Willie for Christmas

Willie blew through Austin the week before Christmas, spreading cheer to both the reds and the blues. There's no visage to grace Austin like Willie Nelson, who did a day-long run through town on Thursday, demonstrating once again that there is no single figure quite as unifying as the Man from Abbott.

I squeezed my way to KGSR-FM's noontime concert in their upstairs conference room along with a gaggle of radio station listeners who won passes to the midday live appearance. KGSR's audience is a blue one, the hippie part of the redneck-hippie dynamic that Willie tapped into when he hit Austin some 32 years ago and established a new musical paradigm by bringing together folks from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum.

You would've expected Willie to cruise by and do an acoustic solo act, since many of the artist the station features are of the singer-songwriter ilk--the station's Broadcasts, Vol. 12 double CD compilation, the hottest selling album around town since November, leans heavily on acoustic But it was a Willie and family affair with two busloads of band and crew pulling into the radio mall direct from Davenport, Iowa and setting up for an impromptu 30 minute set. All the old familiars were in place: Bea Spears on bass, Jody Payne on guitar, Sister Bobbi on piano, Paul and Billy English trading off on the snare and brushes, and harp player Mickey Raphael dragging himself in, looking like he'd just rolled out of his bunk after a long winter's sleep.

The music was ragged but right, opening with "The Promised Land" and running through "Moving's Still Moving to Me", "It Will Always Be" the title song of his Nashville album, "Big Booty" from the same album, and wrapping up with his classic Christmas song "Pretty Papers", inspired by the blind couple who used to sell pencils on the street in downtown Fort Worth--a vivid childhood memory of mine--and a silly singalong version of "Jingle Bells".

It was the first time I'd seen Willie since visiting with him last June at his headquarters in Luck, Texas, while his arm was still in a cast following surgery for carpal-tunnel syndrome. Back then, it crossed my mind for the first time that he was indeed mortal and might not ever pick his battered ol' guitar, Trigger, again. But time healed that wound and he was picking and plucking just fine, weaving his lines on top and under and around the melody like a staggering drunk, only with such finesse it was like he planned it that way, affirming once again he's as much a jazz cat as he is a country music icon.

It was nice to have a seat less than 20 feet from where he was playing--a $200 seat in most concert settings--and to see the old crew, who've aged just about as gracefully as the front man has over the years. I hope they never stop.

Willie was in Austin for an appearance south of town at a restaurant that just popped up on the Interstate last month called the Texas Roadhouse, an afternoon appearance being promoted by KVET-FM, the country station whose audience is as red as KGSR-FM's is blue.
The restaurant is part of a chain that started up in Illinois but up until this point had no locations in Texas. Willie is a business partner in the Austin location, his investment largely being donation of some of his memorabilia (I guess they've run out of room on the walls of his headquarters in Luck) and his time in the form of his personal appearance. I'm guessing he's not going to do a lot of hang time there because Poodie's Hilltop Lounge is a whole lot closer to Luck and there's loads more places with top-shelf Chicken Fried Steak and real Texas barbecue around Austin. But at least the public has a Willie-version of the Hard Rock Cafe where they can connect with a living legend without having to know somebody to hustle an invite to Luck.

His photograph was in the daily paper today, hugging on a baby at the Texas Roadhouse appearance which attracted quite a crowd judging from the parking lot as I headed to the house yesterday evening.

Austin's lucky to claim him, even though his wife and most recent family brood spend most of their time on his place in Maui these days (hey, wouldn't you?).

He told the KGSR listeners he really is gonna release that reggae album he's been working on for the last 30 years someday soon and there's no reason to doubt him. Of course, last summer, he estimated he has over 1,000 finished tracks in the can out at Pedernales Studios. Someday, they'll all reach our ears, I bet, even though some may still be trickling out by the time the year 2100 rolls around.

Best of all, Willie was true to form. After his show, I went out and had lunch on the patio with the KGSR crew while visiting with the morning show's wonderful producer Afton Castello and Jody Denberg, the station's program director. After the Chat N' Chew I sauntered back inside by the conference center. The place had cleared out, all but for a few stragglers and Willie, shaking the last hands that reached out to touch him, staying until there was no one left but a sweet elderly woman and Cactus Pryor, as much a living legend as ol' Will.

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