(The following story was written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)
Whenever Willie Nelson’s bus rolls into town, actor and host Don Johnson said, you know you’re in for a good time, a big party. Wednesday night at DAR Constitution Hall was no exception.
The Library of Congress awarded its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song to Nelson on Wednesday with a musical party featuring more than a dozen of Nelson’s buddies performing some of his best-known and best-loved tunes.
“The Gershwin award is one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life – and a lot of things happen in 82 years,” Nelson told the audience. “This is one of the best for sure, and I really do appreciate it.”
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Nelson wrote country-music classics, reshaped the genre through the “outlaw” movement, produced more than 60 country and pop hits, acted in films and on television and, along the way, became a big star – a bearded, braided American icon sporting a bandana and playing a beat-up, autograph-covered guitar named Trigger.
The Library’s celebration of Nelson’s legacy began Tuesday in the Jefferson Building. Nelson attended a luncheon in the Members Room, heard the LC Chorale perform “Crazy,” snapped a group selfie with his family in the Main Reading Room, viewed treasures in the Whittall Pavilion and picked up Burl Ives’ guitar from the display and ripped out a ditty.
On Wednesday, the party moved to Constitution Hall, where musicians Neil Young, Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Leon Bridges, Raul Malo, Ana Gabriel, Buckwheat Zydeco, Cyndi Lauper and Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah Nelson performed some of his greatest hits.
Young, wearing a long fringed coat and backed by a band that featured Lukas and Micah on guitars, kicked off the program with a two-fer of Nelson favorites: “Whiskey River” and “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer),” a tune first popularized by one of Nelson’s own musical influences, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Following the performance by Young, Johnson took the stage, welcomed the audience and surveyed the members of Congress in the seats.
“Leave it to Willie – only he can bring together Republicans and Democrats. You may have to stay here in Washington, Willie,” Johnson said to laughter. “A whole gang of Willie’s good buddies will be here serenading him. So, Willie, sit back, relax and enjoy the show. God knows, you’ve earned it.”
Bridges then delivered a slow-rolling version of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” the first in a string of Nelson classics: “Crazy” (Malo), “Remember Me” (Simon and Brickell), “Pancho and Lefty” (Cash), “Georgia on My Mind” (Johnson), “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” (Krauss), “Seven Spanish Angels” (Krauss and Johnson), a Spanish-language rendition of “I Never Cared for You” (Gabriel) and “Man with the Blues” (Simon and Buckwheat Zydeco).
After Simon and Buckwheat Zydeco exited, Nelson entered, accompanied by Acting Librarian of Congress David Mao, Sen. Richard Durbin, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Steny Hoyer, Candice Miller and Gregg Harper, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress.
“For more than five decades, Willie Nelson has inspired new generations of songwriters with his melodies, harmonies, voice and heart,” Mao said. “Tonight, we recognize this son of Texas for his matchless contributions to the musical legacy of our nation and for the world.”
With that, Nelson strapped on Trigger and embarked on a brief set of his own: “Night Life,” “Living in the Promiseland” and, with Lauper as a duet partner, a cover of the Gershwins’ classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
Not everything went to script: After Lauper exited the stage, Nelson was informed that a malfunction in the broadcast truck necessitated that they, rather than call the whole thing off, do the whole thing over.
“We had a problem in the truck, and we need to do that one again. Is that cool?” he asked to cheers.
Lauper returned, and she and Nelson made a second go-round with the Gershwins’ musical disagreement: She said potato, he said potahto, she said tomato, he said tomahto.
Nelson closed the show with a performance of his signature tune, inviting all the cast and the audience to sing along to “On the Road Again” – a few fans went him one better and danced in the aisle.
Afterward, the man who once wrote “turn out the lights, the party’s over” approached the mic with an idea to keep the party going.
“We had a little trouble in the truck,” Nelson quipped. “We’re gonna do it all over again.”
The audience surely wouldn’t have minded.
The Gershwin Prize concert honoring Willie Nelson is scheduled to be broadcast on Jan. 15 on PBS.
*All photos by Shawn Miller
Gershwin Prize Sponsors
Major funding for the event was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and public television viewers. Additional funding was provided by The Ira and Leonore Gershwin Fund, The Leonore S. Gershwin Trust for the benefit of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board and the Library of Congress James Madison Council.