Call The Spin cynics if you like, but we knew better than to hem and haw or look a gift horse in the mouth when we were offered an invitation to watch Willie Nelson celebrate his 80th birthday with a taping of CMT Crossroads — a taping slated to air in late June, with cameos from Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Leon Russell, Jamey Johnson and Ashley Monroe. Rather, we responded with a gleeful, "Yes please, when and where?" Turns out the "when" was to be Thursday, April 18, and the "where" was Jack White's Third Man Records.
Now, The Spin has caught many a show in TMR's show space, the Blue Room, but this taping was to be the first live concert to take place in the compound's recently completed warehouse next-door. According to one Third Man employee, this was likely just a one-off — CMT and/or Willie wanted to tape in the daffodil-colored interior of the new building, so that's what they were going to do.
We found our spot amid the roughly 100 lucky attendees who were seated on rustic benches, wooden stumps and overturned buckets. There were plenty of industry-insider types, and we got a chuckle when that eternally unassuming-looking mayor of ours, Karl Dean, wandered in just a tad late and squeezed through the crowd like some regular old member of the proletariat. We soon discovered that Jerry Lee Lewis had dropped off the bill, and that Leon Russell had pre-taped his duet with Willie — the latter had a conflicting show on Thursday night at 3rd & Lindsley, but we never found out why The Killer wasn't able to make it.
After Willie's band members had taken the stage and the CMT folks had checked the audio levels, the Redheaded Stranger took his rightful place in the spotlight. Record Store Day Ambassador Jack White appeared on the balcony over the stage — the balcony is fashioned to look like that of a motor lodge somewhere in idyllic middle-America — in order to introduce Nelson. A pre-show press release had billed White as the evening's MC, but a brief intro was all we'd hear from the White Stripe that evening. "T for Texas, T for Tennessee," said White, referencing Jimmie Rodgers' classic "Blue Yodel No. 1" before proclaiming, "Nothing says America like the man that's about to play."
The band was an amalgam of old Nashville pros, longtime friends of Willie, and Jack White sidepersons — Phil Madeira on guitar, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Lillie Mae Rische on the fiddle, Dominic Davis leading the band on bass, Marco Giovino on drums, the omnipresent auxiliary man Fats Kaplin on this and that and ... well, we know a couple other folks played on a song or two (that was local-boy-made-good Cory Younts tickling the ivories on one song), but we may have missed a man or two in the flurry. Not only that, but we were a bit busy pinching ourselves when we noticed Willie was strumming his trusty old (and we mean old, as he's been playing it for 44 years) guitar Trigger on "Roll Me up and Smoke Me When I Die," the single that Nelson released last year on 4/20 (when else?).
Willie's first guest was youngster Ashley Monroe, who — sweetly deferential as she straightened Nelson's pigtails and grinned widely — delivered vocals on "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" and the iconic "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," Willie playing his idiosyncratic and choppy solos all throughout. Next up was outlaw torchbearer Jamey Johnson, who ambled into the spotlight and started strumming along on "Permanently Lonely" before anyone really had the chance to catch their breath — you'd almost think no one had told Johnson that he was on camera. Anyway, we've long noted some similarities between Johnson's inflection and that of Nelson, and it was a true-to-form rendition. An up-tempo, full-band take on 1973's outlaw anthem "Shotgun Willie" followed, and that was certainly among the evening's highlights.
And then it was the moment we still can't exactly believe we were privy to: Neil Young striding out plainly in his T-shirt and baseball cap, joining his old pal Willie Nelson for a take on "Sail Away" from Young and Crazyhorse's superb 1979 LP Rust Never Sleeps. Not only were Young's two tunes the only non-Willie numbers of the night, but "Sail Away" was also the only song that began with a false start — it seems the wrong lyrics were cued up on a teleprompter, and, Young admitted with good humor, it tripped him up a bit. While Nelson's contributions to the number were somewhat limited, it remained a goosebump-inducing moment, right up until Young punctuated the song's end with a mildly premature "thank you" — he mentioned that while on tour with the Judds many moons ago, he noticed their penchant for thanking the audience before the song was through. That got a big laugh. Young introduced his next song with the note that it was actually written for his car, but that it would work for Willie too. The tune was "Long May You Run," of course, and between the song's sentiment and Young's top-notch performance, it was The Spin's favorite moment of the evening.
Willie's final duet partner was a denim-and-turquoise-clad Sheryl Crow, who shared a story of an airport security official once suggesting to her that she collaborates with Nelson just a bit too much. Of course, Nelson got the biggest laugh when he asked if she just told the fella in question to go on and give her back her shoes, thank you very much. We'll say, we were surprised at just how painless the evening turned out to be — television tapings don't always go quite so smoothly, but Crow and Nelson's take on "Far Away Places" was the only song that had to be run two times that evening. They wrapped up with "Crazy," on which Norah Jones played piano and Crow delivered the lead vocal ... well, she ain't Patsy Cline, but she certainly didn't disappoint.
The evening ended with a rendition of "Whiskey River," for which all of Willie's friends returned to the stage. It was a big, grandiose affair to celebrate the icon's 80th birthday, which falls on either April 29 or April 30 — while most online sources say it's the 30th, one CMT source told us that they heard "April 29" straight from the horse's mouth. An impromptu "Happy Birthday" came up from the band and crowd alike, and we found our way out of Third Man fully aware that this was the sort of celebration we were lucky to witness — whether or not we were worthy. God bless Willie, and you can go on and roll us up and smoke us — we can now die happy.