Willie Nelson had a better 2016 than you did — here’s why

11:52 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 Lifestyle
Rudy Gonzalez/American-Statesman Staff
Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson embrace after performing together as part of Raitt’s induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in October. RODOLFO GONZALEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Sometimes it seems like Willie Nelson is so ubiquitous that he must have figured out how to be in two places at once. This New Year’s Eve, though, he’ll manage an even neater trick: He’ll be in the same place at two different times, taking part in entirely different shows.

How’s that again, you say? Here’s the deal: As usual, Willie and his Family Band will close out the year with a three-night stand at ACL Live, concluding on New Year’s Eve. But if you’re celebrating at home on Saturday, you can turn on local PBS affiliate KLRU and catch Willie taking part in “Austin City Limits Hall of Fame New Year’s Eve,” an all-star celebration at that very same venue.

We should note that the Hall of Fame show was taped in October, with producers urging the entertainers and audience to act as if they were celebrating New Year’s Eve. But it’s more fun to think of Willie existing simultaneously in parallel universes.

It might be easier for him if he could do that, in fact, given how busy Austin’s No. 1 citizen continues to keep his schedule. At 83, he seems to still run laps around everyone. Willie released two albums this year, at a time when most artists issue records once every two years at best. In addition to the New Year’s shows, he’s continued annual traditions such as his Fourth of July Picnic and Farm Aid. And while he’s often around Austin for other performances or recording sessions, all of America knows that sooner or later, Willie will be On the Road Again to see them.

And so, one more time, we bring you the Year in Willie, an extended look back at 2016 through the red-headed stranger’s eyes.

The other side of midnight on New Year’s Day found Willie ushering in 2016 exactly the same way as the previous four years, onstage at ACL Live. Rising country star Kacey Musgraves, a new pal in 2015, opened each show as Willie expanded the year-end run from two to three nights by popular demand.

At the end of January, Willie dropped in on the set of ABC’s TV series “The Muppets” for a jam with the famed furry fuzzballs that was included in the show’s season finale airing a month later. Willie also had a big-screen cameo early in the year, turning up among an extended list of celebrities in Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander 2.”

When the Library of Congress presented its prestigious Gershwin Prize to Willie in 2015, he announced that he wanted to pay back the honor by recording a tribute to the award’s namesake songwriting brothers George and Ira Gershwin. “Summertime,” released Feb. 26 on Legacy Recordings, in some respects echoed Willie’s multiplatinum “Stardust” standards album of 1978; the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” appears on both records. With longtime Lyle Lovett pianist Matt Rollings as co-producer, Willie reached beyond the foundation of his trusty Trigger acoustic guitar for exquisite arrangements on jazz, blues and pop tunes that included duets with Sheryl Crow and Cyndi Lauper.

February also brought the completion of a huge new Willie mural at East Seventh and Neches streets downtown. It was among several new visages of Willie that have popped up around the city recently, including a “Willie for President” wall on South Congress. American-Statesman photographer Jay Janner documented both newer and older works in a photo essay.

The busiest month for music in Austin often finds Willie on overdrive, too, and this year was no exception. As usual, he kicked off Rodeo Austin’s two-week run at the Travis County Expo Center. The next day, he hit South by Southwest, playing a set in the always-buzzing Spotify House. Willie’s own big SXSW-related event was the Luck Reunion at his own ranch west of town; a sudden rainstorm closed down part of the proceedings, but those who stuck it out were treated to Willie playing an intimate show on a small stage.

Beyond Austin, Willie was heard on the March 4 release of “Full Circle,” his fellow country legend Loretta Lynn’s first new album in a dozen years. The two dueted on the album-closing track “Lay Me Down” and filmed a video together for the song. Willie also turned up this year on the debut album from Hawaiian singer Lily Meola, as well as the latest record by his daughter Amy Nelson’s band Folk Uke. And he’s made a record with his sons Lukas and Micah that’s in the pipeline for a possible 2017 release.

