I have a confession to make: On my list of Country Artists To See Before I Die, Willie Nelson has always been a little further down than others, as my musical loyalties have always leaned more Merle and Waylon than Willie and Johnny.
Blasphemy, you say? Perhaps. But friends, I finally made it to the hallowed Church of Willie, and I am proud to say I am now a believer.
The patchwork curtain that hung over the lip of the Myrtle Beach, S.C. House of Blues stage could have well been the outer layer of a big tent church revival. It fluttered as equipment was loaded on and off the stage and sent the sold-out crowd into a tizzy in hopes that one or both of their favorite outlaws was about to appear.
Those drapes finally opened as opening act and budding outlaw Jamey Johnson walked on stage, granting the revved-up crowd and my ears a welcome reprieve from the piped-in country sing-alongs (“They ask me Hank/Whyyyy do ya drank”) before the show. Johnson’s guitar player (whose “Guitar Hero” T-shirt was right on target, as he looked just like one of the video game’s animated rockers) played the “Big Joe” Lewis to Johnson’s Conway Twitty, and the singer didn’t say a word through the whole set.
He started with new single “High Cost of Living,” its opening guitar chords rewarded with nearly as many whoops as the song’s infamous third verse, before launching into a well-edited 45 minute mix of his latest material, one new song (“Nothing Is Better Than You”) and two classics.
Johnson has a knack for taking old, traditional country songs and making you second guess whether it’s a cover or new material off an upcoming album. His voice hung comfortably on Ray Price’s “For the Good Times,” and he may have very well answered his own rhetorical question on George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
But the real star of the night, of course, was Willie Nelson. His eclectic mix of fans–a range of rednecks, aging hippies and everything in between–knew they were in the presence of a true legend. In fact, when one fan behind me told me she would literally kill whoever got in between her and her quest to the front of the stage, I slowly inched out of her way.
It was the tour’s fifth straight show in so many days, but you would have never known from Willie’s incredible stage presence. I’ve never seen anyone–let alone a man creeping up on his 80th birthday–seem as happy and genuinely excited to play for 2,000 fans on a chilly, rainy night. Dozens of times, he waved and blew kisses to women around the stage, and his hard work paid off: Three bras (one pink, one black and one tan) were donated to the cause, along with two sweatshirts and a card.
Sporting a grey zip-up sweatshirt and an old pair of jeans, he proceeded to change headgear three times between an old baseball cap, signature red “Willie Nelson” bandana and a Jack Daniels cowboy hat. His long grey braids snaked down his chest, reaching almost to his beloved acoustic guitar Trigger, and a red, white and blue woven lanyard hung around his neck.
He worked his way through his deep catalog like a man on a Sisyphus-like mission, as every time he finished a hit song, there were three more waiting to be sung. “On the Road Again” was every bit as jaunty as I suspect it was in the late ‘70s, even though some of his “best of friends” have either passed away or retired; the wistfulness of “You Were Always On My Mind” was palpable; and the Snoop Dogg duet “Super Man” showed off his skills for humorous songwriting.
The best part of the show came when Johnson joined the legend for a rousing round of gospel favorites “May the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” with the joy of a church revival, save for some suspiciously sweet smoke wafting through the air. Johnson’s voice was barely audible on the harmonies, but his uncharacteristically enthusiastic grin belied his excitement, and the pair even shared a bear hug.
A religious experience, indeed.