Willie Nelson could have warned mamas not to let their babies grow up to be Americana musicians, but too late — he’s one of the core heroes and spiritual gurus of that roots-based movement, and some of its leading lights gathered at L.A.’s Troubadour on Grammy weekend to salute Nelson by covering his songs, showing their knowledge of his six-decade career with a gratifyingly well attuned deep dive into his catalog.
Although most of the lineup counted as “next generation” — or the generation after that — at least one performer, John Prine, who was set to achieve a lifetime achievement Grammy the following night, counts as a contemporary of Nelson (who wasn’t present for the serenades). Another, Shooter Jennings, counts as an unofficial family member, having grown up around Nelson as the son of fellow outlaw-era country stars Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter.
The evening brought in other Grammy nominees or performers who were spending awards eve at the Troubadour, like Yola, whose four nominations going into the telecast included best new artist, and the War & Treaty, the husband-wife duo who got a featured slot in Ken Ehrlich’s Grammys finale of “I Sing the Body Electric.” The all-star trio I’m With Her also appeared on the eve of accepting the award for best American roots song.
Other stars of a genre that’s too humble to tout stardom included Rhiannon Giddens, Joe Henry, the Highwomen’s Natalie Hemby, the Watkins Family Hour, Andrew Bird and members of Calexico and Iron & Wine.
Remarkably, this may be the first occasion ever dedicated to Nelson that was so focused on the still undersung genius of his two-thirds of a century of songwriting, there wasn’t a single pot or bus-fumes joke. The closest thing was Jennings relating a sweet childhood anecdote: “I don’t remember this, but my dad told stories that when I was younger, one time Willie — I guess he was high, and I was 5 — and he was hanging out under the dining room table at our house and I was pulling on his braids. (Nelson is) endearing, kind, real and big — yet small. That makes me feel good,” Jennings said, referencing their shared 5’6″ status.
Jennings thanked host Jed Hilly for his stewardship of the Americana Music Association, which puts on two of the best historically minded concerts of the year, each and every year. One is the annual Americana Honors awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in September, and the other is this much more intimate, 500-capacity Grammy eve show at the Troubadour, which in the past has saluted artists from Emmylou Harris to Loretta Lynn to Glenn Frey.
Jennings said he was “very grateful (to Hilly) for creating the Americana wave and all that. I have an Americana Grammy from the Brandi Carlile record that we did.” (He coproduced “By the Way I Forgive You,” a Grammy favorite last year.) “That little category would not exist if it weren’t for Jed.”
The scion of the Jennings family was closing the show — a position that deeply embarrassed him, following John Prine, he said, explaining that Tanya Tucker had been supposed to join him for a duet from the “Phases & Stages” album, but had been dealing with bronchitis and had to save her voice for her Grammy performance.
“You kind of take things for granted growing up in this environment… But when I got older, the record that really got me was ‘Phases & Stages,’ which was a really beautiful record,” Jennings said. “It’s a man’s and a woman’s perspective of a divorce and both side of that, and even though I don’t think necessarily it’s lifelike for him, the way that he told the stories of that record are so great. There was a point in time when I discovered ‘Phases & Stages’ and it was bigger than all of my dad and Willie … it was a moment when you really understand an artist for the first time.”
Prine had a more peculiar anecdote come to mind. He recalled going to one of Nelson’s celebrated all-star shows in Texas in the early 1970s, “where people were (still) thinking about Woodstock. It was the first show where there was a bunch of hippies and bunch of rednecks and they were all drinking beer and getting along, and it was all because of Willie.
“It was hot as the devil that day, and that night I get a phone call and they say, ‘Willie’s having a party in his room.’ … Sitting on this sofa was Waylon, Leon Russell, Tom T. Hall, Doug Sahm (of the Sir Douglas Quintet). I’d give anything to have that sofa today, man, I’ll tell you. And there was two clowns from Ringling Brothers. I had a half-hour conversation with those two clowns. I got two good songs out of it. One was ‘That’s the Way the World Goes Round’; I got the line ‘Naked as the eyes of a clown.’ And the other song was ‘The Other Side of Town’: ‘The clown puts his makeup on upside down so he wears a smile even when he wears a frown.’ And that’s just from a half-hour of Willie’s party, so thank you, Willie.”
Prine sang Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk,” which he introduced as “kind of a religious song.” As the only artist on the bill besides Jennings to get a second number, he then brought out Sara Watkins to duet with him on Nelson’s heartrending holiday perennial, “Pretty Paper.”
“Everybody who knows me very well knows I’m just crazy about Christmas,” explained Prine, who does indeed have one of the better modern holiday EP to his credit. “I got a Christmas tree up all year long. It’s a white one with bubble lights and it’s got nothing but Elvis records and a few John Prine records (as ornaments). And I keep that sucker lit 24 hours, seven days a week. Because you know if you shut the lights off, that’s what wears ‘em out.”
Among the Troubadour show’s show-stoppers were a still major-key but bluesier acoustic reading of “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Joe Henry, a Yola performance of “Always on My Mind,” and Giddens being joined by recent piano cohort Francesco Turrisi for “Crazy.” Newcomers making a big impression included Sierra Ferrell, offering a slightly jazzy take on “Night Life.” Gregory Alan Isakov brought out all the smiling heartbreak in “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and the frontmen for Iron & Wine and Calexico doing a stunning reinterpretation of “On the Road Again” as a bittersweet covered-wagon anthem.