I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, the live music capital of the world. I had never seen Willie Nelson in concert until Sunday.
It wasn’t too hard a feat to accomplish. I am not from a country music family. I am not from the kind of folks who drink from the well of our city’s reputation — we did not do “weird,” nor red-headed strangers and cosmic cowboys. I did not know what weed smelled like until I was 18.
But I know the score. Willie’s legend looms as large over Austin as the spirit of Texas itself. I should know; I write about him all the time for work. With a reputation to protect and a soul to save, my sole wish for Austin City Limits Music Festival’s 15th year could only be granted at 6 p.m., Sunday, weekend two. Willie, or bust. And it looked like a lot of ACL had the same idea.
A cult assembled at the Samsung stage, and shortly after the hour struck, the video screens piped in adulation from fellow fest acts Conor Oberst, Raury, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Local Natives, RZA (most strangely) and Ray Benson (most sweetly). Kind as it was, that presentation soon evaporated from memory with the only celebrity appearance that could top the inherent excitement of pending Willie.
Matthew McConaughey, doing his best John the Baptist. Not long after he rolled out the burnt orange carpet, bidding the crowd to give a “big, badass rowdy hello and welcome,” the main event sauntered out, doffed his hat and got to business. For such a milestone, it felt as casual as a bandana wrapped around braids.
Trigger and Willie, who’ve obviously been down the road with each other more than a few times, shot out of the gate with “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving To Me.” The sweet fight in Willie’s voice was unmistakable. The tumbling twang of his strings, even if I hadn’t heard them from guitar to ear before, lit up deeply felt memories of a Texas life, from Gruene Hall trips to Hays County fairs at Christmas to radio waves in my grandpa’s truck on trips from Round Rock to Luling. Even the clouds of pot smoke tasted just like I’d always hoped they would.
What, you thought the sun wouldn’t noticeably go down when Willie gave it a lyrical nudge on “Night Life”? I heard a woman many yards away cheering with so much frenzy that she was gargling her screams into the golden hour. Willie threw one out for Merle — “It’s All Going To Pot” — and one for Waylon — “Good Hearted Woman.” He played the songs you want him to play, like “Crazy” and “Georgia On My Mind.” A streak of Austin hymns moved with the spirit: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Always On My Mind.” On the second song, two little girls in front of me braided their hair. Did they know …?
I didn’t listen to these songs growing up, but they must have seeped in by osmosis. The words formed in my mouth as surely as Willie sang ’em.
“Here’s a new gospel song we wrote,” Willie said toward the end of the hour. Of course, it was “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” But fittingly for this church boy, such a religious experience ended with a little gospel. Willie got his own choir, sans robes, for “I’ll Fly Away.” Rateliff, Margo Price and members of Local Natives and Mumford & Sons came on stage for back-up. Couldn’t steal the man’s show, though. He saved “I Saw the Light” for himself, the audience and the Good Lord.
With a few red bandanas flung, a red-white-and-blue guitar strap tossed, goodbye waves distributed to the park and hands shaken with McConaughey and Mayor Steve Adler, Willie was off. He wasn’t a headliner at this year’s ACL, but he was a king.
More accurately, he was ACL’s grandpa, and this was the family reunion. Those of us who weren’t yet in the family still got an invite. And even though none of us brought a side-dish, Willie still made us feel at home.