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Though his touring life as one of country music’s most celebrated icons has taken him all over the world, Willie Nelson’s heart is still in Texas. With his birth state’s flag draped large behind him and the Family Band he’s toured with since the Seventies, Nelson took the Celebrate Brooklyn! stage just as the sun set over Prospect Park. His legendary locks have long since faded to gray, but Nelson will always be known as the Red-Headed Stranger, a travelin’ man with a million stories to tell and a way of telling them through songs that have captivated audiences all over the world.
At 82 years of age, his voice isn’t what it used to be; he doesn’t sing the way he does on those old recordings so much as speak his lyrics more like an afterthought, asking the audience for help with a wave of his arm or by holding his hand to his ear. Beginning his set nonchalantly with “Whiskey River,” from the 1973 breakout Shotgun Willie, Nelson quickly asserted himself as a singer-songwriter first and foremost. Whatever weird cultural hero he’s become as an outspoken proponent of marijuana legalization and self-confessed stoner, the simple truth of his life’s work came through in hits like “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and “On the Road Again.” He wasted no time in playing these early on in the set, as if to remind all the city slickers on the lawn that no matter what they’d heard about Willie, he remains a simple man with a beat-up guitar, a true performer at heart.
Part of the reason Nelson’s persona is so enduring is because the earmarks of it have gone largely unchanged in the last four and a half decades, since he shunned popular country and branded himself an “outlaw,” in turn defining a subgenre around that identity. Whether it’s the two long braids that hang down his shoulders — just last year, a pair he clipped in 1983 and gifted to Waylon Jennings to commemorate his fellow outlaw’s sobriety sold at auction for $37,000 to an undisclosed bidder — or the crocheted red, white, and blue guitar strap tethering him to “Trigger,” his beloved Martin N-20, Nelson’s had a long time to get comfortable with his identity, and he wears it proudly, no matter how worn out it might seem. Trigger is the perfect example. The only thing more shocking than the state of the cherished, gashed acoustic guitar is the golden tone he somehow manages to produce with it, despite its condition. On “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” from 1981’s Honeysuckle Rose, the sound it made was so beautiful it was nearly heartbreaking.
About halfway through the set, Nelson stopped to introduce another permanent fixture of his career: his backing band, known as the Family. His sister, Bobbie, played a little piano ditty while he identified each of them one by one — Kevin Smith on upright bass, who joined after the death of Bee Spears in 2011; Mickey Raphael on harmonica; and the English brothers, Billy and Paul, on the drums. While Billy, like Smith, is a relatively new addition to the Family (he signed on five years ago to help Paul out after a stroke made it difficult for him to continue drumming on his own), the Family play as a seamless ensemble, almost an extension of Nelson himself. As tribute to that, Nelson sang “Me and Paul” about his rough days on the road with the drummer. He removed his cowboy hat just before he did so, replacing it with a red bandana he wore for the remainder of the show.
While “Me and Paul” acts as straightforward autobiography, the rest of the set taken as a whole also makes a great rough sketch of Nelson’s best moments. He took ownership of songs that he penned that were made famous by others, like “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” written in years when he was still struggling to make it in Nashville. But he also had a way of making others’ songs his own, as with “Always on My Mind,” for which he won a Grammy in 1982. He paid tribute to the greats who came before him with “Georgia on My Mind” and “Shoeshine Man,” among others, as well as a medley of Hank Williams classics.
Perhaps openers Old Crow Medicine Show said it best as they played to a bandshell that was already full of old-time country fans: Kicking off this leg of Nelson’s tour as a supporting act was, said Ketch Secor, a “hillbilly dream come true.” Though it’s rare to find hillbillies in the Big Apple, Nelson’s Celebrate Brooklyn! performance brought out the hillbilly in all of us, if only for one lovely evening.