Mothers don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Willie singing this song during the show pointed out to me what a classic song it is. And several other songs he sang were that kind of classic, a country music standard for all time. I've never been a Willie Nelson fan until this show. NPR interviewed him for his 80th birthday, the beginning of my appreciation of Willie Nelson. He sounded conscious when he talked, a man in touch with himself, in touch with his life, a true human being, not somebody talking pop flash and glitter nonsense. I often thought of Willard Gayheart, now 81, playing guitar probably the best he's ever played and singing the best ever. There is something about the relaxed singing of old men that has an ancient quality, like all the way back to Neolithic. I remember hearing old Regular Baptist preachers singing solo or duo, sounding like American Indians sitting around a drum singing, or some ancient singing from Greece or Turkey. Neither Willard nor Willie have that old-man vibration in their voices, but they have the relaxed ease of someone 80 singing who has sung on stage throughout his adult life. Like Willard, Willie plays his guitar and sings his songs, no cheap thrills, just delivery of the songs they know so well the songs have become part of who they are.
After four years of going to Woodlawn to hear Willard, Scott Freeman and guest musicians in a very small venue of an audience of twenty or less, I'm appreciating musicianship more than ever before. I have a lot of experience listening to and seeing mountain musicians play acoustic. Willie fell into the groove of what we appreciate in the mountains, a-pickin and a-grinnin. Willie's acoustic was definitely plugged IN. He played it like an electric guitar, which it was. He assaulted his acoustic the way a rocker would assault his electric. Willie didn't play melody so much as notes and chords to accompany the melody that enhance it. His rough guitar banging balanced his smooth singing. Musically, it was Willie's show. The people in his band were his accompanists; they provided the flow his picking rode like a surfboard. Respect for Willie Nelson began to soar very soon after the music started. I was thinking what a great show it would be at Woodlawn, Willie picking with Willard (rhythm guitar), Scott Freeman (mandolin and fiddle), Steve Lewis (bluegrass banjo) and Josh Scott (bass). They would blow the roof off the place. Every one of them is up to what it takes to make music with someone as experienced with really good musicians as Willie. I like his guitar playing. It gives his music just the right edge. In a whole different way, he approaches the music something like Keith Richards does, dancing around the melody, playing through it, keeping its energy rolling, pushing it.
At times I felt like Willie's rapport with the audience was intimately as familiar as at Woodlawn with an audience of twenty. For him to play at Woodlawn, it would have to be unannounced without a leak. His friendliness with the audience was the same as at a very small place. I recalled a Doc Watson show where I felt like Doc set a circle of love flowing between himself and the audience. He sang with a love for his audience and the audience listened with love for him. It was a steady flow of love in a circle between performer and audience with Willie Nelson, too. By now, his fans are largely grown up, no longer star-struck like they used to be, familiar with Willie's music and his persona to where he's part of their lives all the way along. It seemed like everybody but me knew the words to all the songs. The songs had a living presence about them. His song with the refrain, You were always on my mind, hit me in the heart and set tracks of tears down my cheeks. My ears have heard the song a hundred times, but this was the first time I heard it. I listened to his songs with appreciation for him as songwriter. They are not only significant songs in country music, in American music, they are important songs. Important like Roy Acuff's Wabash Cannonball, like Hank Williams' Mama Tried, like Ralph Stanley's Man of Constant Sorrow. It didn't feel like a big deal, but I knew before the show was over that I was in the presence of the real deal, real music, a truly significant voice in his time, by voice I include his songwriting. He's a pop star whose persona is himself. Doc Watson's persona was himself. Ralph Stanley's persona is himself. It seems like Willie would say of his own talent the same as Ralph Stanley said of his, it's a gift.
This was my Friday the Thirteenth good luck day. I lost the car keys just before it was time to leave. I was picking up some trash from inside the car to carry to the house. My sweatpants had no pockets, the tshirt had no pockets. I carried the keys in with the trash. I put trash in two different trash cans. Went through both of them and can't find the keys. Searched everyplace in the house I had tread since returning from the car. All I did was change clothes. After fifteen minutes of searching, I decided to use the spare keys I keep for such moments. Set the GPS in the car for the Roanoke Civic Center and went to Kathryn's place to pick her up. It involved several turns and a few miles off the track the GPS was on. Driving back to the specified route, we were laughing at the poor thing having a nervous breakdown "recalculating." Her daughter Elizabeth was there to take care of mama and give Kathryn a break. This was my purpose for the day, a gift to Kathryn like it's her special day. She put on facebook a few weeks ago a note that she hopes somebody will invite her to the Willie Nelson concert. I saw her note in my newborn appreciation for Willie Nelson as musician, hadn't seen Kathryn in awhile, she hadn't been out of the house in awhile, I have some understanding of what she is going through taking care of her mother whose mind is drifting away. I wanted to do something for her. Automatically, I knew this was it, replied, I volunteer. I wanted Kathryn to have a happy day without flaw, conscious, even, of not frightening her with my driving.
