The Year in Willie, from the Picnic to a Reserve to the Gershwin Prize


If it’s New Year’s Eve, this must be Willie. Austin’s most famous musician is closing out 2015 the same way he’s finished the past four years — bringing Willie Nelson & Family to the stage of ACL Live for a three-night run.

The previous routine of a two-night stand apparently wasn’t enough to meet demand, as both shows sold out in 2014. So this time it’s a three-night affair, with shows at 7:30 p.m. the first two days and 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. As of late last week, a few single-seat tickets remained, though they may be gone by show time.

Nelson, who turned 82 in April, also upped the ante in terms of support acts for this year’s shows, welcoming rising country star Kacey Musgraves to the lineup. Willie’s son Lukas Nelson and his group Promise of the Real open each night.

Last year, we looked back at Nelson’s especially eventful 2014 in advance of the year-end concerts. As it turned out, 2015 was similarly momentous for the red-headed stranger. So, once again, we bring you what may become an annual tradition: the Year in Willie.

Jan. 1: When the clock struck midnight at ACL Live and December turned to January, Father Time and Baby New Year did their traditional theatrical exit and entrance as Nelson and his family band took the stage. Willie’s braids may be near waist-length, but he had a worthy rival in the long beard of his guest guitar player for the night: ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

February: Though Nelson’s chart-topping 2014 album “Band of Brothers” was snubbed for Grammy nominations, Willie was still on hand for the ceremonial week in Hollywood. He played both the pre-festivities Legacy Concert and the post-awards all-star salute to Stevie Wonder, the latter of which aired on CBS.

Also in February, Rolling Stone’s website premiered director David Chamberlin’s documentary short about Trigger, the Martin acoustic guitar Nelson has been playing since 1969. Woody Harrelson narrated the fascinating historical piece, which included interviews with master luthier Mark Erlewine and Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski, as well as fellow travelers Mickey Raphael and Jerry Jeff Walker.

“I figure we’ll give out about the same time,” Nelson said of his iconic, well-worn six-string. “Probably Trigger will outlast me, I think. We’re both pretty old, got a few scars here and there, but we still manage to make a sound every now and then.” Indeed.

March: Nelson made two of his annual high-profile local appearances, opening Rodeo Austin’s two-week run on March 14 and hosting the Heartbreaker Banquet on his ranch in Luck on March 19 in the middle of South by Southwest — during which he also appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show at the Long Center.

A more intriguing addition to his itinerary, though, was co-starring with British actress Charlotte Rampling in Lian Lunson’s “Waiting for the Miracle to Come,” with Wim Wenders and Bono aboard as executive producers. No release date has been announced yet for the film, which was shot mostly in Luck.

April: With the states of Washington and Colorado having legalized marijuana recently, the time seemed ripe for the unveiling of Willie’s Reserve, Nelson’s own line of commercially available cannabis. In the official announcement, the brand was called “an extension of Willie’s passion and appreciation for the many varieties and range of the plant’s qualities.”

May: Though a Nelson autobiography (written with Bud Shrake) had been published in 2000, there was plenty to update for “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” which hit shelves May 5 via Little, Brown. With help from author David Ritz, the 400-page memoir followed Willie’s 2012 road-stories book “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Speaking of which…

June: “It’s All Going to Pot” was the first single off “Django & Jimmie,” a collaboration between Nelson and Merle Haggard that topped Billboard’s country albums chart — and hit No. 7 on the pop chart — upon its release in early June. Alongside playful numbers such as that doobie-entendre and “The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” the record also featured the poignant new ballad “Unfair Weather Friend” and an easygoing take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

July: Nelson joined Haggard in Austin for the first Fourth of July Picnic to be held here since 2010. Circuit of the Americas turned out to be mostly a fine new home for the 13-hour event, which featured appearances on two stages from longtime Nelson compadres such as Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell and Billy Joe Shaver, as well as rising stars such as Musgraves, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton.

Musgraves in particular seemed to be forming a bond with Nelson. While she was here, she also corralled him into a video shoot at an east side bar, the White Horse, for her song “Are You Sure” that surfaced a few weeks later. She also stuck around to take part in a tribute to Waylon Jennings held at ACL Live two days after the picnic that found Nelson joined by more luminaries, including Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Bobby Bare.

The dust had no sooner settled on the extended Picnic weekend than the Library of Congress got in on the act, naming Nelson the recipient of its seventh annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, a lifetime achievement award. In its announcement, the Library called Nelson “a guitar virtuoso with a unique voice” and “an artist whose work continues to inspire new musicians of diverse genres.”

September: Farm Aid celebrated its 30th anniversary with a Sept. 19 concert in Chicago that featured Nelson and co-founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp, plus their fellow board member Dave Matthews and an extended cast including Mavis Staples, Imagine Dragons, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jamey Johnson.

October: Nelson was forced to cancel or postpone several dates on a tour with Haggard for what was initially an undisclosed medical problem. A few weeks later, having returned to the road, he revealed that he’d undergone a stem cell operation to address problems he’d been having with his lungs.

“Over the years, I’ve smoked a lot of cigarettes, and I’ve had emphysema and pneumonia four or five times, so my lungs were really screwed up,” Nelson told the Washington Post. “I had heard that this stem cell operation would be good for them. So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to try it out.’”

November: Though the award was announced in July, the official ceremony for the Gershwin Prize didn’t take place until the week before Thanksgiving. Accepting the honor at the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, Nelson noted that he had “been a fan of Ira and George Gershwins’ music since I was a little guy” and revealed he’d recorded an album of Gershwin songs that he plans to release under the title “Summertime.” (Next summer, perhaps?)

Another all-star cast gathered for a Nelson tribute concert at DAR Constitution Hall that will air Jan. 15 on PBS stations. It includes performances by Paul Simon (the first Gershwin Prize recipient in 2007), Rosanne Cash, Leon Bridges, Raul Malo and more.

December: It was Nelson’s turn to help honor one of his fellow music legends as more than a dozen performers gathered Dec. 5 at New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate what would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday (which was actually in October). The results aired two weeks later in a prime-time special on AMC, with Nelson singing Lennon’s signature tune “Imagine” as part of a lineup that included Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Aloe Blacc, Peter Frampton, Tom Morello, the Roots, Juanes, Steven Tyler and fellow Austin act Spoon.

Dec. 29-31: It’s a full circle once again, as Nelson takes the stage at ACL Live with his sister Bobbie and the rest of the family band. As the calendar sheds another year, they’re still “insisting that the world keep turning our way.” Austin couldn’t agree more.



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