I probably saw Willie Nelson in concert before I liked him. It was either at Hunter Mountain, as part of one of the two Country Music Festivals they used to have each summer (which I was too young to truly appreciate), or at Radio City Music Hall, when my sister got tickets to the Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel/John Anderson show that was part of the "Country Takes Manhattan" festival (also too young to appreciate). It's hard not to like Willie after you've seen him, though I've certainly met people who've actually found it pretty easy. Let us not speak of them.
Anyway, there are many great parts to the Willie show: the Texas flag lowering as the Family kicks into "Whiskey River," the ritual tossing of the bandanna into the crowd, sister Bobbie pounding out "Down Yonder," the Hank Williams medley. But when I first started going to Willie shows as a younger man, I was most intrigued by the postshow autograph signing from the lip of the stage. I can't remember if he did it at Radio City, but I know he did it at one of the Hunter Mountain shows, because I have pictures (and I had Willie sign my "Willie and the Family" album there, the first of roughly two dozen Willie signatures now in my possession). It's best described as barely organized chaos, as people thrust pieces of paper, albums, CDs, and the occasional child at Willie in hopes of obtaining his blessing, which he dispenses willingly. Here's an example from a Hunter Mountain show (note the baby being thrust forward on the left...I wasn't making that up):
And, always, at the side of the stage, keeping a close eye on things was a guy with an impressive beer gut (I can't quite tell if that's him in the white hat in the picture, but if it isn't, that's his body type for sure). He would make sure things didn't get out of hand and pull Willie away when it was time to finally leave the stage. That guy, I later discovered through much Willie-related reading was the awesomely named Poodie Locke, who served as Willie's stage manager and all-around wrangler.
Poodie Locke died last Wednesday from a heart attack at the age of 56. I just saw him at the side of the stage at the New Brunswick show last month. Sad to think he's gone, and to think of both his family and the Family mourning his passing. But as his own motto was "There are no bad days," I'm sure they're carrying on.
The first Willie Nelson studio album (well, cassette) I loved was the Don Was-produced "Across the Borderline," which featured some covers, a few Willie originals, and a bunch of Willie duets. There weren't many cassettes that I almost completely wore out (and, full disclosure, one was the soundtrack to "Cocktail"), but I easily wore down both sides of "Across the Borderline." I still don't think there's a bad song on there, but one of my favorites was Willie's duet with Bonnie Raitt on "Gettin' Over You," one of the finest country heartbreak songs I'd heard at the time, and after a crush gone bad, I'd collected a few at that point. I've collected several more since, and it's still up there. Check it:
Why do I still write?
Why do I still call?
Why do I still think there's hope for us at all?
These are the things I hate but they're the things I do
To get over you
Sunsets make me cry
Old pictures make me grin
But I don't really care to see your face again
These are the things I say, but they're so hard to do
Like gettin' over you
You gotta believe that there's a reason that we surrender up our hearts
But there's a vantage point and it takes some time to find
Where you can see how all the pieces fit as you watch 'em fall apart
Now I don't think it's right
And you don't know what's wrong
My heart keeps asking me just where do we belong
It's not as though my life ain't hard enough to do
Try gettin' over you
You gotta believe that there's a reason...
Now other people say
Stop living in the past
But when there's nothin' left, it's your memory that lasts
It's later than you think but still this isn't through
This gettin' over you
Now it's later than you think and still this isn't through
This gettin' over you
That song was written by Stephen Bruton, a Texas songwriter and frequent Kris Kristofferson collaborator who died Saturday from throat cancer, at the age of 60.
Thanks for the song, Mr. Bruton.
Rest in peace, Texans. You'll be missed.