Willie Nelson at his three-day residency at Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels
I have always subscribed to the gate-crashing credo that if you act like you belong, you do. With this in mind I lowered my head and made my way through the roped off VIP line behind a large iron gate back to where Honeysuckle Rose was idling. It stank like bud. An octogenarian in an ankle-length duster and battered cowboy hat was pulling from a pipe and blowing smoke just a couple of feet away from the cop on duty corralling folks way from Willie’s bus. It was beautiful. It seems in the presence of Willie, even cops turn into good-humored pussycats. Out comes Merle with Theresa and a minute later, Willie. I see Jim Christie, Merle’s drummer, and ask if he’d like to say anything on the record.
We settle down into the green room for him to eat and me to try to contain my schoolgirl giddiness of being backstage surrounded by such total fucking legends. Jim tells me what Scott Joss and later Willie’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, echo throughout the evening: these two men are “the end of an era.” When I asked Mickey what he would do if just starting out now as a 20-year old harmonica player — the age he joined The Family — he states, simply, “Learn to weld. It’s the end of an era. Learn to weld.”
If Willie and Merle came along today, they would never make it. Our times don’t appreciate their kind. That is to say, the music industry would not be beating down their door to sign them to million dollar record deals. Music, of course, wouldn’t be what it is today without these two, so it’s a paradox to even bother with the quandary of “Would Willie and Merle make it in today’s marketplace.”
Nevertheless, all three of their trusted sidemen spoke with humility, humor and awe at their places in the band with these living legends. I didn’t get to see but the last twenty minutes or so of Willie’s set but I watched it from the stage about thirty feet behind Sister Bobbie’s piano. He sounded great, even spent time with his phrases, relishing their musicality. He looked old as hell, but distinguished. His pale, Indian profile clearly distinguishable as he turned to wipe the sweat from his face.
I don’t want to be too sentimental or just gush all over ‘em, but these two men came up in a different time. They are a gateway to the past. To a time when each city limit they entered greeted them with a custom sign, tailored to and for that community. Where the restaurants, bars and night spots spelled out where its inhabitants were from, where they were and where they might be going. Before every town looked the same, before McDonald’s and Starbucks and KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut homogenized the stripped landscape, washing the country in an emblematic fog of where the capital exponentially goes. Just like that landscape, torn from the American Indians and shaved to make way for the Manifest Destiny of the modern American marketplace, these two are still just trying to be true to Jimmie, Django, Ray, Hank, the Playboys, themselves and the music.