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Blackstock: The Year in Willie

Two albums, a Rolling Stone cover and a presidential duet are among Willie’s 2014 highlights

It’s quickly becoming a treasured Austin tradition: Since opening its doors in 2011, ACL Live has closed out every year by having Willie Nelson & Family play on Dec. 30 and 31. Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic may have the long-term edge in legend and lore, but where the picnic’s site seems always to be moving, these end-of-year shows are rooted right in the center of Austin — on Willie Nelson Boulevard, even.

Both Tuesday’s show (with opener Sturgill Simpson) and the New Year’s Eve bash (with Vintage Trouble) are sold out, though die-hards willing to pay a premium probably can find tickets via Stubhub. Willie would be a big draw in his hometown on any given night, but it’s especially worth celebrating the remarkable year he has had.

What follows is a look back at Willie’s 2014 since he kicked things off with a New Year’s cheer at ACL Live.

March: Willie makes his annual headlining appearance at Rodeo Austin on March 9. It’s no big surprise to find his son Lukas Nelson joining him for the occasion, but the other guest guitarist turns a few heads: actor Johnny Depp.

On March 13, Willie hosts his annual “Heartbreaker Banquet” at his ranch in Spicewood during South by Southwest, but it’s not his highest-profile event of the week. On March 15, he plays the final night of Apple’s first-ever U.S. installment of its iTunes Festival, capping a weeklong series of shows at ACL Live that also feature Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, Kendrick Lamar, Soundgarden and Pitbull.

April: When “Austin City Limits” decides to mark its 40th year by creating an ACL Hall of Fame, Willie is the no-brainer choice as the first one in. A ceremony at the show’s original Studio 6A home on April 25 finds Nelson joined by Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett for a memorable hourlong set, then jamming with Buddy Guy and others during a set honoring fellow inaugural inductees Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. Highlights air on PBS as part of an “Austin City Limits” prime-time special in October.

On April 28, Master Martial Arts in Westlake Hills presents Willie with a fifth degree black belt in Gong Kwon Yu Sul. The next night, he celebrates his 81st birthday by taking the stage with his Family band at the Backyard.

May: The Briscoe Center for American History announces a major donation of memorabilia from Willie, with artifacts including letters, gold records, awards, photographs, song lyrics and more. The new Willie Nelson Collection will allow scholars “access to the inner workings of his creativity,” says University of Texas President Bill Powers. In November, items from the collection go on display in a new permanent Willie exhibit at the north end of Royal-Memorial Stadium.

June: Willie makes the first of two appearances during David Letterman’s final year of CBS late-night shows on June 9. He plays the title track to his new disc “Band of Brothers,” which comes out June 17 and is Willie’s first album of primarily new original songs in nearly 20 years. “Band of Brothers” enters the Billboard charts at No. 5 overall and No. 1 country; it’s Willie’s first country chart-topper since 1986 and his highest spot on the pop charts since 1982.

July: Willie keeps the four-decades-long tradition of his July Fourth picnic rolling with a marathon show in Fort Worth that features a dozen guests ranging from old favorites (Charlie Pride, Ray Wylie Hubbard) to newer faces (Ryan Bingham, Amber Digby). Generations of Nelsons also share the bill, with Micah Nelson’s band Insects vs. Robots in an afternoon slot along with Folk Uke, the duo of Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter).

August: Willie appears on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time since July 1978. “At Home With America’s Most Beloved Outlaw” reads the cover tag for the extensive story by associate editor Patrick Doyle. Asked about his occasional run-ins with the law over marijuana, Nelson replied, “They mostly want autographs now. They don’t really bother me anymore for the weed, because you can bust me now and I’ll pay my fine or go to jail, get out and burn one on the way home.”

September: Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert Willie has co-hosted with Neil Young and John Mellencamp since the mid-1980s, is held in Raleigh, N.C., for the first time on Sept. 13. Other performers include Dave Matthews, Jack White, the Preservation Hall Band, Jamey Johnson, Carlene Carter and two bands featuring Willie’s offspring: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and Insects vs. Robots.

November: It’s hardly Willie’s first visit to the White House, but a Nov. 6 taping of the PBS special “A Salute to the Troops: In Performance at the White House” (which airs the following night) features his first-ever presidential duet when Barack Obama joins him in singing “On The Road Again.” Back home a couple days later, Willie sets up shop at his nephew Freddy Fletcher’s Arlyn Studios for pilot-episode tapings of the new TV show “Inside Arlyn,” teaming with Merle Haggard on Nov. 9 and Gary Clark Jr. on Nov. 12.

December: Willie sneaks another album onto the shelves in time for Christmas with “December Day,” a magnificent collection of standards and deeper catalog cuts that prominently features his sister Bobbie Nelson’s piano playing. Released under the name Willie Nelson & Sister Bobbie and subtitled “Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1,” it promises an ongoing series of similar archive-oriented releases.

A second Letterman appearance on Dec. 17 finds Willie dueting with longtime friend Billy Joe Shaver on Shaver’s song “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” but it turns out to be the precursor for Willie’s participation in one of the major pop-culture moments of the year. Stephen Colbert’s final episode of “The Colbert Report” airs Dec. 18 with a grand finale sing-along of “We’ll Meet Again” – and, fittingly, there’s Willie, joyously joining in harmony with a cast of dozens ranging from Patrick Stewart to Katie Couric to Peter Frampton to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Henry Kissinger.

“We’ll Meet Again,” indeed – at ACL Live, where the Willie Nelson statue presides over Willie Nelson Boulevard, ringing in 2015 just as 2014 arrived. Willie and the Family band will be on stage, “insisting that the world keep turning our way.”

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