Willie Nelson Threw a Ninetieth Birthday Party,

By the time Willie Nelson finally strode onstage a few minutes past 10 p.m. this Saturday, a full house at California’s legendary Hollywood Bowl already had witnessed three hours of unforgettable music. Dozens of Nelson’s friends and fellow performers gathered in Los Angeles for Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90, A Star-Studded Concert Celebrating Willie’s 90th Birthday, a two-night celebration that must have been one of the biggest nonagenarian birthday bashes the planet has ever seen.

We’d already heard fellow Texans such as Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr., the Chicks, Norah Jones, and Lyle Lovett, playing the songs that helped make Willie an iconic twentieth-century American songwriter. The lineup underscored how Nelson’s impact bridges generations (more on that in our podcast, One by Willie) from thirtysomethings Billy Strings and Tyler Childers to elder statesmen Kris Kristofferson and Tom Jones. And it demonstrated Willie’s transcendence of genre: Ziggy Marley’s reggae reading of “Still Is Still Moving to Me” fit just fine alongside Warren Haynes’s take on the Allmans’ Southern-rock classic “Midnight Rider,” which Nelson turned into a top-ten country hit in 1980.

But everyone was eager for Nelson himself to take the stage. Neil Young and Stephen Stills had just treated their home-state crowd to a historic minireunion: Young sang “Long May You Run,” the title track of 1976’s Stills-Young Band album, as a salute to his friend and Farm Aid cofounder before Stills unleashed his signature tune, “For What It’s Worth.” Next came Young’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?,” which Neil sang with Nelson on a 1985 duets album. That was Willie’s cue: the crowd was already on its feet, but it roared when the birthday boy appeared. 

Willie Nelson 90th Birthday Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson joining Willie onstage. Photograph by Randall Michelson

Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson at Willie's 90th birthday
Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson, one of Willie’s sons, sharing the stage. Photograph by Randall Michelson

Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah, decade-long members of Young’s touring band, were already onstage to help welcome their dad. Then came George Strait, for his own recent gem “Sing One With Willie” and a lovely duet of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.” Only Willie could follow a Strait cameo by bringing out Snoop Dogg, who pulled up a chair next to Nelson and laughed, smiled, and sang his way through “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”

Then it was all over but for the grand finale. Everyone joined the Don Was–led backing band onstage for Willie’s traditional gospel medley. “Happy birthday to me!” Willie joyfully proclaimed, prompting the entire audience to join him in a “Happy Birthday” serenade. Then he snuck one more tune into the homestretch: Mac Davis’s “It’s Hard to Be Humble.”

The weekend-long celebration, with a second show featuring additional guests on Sunday, was “a massive undertaking—thousands of hours of preparation and practice and planning,” organizer Keith Wortman said a few days before the concerts. His company, Blackbird Presents, has done many similar events, including a star-studded 2015 salute to Waylon Jennings at Austin’s ACL Live just after Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic that year.

This was Blackbird’s biggest show ever. “We’ve never done two days, this many artists, this many songs, so many moving parts before,” Wortman said. The logistical workload may have been daunting, but the pitch to artists was easy: Hey, will you come sing a song at the Hollywood Bowl for Willie Nelson’s ninetieth birthday? “Anyone who could do it was going to be there without hesitation,” Wortman said.

Willie Nelson 90th Birthday George Strait
George Strait stopping by to perform, aptly, “Sing One With Willie”.Photograph by Joshua Timmermans

Thus we heard tunes from artists such as Metroplex-raised Norah Jones, who first met Willie around twenty years ago and became close with Nelson’s longstanding Family band—especially pianist Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s older sister. Before Saturday’s show, Jones acknowledged that Bobbie “was probably one of my biggest piano influences, before I even knew her name.” As a kid, she devoured Willie’s 1975 album Red Headed Stranger, which featured Bobbie on piano. “When I was developing my first record, I was starting to throw these country licks in there that I didn’t even know where they came from,” she said.

Eventually she figured out the family connection. On both nights, Jones lovingly played the instrumental “Down Yonder,” long a staple in Willie’s sets as a showcase for Bobbie before her death last year. She followed that with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” one of her personal favorites from Nelson’s catalog. “But I would’ve done anything they asked me to do,” she added. “There’s no bad song choices here.”

On Sunday, she also joined Allison Russell for “Seven Spanish Angels,” a 1980s duet between Willie and Ray Charles. And she helped Kristofferson make it through a deeply emotional performance of “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” It echoed Kristofferson’s Saturday duet with Rosanne Cash on “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” another Kristofferson classic Willie has recorded.

