In the history of country music, few can say they have blazed their career path quite like Willie Nelson.
One of outlaw country’s most venerated kings, Nelson boldly defied industry expectations of the time with his stripped-down, raw and rugged 1975 record Red Headed Stranger. Most country records of that era were about glitz and rhinestones, but Nelson knew what he wanted.
Nelson has won at least 10 Grammy Awards and 11 Country Music Association (CMA) Awards in his career. He is an inductee into the Country Music, Grammy, Austin City Limits and National Agriculture Hall of Fames with more than 70 studio albums to his name and dozens more live and compilation records.
Oh yeah, and he smokes a lot of marijuana, too.
“Willie can smoke you under the table,” said Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael in an Oklahoma Gazette interview from earlier this year. “I saw that in Amsterdam. That’s marathon stuff. It would kill a normal human being.”
Raphael gave his Gazette interview before a March show by Willie Nelson and his famous band the Family at WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville. We caught up with Raphael for another interview ahead of Nelson’s return to the state Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, for a show at The Jones Assembly, 901 W. Sheridan Ave. He will also make a return visit to WinStar a few days later for a Nov. 25 gig.
Nelson & Family still tours relentlessly, even as its namesake edges closer to 85. Despite the frequency, some feel an unspoken sense of urgency to the upcoming Jones Assembly show. Earnest fans have to ask themselves how much longer Nelson can keep up his touring workload. Will there ever be another chance to see the band in downtown Oklahoma City?
Raphael said seeing Willie Nelson & Family live should be seen as one of the great musical rites of passage.
“Get him while you can,” he said in his most recent Gazette interview. “I wish I saw The Rolling Stones when they came through town. You never knew when we’ll be back through.”
Though Nelson could not have set the bar higher for himself on immortal releases like Red Headed Stranger and 1978’s Stardust, his recent studio work has done more than hold its own.
In April, Nelson released God’s Problem Child, produced by Buddy Cannon. The sound is unmistakingly his own, and its best moments are somewhat somber reflections on aging and the approach of the end. Tonally, it bears resemblance to darker, meditative works like David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker — the difference here being that Nelson clearly is not ready for his swan song.
On the song “It Gets Easier,” Nelson sings, “It gets easier, as we get older. It gets easier to say, ‘Not today.’ And it gets easier, as we get older to say, ‘Go away, not today.’”
Last month, Nelson put out Willie Nelson and the Boys: Willie’s Stash Vol. 2, a collaborative album with sons Lukas and Micah, each a respected musician in his own right. Lukas fronts the California country-rock band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. Micah specializes in psychedelic folk on projects like Insects Vs. Robots and Particle Kid.
In December 2014, Nelson released Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1: December Day, a collaboration with sister and longtime pianist Bobbie Nelson.
In interviews, Nelson has often compared Willie Nelson and the Boys to a country version of Stardust, which took old pop standards mostly unknown to audiences of the time and adapted them to Nelson’s style.
Willie Nelson and the Boys includes covers of several songs from country legends like Hank Williams, Sr.
“I enjoy the old standards, whether it’s Hank Williams or Hoagie Carmichael,” Nelson said in an interview with Esquire. “I never get tired of those lyrics and the melodies. So I felt once people had heard the songs on Stardust, they’d like them, and I kind of felt the same way about this album.”
Raphael, who, of course, contributes his iconic harmonica playing to the record, said it is a special moment to see the Nelson boys perform on a full album together.
“I think it’s a great thing that they have the chance to sing together. I’ve known them since they were babies and have watched them grow up with my own eyes. Neither of them were forced into [music]. They could have been accountants. OK, maybe not — but they had some great parents.”
Lukas and Micah were both mostly raised by their mother, Nelson’s current wife Annie D’Angelo. But Raphael said that does not mean Nelson was an absent parent.
“You can still get threatened by the phone,” he said.
In June, Rolling Stone published a list of its 100 Greatest Country Music Artists of All Time. Of the top 10, only Nelson (ranked sixth), Loretta Lynn (fourth), Dolly Parton (eighth) and Garth Brooks (10th) are alive today. The top ranked artist, “Okie from Muskogee” Merle Haggard, died in April 2016 at age 79. Glen Campbell, No. 17 on the Rolling Stone list, died in August at 81.
No one lives forever, but if anyone was capable of such a feat, it might well be Nelson. Raphael said the country crooner is showing no signs of slowing down while maintaining a tour schedule that has him on the road most of the year. Fans should be in a rush to see Nelson, he said, but not because the artist himself is on the decline.
“I think the only thing that’s urgent is the need to go see a great show,” he said. “As a fan, you never know when you’re going to die. You could go out and get hit by a truck tomorrow. You never know what the cards may hold.”
As Raphael points out, life is unpredictable. It is not known for how much longer Nelson will be touring regularly, but what is known is that he is an American icon and seeing the great ones perform live is never a bad idea.
So as Oklahoma City concertgoers gather inside The Jones Assembly on Thanksgiving eve, it is good a time as ever to be thankful for living in the era of a legend. And for fans attending the show that night, Raphael has just one piece of advice.
“Don’t eat that day,” he said.
Indeed, there is nothing like Willie Nelson & Family to work up a case of the munchies for Turkey Day.
Willie Nelson & Family
8 p.m. Nov. 22
The Jones Assembly
901 W. Sheridan Ave.
Print headline: Family holiday, Willie Nelson makes a big stop at The Jones Assembly the day before Thanksgiving.