Willie Nelson Paid Proper Tribute in A&E’s ‘American Outlaw’ (review)

“Are we not all blessed to be living in the time of Willie?”

These words from the ravishing and ageless Emmylou Harris right before she launched into a rendition of “Pancho & Lefty” pretty much sums it up, and that’s the reason that a massive tribute was organized for the country music legend called Willie: Life & Songs of an American Outlaw. Transpiring on January 19th, 2019 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the tribute saw performances from George Strait, Eric Church, Jamey Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Nora Jones and The Little Willies, Ray Benson, Lyle Lovett, The Avett Brothers, and a host of others.

Organized by Blackbird Presents who’ve put together a host of these tribute shows over the years, usually if you can’t swing a ticket, you miss your opportunity to see so much country music star power assembled in one place. But for this particular event, footage from the tribute was compiled, and is premiering on A&E Easter Sunday (4-12).

A worthy tribute with some great collaborations and performances, the televised portion starts off with a blistering version of “Whiskey River” from Chris Stapleton that reminds you why he rocketed up the country music depth charts like he did over the last few years. Quite a few of the performances during the special include Willie himself, including a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Pancho & Lefty,” and a great performance of “Always On My Mind” involving Derek Trucks and Chris Stapleton.

One of the most newsworthy collaborations that came out of the tribute was Willie Nelson finally taking the stage with George Strait. Though their collaborative song “Sing One With Willie” leaves a little to be desired, it is cool to see the two Texans on stage together for the first time. The house band for the tribute also is it’s own treat. Led by Don Was, it includes Amanda Shires, Mickey Raphael of course, and other great players including Jamey Johnson.

Perhaps the marquee performance of the event is Jamey Johnson lighting into “Georgia On My Mind.” Johnson is very familiar with Willie’s catalog, and selected a song he knew could clobber out of the park, and does so in a goosebump moment. “I’m like everybody else out here man, I just love Willie Nelson,” Jamey Johnson said. “He got me hooked on golf … and some other things. But the best thing he ever got me hooked on is straight up old-fashioned country music.”

Actor Ed Helms was kind of a strange pick for emcee of the tribute, but he did just fine. Jack Johnson made the cut for the televised program with a rather silly acoustic Willie tribute song, while performances from Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Steve Earle didn’t make the cut. You do get to see all of them and more in the grand finale of the program when all the performers take the stage to sing “On The Road Again.” The A&E special also includes something even live attendees didn’t get to see, which were numerous backstage interviews with the performers speaking on the importance and influence of Willie.

The airing is part of an extended lineup of original country music programming A&E has on tap for Easter. Right before the airing of the Willie Nelson tribute, the two-hour Biography: Dolly delving into the five-decade life an career of country icon Dolly Parton will air (Sunday, April 12 at 8pm ET/PT). The special covers Dolly’s life all the way from childhood to her recent celebration of 50 years at the Grand Ole Opry, with many interviews and vignettes from throughout her Hall of Fame run.

Then on Monday, April 13th at 9pm ET/PT, A&E will air Biography: Kenny Rogers. It chronicles Kenny’s life from his childhood, through the rise and fall of The First Edition, the iconic release of “The Gambler,” and to the height of his career as a successful solo artist. Similar to the Willie special, it will also include live performances and interviews from the Blackbird Presents-produced All In For The Gambler tribute concert that transpired in Nashville in 2017.

All three of the specials will also air on repeat several times in the coming weeks, so check local listings. If you were wondering when you would get a chance to see these tributes concerts, this will be your chance. So make up an appointment or program up the DVR, because this will be your opportunity.

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