Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Becomes Worthy Television Special (Review)

photo: Randall Michelson

On April 29th and 30th, 2023, Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday was commemorated at the Hollywood Bowl in California with a two-day mega celebration that saw a huge host of performers paying tribute to Willie in song. Both audio and video recording equipment were on site to capture it all. On Friday, December 15th, an album, plus a Blu-Ray package of the concert were released, with the digital/streaming set of the concert including a stunning 53 tracks.

But for those that didn’t pony up for the Blu-Ray copy or missed the concert’s brief stint in select theaters this summer, Sunday night (12-17) saw CBS airing significant portions of the 2-day event for all the world to see. Many Willie songs were sung, some legendary collaborations ensued, Miranda Lambert’s fringe was longer than Snoop Dogg’s spliff, and pound for pound, it was more entertaining than any country music awards show in the last decade or so.

Billy Strings opened the show with Willie’s iconic show starter, “Whiskey River,” giving our generation’s version of Flatt & Scruggs, Jimi Hendrix, and The Grateful Dead all wrapped into one some deserved national television time. Beck was also an early performer. Witnessing him playing with the house band that included Jamey Johnson on guitar, Don Was on bass, and Gabriel Witcher on fiddle, Beck proved why a dedicated country album from him is long overdue.

But one of the downers about what made it onto the broadcast is that it included very few of the independent up-and-comers who made the trip out to California, and instead favored the more household names, including some that turned in subpar performances.

Charley Crockett was only seen briefly in a backstage shot and during the show’s finale. Same for Margo Price, Waylon Payne, and The Avett Brothers. Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson weren’t seen at all, though the latter might have been Sturgill’s own choice. Some legends who performed were also left off such as Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris.

You can’t include two days of performances in a two-hour television special, but we got a double dose of Sheryl Crow who sang the Willie-penned “Crazy.” Sheryl is crazy for trying, and crazy for crying, and crazy to think she’s anything more than a vapid pop star who inexplicably always finds herself as the centerpiece of events such as this. She did turn in quality performances though, which you can’t say for some of the other performers.

Dave Matthews’ terrible rendition of “Funny How Time Slips Away” somehow made the cut. He got crossed up during the solo and started laughing at himself, but the editors left it in. The Chicks did pretty good job with a twangy and breakneck version of “Bloody Mary Morning,” but Natalie Maines could barely keep up, clearly winded with her eyes bugging out.

Bad performances were the exceptions though, not the rule. With just a microphone and a guitar, Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson turned in a stunning rendition of “Angels Flying Too Close To The Ground” that was arguably the greatest performance of the event. Though Kris Kristofferson has officially retired from touring, to see him sing “Loving Her Was Easier” with Rosanne Cash was a treat.

George Strait’s “Sing One With Willie” is a pretty forgettable song with its strained rhymes and hackneyed verses. But seeing George Strait and Willie Nelson reprise “Pancho and Lefty” was worth blocking off the two hours to watch the special if nothing else.

Of course there were plenty of pot jokes and references, including Willie singing “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” with Snoop Dogg. Helen Mirren may have seemed like a Hollywood A-lister who was out-of-place, but made up for it with her sincere oral tribute to Willie. Woody Harrelson and Ethan Hawke also did well acting as de facto Master of Ceremonies.

Then you had Keith Richards come out, looking spry at 80—a cool decade younger than Willie. The two sang “We Had It All” together, which was another landmark of the presentation. And hopefully the irony of Willie and Keith singing Billy Joe Shaver’s classic song “Live Forever” wasn’t lost on the audience.

Though at times Willie may have been a little breathy (after all, he’s NINETY), his solo’s on Trigger were hot and spot on, and he sincerely seemed to be enjoying himself. The concert ended with everyone coming out on stage and singing “On The Road Again,” chased by “Happy Birthday.”

In many respects, it really didn’t matter who performed or what happened for Willie Nelson’s 90th. The fact that Willie is still alive, making music, and still relevant enough for a major television network to give his birthday a two-hour special during the heart of the Christmas season when people actually still watch these things really speaks to the beloved nature of his music, and his soul.

Everybody loves Willie, and everybody is celebrating that we’ve enjoyed 90 years of life with him on this planet, and counting.

– – – – – –

Those that missed the special, it will stream on demand for certain subscriptions on Paramount+.

© 2023 Saving Country Music