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Another round with Willie Nelson

by Ryan Snyder

BY RYAN SNYDER | ryan@yesweekly.com

There is only a small handful of artists who can get away with playing their own music as both pre-show buffer and walk-up music. One of them is Prince, but you can add Willie Nelson to that club. Tunes from his new album Heroes mingled with some of what he would offer to the packed hillside audience of 1,500-plus — and Owen Wilson taking a break from filming You Are Here — at the Jomeokee Park Amphitheatre on Saturday, as the living legend offered up a marathon set of standards and his own sanctified classics.

Willie’s story hasn’t changed much of late; as long as Trigger, his totemic Martin model N-20 nylon-stringed guitar, makes the show, so will the man who has ridden it for the past 40-plus years. Nelson has long ruminated that he would close the book on his performing days once his beloved guitar becomes unplayable, and while his golden voice can still sing babies to sleep, the same can’t be said for Trigger’s tone.

One look at the gaping hole in the soundboard just below the sweet spot on the strings might lead one to believe that that day when Nelson will hang his hat up might come sooner rather than later. It’s no coincidence that the hole has appeared over the decades right where a pick guard would be on most guitars, but classical guitars are designed for fingerstyle. True to Nelson’s outlaw nature, his flat-picking has chipped away at Trigger over time.

At 79, Nelson’s playing is as fluid and precise as ever, but the best sound he can coax from Trigger remains clunky and muted. Those shortcomings were greatly obscured the last time Nelson came through the Triad as Asleep At the Wheel, arguably the finest band in all of country/western, backed him up. This time, however, every excruciating note was perceptible against the barebones arrangement of harmonica, piano, drums and upright bass (with Dan “Bee” Spears’ absence deeply felt).

It hurts a little at first to hear something to which Nelson has placed his faith in for so long start to fail him, but after a while it becomes clear how its damaged tone draws the fragile essence out of ballads like “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground” or “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain.” Nelson shuns the dull glow of the Nashville establishment as he rarely plays a song the same way twice, interjecting a string of chords where a verse should be or shifting tempos mid-song, all while frustrating the hell out of the most inebriated in the crowd who slurred away the words to “Jambalaya On the Bayou” a half step ahead of Nelson.

His interpretations are always adventurous, but the set list itself is guaranteed to be anything but. There’s no need to wager a guess at what he opened the 90-minute set with; “Whiskey River” has played that role for years now. His post-Toby Keith collaboration shows always include “Beer for My Horses” as a gesture to those still holding onto the distorted belief that Nelson is simply a country artist. A distinctly jazzy reading of “Georgia On a Fast Train,” along with a lounge-inspired take on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” suggested that “songwriter,” or perhaps “badass” is a more appropriate genre for Nelson.

These days with Willie, you pretty much know what you’re going to get; it’s how you’re getting it that’s the surprise, and hopefully Nelson’s happy trails with his trusty Trigger are far from over.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

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