The day was June 7, 2017
It was a long windy journey. The passing landscape was minimal but scenic. I had never been to Nebraska. We had made it. Sunburned and pretzeled, I got out of the small convertible and my legs unfolded like an old concertina. I instantly heard Robert Earl Keen playing through the trees. We were in the right spot. We walked the quarter mile to the Pinewood Bowl Theater passing the typical concert goer. Happy, drunk, laughing, filled with excitement, donning festival shirts from years past.
I was craving a hot dog as usual, so we stood in what seemed the never-ending line only to be told they were out of food when we reached the front. Apparently more would arrive later. Aggravation settled in so we stomped to our seats. "How y'all doing", they said. A sweet older couple from Texas would be our neighbors for the next few hours. Mr. Dwight Yoakam took the stage and did not disappoint. I have always liked Mr. Yoakam from the first time I heard him as a kid. The guy hasn't missed a beat or one of his famous leg moves since day one. Still as cool as ever, and his band was on the money. He ripped out “Honky Tonk Man, “Fast As You”, and of course “Guitars and Cadillacs”. For the record, the best encore I've heard in awhile, and loud, really loud! He exited the stage and we exited our seats.
Back in line I was determined to get that hot dog. After a slight eternity I finally reached the goal. Three bites in I heard the familiar melody of “Whiskey River”. We hurried down the food and drink and “Good Hearted Woman” started, and then right into “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”. We were missing it. The Texas couple welcomed us back as we again took our seats. The sun was fading and the moon was in full view. I closed my eyes and breathed in the night air. When I looked there he was. I had never seen him but there he was. A little old man, wrinkly, long braided hair, shaky voice, and that famous guitar. Willie Nelson was singing “Crazy”. That’s THE first song I ever got to see him play live right in front of me, and what a perfect song. Willie Nelson was right in front of me! Trigger sounded just like Trigger, there was no denying that tone. The fireflies danced in time in the night sky. It was like a magic trick of some sort, an illusion, surreal. Willie spoke to us all and paid tribute to his friend, Merle Haggard. He made us laugh with “Me and Paul”, and made us cry with “Always On My Mind”. The older gentleman beside me was clearly moved, as was I. Willie played “Still Not Dead”, “On The Road Again”, “Georgia On My Mind, and Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man”. My personal favorite was when he paid tribute to Hank Williams Sr. with renditions of “Hey Good Looking”, “Move It On Over”, and “Jambalaya”.
The show could have ended there and I would have been more than satisfied, but Willie continued on with a few old gospel songs. “I’ll Fly Away”, and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” brought back childhood memories of old bluegrass festivals and farmer’s markets I had gone to as a little boy. Willie said “thank you”, set Trigger down, raised his old hands high, and slowly meandered to the back of the stage. He paused and turned to us and stared as if it was his first time looking at a large crowd, so gracious. The applause could have been heard in the cosmos. I closed my eyes and breathed in the evening air. When I opened them the stage was empty and he was gone. As a songwriter and performer I was elated by what I had just witnessed, one of the greats. So many songs, so many hits, so many stories, so many words, legend, but there I was, just a kid eating a hot dog watching one of his childhood heroes with a smile a mile wide.