Dave Matthews and Kacey Musgraves were among those feting Willie Nelson — Matthews in song, Musgraves in a speech — at the first official pre-Grammy event of the week Wednesday night. The occasion was the 12th annual gathering of the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing, where Nelson was accepting a lifetime achievement honor in a ballroom inside the Village Studios in West L.A., which once a year kicks all its clients out for one night to turn the mazelike three-story complex into the world’s greatest party pad.
On the same stage where a few years ago Neil Young gave an epic acceptance speech of more than 2100 words, Nelson accepted his plaque in a succinct 52: “It’s an honor. I want to thank the producers and engineers over the years for making me sound as good as they could. And I’m glad they liked me because they could have really screwed me up. But again, thanks to all of y’all and I’m glad to be here. Thank you.”
Matthews was also quick and to the point, in his praise of Nelson, saying that the 85-year-old singer was an inspiration in not letting any of the trappings of success go to his head. “You just have to look at that guy and then you realize, oh, there’s no reason really to be a dick in the world,” Matthews said, “because look how far this guy’s gotten being a f—ing great guy.” He performed a solo acoustic version of Nelson’s classic “Funny How Times Slips Away,” then his own chilling “Gravedigger,” which Nelson covered a decade ago.
Musgraves is one of the women of the hour, currently being up for Grammys, but was eager to cede the spotlight to the man of the millennium in a zinger-filled speech that was 10 times as long as the honoree’s own.
“One of my favorite things is that he has this unique ability to unite and really bring people together,” Musgraves said. “I mean, it’s unlike any artist I can really think of. Underdogs, outliers, Republicans, rappers, presidents — everyone loves Willie. Speaking of presidents, I asked Willie one time … I said, ‘Come on, what are you doing? Why don’t you just run for president?’ He was like, [pause] ‘Because I’d win.’ Touché.”
Musgraves described Nelson as being “literally God” in their shared home state of Texas, where “little kids are still dressing up like him for Halloween.” She’s also visited him in his other home in Hawaii, where “I’ve seen him roaming around his backyard, hosting people and making them feel comfortable, walking around in his socks outside… It’s cool to see someone who has accomplished just an unfathomable amount of things always being the same no matter who he’s talking to; he treats everyone with the same kindness. He’s kind, he’s funny and he’s present when you’re talking to him — and he doesn’t have to be. … His songs are so iconic and so classic, they’re never going to die. And let’s get real, he’s probably not either.”
The evening was surprisingly short on weed references — or odors, for that matter — but the primary producer of the latter part of his career, Nashville stalwart Buddy Cannon, did allude to such when he followed Musgraves’ speech with his own. He recalled co-producing an album for Nelson with Kenny Chesney in Nashville, during which “one of the label guys spent too much time on Willie’s bus, and when it came time for him to go home — he lived four miles away — he got lost.”
Cannon marveled at Nelson’s ability to plow through recording sessions and get useable takes in quick multiples. He recalled a session where both Tanya Tucker and Jessica Simpson stopped by to ask Nelson to contribute to their records, which he spent three hours obliging before returning to his own. “We got back to work and we were flying through these songs. After what seemed like a short while, the engineer came out and said, ‘Boys, I gotta take a break. We’ve cut 10 songs in the last three hours.’ Willie looked up and said, “Ain’t it amazing what you can do when you get out of C sharp?’” (You know it’s a knowing industry crowd when a C-sharp joke gets the biggest laugh of the night.)
Nelson did get one quip of his own off. Accepting a giant plaque from Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, he said, “Did we just graduate?”
Following Matthews’ performance, he remained on stage as Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah and members of the Nelson family band emerged for their own short set of dad’s material, including a duet between Matthews and Lukas on “Crazy.” For the close, Nelson senior returned to sing “Living in the Promiseland” and “On the Road Again.” After cupping his hand to his ear to get the crowd to sing the line “I just can’t wait to get on the road again,” Nelson added, “Me too.”
Even off-tour, he’s not staying fallow. Cannon, after noting that he’d just done a count and he and Nelson had recorded 207 songs and 13 albums together, added that “we’re doing another one tomorrow on Venice beach somewhere. You never know where you’re going to end up recording with Willie.”
Things were slightly more businesslike earlier in the proceedings, as key members of the Producers & Engineers wing saluted Portnow, in his final year as president, and talked about diversity issues in their part of the industry and topical matters like producers’ role in the recent Music Modernization Act.
Producer/engineer Ed Cherney, who was greeted by the audience with a chant of “Ed-dee! Ed-dee!,” heralded Portnow for “bold-headed stubbornness that. against all odds. for the first time in our history, producers and engineers are included by name in (congressional legislation like) the Music Modernization Act and the AMP (Allocation for Music Producers) Act.. That’s a legacy that will impact all of us in our profession and, going forward, the people that are going to come after us. It’s going to impact our prof lives forever. So if you happen to see Neil down at the unemployment office, at least offer to buy him a cup of coffee.”
Portnow, in his final speech overseeing a P&E Wing event, harked back to 2001, when the Music Producers Guild became part of the Academy. “Combining the two organizations did not prove seamless,” he said, “and there was a chance the wing would be disbanded,” as “we had some interesting people and interesting times,” before they hired longstanding executive director Maureen Droney and “were out of trouble. With the Academy’s support, the wing took flight, and you’ll pardon the pun, but it really has.” He mentioned the promotion of high-res audio and standards for metadata credits as well as the aforementioned congressional acts as key achievements. “People in our industry will be talking about what happened this year for years to come — I really believe that,” Portnow said.
The P&E Wing gathering was its 12th (11 of those held at the Village, the one exception being a field trip last year to the Rainbow Room in New York City). Previous recipients of the honor afforded Nelson include last year’s kudos for Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, preceded by Young, Jack White, T Bone Burnett, Nile Rodgers, Rick Rubin, Jimmy Iovine, Quincy Jones & A Schmitt, Chris Blackwell, Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and Arif Mardin & Tom Dowd.