It’s been a media-blitz week for Willie Nelson supporting his new album “My Way,” a collection of songs widely associated with Frank Sinatra. After a Tuesday appearance on ABC’s “The View,” he visited Stephen Colbert for “The Late Show” on CBS Wednesday night.
Before performing “Summer Wind,” Nelson invited Colbert out of his studio and onto his bus on 53rd Street in Manhattan. They made small talk about old photos and the new album (and, inevitably, marijuana), but they also touched upon the rally Nelson is playing next weekend at Auditorium Shores to support U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.
Addressing the controversy that arose in the wake of the rally announcement, Colbert asked Nelson, “Do you get shook up by people saying they’re going to boycott your music?”
Willie’s answer: “Naw, not really. You know, it’s their prerogative. I might not like their music either, you know, so I don’t hold any grudges against people.”
Nelson also cleared up some confusion about a statement in last week’s press release announcing the rally would be “the first public concert Nelson has held for a political candidate.” Nelson mentioned he’d played shows in the past for Dennis Kucinich, Ross Perot and even country singer Tex Ritter, a Republican who lost a 1970 campaign for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.
Past political events Nelson played, however, involved ticketed fundraisers, Nelson’s publicist Elaine Schock clarified Friday, whereas the Sept. 29 rally is a free event open to the public.
In Nelson’s appearance on “The View,” Schock reported that when he was asked about the controversy regarding the rally, his response was simply, “We’re not happy until they’re not happy.”
One interesting bit of trivia that arose from the Colbert interview segment: Willie apparently was not familiar with legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Someone ought to get those two in a room together and see what happens.
Here’s the footage of his “Summer Wind” performance:
Also on the bill are Leon Bridges, Joe Ely, Carrie Rodriguez, Tameca Jones, and Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah Nelson. (Update, Sept. 19: An initial report of Leon Bridges being on the bill was unconfirmed when the show was announced on Sept. 12, but Bridges confirmed on Sept. 19 that he will be on the bill.)
A press release from Nelson’s publicist describes the event as “the first public concert Nelson has held for a political candidate.”
“My wife Annie and I have met and spoken with Beto and we share his concern for the direction things are headed,” Nelson said in the press release. “Beto embodies what is special about Texas, an energy and an integrity that is completely genuine.”
Will Beto jam with Willie again? That’s what happened during the encore of the July Fourth Picnic, when O’Rourke joined in on acoustic guitar for the finale of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Making the media rounds to promote the new Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze,” director Ethan Hawke joined stars Ben Dickey and Charlie Sexton on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on Tuesday night to talk about the film. But not before engaging in a little musical-comedy hijinks.
Fallon joined his three guests in a send-up of classic country supergroup the Highwaymen, with Hawke and Fallon leading the way in the roles of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, respectively. Nelson’s classic “On the Road Again” is recast as a musical argument between Nelson and Cash, who’d really rather “just stay here,” Fallon sings. Eventually they drag Sexton (as Kris Kristofferson) and Dickey (as Waylon Jennings) into the debate. Here’s the video clip:
“Blaze” continues to screen at several theaters in Austin this week, including the Violet Crown downtown, Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, Barton Creek Square 14 and the Regal Arbor 8 in Great Hills.
Dickey’s new EP of his own material, produced by Sexton, was released this week on the new Dualtone Records imprint SexHawkeBlack (a partnership between Sexton, Hawke, and former Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, a producer of “Blaze”).
With more than 30 albums since 1973, Asleep at the Wheel always seems to have another record around the corner. But next month’s “New Routes” is worthy of special attention, as it’s the band’s first collection of primarily new original material in more than a decade.
“New Routes” mixes new tunes (with both Benson and Shore as featured vocalists) with a handful of carefully chosen covers, including Guy Clark’s classic “Dublin Blues” and the rockabilly gem “Seven Nights to Rock.” But there’s a bonus track at the end that’s likely to generate significant attention.
“Willie Got There First” features Seth and Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, who’ve become good friends with Benson in recent years. They appeared on the Wheel’s 2016 “Still the King” tribute to Wills, and performed with the band as part of Benson’s 66th birthday bash during South by Southwest last year (a show that also featured Willie Nelson).
