Our cover story features Country legend Willie Nelson, and a line from one of his newest songs, “Still Not Dead.” He’ll bring along some family members (and a new album with his sons) to the Savannah Civic Center on Oct. 20. Also joining the family band will be country troubadour Dwight Yoakam.
Country music’s most celebrated songwriter is still breaking the rules, touring nonstop and recording new music.
At 84, Willie Nelson has done what very few other musicians have done in his 55-year career. He’s won every award possible, including 12 Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, nine CMA Awards and five Academy of Country Music Awards. He’s appeared on over 200 albums since his debut release “And Then I Wrote” in 1962, spanning genres from country to folk, jazz and pop.
“It’s still fun,” said Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player. “Willie’s guitar playing is getting better and better. It’s great to stand there and watch him and listen to him play. No. 1, I am a fan of Willie, so I get to stand next to him every night and play. I’ve got a great vantage point.”
The sidebar to Nelson’s music career reads like a full life of its own. In addition to his music, Nelson has been a powerful activist throughout his life. He co-founded Farm Aid with John Mellencamp and Neil Young in 1985. The benefit concert raised funds for family farmers in America. He’s been an active voice for environmental causes and cannabis legalization. He is the co-chair for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and recently announced the launch of Willie’s Reserve, a cannabis company. Nelson has also acted in more than 30 films and authored several books.
Nelson continues to tour with a ‘family’ of musicians — including his sister and sometimes his sons — many of whom have been with him since his hit album “Red Headed Stranger” in 1975.
“‘Red Headed Stranger’ broke so many rules,” Raphael said. “That was the first record I played with Willie. I didn’t know it was going to be accepted, but I had to go with Willie’s intuition. That defied all gravity. The record label didn’t really want to put it out because it wasn’t like anything they’d worked with before. ‘Stardust’ was another one that I loved. Also, the last record, ‘God’s Problem Child’ is pretty special.”
Throughout Nelson’s expansive discography, there are songs of lament, love and happiness, always full of his trademark wit. His humor is as palatable at 84 as it was four decades ago.
“I’ve never been accused of being normal,” Nelson sings on the track “Still Not Dead” from last year’s “God’s Problem Child.” It’s a track Nelson wrote because of a news story that reported his death.
“There was an article about his gardener finding Willie dead in his garden,” Raphael said. “So he wrote a funny song about that. We’ll be doing that [live in Savannah.] You just never know what he’s going to pull out.”
For live shows these days, Nelson doesn’t write out a setlist. His show at the Savannah Civic Center will be full of surprises.
“Whatever comes to his mind,” Raphael said. “No setlist. It’s just really whatever comes off the top of his head. It does follow a certain pattern. We start off with ‘Whiskey River,’ and then I can’t remember where it goes from there. He starts off every song, so I can just feel it out.”
Opening the show in Savannah will be the great urban cowboy Dwight Yoakam, whose own career has mirrored Nelson’s in many respects. Yoakam, a Kentucky native, emerged in the mid-1980s with an unmistakable hillbilly swagger. A musician and actor, Yoakam has released more than 20 country albums and compilations with more than 30 charted singles. He’s sold over 25 million records and garnered 14 Grammy Award nominations, winning two.
For some, Yoakam might be more familiar as an actor. He appeared in 1996’s “Sling Blade,” 2002’s “Panic Room,” 2006’s “Bandidas,” and several other movies and television shows over the years. In 2016, Yoakam released his first bluegrass album, “Swimming Pools, Movie Stars.”
“Well, I guess my birth certificate gives me some credentials to own the holler that I was living in the first couple years of my life, and musically express that,” Yoakam said of his first bluegrass album in a news release. “Being born into rural southeast Kentucky there in Pike County, which is just across the Virginia state line from the area of the Clinch Mountains where the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family came out of, maybe it was inevitable. But, having said that, let’s wait a minute and — wee doggies! – see what we did to it.”
IF YOU GO
What: Willie Nelson & Family with special guest Dwight Yoakam
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 20
Where: Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.