When I was growing up there were certain artists whose music was always in the background. Foremost among them was Willie Nelson, and frequently heard were Willie’s fellow Highwaymen: Waylon, Kris and Cash. I always dismissed this stuff as my parents’ music, but it wasn’t until I was on my own without any of their albums that I realized I liked it and that I missed hearing it.
The moment came when I was in college, still new to Austin and Texas, and I found myself sitting around playing guitars with a friend. The conversation turned to secret musical fixations and I admitted to Willie.
My friend, a lifelong Texan, informed me that Willie didn’t count.
“Because everyone likes Willie. They just don’t always admit it.” We took a break from Joy Division and the Grateful Dead, and he showed me how to play a few Willie tunes. I finally had to fess up to something else, but what he said was spot on.
I’ve realized over the years that I can’t stand Nashville country, which sounds to me like it’s in, shall we say, its hair metal phase, but I do like the old outlaw country guys: Willie, Waylon, Kris, Cash, Jerry Jeff as well as some of the new country that comes out of Austin. It’s simple, nonpretentious music with a kind of hard-edged honesty and dark sense of humor that lends it a quality similar to old school punk or gangsta rap.
This all surfaces because of two events. Last week I saw Walk the Line, which put me on a Johnny Cash thing, and tonight I’m going to go see Willie at the Backyard. This will be the second time I’ve seen him play. The first was one of those God-I-love-Austin kind of days.
Back in the early ’90s, word got out that Willie was going to play a free show on the south steps of the capitol building. It was a Sunday afternoon, I think, and I decided to check him out. I rode my bike down to the capitol and waited with the small crowd. Finally, Willie came out and stood in front of the single microphone. He had no band; it was just him and Trigger, all beat up and full of holes.
He played a solo acoustic set that included many of his most famous tunes. I remember the weather was beautiful, the crowd was happy, and Willie seemed so pleased to just be making music for a small group of fans in his home city. Afterwards, he stayed up on stage while people passed him boots, belts, LPs, guitars, and posters to sign. He joked with the audience and didn’t leave until he’d signed everything that anybody wanted signed.
I’ve always associated Willie with Austin and as much as I love this town, it’s surprising that I’ve never made it to a real Willie show so I’m looking forward to tonight. Despite the forecast for rain, I’ll be there. After all, what would Willie do?