Seth Avett wrote “Willie Got There First” as a nod to the Red Headed Stranger, working references to Nelson standards such as “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Crazy” and “Yesterday’s Wine” into a tune about how Willie is a “renaissance master” of country songwriting. Benson chimes in to sing the final verse. Here’s the track:
It must be noted that the song’s initial verse and chorus feel a little off-base. The narrator sings of being inspired to write a song about his loved one’s crying blue eyes, only to realize that “Willie got there first.” The beautiful “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was, of course, written by Fred Rose, though Nelson’s rendition of the song is iconic.
Asleep at the Wheel’s “New Routes” comes out Sept. 14 via Bismeaux/Thirty Tigers. The band once again will kick off the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 5, their 17th straight year in that role.
As the title suggests, this one’s an homage to Frank Sinatra, featuring songs the legendary 20th-century crooner made famous. “My Way” was co-produced by Buddy Cannon, who’s worked on most of Nelson’s albums this decade, and longtime Lyle Lovett Large Band pianist Matt Rollings, who teamed with Cannon on Nelson’s Grammy-winning Gershwin tribute “Summertime” a couple of years ago.
Like “Summertime,” the new record “features lush string and horn arrangements,” according to a press statement announcing the album. “Willie and Frank were close friends, musical colleagues and mutual admirers of each other’s work throughout Sinatra’s lifetime,” the statement continued.
In a recent interview with AARP magazine, Nelson said that he “learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank. He didn’t worry about behind the beat or in front of the beat, or whatever — he could sing it either way, and that’s the feel you have to have.”
It was the sweatiest of times, then it was the rainiest of times, then it was the coolest of times. And beyond the strange weather, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic brought many memorable musical moments as well. Here’s a quick look back at some of them, plus a little news gathered along the way.
1. Folk Uke has a new song. It’s called “Don’t Bite Beyonce.” The local duo that features Amy Nelson (Willie’s daughter) and Cathy Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter) is known for offbeat original material, so the tune that concluded their short early-afternoon set wasn’t entirely a surprise. It was pretty funny, though, a takeoff on recent tabloid news. Plus it’s the rare Folk Uke song that doesn’t have an unprintable word in it.
2. Ryan Bingham also has a new song. It’s called, presumably, “America,” and nothing else played all day or night at the Picnic resonated as deeply. The second verse: “America, unload that gun/ Save a daughter, save a son/ Bullets dressed them up in blood.” This was heavy stuff, but it might be the best song of social consience anyone has written in years. Bingham’s guitarist, Jesse Dayton, said they started playing it at shows just a few days ago.
3. Where’d David Allan Coe go? Scheduled to open the Picnic at 11:30 a.m., he was a no-show. A publicity firm representing the event had no details on the absence, and Coe’s Facebook and Twitter pages offered no explanations or clues. Coe has always been a little, shall we say, mercurial. And sadly, with the midafternoon rainout canceling the sets of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Joe Shaver, might this have been the first Picnic without a three-named troubadour in, well, ever?
4. What to do when it rains? Most people went back to their cars. Reporters and photographers huddled in a couple of mostly empty but thankfully air-conditioned trailers, until a better opportunity arose. Willie’s longtime publicist, Elaine Schock, invited folks over to one of Willie’s buses — it said “John Denver” on the front, and apparently once belonged to the late country-pop star — for a sample of “Willie’s Remedy,” a new line of hemp-based coffee that Nelson is launching. Unlike Willie’s Reserve, his line of marijuana, it’s not a pot thing, though the brew may have mild health benefits. At any rate, the bus was pretty cool.
5. Willie has a new record coming soon. Oh yeah, while we were on the bus, they also played us some of “My Way,” a Frank Sinatra-themed record Nelson recorded earlier this year and is now set to release on Sept. 14. Perhaps inspired by the success of “Summertime,” Willie’s 2016 album of Gershwin classics that won a Grammy, this one finds him exploring the jazzier side that has always been almost as vital as country to his identity.
6. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians also have a new record coming soon. Exactly when and through what channels it’ll be released remain in limbo, but the band hopes to get it out by the end of the year. Recorded over the past year or so at Austin’s Arlyn Studios, it’ll be their first release since 2006’s “Stranger Things.” Many members of the band, formed in Dallas in the 1980s, now live in Austin or the Hill Country. On Wednesday, they sounded terrific on old and new songs alike.
