I recently went to a Willie Nelson concert. I will take a moment now for those of you who know my musical tastes to recover…
I went at the invitation of my friend Ronald Crutcher, who is a good theologian and lover of all things Willie. I had to lay aside all the stereotypes of Willie Nelson I had formed in my early years growing up in north Alabama in order to accept this gracious invitation, which was not hard to do since I trusted Ronald’s instincts. I’m glad I went. Had I not, I would have missed what can only describe as a sacred experience.
We arrived in downtown Nashville and went for a burger and beverage at Tootsie’s Bar and Lounge. If you’re going to see Willie, you can’t do much better than a pre-concert appetizer at that historic spot on Lower Broad. The walls are filled with photos of old Nashville country music stars, and, with its two stages, the place was hopping.
Then we made our way to the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman is the closest thing to a country music shrine we have. All over the walls are icons of the Opry, relics that are as meaningful to country music as the bones of the saints might be to a Medieval cathedral. The pews – pews! – that serve as seating give the feel of a house of worship to this venue, which is fitting. When I finally found my seat and looked up at the stage, it was hard not to imagine the ghosts of all those performers that I often heard emanating from my grandfather’s radio on a Saturday night looking out over us with delight.
And then Willie took the stage. According to Ronald, he is around seventy-six years old, but he really hasn’t changed all that much from the Willie Nelson that I encountered from time to time growing up, mainly, again, through my grandfather. Long hair, cowboy hat and boots, weathered face, deep-set eyes – he has the look of a wise sage who has been around a block or two in his time, which he has.
The first words out of his mouth were a tribute to the Ryman. He said it was a deep honor “to be standing on this stage.” And then he said the song he was going to start with was written by someone I didn’t recognize. And he began singing. I did not know the song. And so it went for the majority of the concert. Willie would announce the song-writer, say a brief word about the song, and then sing it. Most every song was one I did not know. I also noticed that the only people who would clap or respond when he announced a song were folks who were – how to put this? – around the same age as Willie.
Because our seats were toward the front and to the right, I was also able to see that Willie was using a teleprompter for almost all the songs. At first I thought this was odd. But about half-way through the concert, I finally realized what was happening. Willie was paying tribute. He was singing songs he probably never had sung before, but had carefully selected for this venue. He was at the Ryman, and he wanted to sing the old, old songs by saints long since gone. Here was a man who for most of his life was shunned by the “Nashville Establishment,” but who, in the twilight of his career, in his tell-tale voice, was giving honor to the voices of those who made the Ryman, and Nashville, and Willie, who they were. Having only a few days earlier celebrated All Saint’s Day in church, I felt that Willie was observing his own version of that holy day when we recognize all the saints of every time and place take their places among us, and acknowledge that we are because they were.
Eventually he sang all the old favorites: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again,”etc. He ended his time with a rousing chorus of “I’ll Fly Away,” and the entire place sang with him. In that moment I swear I could hear Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Sr., and the whole lot of those Nashville saints singing along.
Willie stayed behind to sign autographs. He was still leaning over the stage, all seventy-six years of him, smiling and laughing and signing as Ronald and I left. People of all ages and backgrounds crowded the stage to pay him homage. His selflessness, his generosity, his humility, and his grace will stay with me for a long time. Heck, I may even buy some of his Cd’s.
Again, I’ll let you recover…