The shows were being filmed and recorded for future video and audio release, which helped motivate the artists and producers to make the Saturday and Sunday sets more complementary than repetitive. A couple dozen performers played both nights, but another dozen each night were different. The material was broader still: only a half dozen tunes featured the same artist-and-song pairing each night. One that fully warranted a repeat was Lukas Nelson singing “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” arguably his father’s finest composition. The crowd quieted down for Lukas’s tender solo acoustic rendition, then roared when his distinctively Willie-esque vocal delivery soared skyward.

Miranda Lambert at Willie Nelson's 90th birthday
Miranda Lambert bringing some fringe to the festivities. Photograph by Jay Blakesberg

Margo Price at Willie Nelson's 90th Birthday
Margo Price and her tambourine making an appearance. Photograph by Randall Michelson

Younger brother Micah, a.k.a. Particle Kid, also had his moments to shine. Joined both nights by producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois on pedal steel, he struck an adventurous groove on Saturday with “The Ghost,” a deep cut from one of his father’s 1960s albums. On Sunday he played a song he wrote recently after hearing his pop toss out a song-worthy comment in conversation: “If I die when I’m high, I’ll be halfway to heaven.” Willie suggested Micah make a song of it, so he went to the garage and prepped with an extended weed session. “I got so high, I thought I was going to die,” he told the audience. “And then I wrote a Willie Nelson song.”

Another key player on both nights was Billy Strings, who opened each concert with “Whiskey River.” Strings returned near the end of Sunday’s show to join Willie on the just-released “California Sober,” a new single that features Nelson. “I will cherish it for as long as I live,” said Strings, who spent some time with Willie during last year’s traveling Outlaw Music Festival. “He invited me on his bus to come see him and just talk shop for a while,” Strings recalled before Saturday’s show. “We’d talk about guitars and old cars and horses and whatever. It’s like you’re hanging out with America’s grandpa.”

Warren Haynes, leader of the band Gov’t Mule, also proved to be a sleeper MVP. His Sunday version of “Night Life” surprisingly brought more raw blues energy to the table than Bridges and Clark’s Saturday take. Later he joined Jamey Johnson and B3 organ legend Booker T. Jones for a show-stopping “Georgia on My Mind.”

Additional highlights on Saturday included the Lumineers’ exquisitely minimalist piano-and-vocal arrangement of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which Nelson recorded on 1973’s Shotgun Willie album; contributions from Texans the Chicks (“Bloody Mary Morning”), Lovett (“Hello Walls”), Edie Brickell (“Remember Me,” with Charlie Sexton), and Charley Crockett (“The Party’s Over”); and country star turns from Miranda Lambert (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”) and Chris Stapleton, who chose a pair of tunes from Willie’s 1982 album Always On My Mind (including the chart-topping title track).

Norah Jones at Willie Nelson's 90th Birthday
Norah Jones, who once credited Willie’s songs with saving her life, performing. Photograph by Randall Michelson

Willie Nelson and Keith Richards at Willie's 90th birthday
Keith Richards onstage with Willie. “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere!” Richards said. Photograph by Randall Michelson

It’s worth noting that while Nelson is known as one of America’s greatest living songwriters, he’s also been an even more prolific interpreter. So it’s not really surprising that of 79 performances across two nights, Willie wrote less than half of the songs. In an interview before Saturday’s show, Lovett summed up why that wasn’t really an issue when the participants chose material to perform: “Willie has such a pervasive style that whatever he sings becomes a Willie Nelson song.”

The excitement level at the Hollywood Bowl was higher on Saturday, which I would rank as the finest concert event I’ve ever attended. Perhaps fittingly, the second show had more of a “Sunday evening coming down” vibe, especially the final half hour with Nelson onstage. In place of Saturday’s Strait and Snoop cameos, Willie began with the exquisitely jazzy title cut of his landmark 1978 album Stardust, then welcomed Sheryl Crow (who’d performed “Crazy” earlier) and Lily Meola for duets they’d sung with him on his 2013 album To All The Girls . . . (“Far Away Places” and “Will You Remember Mine,” respectively).

But the birthday boy had one more ace up his sleeve. The weekend’s only unannounced guest turned out to be quite a ringer when Keith Richards ambled onstage just after 10 p.m. and remarked, “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere!” After playing the classic country ballad “We Had It All,” which they’d recorded together for Nelson’s 2004 duets album Outlaws and Angels, Willie and Keef hit on a tune that was perfect for their shared legendary longevity: Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.”

But it was Micah, at 32 one of the youngest artists on the bill, who ultimately provided the perspective for the ages on this milestone Willie birthday. 

“Honestly, I don’t think my dad would have made it to ninety without all of you,” he told the Sunday crowd. “The music is what keeps him alive, and y’all keep the music alive.”

Disclosure: John Spong, Texas Monthly senior editor and host of the podcast One by Willie, consulted on programming for the event.

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