8. We miss the grass. When the Picnic moved to Circuit of the Americas in 2015, the first two years featured the Plaza Stage on a spacious grassy area just behind the Austin360 Amphitheater. Last year the Plaza Stage moved to a large patch of concrete near the entrance. There’s probably a reason. But, as someone commented on one of my social media posts from the Plaza Stage yesterday, “‘Picnics’ do not involve concrete.”
9. How cool was it? When the rains swept through, temperatures dropped by about 20 degrees. “Yesterday at this time it was 101,” an emcee said before Brickell took the stage just past 7 p.m. “Right now it’s 75.” Picnic meteorological records weren’t readily available, but this seemed potentially unprecedented, at least for the Picnics held in Texas. (That one-off in Washington state in 2007 probably hit a lower Fahrenheit mark.)
10. Beto, Beto, Beto. Just past dark, the candidate for U.S. Senator suddenly was everywhere. Coming in from a late-afternoon speaking engagement at Hotel Vegas in East Austin, O’Rourke sat down with SiriusXM DJs for an interview that included a brief chat about his days playing punk rock in El Paso. Then he was out front for a short prelude to the fireworks. All that remained for the hat trick was to sing with Willie during the grand finale. He beat that, playing acoustic guitar too. You’ll find a little bit of that at the end of this full-day recap video:
There it was at the end, a crazy only-at-Willie’s-Picnic moment you had to see to believe: Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas congressman seeking to oust Ted Cruz from the Senate this fall, was playing guitar with Willie Nelson onstage at Circuit of the Americas.
Alongside him, Willie and his Family band, joined on this night by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, churned out their traditional closing medley of gospel favorites “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Margo Price came out to sing along. So did members of the Head and the Heart, Ryan Bingham’s band, Folk Uke and others who’d had their moment in the sun — and rain — during this long Independence Day’s journey into night.
Beto’s cameo served as a fitting finale to a 13-hour bash that was anything but your standard Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. The plot line kept changing throughout the course of the day. First, why had 11:30 a.m. opener David Allan Coe not shown up? (Never did get an answer for that.) Next, boy is it hot out here: Early-afternoon temperatures were in the low-90s, but stifling humidity made it feel about 30 degrees beyond that.
Yellow Feather, featuring Casey Kristofferson (daughter of longtime Picnic participant Kris), kicked things off on the Plaza Stage, using Coe’s no-show as an opportunity to play a slightly longer set. Then it was straight into the Nelson family stretch, with granddaughter Raelyn Nelson followed by Folk Uke, featuring daughter Amy, and then Particle Kid, featuring youngest son Micah. All braved the heat with entertaining short sets well-received by the early, smallish and sweltering crowd.
Then came the game-changer. Forecasts had called for midafternoon rain, and at about 2:30 p.m., the call went out across the grounds: Performances were suspended, storms were imminent, everyone take shelter in their cars. The couple thousand early-arriving Picnic-heads departed to wait out the rain in the parking lot.
The warning-call came just early enough to allow for an orderly evacuation. By 3 p.m. or so, Circuit of the Americas was socked-in with gray on all sides, thunder echoing and lightning occasionally flashing as rain came down in sheets. The weather was never particularly dangerous, but you sure didn’t want to be out in it.
After 4 p.m., things slowed to more of a drizzle, and soon came word via the venue’s Twitter page that music would resume at 5:25 p.m. with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real on the Amphitheater Stage. The bad news: Sets from Gene Watson, Johnny Bush, Jamestown Revival, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Wild Feathers, Billy Joe Shaver and Asleep at the Wheel were all washed away by the three-hour delay.
That was a tough blow for Picnic traditionalism, as four of those seven acts — Bush, Hubbard, Shaver, the Wheel — play the event almost every year. Still, sets from seven more acts remained in place, including the biggest names on the bill as the evening wore on toward a 10:15 p.m. fireworks display.
As fate would have it, music resumed right where it had left off, in Nelson-family mid-stream. This was a big week for Lukas Nelson, the most promising musical talent among Willie’s kids: He and his band taped “Austin City Limits” for the first time on Monday. They touched on some of the same highlights in Wednesday’s abbreviated set, including the location-perfect ballad “Just Outside of Austin” and the epic “Forget About Georgia” plus a splendid cover of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
What followed was a six-pack of headliners that mixed acts right in the strike zone of the Picnic demographic with a couple of curveballs that mostly fared well. Of the latter, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ set was marvelous and long-overdue. Aside from a brief appearance at last fall’s Erwin Center benefit for Hurricane Harvey relief, the hitmaking Texas band hadn’t played Austin in almost two decades.
