Willie Nelson’s road leads him to the Triad
The story goes that as long as Trigger makes the show, so will the man who has ridden it for the past 40 years. Of course, Trigger is a famed Martin model N-20 nylon-stringed guitar that bears the signatures of musicians, athletes and even a few lawyers, while the man is one of the last great American outlaws and a living legend, Willie Nelson. Nelson has long ruminated that he would close the book on his performing days once his beloved guitar becomes unplayable.
For now, Trigger hasn’t slowed down, so neither has Willie, and both put on a vintage performance alongside arguably the best group of musicians in all of country/western music, Asleep at the Wheel, at the War Memorial Auditorium on Saturday. 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 will 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. But iconoclasts like Nelson are rule-breakers by definition and thus, his flat-picking has chipped away at Trigger over time while also creating one of the most recognizable sounds in all of music. Whether he’s playing alongside Wynton Marsalis or Merle Haggard, his blend of Tejano and Western R&B stands out no matter the accompaniment. Even when he’s cast alongside a band as big as Texas itself like Asleep at the Wheel, Nelson’s impression is pronounced. This particular tour presents the two forces in pure harmony as Willie and the Wheel, backing an album full of antediluvian swingers dusted off and instilled with Nelson’s imprint and the Wheel’s robust musicianship. The stage d’cor itself was perfectly matched to the throwback sound, with rustic signs for HP Hood & Sons Milk Co. and five-cent Coca Colas. The show opened with the Ray Benson-led Wheel warming up with crowd with their own mini-set of hearty country standards, including Bob Wills’ “Miles and Miles of Texas.” That surely wouldn’t be the last the crowd heard of Western swing pioneer Wills, around whose music Asleep at the Wheel is built. The Wheel pumped out their inimitable blend of raucous Dixieland jazz and lively Texas folk on classics like “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” and “I’m An Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande),” where guitarist Elizabeth McQueen’s sweet vocals took over. The man himself eased onto stage after about 30 minutes to wild applause from the packed crowd with his trusty Trigger slung over his shoulder. There’s no need to venture a guess at what he opened the combined set with; “Whiskey River” has played that role for years now. He followed that with the sweetly sentimental “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy,” the song that Patsy Cline made famous for him in 1962. He segued into the bluesy “Night Life,” one of the first hits he ever penned and allegedly the mostcovered country song of all time (even Charles Manson recorded a version). Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” led Willie and the Wheel into their collaborative material, starting off with the brassy “Sweet Jennie Lee” and the timeless “Hesitation Blues.” The great Woody Herman’s swing classic, “Fan It,” drew whistles from much of the crowd with its overt sexual innuendo. “Met myself a good girl, her name was Sue/ Taught me how to love her and just what to do/You gotta fan it, baby and cool it ‘til the cows come home,” seemed to make the conservative audience, whose median age was just north of 40, collectively blush. Considering the age of the audience, it was odd to see such a turnout for what was essentially a jam band. Most of the traditional collaborations featured a minimum of three solos, whether they came from violinists Jason Roberts and 14-year old prodigy Ruby Jane Smith, pianist John Whitby or steel player Eddie Rivers. Throw in a perpetually stoned front man in Nelson, and you have to wonder why there weren’t more dreadlocks and hemp clothing in the crowd. Instead, curmudgeons with their rears nailed to the seats seemed to throw a wet blanket on anyone with an inclination to get up and groove to the boisterous tunes that the 12-member band was throwing out. The highlight of the show arguably came with Nelson’s cover of the late, great Townes van Zandt classic “Pancho and Lefty,” a song that Nelson recorded alongside Haggard in 1983. Nelson’s melancholic tone tugged on the audience’s heartstrings, while Benson’s baritone drove the songs message of dishonor among thieves straight home in the last passage. How could he possibly follow up such a powerful number? Only with his enduring “Always on My Mind,” of course. The final act of the 26-song set brought favorites like “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and everyone’s favorite “On the Road Again,” where Nelson threw his black cowboy hat to some lucky SOB who popped up like a Mexican jumping bean to snag the priceless item. Nelson was left with his red bandana as the only allusion to his nickname the “Red-headed Stranger.” After Nelson closed it out with “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” he slinked off stage to a roaring ovation. The Wheel played the crowd out with “The Roy Rogers Show” theme “Happy Trails to You,” though we’ll only see him riding his horse Trigger off into the sunset in the movies. With his golden voice that could sing babies to sleep, hopefully Nelson’s happy trails with his trusty Trigger are far from over.