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The Next Waltz Celebrates Willie Nelson’s 89th Birthday On His 90th

Saturday marked 90 years to the day since the remarkable and resilient Willie Nelson was born to Ira and Myrle Nelson in Abbott, TX. The great songwriter, singer, and American original was celebrated over two nights this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl with star emcees like Owen Wilson and Jennifer Garner and an otherworldly cast of performers that included Neil Young, Keith Richards, Snoop Dogg, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, The Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Tom Jones, and Norah Jones, who sang with an 86-year-old Kris Kristofferson.

That wasn’t the week's only commemorative event for Willie though. Billy Strings (who also performed in LA), released the new single “California Sober,” a duet with Nelson that he wrote with bluegrass songwriting veteran Jon Weisberger. Also you’ll want to check out an album released Friday that lets us enjoy a well-cast 89th Willie birthday staged one year ago. It was more modest than this weekend’s concert, but it’s also more Texas. How’s that for a paradox?

One Night In Texas: The Next Waltz’s Tribute To The Red Headed Stranger pairs a dozen standouts of Americana and roots country music with a crack band under the direction of Bruce Robison, and while it may not be as much fun as being there under the stars at Nelson’s Luck Ranch, it’s a valuable memento of how much Texas loves its songwriting godfather. The Next Waltz is the shape-shifting music production and promotion company founded about seven years ago by Robison. We covered them here.And while TNW doesn’t release a ton of recorded music, you can be assured that what they do is excellent and available on vinyl.

“To put together a night of WillieNelson music is a bit of a dream for me,” writes Robison in the album sleeve. “His songs and the vibe of The Family band was so formative that it is hard to measure.” Yet he doesn’t need to measure or find the words. The musicians bring the testimony.

The album’s mix of famous and less-famous songs launches with Vincent Neil Emerson singing a quick-rolling “Bloody Mary Morning,” just to set the tone with a mellow drink. Margo Price, fellow cannabis slinger, sings “Shotgun Willie,” the title track of Willie’s pivotal 1973 album that marked his return to Texas and his move from RCA Records to Atlantic. Nathaniel Rateliff gets the call for two especially important and tender tunes that need a singer as good as he is - “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and “Crazy.” The latter features tinkling piano by Emily Gimble, granddaughter of Texas fiddle legend Johnny Gimble. She’s on the verge of giving birth and playing the show on permission of her physician, who was there, according to the notes.

Also appearing twice are the incomparable Shinyribs (“I Gotta Get Drunk” plus “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and Robison himself, who takes on a couple of more obscure tunes in “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” and “(How Will I Know) I’m Falling In Love Again.” And arguably the biggest names on the collection - Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle - deliver truly moving takes on “Night Life” and “Pancho and Lefty” respectively. It’s the sound of artists who get what the legacy means and who wanted Willie (who was on hand but not on this album) to know how much he’s loved.

As for Nelson himself, he’s coming off a double win at February’s Grammy Awards, nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the release in March of a collection of songs by Harlan Howard.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org