Yes, they played “What I Am” and “Circle,” the two best-known songs on their 1988 breakthrough album; but the revelation was how good all the newer stuff sounded. A fresh record may be out before the end of the year, and it’s pretty much a local affair: Though Brickell lives in the New York area with husband Paul Simon, most of the New Bohemians now call Austin home, and the album was made here at Arlyn Studios.
The other wild-card was indie-folk group the Head and the Heart, closing out a run of several shows with Nelson. They seemed genuinely thrilled to be making their Picnic debut, even if die-hards who attend for Texas-steeped roots-country-rock might not have related to the Pacific Northwesterners’ vibe. But they clearly had fans in the crowd, and they may have won some more when they brought out Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica ace, to join them for “10,000 Weight in Gold.”
Right down the middle of the plate, playing just before Brickell’s band, was Margo Price, whose 30-minute set lived up to and exceeded expectations. Price is the most promising new face in country music today, with the possible exception of Jason Isbell. A fireball singer with a strong backing crew, she’s become a favorite of Nelson since her 2016 Picnic debut. A blazing cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” kicked things up a notch mid-set, before a one-two-punch closer of originals: “Four Years of Chances,” a highlight from her debut album, and the moving title track to last year’s “All American Made.”
Troubadour Ryan Bingham also is a fine fit for the Picnic, though he hadn’t played the event since its Fort Worth run many years back. Boasting a band that included not only guitar hero Jesse Dayton but powerhouse fiddler Richard Bowden, Bingham delivered arguably the finest set of the night. A class act, he brought out members of Nashville band Wild Feathers, whose set got canceled by the rain, to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with him.
And he leveled the crowd with a brand new song, perfectly fitted for the occasion, apparently titled “America.” It began: “America, America, where have we gone/ Can’t we see what we’ve become,” before proceeding to a verse about gun violence and, finally, a requiem for the American dream: “It was a dream you gave us once/ Is it not for everyone?”
Not long thereafter, the backstage was abuzz with Beto, who sat for a brief interview with Jeremy Tepper and Dallas Wayne of SiriusXM, which broadcast all of the post-rain-delay sets on its Willie’s Roadhouse channel. After the Head and the Heart’s set came the fireworks, which were given a rousing introduction by O’Rourke. The last bang of skyward pyrotechnics coincided with the first blast of guitar from Sturgill Simpson, whose hard-rockin’ outlaw-country style — plus a voice eerily reminiscent of Waylon Jennings — provided a perfect lead-in to the long-awaited Willie finale.
A couple hundred lucky fans had been treated to an intimate, invite-only Willie show the night before at downtown nightclub 3Ten, with Lukas and Micah opening. Wednesday’s set proceeded in similar fashion, with the usual opening volley of “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving” but a left-turn away from the Willie-classics medley (“Night Life,” “Crazy,” etc.) in favor of a Hank Williams montage that segued from “Jambalaya” to ” Hey Good Lookin'” to “Move It on Over.”
Inviting Ray Benson to play guitar was a nice touch given that Asleep at the Wheel’s set got rained out, and he contributed some fine solos, trading off with Bobbie Nelson’s piano runs, Raphael’s harmonica turns and more guitar leads from Willie and Lukas, who got his own vocal spotlight on the blues classic “Texas Flood.” A mid-set stretch featured some of Nelson’s finest and best-known songs, including “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “On the Road Again.”
Soon enough it was time for the weed-themed double-shot of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “It’s All Going to Pot.” Suddenly, there was Beto, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing along as Willie led the crowd through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Can O’Rourke beat Cruz in November? Time will tell, but on July Fourth, Willie made his choice clear.
When news about United States agents separating immigrant children from their parents at the Texas border under the Trump administration’s new zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration began to circulate widely last week, Willie Nelson spoke up quickly. “What’s going on at our Southern border is outrageous,” Nelson told Rolling Stone last Thursday.
Though the tweet was not posted from Nelson’s own account, his publicist, Elaine Schock, verified that it came from Nelson. His @WillieNelson twitter appears in the post, as well as that of @realDonaldTrump. The post was made from the account of @BioAnnie1, which appears to be the Twitter name of Annie Nelson, Willie’s wife.
The post also tagged several other prominent legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as media figures including Rachel Maddow and Paul Begala.
