That’s how this story’s going to end … just so’s you know.
I am coming off of the most fabulous 4th of July weekend ever. EVER. So fabulous that I’m a little embarrassed to even write about it because it will sound like I’m bragging. (Which, truth be told, I kinda am.) The story is long, but even so I am leaving out volumes of funny and amazing stuff that happened. Here goes ….
My kids were gone so I headed down to Austin to spend the weekend with Jen (you know Jen). Jen’s kids were out of town, too, and we figured (correctly) we could find some kind of fun to get into. We bought tickets to Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic at the new Backyard. One week before the concert, Jen met and befriended legendary songwriter Sonny Throckmorton, who thought he might be able to score us some backstage passes. For everyone’s information, these kinds of things happen to Jen fairly regularly. She’s got the magic … or maybe she’s just blond and hot and friendly as hell. Also for everyone’s information, these kinds of things do not regularly happen to me.
Saturday afternoon Sonny called and invited us out to his house in the Hill Country. “His house” turned out to be the house Willie lived in “during his IRS years” … a big blue barn of a home with a perfect backdoor view of the incredible Texas sunsets. We spent the afternoon sitting around the living room listening to Sonny and Bee Spears (Willie’s bass player for the past 42 years) and another Memphis songwriter named Ricky Ray Rector play guitar and stand up bass and sing the many, many songs they’ve written over the years, more than a few of which have hit #1. Bee serenaded Jen with the most depressing song ever written that just happened to have the name “Jennifer” in the title. Sonny sang the hit he wrote and George Strait recorded—”This Is Where the Cowboy Rides Away”—just for me. These guys were good, and they were doing what they loved, and watching them play the music they had pulled out of the ether over the years was pretty amazing.
Saturday night we went to the Saxon Pub to hear Gary Nicholson play. Nicholson wrote “One More Last Chance,” “Better Word for Love,” “Squeeze Me In,” “Fallin and Flyin,” and a bunch of other stuff you’d know if you heard. He was joined by the incomparable Mickey Raphael (Willie’s harmonica player for the past 37 years) and we had front row seats. Sidebar: If there was a woman in the audience without a puddle of drool under her chin after watching Mickey play that harp, she was a dead woman.
On Sunday we headed back out to Sonny’s, hoping to head to the concert immediately. Bee told us they had run out of backstage passes, but he was going to five us these little blue wristbands “that should work just fine.” (Since we had had the exact same wristbands on at the Saxon the night before, I had my doubts. Worry #1 that we weren’t actually getting backstage.) Bee wasn’t playing until around 6 pm and none of the pros were in any rush to get to the concert. So … we went fishing. This was Worry #2 that the actual backstage for Willie thing wasn’t really going to happen and this was when I started thinking about how embarrassing it was going to be to tell people after the weekend was over that I didn’t really get to meet Willie after all. But you just have to learn to roll with these things, so … fishing we went.
And fishing was fabulous. Gorgeous secluded cove on Lake Travis. Spectacular recording studio leading down picturesque stone steps to a boat house and some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve seen. Kinda (actually, exactly) like this:
Jen and I caught some perch for them to use as catfish bait later that night. We sat on the dock and soaked up some rays and talked about how absolutely perfect life was at that moment … Willie or no Willie. The sun was shining and we felt free and absolutely peaceful. Do you know those moments that are so perfect that you just want to inhale them? To bring them within and give them a permanent place of residence inside? And so you try to do just that, as if breathing in as deeply as possible will somehow preserve the essence of that moment … that it will somehow write it indelibly on your brain, so that it can’t or won’t be forgotten? There were many of those moments while we were fishing and sunning down at that boat dock.
After fishing, we finally headed to the concert. Bee drove Jen’s car, so that when we got to the back gate he could tell the security guards, “I’m Willie’s bass player” and they could let us right on in. I don’t know if they recognized him or if he just looked like he’s in Willie’s band (because he really, really does), but we were in. Blue wristbands working so far. We parked and went immediately to Bee’s tour bus to sit in the AC. Um … Worry #3 that we were going to just sit in a tour bus all day and not actually, you know, see any music. We spent the next couple of hours hopping from tour bus to tour bus, eating brisket and drinking beers offered by the kindness of strangers. Meeting some really interesting people that have been touring with or following Willie for four or more decades. Listening to the funniest guys I’ve ever met in my life tell stories about life on the road with Willie and Waylon and the boys. It was a scene. At one point, Bee and Ricky Ray headed up on stage to set up. Jen and I tried to follow but got totally shut down by the stage security. Apparently the blue paper wrist bands did NOT entitle us to head up on stage and watch the show. Worry #4. So we hung around looking pathetic for awhile and then went visiting for more brisket and beer. And THAT’S when the magic started happening again.
