Jane and I went to Macon in November of 2018 to see country music legend Willie Nelson. Attending concerts of big-name musicians are a bit out of our regular routine. I had not been to one since college days in the early 1970s. Jane, however, had gone with her brother in 1991 to see Jimmy Buffett. That put her one concert ahead of me, a position I expect she’ll maintain.
Not everyone is a fan of Willie or his music. Like many of us he’s had some noticeable flaws in his personal life. I read a book he wrote a few years back titled “It’s A Long Story – My Life.” After almost 400 pages I’m still not sure what he believes about eternity. He grew up going with his grandmother to a small-town Methodist church in Abbott, Texas. At times he seems to embrace a traditional Christian view of God and faith. At other times he sounds like he’s ventured way off the trodden path.
He started his concert with “Whiskey River” and closed it with “I’ll Fly Away.” That seems an odd pairing of songs in some ways, but not so much for Willie. His music and his faith both seem challenging to define.
He played for an hour with hardly a pause between songs. Early in his career he was the opening act for a singer named Bob Wills. Mr. Wills’ song-packed performance inspired Willie to leave off the chatter, jokes, and clever remarks. His focus is always on the music.
But I didn’t go to the concert as much for the music as for Willie. It amazes me that at 85 years old he’s still touring the country in a bus. “On The Road Again” is about as authentically biographical as a song can be. I don’t know how many thousands of times he has sung that tune, but he sang it with the enthusiasm of a debut album. I guess he really “can’t wait to get on the road again.”
The man sitting next to me was 78 and having some health issues. He said he had bought his tickets earlier when he was feeling better. As we visited before the show, I learned that he’d had four back surgeries. His grandson said that he had worn his back out driving a truck. “I don’t need my truck anymore,” the fellow said. “I gave it to him.” I asked if he had seen Willie on stage before. He said that he had but added this would probably be his last time.
Seated next to Jane was a lady with her daughter and son-in-law, a couple who looked to be in their twenties. The daughter had one of those haircuts that’s almost shaved on the sides but plentiful on top. Willie’s admirers transcend age, gender, and even politics, I think.
Willie probably performed 30 or so songs, some in their entirety with others just a phrase blended into a seamless medley. When he sang “You Were Always On My Mind” I swallowed to hide the uninvited lump in my throat. The aging trucker sitting next to me spoke softly to his grandson, “That’s the best one he’s sung all night.” I guess we all have some little things we should have said and done but never took the time. Willie’s music from that Macon stage was a poignant reminder.
Willie’s voice is strong but not quite like it was in his younger years. He doesn’t hold the notes as long but covers it well with his unique off-beat delivery. What I consider remarkable, however, is his masterful guitar playing. He didn’t just strum a few chords, he played lead on every song. He deftly navigated the frets from one end of the neck to the other.
I don’t play my guitar very often. My index finger has begun to hurt a little when I do, and my little finger is trying to join that same party. Yet Willie, almost 20 years my senior, looks at ease as he plucks his faithful guitar that he calls Trigger. He tenderly plays soulful melodies, then smoothly transitions to numbers that are almost too fast to pat your foot to.
Jesus told a parable about talents that’s recorded in Matthew 25:14-30. I’m not sure Willie always paid attention in that little church in Abbott, Texas, but he must have been listening carefully when the preacher delivered that sermon. Willie’s nimble fingers have always been extraordinary, but they stay that way because he never stopped using them. Willie just keeps on picking.
I think I know why my fingers may be growing stiff. Maybe I’ll get my guitar out of the closet this afternoon, dust it off and play it for a while. I may even christen it with a good name. If you see Willie, tell him Nelson and I said thanks for the inspiration.