Willie celebrated his 83rd birthday on April 29. In the past, he’s sometimes performed locally on his birthday, but this year he played two shows at New Braunfels’ Whitewater Amphitheatre in mid-April instead. Those were bittersweet appearances, as they were initially supposed to be with Merle Haggard, who died on April 6. “He was my brother,” Willie said in a simple, sweet statement.

Though his pals Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash have long been gone, Willie’s work with them and Kris Kristofferson in country supergroup the Highwaymen got another push when Legacy issued a couple of new historical releases. “The Highwaymen Live: American Outlaws,” a box set featuring three CDs and one DVD, captured them at a 1990 concert in Long Island, N.Y., while the audio-only “The Very Best of the Highwaymen” gathered 16 of the foursome’s top studio recordings.

Independence Day in Texas means Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, and for the second straight year, it was back in the Austin area, presented on two stages at Circuit of the Americas. “Willie sounded as young as he has in years, and he played with a purpose,” American-Statesman Willie expert Dave Thomas wrote of the headliner’s set. “Seeing him backlit in red and pulling every ounce of the blues from ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground’ is as close to time travel as is possible.”

At the end of July, Willie traveled to the states of Washington and Colorado for a pair of concerts celebrating the debut of Willie’s Reserve, his new marijuana brand that went on the shelves in those two weed-legal states.

Bristow, Va., was the site of the 31st Farm Aid concert, with Willie joining event co-founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp plus more recent Farm Aid board addition Dave Matthews in a Sept. 17 benefit concert that also featured Alabama Shakes, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and many others.

But the bigger Willie news in September was his second record of the year. “For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price” paid homage to one of Willie’s closest compadres, with Vince Gill and Nashville ensemble the Time Jumpers providing ace country-jazz-swing support.

As in March, suddenly Willie was everywhere around town. The big gig was the final day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, when it seemed as if the vast majority of the 75,000 attendees at Zilker Park flocked to the Samsung stage to hear Willie and the Family Band make their first ACL Fest appearance in a decade. “The sweet fight in Willie’s voice was unmistakable,” wrote the American-Statesman’s Eric Webb, who was seeing the legend in concert for the first time. “The tumbling twang of his strings, even if I hadn’t heard them from guitar to ear before, lit up deeply felt memories of a Texas life.”

But there was more. A few days before ACL Fest, Willie holed up in his Pedernales Recording Studio with a small crew from the Irish television show “Other Voices,” who later filmed additional artists in town at Arlyn Studios. The Pedernales session was a marvel: Nelson cranked out one classic after another before sitting down with local rising star Shakey Graves for a casual interview.

And then, after ACL Fest, still more. This year’s Austin City Limits Hall of Fame show at ACL Live celebrated the inductions of Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King — all of whom have ties to Willie, and so naturally he was in the house. He serenaded his Highwaymen mate with Kristofferson’s classic “Me and Bobby McGee,” reprised his 1993 duet with Raitt on the late Stephen Bruton’s “Getting Over You,” and delivered his own “Night Life” to cap the segment for King, who’d made the song one of his signatures.

Mild concern arose when Willie missed shows in Midland and Lubbock with an undisclosed illness. But he was back in action quickly, continuing a regional tour that took him to Louisiana and Mississippi. It was the second autumn in a row he had to postpone shows for health reasons: In October 2015, he underwent a stem cell procedure to address lung problems.

The Recording Academy brought good news as “Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin” was nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Pop Vocal Album category. It’s Willie’s first Grammy nomination since his 2010 record “Country Music” received a nod in for Americana Album.

That brings us back to ACL Live, where Willie will saddle up again with the Family Band for shows Dec. 29-31. This year’s special guest is Ryan Bingham, plus his son Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real on Saturday only. In a year as tumultuous as 2016, we’re all lucky to have Willie, who’s still “insisting that the world keep turning our way.”

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