What I learned from Willie Nelson.

I went to the Willie Nelson show last night at the State Theatre. I saw him a few years ago when he played at Miller Auditorium. I think that place is too nice for Willie Nelson. The State was perfect, though. It was hot and crowded and Willie was much loved.

I was brought to tears two times during the show. Not because anything was sad. Willie may be old, but he’s far from decrepit. There were just times when I was watching him play that beat up old Martin guitar when I was just deeply touched. There’s some wild abandon in his playing.  I never really appreciated it before, but it was incredible last night.

Aside: That reminds me of Meditations by John Coltrane.  The first time I listened to it, everything was just right. I had never heard anything like it and it completely rocked me. Every time I’ve listened to it since then it just sounds like noise to me.

Anyway. Back to Willie. Here’s what I learned last night.

Time is a human construct and it is the artist’s right and privilege to screw around with it. On any given night, I will play with time a little bit. I will change a strumming pattern to fall directly out of sync with the drummer or bass player. I’ll sing a line behind the beat. Or I’ll syncopate a line in a solo or something. But those instances are momentary. And there’s nothing chaotic about it. I’m still feeling things out around the beat of the drum. That is child’s play compared to an evening with Willie Nelson. Every song he sings is sung with a cadence that is more conversational than musical. And his guitar playing is frantic at times and he plays “the next chord” half a measure early which is the kind of thing that doesn’t usually work for me.

Songs matter. Willie played for an hour and a half or something like that. I think there were two piano solos and two harmonica solos all night. He took three or four solos, probably. That’s it. The longest song he played was maybe four minutes.

Willie just turned 80 years old. I’ll turn 40 this year. I’m half his age but there’s no way I’m half as cool as Willie. And I’m not talking about all the pot smoking. That’s all fine, but I’ve never thought that made anyone cool. But the songs that have lived in his head are amazing.

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