Lately Willie Nelson has been celebrating his birthday in the most ideal way possible for one of the world’s greatest musical artists: By giving us new music.
Born Aug. 29, 1933, Willie released last year’s terrific “God’s Problem Child” on his birthday weekend. He did the same this year with “Last Man Standing,” which came out on Friday and included an entirely new batch of songs he wrote with producer Buddy Cannon.
Nelson, who performed at Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels last weekend, next performs in Austin on another birthday: America’s. The legendary Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic returns to Circuit of the Americas for the fourth straight year in a couple of months.
Birthday wishes for Willie come from far and wide on the web every year. Still, we remain sentimentally attached to this one posted a few years back. It’s from Darcie Jane Fromholz, whose late father, Steven Fromholz, was a good friend of Nelson (and wrote Willie’s chart-topping hit “I’d Have to Be Crazy”). Here’s what she said in 2014: “Happy birthday, Willie- thank you for letting me drive a golf cart into a pond when I was nine. Love you!”
Want more to read on this celebrated day? Here’s a Willie wormhole for you — dozens of articles we’ve written about the Red-Headed Stranger in recent years:
Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing” (Legacy). Let’s pause for a moment to recognize what this is: At 85, the age he turns on Sunday, Willie Nelson has released an album of entirely new original material. This is almost certainly unprecedented in the history of recorded music.
Willie’s good friend Ray Price recorded his final album at age 87, but he didn’t write any of the songs. (Willie wrote one of them, “It Always Will Be.”) The closest comparison may be Pete Seeger’s “At 89,” which won him a traditional folk Grammy in 2009 — but that was a mix of originals, traditional tunes and spoken-word passages. All 11 tracks on “Last Man Standing” were written by Nelson and his longtime producer Buddy Cannon. It’s remarkable enough that Nelson has continued to tour and record regularly well into his 80s, but his recent increased songwriting activity, spurred largely by Cannon’s input and support, is something rarely if ever witnessed before.
That doesn’t automatically make “Last Man Standing” one of Nelson’s best records, of course. Compared to last year’s remarkable “God’s Problem Child,” which we contended was his best record in two decades, this one feels good but not great. The thing to remember about Nelson: Though his most lasting legacy will be his songs, from “Night Life” and “Crazy” to “On the Road Again” and “Still Is Still Moving,” his life’s work has depended equally on interpretation — “Georgia on My Mind,” “Whiskey River,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” What made “God’s Problem Child” so good was not only the award-winning Nelson/Cannon number “Still Not Dead,” but also his readings of songs such as Donnie Fritts’ “Old Timer” and Gary Nicholson’s “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” that were perfect for his persona.
“Last Man Standing” has plenty of high points, starting with the title track, which leads off the record and sets the tone. Like much of what Nelson has written with Cannon, this one’s playful even as it takes on sobering truths. The loss of close compadres such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard leaves Nelson not wanting to be the last man standing, until he ponders the alternative and reconsiders: “But wait a minute, maybe I do.” And where would he go, anyway? “Heaven is closed and Hell’s overcrowded,” he declares on “Heaven Is Closed,” before deciding, “I think I’ll just stay where I am.” He stares down fate with a smile again on “Bad Breath,” which he reminds “is better than no breath at all.”
There’s classic Willie wisdom here too. “Don’t Tell Noah” (“about the flood”) humorously advises folks against stating the obvious to those who already know, inevitably pointing the arrow home: “Don’t tell me that I’ve lost my mind, ’cause I’ve been crazy all the time.” In “She Made My Day,” he cautions against the consequences — “but it ruined my life” — yet he’s clearly playing it for a laugh, not sympathy. Best of all is “Something You Get Over,” a beautiful ballad that’s arguably the record’s best musical moment. Willie turns serious here, deeply lamenting a lost love yet persevering: “It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you get through.”
What’s missing is the outside material so perfectly presented on “God’s Problem Child.” I’d trade another gem like Willie’s rendition of Sonny Throckmorton’s “Butterfly” for Nelson/Cannon originals such as “Ready to Roar” and I Ain’t Got Nothin’,” which are good for dancing but by-the-numbers, or “Me and You,” which is no match for “Me and Paul.”
And then you stop and think, again: This guy just released an entire album of new original songs midway through his ninth decade on the planet. We should all be so fortunate to experience not just extended longevity, but continued creativity. In the long run, Willie may not end up being the last man standing — but on second thought, maybe he will.