By Sarah Rodman
January 13, 2019 at 04:47 PM EST
Al Wagner/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Amid the outpouring of love and praise at the epic Willie Nelson tribute concert Saturday night at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Emmylou Harris may have put it best: “Are we not all blessed to be living in the time of Willie?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course.

But for four hours, 18,000 fans were reminded of the Texas native’s towering contributions to popular music during the all-star concert dubbed Willie: Life & Songs of An American Outlaw.

The two dozen strong list of those turning up to honor the 85 year-old singer-songwriter represented several generations of artists thrilled to pay homage including Harris, George Strait, Jimmy Buffett, John Mellencamp, Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Norah Jones, Jack Johnson, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill.

To a one they spoke of their affection for Nelson both musically and personally and channeled those heartfelt emotions into performances that tugged the heartstrings, tickled the funny bone and showcased the elasticity of the elder statesman’s six-decade-deep catalog, traversing vintage country, blues, rock, pop, soul and gospel.

Some performed songs Nelson wrote, like Krauss’s exquisitely tender rendition of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” one of the night’s highest high points and earner of a deserved ovation. Several tackled tunes were written by others onto which Nelson put his own idiosyncratic stamp like Vince Gill’s typically celestial take on “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and Chris Stapleton’s barn-burning, and perfectly appropriate show opener “Whiskey River.” Others sang songs they wrote about him, the best being “Willie Got There First,” a recent Asleep at the Wheel number performed by Wheel master Ray Benson and the song’s writers the Avett Brothers.  The wistful, waltz-time track perfectly nails both Nelson’s gift as a craftsman–“Put heartache and heartbreak into a verse/like an alchemist turning his sorrow to gold/lyrics like maps for a soul/eloquent truth in a common man’s words”– and the scope of his influence.

Family was a theme emphasized throughout the evening– his band is called Willie Nelson & the Family after all– and that term applies to both blood relations, including sons Micah and Lukas who performed a medley that included a devastating rendition of the prescient “Hands on the Wheel” as well as longtime friends like Benson, Buffett, Bobby Bare and Kris Kristofferson, the latter of whom was on hand to perform his classic “Me and Bobby McGee” with Nelson and Eric Church. That also extended to a younger crowd including Church– who owned his version of the classic road song “Me and Paul”– and newly minted best new artist Grammy nominee Margo Price. She proved her mettle performing “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Sister’s Comin’ Home” with Bobby Bare and Steve Earle respectively. Sturgill Simpson lit a fire under Merle Haggard’s “Red Headed Rounder” and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires dug into the grit of “Milk Cow Blues.”

(Shires’ fiddle was also a part of the top-notch house band backing up most of the acts throughout the show, which included ringleader Don Was on upright bass, Nelson’s ace harmonica player Mickey Raphael and Jamey Johnson on guitar. The undersung Johnson also performed a masterful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind” that brought the crowd to its feet.)

Joseph Llanes

Jack Johnson elicited laughs with his ode to the famously debilitating effects of Nelson’s stash, “Willie Nelson Got Me Stoned and Stole All My Money” and Benson and Lyle Lovett got the crowd stomping with “Shotgun Willie.” Nelson’s Farm Aid compatriots John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews also paid tribute in their singular styles with the former offering a gruff take on “Night Life” with help from Carlene Carter and the latter contributing an acoustic version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” before being joined by Nelson for the timeless “Crazy.”

As that pairing and others proved, the show was at its best when its honoree was onstage. He was clearly jazzed by his duet with Sheryl Crow on “After the Fire is Gone,” beamed through “Pancho and Lefty” with Emmylou Harris and gave one of his best vocals of the night teaming with Stapleton and Derek Trucks for “Always on My Mind.”

While he didn’t say much, it was evident that he was touched by the gathering and the producers put together a number of entertaining interstitial video packages highlighting different facets of Nelson’s career featuring great archival footage and photos of Nelson with his duet partners throughout the years, with compadres like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and a compilation of some of his notoriously raunchy jokes.

Remarkably, George Strait and Nelson had never performed together before except, as Strait wryly noted, earlier that day at rehearsal. The two Texas titans tackled Strait’s forthcoming, tongue-in-cheek ode to that very odd fact: “Sing One with Willie.” Observing that Nelson had sung with everyone from George Jones to Julio Iglesias, King George was pining for his turn. When the time came, both men delivered and clearly had a ball. The duo closed out the regular set with “Good Hearted Woman.” An all-hands-on-deck finale rave-up included, naturally, “On the Road Again,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The show was recorded for broadcast later this year on A&E and, as such, there were several lulls in the action for changeovers and for co-host Ed Helms of The Office fame but also an accomplished banjo player– to get in place to do intros. (Helms was joined in his emcee duties by lively character actor W. Earl Brown who you have seen in everything from Deadwood to True Detective to Grey’s Anatomy.) But even with breaks, the momentum was never killed and the good will of the night prevailed, much like Nelson himself who, as Helms noted, “… at 85 is still kicking more ass than you and I ever will.”

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