Willie Nelson was honored by the Kennedy Center in December, 1998 as a great American artist. Also among the honorees were icons Shirley Temple and Bill Cosby smiling before an audience of celebrities and politicians, and TV cameras. Something wasn't right.
It must have been an unfamiliar position for Willie, high upon a balcony, alongside the President and First Lady, looking over a crowd dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, the massive stage in front of him.
Dwight Yoakum stepped up and played renditions of Willie's songs, joined by Willie's longtime friend and band member Mickey Rafael, and fellow Texans Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett. Kristofferson said, "Willie, they said we couldn't do this, so we did," making reference to the outlaw musician attitude they share. Curtains opened and Willie's tour bus, the massive Honeysuckle Rose appeared on stage with an equally impressive Texas flag.
This was an unusual scene, to say the least, in the nation's capitol. At such a glittery event it is difficult for most to comprehend the symbol that Willie Nelson is to Texas.
It was evident that Kennedy Center organizers, and even Willie's friends, didn't know what to do to honor him. They did what they could to make Willie feel at home and tried to show the television audience what he symbolizes to Texas and working people around the country.
Willie gets up on stage night after night and honors the crowds that gather in civic auditoriums, county fairgrounds and rodeo arenas by waving, shaking hands, kissing babies, trading western wear and playing music. Each night is a free-for-all swap meet of hats, caps, bandanas, even guitar straps Willie has worn, and a chance to get a little closer to the red headed singer. Song lyrics, letters and requests scribbled on napkins make their way to the stage in the hands of determined teenagers and senior citizens. Some people buy him drinks or bring him home-cooked deserts.
Willie Nelson has recorded for major labels, performed on big bills and has been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but he remains the most independent musician around. His music doesn't fit any category; it's a brand that only he plays.
As a dynasty of Texas musicians was fading, Willie left his suit-and-tie songwriter existence in Nashville behind and returned to his home state, saying "This is a good time for a revolution." He began playing shows where real people go and, like Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills before him, he settled in for life on the road.
He followed the lead of great Texas musicians and cultivated a persona of pure musical showmanship on stage. He developed his own style and following.
"The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life"
Willie's music attracted South Texas bikers and Hill Country hippies to picnics and festivals around the state. Fans that remembered the old traditional songs and gospel hymns came out for Willie's new live music. Folk music fans of the Sixties' hootenanies crowded in by the stage to experience Willie's close, humble relationship with the audience.
His themes of hard living, love lost and being on the run come from the roots of American Blues, Appalatian and Western Music. He was born in Fort Worth and raised in Abbott, Texas, a sort of crossroads for emerging musical styles that influenced his family and childhood in the Thirties.
Willie's music today is a blend of ranch dance and honky tonk songs, improvised classical Spanish guitar, beer barrel polkas, dark tales and spirituals played by a band of gypsies. He was raised at home in a proper church way and played guitar as a teenager in beer joints with a Czech band around West and Waco, Texas
His association with new bands has steadily attracted new fans and his reputation among established artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young has brought him necessary support for his causes, such as saving independent American family farms.
Bringing Willie Nelson to the Kennedy Center, America learned it is impossible to praise him for several minutes and convey what he means to people. His fans know about him, consider him for a long time, live through some of his hardships and fears, and see him perform live. Then they come to appreciate him.
There isn't enough justice in Texas to account for the legend of Willie Nelson. If they were to try again to honor him in a twenty minute televised segment, Willie should get up on stage and tell his own story with his songs.
/Stay tuned, more to come.
You can hear a QuickTime sample of Willie Nelson in either a high resolution (560k) or low resolution (240k) version. You will need, at least, QuickTime 3.0 and you may want to get the latest version (4.0) from the QuickTime website.