Welcome back, Willie: Iconic singer back in Abilene 62 years after first visit
"Well, hello thereMy, it's been a long, long timeHow am I doin'?Oh, well, I guess I'm doin' fineIt's been so long now and it seems thatIt was only yesterdayGee ain't it funny how time slips away?"
Joe Specht, who knows many things, if not all, country, believes Willie Nelson's first appearance in Abilene was in 1961.
At the time, Willie was the bass player for Ray Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys.
Willie played in Price's band only briefly in the early 1960s. Specht, a retired librarian, did some research and found that Price came in April 1961 to play at the Key City Sportatorium. We've all driven by it - it's now Yesterdaze Antique Mall on Business Highway 80 East.
Saturday's appearance at the 12th Outlaws & Legends Music Festival, then,comes 62 years later.
The time span is amazing to consider, and why there is great interest in seeing Willie again. He turns 90 next month.
'He's still going strong," said Specht, Abilene's country music historian.
Outlaws & Legends founder Mark Powell spoke to Willie last week.
"He's in great spirits it seems like," he said.
If Willie sings "Funny How Time Slips Away," the song will cement Willie's Abilene tie. He wrote that song in 1961.
Yep, Willie brings the cool
"Every year, you have to have a cool factor," Powell said of finding the biggest drawing card to his festival. Oh, but he's had quite a few over the years.
Two years ago at Outlaws, it was actor Kevin Costner. Last year, it was the farewell show by Robert Earl Keen.
And now it's Willie.
"Willie we just had to have here," Powell said. It adds to the festival list that includes Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Powell admitted he sought Willie simply because he could .
"Selfishly, I do that for myself," he said of booking artists that he admires. "Dudes I want to see, and I want see them at the end.
"That's a legendary thing but it's also it's their experience. They've been around forever. I'm glad we got to have them at the end."
Willie has been on TV recently, the focal point of the Capitol One "On the Road Again" commercial broadcast during March Madness. He's on a bus, maybe the Honeysuckle Rose, strumming away and telling everyone he's "watching b-ball with my friends."
That tour bus will bring him to the Back Porch of Texas for Saturday's 9:30 p.m. show during Final Four weekend.
Willie was scheduled as the headliner for the 10th anniversary fest, but bowed out due to health concerns before the event itself was called off no thanks to COVID-19.
Big fish, small pond
Two years have passed, but Willie finally will be coming. He'll feel right at home as Outlaws always has given a picnic-type vibe.
Yet, this likely is his first outdoor gig here. He has performed at the Abilene Convention Center and Taylor County Coliseum.
And in 1963, he was at Abilene High with a group of Grand Ole Opry stars - Faron Young, Little Jimmy Dickens and Billy Grammer, according to Specht.
But one of Willie's most memorable shows here was a low-key January 1996 show at the Piranha Club. It was a Wednesday night gig in Abilene, a show moved from Cactus Moon next door.
The venue was small, thus packed. No more than 1,000 people, maybe 800, could've fit inside.
A line outside that had formed hours earlier remained in place at show time. Some with tickets to the show were unable to get inside due to the occupancy limit being reached.
Those who did get in stood, or sat on the floor. The stage rose only a few feet.
It was as if Willie had invited Abilene to his house for a living room concert.
While many in the crowd wore jeans with razor-sharp creases and starched shirts, Willie was Willie in his bandanna, playing the heck out of his guitar, Trigger.
He wore running shoes. Willie once was quite the runner but he said cushioned running shoes were way more comfortable in concert than boots.
He played from 9:30 to 11:45 p.m. Those who left then heard the music start again as Willie came back for more.
He played all the songs that any fan would want to hear, from his "Crazy" early days on up through the years.
Willie could play all night if you wanted to stay a longer.
Some fans marveled then at his stamina. Looking back, he was only 63. What did they expect, some old guy up there making music with his friends?
Willie actually was in Abilene twice that year, returning in October for a benefit concert at the then-Civic Center for Make a Difference Day.
This Willie, at almost 90
Funny how time slips away. That was more than 25 years ago.
Yet, fans will be going to a Willie Nelson show Saturday, just like they've done for decades.
To be sure, Willie is 89 and not getting any younger.
"He is a fragile dude," Powell said.
In 2019, Willie gave up smoking, and we know what he liked to smoke. He revealed he had emphysema, which restricts breathing and particularly affects a singer
So, fans should be aware that this icon, both an outlaw and legend in the truest senses, will rely on his musical family to help him make it through the night in Abilene.
"I just want him to take care of his legacy and not continue beyond the point where he shouldn't be out there in front of folks," Specht said.
Willie is said to perform seated. Last year, Robert Earl Keen also sat while he sang and strummed his guitar.
It didn't matter because fans love seeing their musical heroes in person.
"We love Willie and we want him to be with us forever," Specht said. "Talk about touching lives."
Micah Nelson, Willie's son, is singing and playing guitar in the group.
Longtime members Mickey Raphael (harmonica) and Billy English (drums) still are with Willie.
Want one of those weird Abilene ties? Raphael's brother, Ken, played tennis at Hardin-Simmons University in the mid-1970s. Mickey Raphael has been in Willie's family since 1973.
Adios, Willie. Or until next time ...
Maybe it's the last time we'll get to see and hear Willie in Abilene.
The comment has been made that the creators of the Disney animated film "Wall-E" made a mistake.
Instead of just a robot and a cockroach named Hal representing the last of a lifeless Earth, they should've been joined by Willie.
So don't be so quick to turn out the lights. The party may not be over.
Willie's 73rd recording just came out, a tribute to songwriter Harlan Howard titled "I Don't Know a Thing About Love." Over the years, Willie's projects with others that often ventured into different music genres have expanded his music relevance and appreciation.
There's talk he's a shoo-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It was Howard who gave Willie his first songwriting job, and Willie is famous for paying tribute to those who helped him along the way, guys such as Price and Roger Miller. And Willie has paid tribute to the masters of music. Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow joined Willie on a Gershwin tribute album. On another recording, he paid his respects to Frank Sinatra.
So no, Willie's not done yet.
He's playing b-ball with his friends during the Final Four. Where are top seeds Alabama, Houston, Kansas and Purdue?
They're back home again.
The red-headed stranger may outlast us all.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Welcome back, Willie: Iconic singer back in Abilene 62 years after first visit