During the presidential election last fall, there were more “Willie Nelson for President” signs posted in front yards in West University Place than for any candidate on the actual ticket. The country music legend has practically achieved living deity status in his home state of Texas, so it’s no surprise a sellout crowd of 75,008 fans turned out to NRG Stadium to see the Red Headed Stranger play at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on Saturday night.
The crowd roared when the black SUV pulled up to the rotating set fashioned amidst the dirt and Nelson climbed out, wearing all black and sporting his trademarked braids under his cowboy hat, and ascended the stage. Fans had good reason to be excited. For starters, it was Nelson’s first appearance at the Houston Rodeo in 13 years.
He’s appeared at the Rodeo nine times before — in 1985, ’86, ’88, ’94, 2000, ’02, ’04 (and with The Highwaymen in ’90 and ’92). But more importantly, Nelson was able to show up. The 83-year-old had to cancel a few shows earlier this year due to illness. But he was able to perform as scheduled at the San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo last month, and his reps insisted he would be able to play Houston.
And play Houston, he did. It’s hard to tell if Nelson’s beloved 48-year-old guitar Trigger, which notoriously has a gaping hole from decades of strumming, or Nelson himself is more weathered — but both seem to sound even better with age. Nelson launched right into “Whiskey River,” not missing a chord. Fans went wild when he belted out, “Mama!”
They knew what was coming, and this Rodeo crowd sang right along with the classic “Mama Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” His ballad “You Were Always on My Mind” seemed more heartfelt than ever.
“Thank y’all very much for coming out tonight. It’s a good party.”
In between playing his hits like “Beer for My Horses,” Nelson honored the late country greats, too, dedicating songs to Waylon Jennings (“Good Hearted Woman”), Merle Haggard (“It’s All Going to Pot”), and Hank Williams (“Jambalaya (On the Bayou”), “Hey, Good Lookin'”, and “Move It On Over”).
Nelson humbly thanked the audience between each song. He had a little less vocal power than in prior years, and encouraged the audience to sing along frequently, but his guitar playing was better than ever. The evening featured several instrumental numbers, highlighting the Family’s band’s impressive playing, including Nelson’s own prowess on the six-string, his sister Bobbie Lee Nelson on the piano, and Mickey Raphael on the harmonica.
“Thank y’all very much for coming out tonight. It’s a good party.” Nelson smirked and revealed he would be playing a new song off of his upcoming album God’s Problem Child, set to be released April 28, and launched into the hilarious and slightly macabre “Still Not Dead.” A version of the song was first released last year after a few Internet Willie Nelson death hoaxes, and the song, especially after the past few months, sends a not-so-subtle message regarding his health and stamina.
“I woke up still not dead again today … Don’t bury me I got a show to play! … They say my pace would kill a normal man / But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway.”
Indeed, playing the guitar live on the road seems to be second-nature to the 15-time Grammy Award winner, as easy as breathing.
The foreboding SUVs reemerged into the arena, indicting to fans that the end of their special evening with Willie was coming nigh. Nelson began playing “Me and Paul” and interrupted himself saying “Wait a minute! I just thought of one more song we gotta play!” The crowd cheered and Nelson played “Shoeshine Man” as his final song.
Nelson thanked Houston and climbed back into the SUV, waving with his cowboy hat out the window to cheers from the adoring crowd, as the band played on. We know Nelson’s music will continue to play on long after he’s left the arena, but if we’re lucky, it won’t be for another decade or two.
Here is Willie Nelson’s full Rodeo Houston 2017 Set List:
“Still is Still Moving to Me”
“Beer for My Horses”
“Good Hearted Woman”
“Mama, Don’t Let Them Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”
“Angel Flying to Close to the Ground”
“On the Road Again”
“You Were Always on My Mind”
Piano interlude featuring Bobbie Lee Nelson
“Georgia on My Mind”
“Georgia on a Fast Train”
“It’s All Going to Pot”
“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”
“Hey Good Lookin'”
“Move it On Over”
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
“I Saw the Light”
“Still Not Dead”
“Me and Paul” interrupted to play “Shoeshine man”