On March 4, exactly a week before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo came screeching to a halt thanks to the coronavirus, 86-year-old Willie Nelson took to the rodeo stage for the ninth—or, if you count his two early-’90s stands with outlaw supergroup the Highwaymen—eleventh time.
Well before that night’s appearance, before COVID-19 became the biggest public-health threat in living memory, some fans had been wondering if this might be Willie’s last time to grace the rodeo stage. His December announcement that he’d quit smoking pot had seemed like a turning point. And then, a few weeks before the rodeo, Paul English, Willie’s best friend, fixer, and longtime drummer, passed away.
English, who joined Willie’s band in 1966, was known to pack heat in case a shady promoter wouldn’t pay up. One of Willie’s very best songs is “Me and Paul,” written about the duo’s late-’60s touring travails, but he didn’t play it at the rodeo— too soon, perhaps.
Willie’s show drew an announced attendance of 70,479, handily outdistancing significantly younger artists including Midland, Chance the Rapper, Maren Morris, and K-Pop group NCT 127. We were there in the crowd somewhere—something that would be unthinkable only days later, and should have been unthinkable even then— there to once again pay homage to the Red-Headed Stranger, and to take the crowd’s emotional temperature about the beloved Texas icon slowing down.
Haley Matejowsky, waiting in a T-shirt line with her grandmother, told us Willie represents “childhood with my grandpa, growing up dancing on my grandpa’s feet to his music.”
Jordan Michael, a young man from Tomball, echoed her memories. “When I was growing up, my grandfather used to listen to a lot of the old-school country music, Willie Nelson included, on the back porch,” he said. “So for me it’s just that memory of sitting out on the back porch with him and listening to the old songs. I like the old outlaw-country music style, and Willie’s kind of the last of that generation.”
Jordan’s dad, Steve, joined him on the concourse of NRG Center. “It’s the end of an era, really, so it’s good to come see some of that before the new generation takes their spot, and just reminisce about some of the old days,” Steve said. “It’s all good, old and new, but it’s a genre whose time is coming to an end.”
Summer Jackson, a fourth-year rodeo volunteer, was stationed near a merch booth on NRG Stadium’s lower level. “I like that he’s kind of a free spirit,” she said. “I like that he’s not into government control, and I like that he’s kind of like live-and-let-live. I think a lot of people can relate to that no matter your ethnicity or political background.”
An overwhelming number of people we talked to were seeing Willie for the first time. Houstonians MJ and Larry, who grew up northeast of the city in Dayton, were taking a smoke break before the singer went onstage. MJ had tickets to Willie’s last rodeo performance, in 2017, but had other obligations, so he’d passed them along to his parents.
“I’m here now,” he said. “My turn.”
“That’s a piece of Americana right there,” Larry added. “Texas history, Texas art, everything. You think of the Hill Country, you think of Willie Nelson.”
“That’s right,” MJ said.
“The guy’s amazing,” offered Larry. “It just gives me chills thinking about him.”
Dylan Wallace of Katy told us he’d missed the 2017 show as well. “Now that he’s getting really old,” Wallace said, “I wanted to come see him before it was too late.”
While Willie did appear to shed a tear halfway through “Always on My Mind,” he nevertheless gave precious little indication this would be his last rodeo. On loan from his own band Promise of the Real, his son Lukas Nelson made an invigorating addition, particularly on a stinging version of “Texas Flood.”
But the old man more than held his own. He gave faithful guitar Trigger a proper thrashing on “Whiskey River,” lit up sticky-icky odes “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and wryly grinned through 2017’s “Still Not Dead.” “Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play,” he sang. “And I woke up still not dead again today.”
Later in the set, Willie ripped into Johnny Paycheck’s outlaw anthem “I’m the Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised),” a sneer on his lips and impish gleam in his eye. Damned if he won’t outlive us all.