I think that I’ve known Willie Nelson and his music since I was so young that I’ve looked at him like an extended member of the family. I’ve probably seen him more than I’ve seen some of my real family members!
I’ve reached that time where I’m working through things I want to do in Texas before I leave to go back to California…and seeing Willie in my homeland was on there. I was presented with two options, one being outside at The Backyard in late August…the other being inside a church in early July. It’s a testament to the Texas heat that I chose church!
As we walked down to our designated pew (!!) Willie was making his way onto the stage. When he began the flood of songs that are such a part of the fabric of my life, I have to say the reigning emotion was bittersweet. Every time I see him, his hair is a little grayer, the ruts in his cheeks a little deeper, that hole in Trigger a little bigger.
Hours before the show I put my hair into the two ‘Willie Braids’ that I’ve been doing every time I go to see him for years, thinking that I was going to see him with short hair for the first time. Wrong! The first thing I noticed was two longish gray braids dangling at his shoulders, like a symbol of his longevity.
Sometimes people don’t realize how many amazing songs Willie has written – he wrote “Crazy” (not Patsy Cline). It is when he begins, and song after song, you know every word even if you haven’t listened to him in years, that you are hit with the magnitude of his career. The lady behind me sighs with the intro to each song, and I feel her. Beyond sitting in a church and being next to my dad, these songs conjure my mom’s presence so strongly.
As he sang “Good Hearted Woman”, “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain”, “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, “On the Road Again”, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”, among others…I took it in like wisdom as I had since I was a single digit. Nowadays, he sings the songs differently, as a man delivering them as fact rather than one who’s crooning about his emotions.
Surrounded by his family, “little sister” Bobbie on piano, son Lukas doing vocals and guitar, and other family and friends and bandmates that are practically family, like Ray Benson (my dad turned to me and told me he and my mom went to the very first Asleep at the Wheel show, ever!); I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I was in a room with all these big Texas families, and it was just me and my dad. And soon to be just me.
Earlier that week, I saw another key music figure in the legalize marijuana camp, and Willie didn’t get off his smoke…err..soapbox, even in church. “We’ve got a new gospel song…it’s called ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die'”. It was morbid humor, but provided a nice moment of levity for the “Keep Austin Weird” (even in church) crowd.
I’ll admit it was kinda hard to keep it together during this set. Sometimes, I can just hear my mom’s voice…she used to sing these songs in the car. Finally, almost two years later, when I think of her, I can see her as young and healthy again. I’ve been waiting for this moment. And as Willie sang and my dad took pictures with his iPhone, I thought about how going back to California somehow made everything that happened to me in the summer of 2010 more real. And later this month, I have to really relive it for a memorial service, one more time before I turn my back on it all and try to move on with my life.
The lady behind me tells her husband how it will be an international day of mourning when Willie dies. I don’t want to think about it until it happens. As I gazed down on him, I enjoyed the songs, the melodies, the wisdom as I had for decades, even if it was for the last time.
“Gotta go now,
guess I’ll see you hanging round
Don’t know when though, oh
Never know when I’ll be back in town
But I remember what I told you
That in time your gonna pay
Well ain’t it surprisin’ how time slips away.”