Fans of true country music were very happy to hear that Willie Nelson was tapped to perform at the CMA Awards in 2019—the first time the country legend has taken the CMA stage since 2012. The CMAs paired him up with Kacey Musgraves, who was one of the big winners on the night, bringing home the trophy for Female Vocalist of the Year. Kacey had always dreamed of singing “Rainbow Connection” with her fellow Texan—the song made famous by the banjo-playing Kermit the Frog. And Kacey got her opportunity Wednesday night (11-13) in front of a national audience.
However it was fair to say that happiness and appreciation for Willie Nelson’s presence on the usually contemporary-minded and pop-oriented CMA Awards turned to concern when Willie Nelson started attempting to sing, and was clearly struggling for breath. Fans of Willie who have seen him perform lately know that he can sometimes be a little breathy, which at 86-years-old, is completely understandable. But his struggles Wednesday night seemed especially concerning.
The truth is Willie Nelson has been struggling with his breathing issues for years, and at times it has resulted in some cancellations of shows around prolonged illnesses. In August, he had to postpone the final six shows of a tour with Alison Krauss due to breathing concerns. But then the news was that he’d recovered and was “doing great.” Willie resumed touring in September, and generally speaking, his performances have been fine, and there hasn’t been any widespread concerns or complaints beyond the obvious observations that he’s not as strong as he once was.
In 2015, Willie Nelson had a stem cell procedure for his lungs to help with his breathing issues, saying at the time, “Over the years I’ve smoked a lot of cigarettes, and I’ve had emphysema and pneumonia four or five times, so my lungs were really screwed up, and I had heard that this stem-cell operation would be good for them. So I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna try it out.’”
Part of what could be behind Willie’s struggles on the CMA Awards was that he normally doesn’t sing “Rainbow Connection.” Those who’ve seen Willie recently will tell you his set list is pretty regular, and this helps him know when to breathe, and how to sing the songs in his standard set list with his limited lung capacity.
Nonetheless, Willie Nelson’s mere presence on the CMA stage made you appreciate what a gift it is that we continue to get to share this mortal coil with not just a legend of country music, but someone recognized and revered around the world as a man of peace and wisdom. That’s also what causes an outpouring of love and concern for the 86-year-old when you see him struggle. Willie Nelson has said before that he wants to die on stage, and regardless of how breathy he may be, or how much he battles with his breathing issues, it appears nothing will keep him off the stage.
Watching Willie Nelson on the CMA Awards Wednesday night should not be a reason for folks to give pause or postpone their plans to see Willie Nelson live, especially if you’ve never seen him before. It’s underscores why you should not let that opportunity pass you by, whether it’s the first time, or the last time you will see him. Because this is Willie Nelson, and when he’s gone, the world will be an entirely different place, in country music and beyond. He won’t live forever, but he’s living right now, and future generations will look back with envy at the people who got to share the planet with Willie Nelson, and see him perform.