Freestyle: Willie Nelson, ‘Family’-style

Nov. 22, 2013 | 0 Comments

Willie Nelson. (Courtesy photo)

Willie Nelson. (Courtesy photo)


I notched something off my life list this week: Witnessing Willie Nelson at play, live, in his home state of Texas.

It was just as sublime as I hoped, musically, with an extra blessing — seeing with my own eyes the way Willie, who tours as “Willie Nelson and Family,” delivers on the “Family” part of that promise.

Nelson has a home in Maui, where he lives when not on tour, and folks told me I could have waited until he plays again in the islands, but I really felt I couldn’t pass up this shot. For one thing, I would be attending the show with a Texas woman who’s entertainment all on her own — a former dancer and talented singer, she’s exuberant and well-connected to other creative people in Houston, promising an exciting trip. For another, it was Willie Nelson, born in Texas, and I wanted to see him there.

I was attracted, of course, by Willie’s island ties. Hawaii people will remember that in 2011, Nelson participated in the “Kokua For Japan” concert; thanks to efforts by Nelson, Jack Johnson, Henry Kapono and many others, “Kokua for Japan” raised more than $1.5 million to help those harmed by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

So I bought a ticket to Houston and flew out overnight on a nonstop trip last Thursday, Nov. 14. I spent the days and nights leading up to his Nov. 19 show eating barbecue, queso, tortillas and carnitas, and touring some of Houston’s cooler dive bars, such as Lola’s Depot in the city’s diverse Montrose district (metal on the jukebox, gay-friendly, arts-friendly, free pool games — what’s not to like?). Then I caught the concert — and had the time of my life.

What I heard was surely country music, but what Willie does is too expansive to be shoehorned exclusively into a “country” corner. He’s a disciple of Django Reinhardt and Irving Berlin as well as Hank Williams. With his roughened voice and battered guitar, he’s developed his own idiosyncratic sound and persona. For once, this artist might deserve the epithet “legendary.”

Nelson keeps his acoustic guitar strapped around his neck, mariachi-style, playing it sometimes with flying fingers, other times with force, pulling on its strings and shaking it for extra waves of sound. His jazzlike way of singing behind the beat keeps your attention, while his low, hoarsened delivery emphasizes the bluesy melancholy of the songs, from “Whiskey River” to “You Were Always on my Mind.”

Face the MusicNELSON’S LATEST album, “To All The Girls,” was released Oct. 15. It’s set up as duets with a series of remarkable women, including Dolly Parton (“From Here to the Moon and Back”), Roseanne Cash (“Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends”), daughter Paula Nelson (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”) and more.

That one’s got its moments, but I’m partial to Willie’s other 2013 release, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” This one’s vintage Willie, recorded in Austin, Tex. with the Family band. It’s full of meditative pop, jazz, country and rock standards that serve as a kind of sequel to his groundbreaking 1970s album of classics, “Stardust.” The album helped celebrate more than 40 years of touring with his Family band, as well as Nelson’s 80th birthday year.

Scroll to the bottom for a video of Nelson performing “Nuages” from that album. It’s a song he played at the Houston concert. The video will show you his beautiful, scratched-up, banged-up (but lovingly maintained) guitar, Trigger, and some nice closeups of the gypsy/Spanish style Willie brings to his guitar playing, too.

In 2012, son Lukas Nelson told the New York Times that Willie is “loyal and humble. And he surrounds himself with his family. That’s the most important thing. When you’re on the road, keep the people that really care about you close.”

When you see Nelson performing with a band that includes his older sister Bobbi (on piano), daughter Paula as opening act and a drummer he first played with in 1955, Paul English, you see the personification of that. And in today’s fast-moving, veneer-oriented world, seeing an artist with this kind of staying power and loyalty is a true treat.

“Simply put, watching him live is watching someone ooze Texas, the blues, country, grit, and humor,” Houston Chronicle reviewer Craig Hlavaty wrote after seeing the show. ‘Nuff said!

(P.S. If you’re a big Willie Nelson fan, you might want to look him up “on demand,” as a mysterious stranger named “Nick” in family-friendly holiday movie “Angels Sing,” starring Harry Connick, Jr. as a man who’s lost his Christmas joy, until Nelson’s character helps him rediscover the spirit.)
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at or follow her on Twitter.

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