rigid framework that was set before him, and I’m grateful he helped write the road map. It was a blast to perform this song in Luck with Bruce and the entire Texas band.”
Echoing Margo’s sentiments, Vincent Neil Emerson described the song he performed, ‘Bloody Mary Morning,’ as easily one of his favorite Willie tunes. “It’s just one of the many songs he’s penned that prove him to be one of the greatest songwriters Texas has ever raised,” Emerson added. “To step on stage at his birthday show and sing this song was a privilege I’ll never forget. Long live Willie Nelson.”
Nathaniel Rateliff concurred. “I really enjoyed singing ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. Bruce put a hell of a band together to perform with. It’s always an honor to celebrate Willie Nelson and to be a part of the musical family he’s created.”
For his part, Robert Earl Keen summed his experience up succinctly. “'Pick Up the Tempo’ is my favorite ‘off the cuff’ performance ever!,” he said.
“It could have been a disaster,” Robison says in retrospect. “But it wasn’t. When I listened back, I thought, there’s lots of mistakes on there. There's lots of weird stuff, lots of people not exactly knowing what’s going on. But still, that band on stage is really amazing and accomplished, so to me that's the sound of real people. That's what you struggle with in the studio and what I'm always going for: to catch the performance that feels like you played it 1,000 times on stage. Sure, that's such a hard thing to do, so we were kind of bridging that gap.”
Of course, Robison knows a bit what it takes to create a standard. He’s written several songs which have become hits by other artists — among them, ‘Travelin’ Soldier’, a number one country hit for The Chicks, ‘Angry All the Time’, as recorded by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and a number two song ‘Wrapped,’ by George Strait. And, of course, there’s ‘What Would Willie Do?’, a song covered by Gary Allan but originally released by Robison himself.
Robinson’s admiration for Willie – and his expansive musical community - seems to know no bounds. “That’s why I wrote that song. He’s an amazing person who always seems to be kind to everyone.I'm certain that he took it in the spirit with which we all were offering it. Now it's his 90th birthday, and I think we all ought to be celebrating 90 years on the planet with Willie Nelson.”
One Night in Texas: The Next Waltz's Tribute to the Red Headed Stranger is out on Friday April 28. Read Holler's review here.
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Photography by Laura Ord.