Over two cool, beautiful nights at the Hollywood Bowl, dozens of artists took the stage to wish a happy 90th birthday to Willie Nelson. The sprawling event traced the winding path of Willie’s career from the dusty landscape of Abbott, Texas, where he fell in love with folk songs sung in the cotton fields and spirituals in the local tabernacle, through the country music machine of Nashville to Austin, where he defied labels to smash the mold of country music and produce some of the greatest albums of the modern era.
Over nine decades, Willie Nelson has followed his creative muse wherever it led him, adding his distinctive tone to classic country, jazz standards, bluesy bar-busters and the occasional reggae tune. Through the years he’s consistently been a creative force and an exemplary human being. On the red carpet before the show, artists praised Willie’s creativity, but also his magnanimous spirit.
“Willie Nelson is a generous human being,” fellow Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett said on the red carpet. “When you're with Willie and you have a conversation with Willie, you walk away feeling better, you walk away feeling inspired by his kindness and his attentiveness.”
Here are 10 highlights from the two-night celebration:
1. George Strait joined Willie onstage at the end of night one
The King of Country Music’s surprise arrival was the climax of night one of the birthday extravaganza. “Hey George, let’s sing one,” Willie said after George Strait appeared to thunderous applause. And with the easy camaraderie of a pair of lifetime wanderers who just happened to reshape the landscape of the roads they traveled, the two country music icons sang the jokey 2019 duet, “Sing One With Willie.”
As the applause died down, Willie teased the crowd, saying there was a song he “always wanted to do.”
“Townes wrote it,” he said of "Pancho and Lefty." Then he and Strait unwound the epic tale of wayward hustlers, Strait’s voice golden and strong and Willie’s rising, falling and catching like the dusty dry wind that rustles the scrubby brush along the Texas border — reminding listeners that his tone is the perfect vehicle for capturing the poetry of the American West.
2. Booker T. Jones and Willie played 'Stardust'
There are many stories of Willie Nelson’s fierce artistic independence floating around the world and this is one of my favorites: After a string of successful albums, including “Red-Headed Stranger” (1975), “The Troublemaker” (1976) and “Waylon and Willie” (1977), Willie’s label at the time (Columbia Records) was very interested in more outlaw country. Willie had a different idea. Back home in Texas with his sister, Bobbie, he’d been thinking about the songs he heard on the radio as a boy growing up in Abbott. Frank Sinatra was his favorite singer and like Old Blue Eyes, the Red-Headed Stranger wanted to make his mark on the American songbook.
This was on his mind on a trip to California. Now it just so happens, he was staying in the same building as Booker T. Jones, lead singer of Booker T. and the MGs. While the label hated the idea of a standards album, Booker T. loved it. Together they made “Stardust” and it became the biggest seller of Willie’s career.
With Booker T. on the organ behind him and projections of stars rolling across the screens atop the Bowl, Willie reshaped the melody to the 1927 Hoagy Carmichael classic in a way that only he can. The moment was starry and sublime.
3. Willie spotlighted young talents Billy Strings and Lily Meola
Recalling moments with old friends and family was a strong motif of this show. But it was also about legacy — the way Willie’s songs and his creative influence have been passed down through generations. Bluegrass breakout Billy Strings was listening to Willie’s music “before I could tie my shoes,” he said before the show. His grandfather loved the album “Red-Headed Stranger” so much, he played it endlessly for his children. As a child, his mother sang the songs to him. “I was raised on that, spoon fed that music as a baby,” he said on the red carpet.
A few days before the show, Strings released a new track, “California Sober,” that features Willie. Willie was happy to let the 30-year-old guitar ace flex his fast picking and carry the lead in the live debut of the song near the end of night two.
In the same segment of the show, Willie brought 28-year-old pop artist Lily Meola to the stage for a spectacular performance of “Will You Remember Mine.” Best known for a 2022 run on “America’s Got Talent,” Meola is a family friend of the Nelsons from Hawaii.
4. Norah Jones and Rosanne Cash treated Kris Kristofferson with kindness and care
At 86 years old, Willie’s fellow Highwayman, Kris Kristofferson, has been struggling with health problems over the last few years. Each night of the show he was paired with a female artist who helped carry him through his performance.
On night one, Rosanne Cash sang the lead on Kris Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” Kristofferson joined her onstage and, as emotion reduced his voice to a whisper, the daughter of his late collaborator, Johnny Cash, set hers alight with the freedom of an eagle to guide the song home. In one of the most moving moments of the weekend, she put an arm around him and helped him off the stage in tears.
