Library Bestows Gershwin Prize on Willie Nelson

(The following story was written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)

Acting Librarian David Mao presents the Gershwin Prize to Willie Nelson.

Acting Librarian David Mao presents the Gershwin Prize to Willie Nelson.

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.”

Neil Young

Neil Young

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.

Host Don Johnson

Host Don Johnson

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.”

Paul Simon and Edie Brickell

Paul Simon and Edie Brickell

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.”

Buckwheat Zydeco

Buckwheat Zydeco

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.

Willie Nelson and Cyndi Lauper

Willie Nelson and Cyndi Lauper

“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.

Rosanne Cash Curates a Carnegie Hall Exhibit with AFC

(The following post was written by Stephen Winick and originally appeared on Folklife Today, the blog of the American Folklife Center.) When Rosanne Cash, recognized by the Library as one of the most compelling figures in popular music, was asked to curate a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, she graciously brought […]

Pinterest This: For Hire

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, monthly job gains averaged 235,000 over the last three months. Many of these jobs and industries didn’t even exist 10, 20, even 30 years ago – coder, software engineer, social media strategist, Zumba instructor, to name a few. But, just as new jobs are created, others become completely […]

The Ghost Writer of the “Seaman’s Ghost”

The following post has been written by Sierriana Terry, one of 36 college students who participated in the 10-week Library of Congress Junior Fellow Summer Intern Program. A senior at North Carolina Central University studying music performance with a licensure in K-12 education, Terry worked in the Library’s Music Division. Her plan after the program […]

Library in the News: July 2015 Edition

The Library’s announcement of Willie Nelson as the next recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music dominated the headlines in July, with more than 1,000 news stories running nationally and internationally. “His voice, seemingly worn by time and burdened by experience even in his earliest recordings, attracted new audiences to country,” reported David Morgan for […]

Pics of the Week: Step Right Up, Folks!

Today we bring you a trio of images from this week’s display of items found in the Library’s collections by our Library of Congress Junior Fellows–36 interns from around the nation who dig through our collections during their 10-week stays and showcase their findings at summer’s end. Chosen each year through a competitive program, the […]

Two Worlds Collide – Erich Leinsdorf Meets Janis Joplin

The following post has been written by Kevin McBrien, one of 36 college students participating in the Library of Congress 2015 Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program. McBrien graduated in May from California State University at Long Beach with a bachelor’s degree in music history and literature. He begins graduate school in the fall and hopes […]

Curators’ Picks: The Art of Theatrical Design

The following is a feature from the May/June 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. Co-curators Daniel Boomhower and Walter Zvonchenko of the Music Division highlight items from the Library’s exhibition, “Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design.” This week is your last chance to stop by the Library to see what’s on […]

Willie Nelson to Receive Gershwin Prize

(The following is an article featured in the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette, written by editor Mark Hartsell.) So great is his impact on music, even folks who never bought a country album instantly recognize Willie Nelson: the headband, grizzled beard and long braids; the quavering, nasal voice and off-beat phrasing; the sound […]

Inquiring Minds: Music Scholar Uncovers Forgotten Songs from “My Fair Lady”

The musical “My Fair Lady,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” has been praised as the “perfect musical” and is filled with some of the most recognized songs in American musical theater. The hit show opened on Broadway in 1956 and starred Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins. Harrison […]