Willie Nelson Rolls Into Town
by mikael wood
Willie Nelson makes his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut this month.
Willie Nelson, you’ll be glad to know, doesn’t worry much about plans. “I wake up in a different world every morning, and whatever I’m thinking, that’s probably what I wind up doing that day,” says the country-music legend, who, at 78 years old, still cracks himself up with the greatest of ease. “I really don’t have any kind of long-term strategy.” Nelson may live spontaneously, but he still gets big ideas, and for his latest album, Remember Me, Vol. 1, he was intent on showcasing some of the music that’s impacted him most over the course of his half-century career. “A million years ago I did a record called Stardust,” says Nelson, referring to the 1978 classic on which he offered up his renditions of standards including “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Georgia on My Mind.” “All the songs on there were songs that were known by everybody in the business, but I felt like young people needed to hear them again. And that’s kind of the same thing I was after this time.”
Nelson will probably perform some of the material from Remember Me—a second volume is due out later this year—on March 13 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he’ll take the stage with an ensemble that includes his son Lukas. The Downtown venue is one of the few left in the US Nelson hasn’t played, as Los Angeles Philharmonic COO Arvind Manocha points out. “Willie’s such an important part of the culture that we’re excited to be able to provide him with a debut at this point in his career,” he says. “People in our audience are appreciative of the opportunity to see him in a new environment.”
True to form, the singer betrays no nerves about working such a highbrow room. “Yesterday we played a little theater in Cleveland, Ohio, for my buddy Dennis Kucinich,” he says with a chuckle. “And we’re getting ready to go play some clubs and casinos. As long as people are there, that’s really all that’s required.”
The new album pulls deeply from the rootsmusic songbook: “Sixteen Tons,” the coal-miner’s lament originally popularized by Merle Travis; George Jones’ pleading “Why Baby Why;” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” by Kris Kristofferson; and plenty more. Nelson cut the album in Nashville with producer James Stroud and a group of top-flight session players, including drummer Eddie Bayers and steel guitarist Sonny Garrish. “Those guys are steeped in everything from country to jazz to you name it,” says Nelson, “and I think adding their abilities on there had a lot to do with making it sound up to date.” So, too, did the singer’s vocals—it’s been years since he’s sounded as spirited as he does on “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” the late-’40s Western-swing gem.
As for performing with Lukas (who also leads his own band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real), Nelson’s fatherly pride is obvious. “It’s incredible to hear him play,” he says. “He’s really turned out to be a great singer and writer. His brother Micah is a musician, too. I’m blessed with a couple of talented kids.” Did Nelson encourage his sons to go into music? “Our idea was to make it available, to have the instruments lying around,” he says. “And we did—we had drums and pianos and guitars all over the house. But we didn’t insist they pick them up,” he laughs. “Usually, after I’ve toured for a long time and get home, I’m not in the mood to play anything. But then one day they started playing guitar and drums without me, and the next thing you know they’re having fun doing it. And they never stopped.” Just like Dad. Willie Nelson & Family perform March 13 at 8 pm at Walt Disney Concert Hall. 111 S. Grand Ave., LA, 323- 850-2000.
photography by danny clinch
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.