Review: Willie Nelson Brings the Crowd Together at Billy Bob’s 35th Anniversary
There are few individuals on this planet capable of inspiring more camaraderie, beer drinking and generally upbeat vibes than Willie Nelson. In his more than 50 years in the music business, the "Red Headed Stranger" has evolved from a Nashville nobody into one of country music's most iconic figureheads. And if you’ve ever seen him live — once or 10 times — you know exactly why that happened.
On Saturday night (Nov. 12) in Fort Worth, Texas, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of iconic Texas honky-tonk Billy Bob’s, Nelson proved that he is still one of country music’s finest showmen. Before he even took to the stage, thousands of fans packed into the sold-out showroom, angling for a glimpse of their braided-pigtailed hero. In Texas, Nelson is a bona fide legend, the face of country music -- and the harbinger of one hell of a good time.
Nelson's set was the culmination of a weekend of celebratory performances for Billy Bob's 35th anniversary, and there was really no one better to say “happy birthday” than Nelson. The country legend's relationship with the world’s largest honky-tonk is well-established: Throughout its years, the venue has hosted Nelson a whopping 53 times; for four years, he hosted his legendary Fourth of July Picnic at Billy Bob’s, before moving it back closer to his ranch in Austin.
Wille & the Family took to the stage unceremoniously at 10:30PM, kicking off the night with a raucous rendition of “Whiskey River.“ At this point in Nelson’s touring career, crowds almost expect that tune to come up first because it sets a tone: As soon as you hear those first few chords, it’s impossible to mistake that you’re in the presence of a man who deserves a great deal of credit for country music’s best tunes.
At 84 years old, Nelson is certainly looking frail. In light of the losses of Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell in the last week alone, you’re almost tempted to snatch him off the stage, wrap him up in bubble wrap and send him back to his home in Maui to rest. But in seeing Nelson play, it’s clear that his vibrancy — and his still-entirely-on-point guitar-picking skills — has not diminished since his start in the early 1960s.
You have to imagine that it’s been a tough year for Nelson: He’s lost a number of his contemporaries, most notably his longtime collaborator and fellow outlaw country legend Merle Haggard. Throughout the night, Nelson used song to pay tribute to his peers and his heroes — Waylon Jennings, "the Hag" and Hank Williams — with tracks like “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” “Good Hearted Woman” and an impeccably played rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.”
Nelson’s band has always been one of the best in country music, but the Family now boasts plenty of young talent in the form of Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah. They’ve both toured with Neil Young, played in their own bands and released great music in their own right, but being able to hone their skills onstage with dear ol' Dad has undoubtedly given them quite the leg up. Whether singing harmony on Nelson's own classics or throwing down a searing guitar solo on “Texas Flood,” it’s clear that both men inherited a whole lot of talent.
In his just-over-an-hour set, Nelson worked his way through all the hits that any casual fan or obsessive would want to hear: “It’s All Going to Pot,” from Django & Jimmie, Nelson’s 2015 collaboration with Haggard, provided some much-needed laughs to an election-weary crowd (press play below to watch a snippet of the performance). Then came “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” which seemed almost a little too prescient; despite the natural levity of that song, it presents a fact that none of us are willing to consider just yet.
As the night drew to an end, Nelson wrapped up his set with a medley of Southern gospel classics that brilliantly weaved together “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light,” and there was really no more fitting way to close it all down. The medley itself was brilliantly arranged and a sort of natural joy-inducer, but seeing Nelson and his sons sing it together with their beaming smiles was the real treat.
Once Nelson sang his final notes, he signed posters, bandannas even a skateboard deck for the folks in the first few rows, shaking hands and cementing his status as a true man of the people -- and then he walked offstage, as unceremoniously as he came. Judging by the crowd’s immediate outpouring of love as he left, Nelson gave them all a little solace after a tough week of nasty politics, loss and bad news.
Watch Willie Nelson Sing "It's All Going to Pot"
Willie Nelson Through the Years
Test Your Willie Nelson Knowledge!