We were visiting with some lovely folks who I’m pretty sure bankroll a whole lotta Willlie, when this adorable pixieish aging blond cheerleader type named Lynnette climbed on board the bus. Lynnette could’ve been 40 or 65, there was no way to tell, but this whole Willie’s Picnic thing was obviously her bailiwick. She chatted for a minute and then said she was heading over, and the money followed her. The fabulously nice John Giles, a friend of the musicians who’d been hanging out with us the past few days and who knew how badly Jen and I wanted to go hear music, pulled us aside and said, in this voice crazy full with import, like he was giving us the keys to the kingdom, “Stick with Lynnette. Don’t let her get too far ahead of you. She will show you some things.” God bless John, because Lynnette marched up to the side of the huge fence surrounding the stage, said hey to some guy standing behind, and the next thing I knew the fence was pulled apart for Lynnette, we all squeezed through, and then … we were on stage.
On stage with Kris Kristofferson, who, as if on cue, began singing “Me and Bobby McGee.” And I’m standing 20 feet behind him, and looking at him and then out at a sea of 7,500 concert watchers, and feeling like I’d just gone through the looking glass. I had told Jen earlier in the day that if I could hear Kristofferson sing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” live, I’d consider the day a success. And then he did. And really and truly, I could’ve died happy right then and there. Except that I’d have missed him singing “Help Me Make It Through the Night” next, and that would’ve been a crying shame.
Security kept looking at us as if they knew we weren’t supposed to be there, but since we were with Lynnette and the money people, they didn’t dare say anything to us. Any eventually they stopped caring who these two random pushing-40-year-old women were, and at that point, we owned the place. We were there on stage for the rest of the night, for Ray Price and Leon Russell and Jack Ingram and a bunch of Willie’s kids performing. Around 9, after night fell, we watched fireworks from the back of the stage. I met Mickey Raphael (sigh). Jen met Kristofferson (she wins). We still hadn’t met Willie, but we were a little past caring.
Willie didn’t come out to play until close to midnight. By that time, Jen and I were perched on seats just to the side of the band, just loving the hell out of every single minute. Willie was singing, Bee was playing bass, Mickey was blowing that sexy harmonica, Paul English was playing drums, Willie’s older sister—”Sister Bobbie”— was tearing up the piano, Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel was playing guitar, David Allan Coe sang a little and Kristofferson came back out to sing a few with Willie. There was a breeze blowing and a whole lot more of those “please don’t let me forget this perfect moment” kind of moments.
Paul, Ray, Mickey, Kris, Bee
Mickey, Bee, David Allan Coe, Sister Bobbie, Willie
Around 1 a.m. Willie finished his set and the crowd went wild. The lights came up and the band played Willie’s exit music. He waved to the throngs of people and started walking off stage. And then he saw us and stopped, I kid you not. He made eye contact and waved and then saw Sonny sitting with us and turned a full 180 and made a beeline straight toward us. He greeted Sonny warmly and then Sonny introduced us to Willie. The band was still playing exit music and the crowd was still giving Willie a standing ovation. And there, in front of 7,500 people, at the last possible moment of the show, as the icing on the cake of a perfectly perfect holiday weekend, Willie Nelson shook my hand and kissed my cheek and told me Happy 4th of July. His beard was soft but scratchy, and up close he had the kindest eyes and nicest smile. I get now why people love Willie—why people automatically think of him as their friend. He just has that way about him. And then he walked off stage—Jen and I were the last part of the show.
We followed Willie’s bus out of the parking lot, laughed hysterically as Bee told us over and over again the drilling Willie’s wife was absolutely positively giving him for kissing us onstage, dropped the musicians back at Sonny’s, begged off on a 3 a.m. fishing trip, thanked them all profusely, exchanged hugs of the did-we-all-just-have-a-crazy-day-together-or-what variety, and headed home. Jen and I laughed and squealed the whole drive—a very punchy “Did all of that really just happen?!?” kind of conversation.
All those worries about not hearing any music … about not getting backstage … about not meeting Willie? Pointless. It all happened, in truly fine style. As Sonny laughed and said after seeing our excitement when Willie kissed us and walked offstage, “HA! I couldn’t have written that better myself!” You said it, Sonny. This weekend all it took was a game attitude, a little patience and a magic friend to create a truckful of great memories.
Divorce Perk #101: Willie Freaking Nelson, y’all.