We talked a steady streak back and forth like playing catch, catching up on passage of time, becoming the older generation, people with white hair, she in her old-hippie bib "overhauls" and straw hat, me in my Farm Bureau ballcap carrying a hospital cane. I knew we were in for a lot of walking from wherever I found a place to park the car, to the auditorium, to our seats. Steps. My left leg is a bit tender at the hip and I had a pretty good idea I'd be limping. The cane made a difference. It was even a commercial for using a cane. I can feel by empathy the ease a cane gave the pain in Jr Maxwell's knee, whose cane I was using. Getting out of the car to walk to the auditorium, I said, Let's count the senior privileges that come to us from using the cane. I'm getting ahead of myself. Back on the road again. I thought Floyd, Viginia, would be a good place to stop for dinner. I went to a Floyd website and found some restaurant possibilities. We picked the first one we found. It was a somewhat high-end middle class restaurant in the country, what I was looking for. Had art and photography by regional artists, nice tables. It was the worst meal I have ever paid for. Everything tasted exactly the same, soggy cardboard with a tinny edge like licking aluminum foil. I didn't say anything. My first question: am I being poisoned? That really was my first thought after first bite. Next thought, if it were poison, it would not be so obvious. I cannot allow myself to be one of the people that send food back, make a big deal of how sorry it was. A few days ago at the coffee shop, in conversation with Becca, I said, I don't want to make a fuss. She said, TJ, nobody will ever accuse you of making a fuss. Thinking I would have done better, all the way around, eating a McWrap from McDonalds drive-thru, I remembered Becca and laughed at myself. I didn't even tell Kathryn it was the worst meal of my life (no exaggeration). She didn't say anything about hers either, and I didn't ask.
We returned to the car, happy to be on the road again to the Willie Nelson show. I turned the car on, the clock on the radio came on. It was 7:30. The show started at 7:30. We were an hour from Roanoke, not from the Roanoke city limit, but from downtown Roanoke obeying speed limits. We both felt a rush of alarm. It came to me right away that every time something like this happened in the past, like hurrying to meet somebody for lunch and have to wait for a road work crew, it always worked out and I made it on time. I said to Kathryn, An opening band will play for an hour, we'll take our seats on time for Willie to start. She agreed that's likely to be the case. By a happy twist of fate, we found a parking spot as soon as I turned into the parking lot. Approaching the auditorium we saw a lot of people milling about. We went in and it was intermission between first band and Willie. We found our seats, spoke with the people around us, found out the first band was "pretty good," meaning we missed nothing, the lights went down and Willie came on. For both Kathryn and me, the feeling seeing Willie Nelson was on the order of seeing Doc Watson, the quiet, country charisma of a performer whose persona is who he is. He just happens to be able to make music real good. Before the show was over, I had a feeling for Willie's heart he puts into his songs.
At the end, he shook hands with everyone from the front rows, walking the edge of the stage slowly from his left to right, shaking hands, signed autographs with a throng of the desperate holding up items for him to scrawl his name on. I thought, it's no wonder Willie's fans love him so much, he loved them first. He's a little bit country. He's a little bit soul. He's an American voice, in his own right, as much as Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz, Theodore Roethke. A different art form, different fans, while American as red, white and blue. Even more. They're coming from the soul of America as it is now. Kathryn had gone into the lobby to buy a tshirt during the show. A little bit later I did too. When the show was over, we laughed that we'd bought the same tshirt. Walking to the car, we counted our senior privileges. I found two overt ones and several subtle ones. Going in the big glass door, a great big black man in a suit with a beautiful dark chocolate round face was taking tickets. He held the glass door open for me. He patted my shoulder when I thanked him. During the show, a man and his wife on our row had to leave. We all had to stand up so they could go by. He saw my cane and patted me on the shoulder, a gesture of thanks for standing. A couple of women in their fifties were working the tshirt tables. They gave me attention like I've never received without a cane. It seemed like the friendly quotient of everyone around me went way up. I received friendly looks everywhere. The cane was signaling I am not a threat. A friendly. Cease fire.
all photos by tj worthington