I’m not a country boy. Yet, I was raised, at least partially, on a farm. And some of my fondest memories involve riding in the pickup truck with my stepfather across the ranch. His mustache permanently stained by coffee, I’d look up at him from the passenger side of the bench seat in the worn work truck. As a man he was an icon to me. He got up before the sun rose, worked until he ached all over and always smiled, always joked, always was helpful and strong, and always had Willie Nelson playing in the 8-track. So when Willie Nelson came to Vina Robles Amphitheater I jumped at the chance to see the man that meant so much to the man that meant so much to me.
I’d never been to the Paso Robles concert venue before and I was greatly impressed by the time the opening act began. And what an opening act it was: Alison Krauss and Union Station performed a more than solid set. Their pitch-perfect live performances filled the amphitheater with better-than-recording sound quality. So enveloping, so moving were the blue-grass and gospel tunes that my intrepid photographer even remarked after the show, “I almost felt converted!” And he would be right to be, too. In all the concerts I’ve attended I’ve literally never heard sound quality so clear and flawless. This isn’t hyperbole. In fact, as I gazed out over the seated and laconic crowd I almost felt like perfection may have been playing against the performers. Where was the energy? Where was the passion?
After a brief intermission Willie Nelson came on stage and gave me just that answer.
It was clear at the first moment he walked on stage, this was an entirely different energy. And I couldn’t believe I was here, witnessing the idol of my idol. I wondered what my stepfather would have felt. I didn’t have long to question ghosts though as Willie and his band punched into a vibrant series of his hits and fan favorites. Willie would thrust his arm into the air, finger toward the heavens and announce the next song mid-strum. He’d then hungrily attack his acoustic guitar in a way reminiscent of blues legends. All the while he encouraged the audience to sing along and be part of his show.
By the time he played “Roll me up and smoke me when I die” and “Still Not Dead” the atmosphere had fully shifted from the evening’s expert yet subdued opening and was in full honky-tonk gear. Willie threw his hat into the audience as well as his red bandannas to adoring fans. I was too far away to see the energy and spark in his eye, but everyone in the crowd could feel it.
Again I remembered the rare occasions when my stepfather would take time off, hunting trips with friends, or evenings at Happy Jacks in Morro Bay. As Willie strummed I imagined boots on wood floors, peanut shells and wood shavings scuffing under the feet of dancing revelers. Again my photographer was right when he said Willie was “a touchstone to a simpler time. When your heroes were cowboys.” This was the American Dream. This was hard work paying off. Willie, at 85, showed no signs of slowing down. If any witness to his age was present it was his more spoken-word approach to some of his songs. It wasn’t time holding him back it was the evidence of time instructing. His voice, calm, understanding, like a wise man teaching the flock. Willie Nelson, through his music and boundless energy embodies all that I saw in my stepfather. And these are the lessons I take with me, as a gift from a great musician, a great performer and a great man. As the song goes: “You were always on my mind.”
PHOTO BY KEN GRAHAM