Billy Bob's Texas, Fort Worth
Saturday, November 28, 2015
After all these years, Willie Nelson is still going strong. At the ripe old age of 82, the country legend may have slowed down a bit — added a shuffle to his step, sure — but he's still doing what he has always done, ever the outlaw, always on the road again. And while he may have long since passed to the realm of legacy act, one of those see-him-while-you-still-can icons, Nelson proved on his sold-out visit to Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth on Saturday that he's still the same renegade he's always been — even if that doesn't always fit how his fans like to think of him.
From the moment he walked out on stage, wrinkled arm in the air waving to the crowd, Nelson showed every one of those hard years lived. Age, inevitably, has changed him some; more Man in Black than Red Headed Stranger, he was decked out in black, his long gray pigtails hanging down from below his cowboy hat. (Soon enough the hat was replaced with his signature red bandana, which he in turn tossed into the crowd.) Standing slightly hunched over, he looked frail, but once he'd slung his guitar Trigger over his shoulder, the routine took over.
It wasn't always pretty. Nelson's voice, its upper register once high and airy, has been gnarled into a gravely growl. More often than not, he fell into a ragged sort of sing-speak, the words hurriedly spit out to keep up with the music's often brisk pace. His guitar playing, too, could be rough, particularly the solos, which were choppy and staccato. But that isn't to say it didn't work; if "Georgia On My Mind" felt like a shadow of itself, a song like "Always On My Mind" took on a scrappy charm that made it feel well-earned. Nelson, together with old friends Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, is something of a last man standing, a vestige of a time when being a country outlaw meant something different than the glossy, bro'd-out caricature that so many of today's country stars embody. He is, in essence, an old-school troubadour, and he reinforced that fact with a healthy dose of country standards, including covers of old friend Billy Joe Shaver and dearly departed ones like Waylon Jennings, plus of course the Man Himself, Hank Williams. Those songs weren't so much nods to the past as they were parts of a shared history.
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Just what Waylon and Willie and the boys had been outlaws from has perhaps been obscured a bit over the years, helped in part by that thick smoke haze that shrouds the memory. But it certainly meant more than a poster of Johnny Cash flipping the bird. It was true-blue counterculture in country music, and at his core Nelson is more hippy than cowboy, a top-notch songwriter who happens to be a country singer rather than vice versa. He's the sort of country singer that even folks who "don't like country" can still abide by. And the real appeal of the outlaw myth is that Nelson has won out — he's still here, still playing by his own rules, still being Willie. Not surprisingly, that story has been co-opted over time. Austin, the city he helped build, isn't the same Austin that belonged to him. Apple stores and corporate branding are hardly the things of an outlaw. (Starting your own brand of weed? Maybe more so.) Even the pigtails and bandana are things to be hocked at a merch booth, as several pairs throughout the crowd reinforced on Saturday. But Nelson hasn't let his own legacy get away from him: Newer, if admittedly lesser, songs like "It's All Going to Pot" poke fun at Nelson's pot-smoking public image, while "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" takes it to an absurd extreme — the musical equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson having his ashes shot out of a cannon.
But then, getting high, while an integral part of his character, isn't really what Nelson stands for. That was never clearer than when he played "Living in the Promised Land," a song he played 30 years ago at Farm Aid, toward the end of night. When he sang the words, "There's still a lot of love living in the promised land," they were met with rapturous applause. When he followed that up with, "There's room for everyone living in the promised land," the room fell awkwardly silent. At a time when some Texans see fit to take their guns and "protest" outside Islamic mosques, Nelson seemed to take pleasure in making clear just what it means (and doesn't mean) to be an outlaw.
It was a fleeting moment, though, and by show's end — an hour and 20 minutes after he'd started — Nelson did like any hero would and made his way up and down the stage, signing autographs for the fans who rushed to the edge of stage. That's the real Willie Nelson: a man of the people — and still awesome after all these years.