- By Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
When I moved back to Austin four years ago this week after two decades away, a joyous recent development awaited me: Willie Nelson, on the other side of 80, was in the midst of one of the most amazing late-career resurgences American popular music has ever seen.
Within six months of my return, Willie had his first No. 1 country album in almost 30 years (2014’s “Band of Brothers”). Since then, he’s released six more albums, two of them chart-toppers, and won his eighth career Grammy Award. Arguably the best song on his latest solo album is the nostalgic lament “Old Timer” — but Willie’s track record as an octogenarian runs laps around most artists less than half his age.
And so, as he gears up for another year-end three-night stand at ACL Live, we celebrate Austin’s public citizen No. 1 with our annual look back at the Year in Willie.
The first pot joke hits right out of the gate. Three days into 2017, Willie posts a photo on Facebook of a holiday gift he received from a rapper pal. “Thank you Snoop Dogg for the Christmas sweater” is the message beneath a photo of Willie decked out in a red long-sleeved pullover adorned with a green marijuana leaf and the words “smoke weed every day.”
A couple of weeks later, Willie heads overseas to be a part of “Lost in London,” the unusual directorial debut of his friend Woody Harrelson. Filmed live on a single camera and screened directly into select theaters on Jan. 19, the movie features Nelson and Owen Wilson playing themselves as supporting actors in a story that revolves around a real-life night in Harrelson’s past.
On Feb. 12, Willie gets his first Grammy in a decade for his 2016 album “Summertime.” A collection of George & Ira Gershwin standards that Willie recorded after receiving the prestigious Gershwin Prize from the Library of Congress in 2015, “Summertime” is voted best traditional pop vocal album.
Amid the celebration, there’s quite a bit of concern for Willie’s health. A bad cold that he picked up in London results in a string of canceled shows in western states in late January and early February. But Willie seems fully recovered when he plays the San Antonio Rodeo on Feb. 16, confidently regaling a sold-out crowd at the AT&T Center with his new song that declares, “I woke up still not dead again today.”
Willie follows the San Antonio show with another rodeo gig in Houston, but he skips Rodeo Austin for the first time in several years. He’s still right in the thick of things during South by Southwest, though. On March 15, he stops by GSD&M’s backyard for a special set to help his friend Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel celebrate his 66th birthday. And two days later, he hosts the annual Luck Reunion out at his ranch in Spicewood, welcoming guests such as Margo Price, Billy Joe Shaver and Shovels & Rope before closing the show with his own set.
Willie celebrates his birthday weekend (his 84th) at the end of the month with the release of “God’s Problem Child,” a remarkable new album that features seven songs co-written with producer Buddy Cannon plus a well-chosen half-dozen tunes by other writers. The humorous “Still Not Dead” is the obvious first single, but Willie digs deeper on cuts such as “It Gets Easier,” the Jamey Johnson/Tony Joe White title track and Gary Nicholson’s poignant Merle Haggard tribute “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” Fans snap it up: The album hits No. 1 on the Billboard country charts in its first week of release.
In a Rolling Stone interview published May 17, Nelson talks about the new record but also gets into politics a little bit with writer Patrick Doyle. Asked about Attorney General Jeff Sessions comparing marijuana to heroin, Willie says, “I’d like to suggest to Jeff to try it and then let me know later if he thinks he’s still telling the truth!”
Ultimately, Willie sticks with what matters most to him in the interview. “I think you can do more with music than you can with arguments and politics,” he says. “I think a song will reach more people than any other thing.”
Two remnants from Willie and Merle Haggard’s chart-topping 2015 album “Django & Jimmie” finally see the light of day via TV specials. “The American Epic Sessions” on PBS shows Nelson and Haggard singing “The Only Man Wilder Than Me” in a studio equipped with vintage early-20th-century recording gear. Later in the month, cable networks AXS in the U.S. and RTE in Ireland debut “Willie & Merle: Up Close & Personal Inside Arlyn Studios,” filmed in 2014 when the two legends were making their album at the South Austin recording studio.
In Willie’s world, July is all about the picnic. Independence Day brings Willie’s storied holiday bash back to Circuit of the Americas for the third straight year. Sheryl Crow, Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price help give the top end of the lineup a higher-than-usual ratio of female performers, with the usual three-named suspects such as Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard and David Allan Coe livening up the afternoon.
A new wrinkle this year: Nelson essentially takes the picnic model on the road. A special series of shows dubbed the “Outlaw Music Festival,” with Willie starring alongside heavy-hitters including Bob Dylan and Jason Isbell, visits various cities across the country in July, August and September.
Willie’s 28-year-old son, Lukas, releases a self-titled album with his band Promise of the Real that gains wide acclaim and eventually tops the Americana radio chart. Lukas and his younger brother, Micah, have spent much of the past two years touring and recording with Neil Young, but the new record and a subsequent Austin City Limits Music Festival performance suggest Lukas is coming into his own.
When relief efforts hit high gear in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, naturally Willie’s name is at the top of the list for a major Austin benefit show. The Erwin Center concert, planned and pulled off in about two weeks, features an incredible A-list of performers including Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor leading up to the grand finale with Willie, who also appears early in the show for memorable duets with Leon Bridges and Jimmie Vaughan.
The Harvey fundraiser comes on the heels of the 32nd annual Farm Aid. Willie and co-founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp are joined by Dave Matthews, the Avett Brothers, Jack Johnson and many more for the benefit concert in the Pittsburgh suburb of Burgettstown. The same weekend also brings the death of Willie’s longtime roadie Ben Dorcy, 92. A post on Willie’s Facebook page reads, “Thank you Ben for years of hard work and sound advice. We love you.”
The second volume of the “Willie’s Stash” series, which began in 2014 with a record featuring Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson, continues in the family vein. “Willie Nelson and the Boys,” mostly recorded years ago during sessions for the 2012 “Heroes” album, features sons Lucas and Micah harmonizing with their dad on a set of classic country tunes. Elsewhere, Willie also turns up as a duet partner on the song “Learning to Lose” from Margo Price’s acclaimed sophomore album, “All American Made.”
It’s a bittersweet recognition from the Country Music Association as Willie and the late Glen Campbell win “Musical Event of the Year” at the CMA Awards on Nov. 8. Campbell died in August, but a few years earlier, he and Willie had recorded Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It appeared on “Adios,” which came out in June and was Campbell’s final album.
When the Grammys announce their nominations on Nov. 28, Willie’s brilliant “God’s Problem Child” sadly isn’t included. But he’s still lurking around the edges: Alison Krauss gets a nod in the American Roots Performance category for her version of Willie’s “I Never Cared for You,” written in the 1960s.
We’ll call this a sneak leak: In Friday’s American-Statesman, we’ll reveal the results of our first-ever Austin360 Awards, honoring top Austin music in 2017 as determined by a broad panel of local experts. Let’s just say our winner for Song of the Year is, thankfully, still not dead.
Indeed, you can catch him live this weekend at ACL Live, with his Family band behind him and his sons joining in as well. Lukas and Micah Nelson will open all three nights with their respective bands, Promise of the Real and Particle Kid. (Sunday’s finale also features Atlanta band Blackberry Smoke.) At press time, Sunday’s show was sold out, but a few scattered tickets remained for the Friday and Saturday concerts.
We’d bet on Lukas and Micah joining their dad during his set as well, given the album they released together this fall. Indeed, part of what has made 2017 notable for Willie is what appears to be a bit of torch-passing to his sons. He may be still not dead — and indeed, plans are in the works for another album of new original material in 2018 — but Willie seems proud and pleased with the music his family is making. For now, as always, they’re still “insisting that the world keep turning our way.”