On night two, it was Norah Jones who connected warmly with Kristofferson while sending her velvety voice soaring over the arena on “Help Me Thru the Night.”
5. Willie’s songs transformed to meet the artist, the moment
Speaking of Norah Jones, she was one of the quiet MVPs of the weekend, embodying Bobbie Nelson each evening on the saloon swinger “Down Yonder” and backing Allison Russell on piano on night two. On the red carpet Saturday, she said she believes Willie’s greatest legacy is the songs he’s given us. “They’re classics and they’re just so fun to interpret,” she said.
Jones embraced Willie’s unorthodox approach to phrasing, bending the rules of time and coloring her voice with the gritty resolve of a jilted lover as she teased “Funny How Time Slips Away” into a jazzy torch song accompanying herself on piano. On night two, Dave Matthews also took liberty with phrasing, skipping his voice between octaves as he unwound an introspective lament on acoustic guitar.
On night one, Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges evoked a smoky “Nightlife” where cool jazz cats mingle with bespangled ladies of the night. With his raucous electric blues rendition of the same song on night two, Warren Haynes dropped us into a very different “Nightlife,” one where you’re more likely to be shanked by a broken beer bottle than the knife of a well-dressed hustler.
6. The house band was amazing
Super producer Don Was assembled a top-notch crew of players to hold down the backline for the show. The sound was incredible and rich arrangements added texture and depth to favorite songs. The whole band was fantastic but special shoutouts to Mickey Raphael and the McCrary Sisters. Willie’s longtime harmonica player exchanged plaintive interplay with the guitar on songs like Chris Stapleton’s rendition of “The Last Thing I Needed” and two different versions of “Nightlife.”
With tight-laced three part harmonies, the McCrary Sisters lifted Willie’s songs with shimmering soul.
7. The cinematic nature of Willie’s songs came to life
Willie Nelson is one of the greatest story-song writers of all time. He writes songs that drop you into detailed landscapes, songs that slip you into lives on the edge of perilous calamity that somehow also feel (often disconcertingly) familiar. Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps did a breathtaking version of “Time of the Preacher” that placed us in the saddle of the “Red-Headed Stranger,” wild with his despair. Chris Stapleton dissected the end of a relationship with agonizing intricacy on a segue of “The Last Thing I Needed” into “Always On My Mind.”
Miranda Lambert captured the loneliness of the West on “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” And Allison Russell and Norah Jones took us on a run for the border in “Seven Spanish Angels.”
But it’s not just Willie’s ballads that draw pictures. Natalie Maines became the defiant lover drinking the pain away as the Chicks brought the house down with their fast-picking, dirt-kicking take on “Bloody Mary Morning” on night one.
8. Lukas Nelson's 'Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground' was heartbreaking
As much as this show felt like a celebration of Willie's life, there was also a sense of gazing into the inevitable beyond. A hush fell over the crowd each night as Lukas Nelson took to the stage for a solo acoustic version of “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.” On its surface, this song is a lament of lost love, but as the younger Nelson sang “So leave me if you need to, I will still remember,” his father’s high lonesome tones inhabiting his voice, a deeper meaning was revealed. It’s a song about letting go when the moment to say goodbye arrives. I was not the only one in the audience who was moved to tears.
9. Emmylous Harris sang a profound rendition of 'The Maker'
Similarly, shortly before Willie took the stage on night two, Emmylou Harris lifted her storm-weathered voice to the great unknown and sang “I’m not afraid in the hands of the Maker” with Daniel Lanois, who wrote the 1989 spiritual exploration, at her side. It felt like another reminder that at this point in Willie’s life, the end is closer than the beginning, but his spirit house is in order. He is not afraid.
10. Willie and Keith Richards took us home with 'Live Forever'
“It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere,” the Rolling Stones guitarist quipped as he took the stage to join Willie at the end of night two. After playing a heartfelt version of “We Had It All,” Willie, sitting on stage alongside Richards and both of his sons, sang, “I'm gonna live forever/ I'm gonna cross that river/ I'm gonna catch tomorrow, now.”
Billy Joe Shaver wrote “Live Forever” in 1993, but it took on a different meaning after his death in 2020. Willie won a Grammy for his version of the song on the tribute album that came out last year. And as he sang a promise to remain with us in song no matter what tomorrow may hold, he created a moment that will live forever in the hearts of all the misty-eyed fans who filled the stadium.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Top moments from Willie Nelson's 90th birthday concert in Hollywood