Willie Nelson’s weird America

by Jordan Green

The first thing that strikes you about Willie is the fluttering hand wave.

The slow-moving outlaw doesn’t have to play a note to put his fans in a state of ecstasy. He ambles out with his band at First Horizon Park on June 11, stands before the crowd and lets them take him in. He faces right field and raises both arms, prompting wild cheers, then repeats the gesture for the audience on the left.

Willie has a rare small ‘D’ democratic streak about him; he doesn’t bask in the adulation of his audience but instead savors the moment with them.

Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, who headlines the show, have been marketed for this ballpark tour as two American icons. And yes, the word ‘icon’ is repeated involuntarily by those who witness the spectacle of the two American bards.

For Willie, the label is particularly apt.

As he and his band run through a string of classics ‘— ‘“Whiskey River,’” ‘“Still Is Still Moving to Me’” and ‘“Pancho and Lefty,’” to name a few ‘— he frequently takes his hands away from that worn acoustic guitar, flutters the hand in a kind, grandfatherly way or points to the sky like a Texan Moses. He has a preternatural ability to smile, nod or wink at virtually everybody within 25 feet of the stage, as if suddenly recognizing them and recalling with humor some memory of an inadvisable alcoholic tear with one of the boys or maybe some stolen romantic moment with this or that lady.

As Elvis did with his scarves, so Willie does with his hats, enacting a ritual of generosity by dispensing them to the audience. He appears onstage wearing a black cowboy hat encircled with a band of small American flags, and soon sends it twirling into the audience. The black hat is followed by a succession of headgear, all eventually surrendered: a red bandanna, a nondescript baseball cap and a too-small straw hat.

A Willie Nelson concert is a quintessential American experience, particularly in a mid-sized city ballpark.

Witness the carnival barker announcer ‘— ‘“It’s Saturday night and you’ve got the hottest show in town!’… See Willie Nelson this fall starring as ‘Uncle Jesse’ with Jessica Simpson as ‘Daisy Duke’ in the movie adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard. Brothers and sisters, put your hands together for’…’”

Marvel at the son, Lucas, playing electric guitar, who takes a turn in the spotlight performing a searing rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘“Texas Flood.’” And there’s another son, Michael, playing some kind of weird percussion instrument in the background.

Then there’s Willie’s electric rhythm guitar player, a hard-bitten, longhaired Kentuckian named Jody Payne, who sings Merle Haggard’s parts on ‘“Pancho and Lefty’” pretty much the way Merle did it with that wounded dog warble. He also sings Merle’s ‘“Working Man Blues.’”

And there’s the virtuoso harmonica player Mickey Raphael.

There’s Paul English, Willie’s legendary sidekick, sitting in on the snare drum for a couple songs. A Fort Worth native duded up in black with a trimmed black beard and dark glasses, his presence provides a visual element to the great story of Willie’s song ‘“Me and Paul’”: ‘“Almost busted in Laredo, but for reasons that I’d rather not disclose/ But if you’re stayin’ in a motel there and leave, just don’t leave nothin’ in your clothes.’”

Mainly, there’s Willie’s reedy and gently stoned voice wrapped around the classic ballad, ‘“Always On My Mind,’” as the sweet scent of marijuana wafts up from the audience.

In other words, Willie’s concert is a variety show designed to suit all tastes. The concert evokes both an old-fashioned tent revival and a populist late 19th-century political rally, folding both into a rural vaudeville of the old-time medicine show.

Towards the end of the concert, the audience sings along in a medley that rolls through the Carter Family’s ‘“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’” Hank Sr.’s ‘“I Saw the Light,’” and the rapturous gospel hymn ‘“I’ll Fly Away.’”

There are flags in abundance: the Texas Lone Star hanging as a stage backdrop, small American flags protruding from the amps and at least one rebel flag waving in the audience. A well-tanned older lady strolls through the crowd wearing a large button pinned to her blouse that says ‘“Willie Nelson for President, Paul English, Vice President.’”

People prove their devotion to Willie in weird ways. A woman named Fury who drove up from Salisbury with her brother tells me she knows a woman who had the top of Willie’s face tattooed across her lower abdomen so the singer’s moustache was aligned with the top of her pubic hair.

Dylan’s fans exhibit no less devotion to their man, and their fervor seems to build with his continual refusal to acknowledge any connection with them.

Lately, the man who Allen Ginsberg said will go down as the most remembered poet of the 20th century has been reaching back in his recording sessions beyond both the modern folk and rock genres as an almost mythical stylist of what Greil Marcus calls ‘“the weird America.’”

Yet none of that charm comes through in his performance, which is an unchanging sequence of throaty growls and falsettos in every song. His backing band is competent and tight, rocking in a standard AC/DC kind of throttle, but their front man’s erratic performance leaves them no expressive room.

Dylan hunches over an electric piano like a mortician, the instrument more a prop than anything else because it’s turned down so low in the mix. The famously enigmatic singer’s face betrays nothing about his mood or his feelings for the audience. The fact that Dylan allows no photographs at his concerts only deepens the mystery surrounding him.

‘“Bob is a little more elusive,’” says one of his fans, a young Greensboro carpenter named Davy Wilson. ‘“You’ve got to dig and search for Bob, but it will be well worth your time.’” He swirls and stomps to the music, his shirt drenched in sweat. He says Dylan’s sound is better tonight than the time a year ago when he saw him in a coliseum in Boone. The band has gotten uniforms since then. The biggest improvement is that Dylan is halfway facing the audience this time instead of turned three quarters away. In fact, Davy Wilson is entirely pleased.

At the conclusion, the band files off stage and the lights go up, revealing a garish sea of emptied Bud Light tallboy cans and overturned plastic nacho containers on the quickly emptying outfield of First Horizon Park.

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