My wife Ellen was shocked. We lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the mid-to-late 1990s, both of us with jobs that took us all over the State. She loves classical music, and she taught me to love and appreciate it to a higher degree than I had before we married a decade earlier. I had loved certain classical pieces ever since I had first heard them, such pieces as “The William Tell Overture,” “Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major,” and “Handel’s Messiah.” My love for “The William Tell Overture” probably went back to my youth as I was roused by the theme music for “The Lone Ranger” radio and TV show. At that time I didn’t know what “classical music” meant.
Growing up on our Tennessee farm had me more grounded and better versed, pardon the pun, in country music from the nearby but then seemingly far away “Grand Ole Opry” that came into our home from the Ryman Auditorium on WSM radio in Nashville every Saturday night. Hymns from church, gospel music, and bluegrass were also a big part of my early life, staples of the spontaneous family sing-alongs that broke out in our pickup truck as we drove around the countryside on the way to town or to visit nearby relatives.
As a young adult I came to like Perry Como very much. I liked how relaxed he was when he sang, making his voice particularly soothing. I also liked Nat King Cole, Henry Mancini, and a lot of schmaltzy singers. I also liked the zany music of Spike Jones.
During the time Ellen had known me, starting in early middle age, my musical tastes had become more attuned—again, please pardon the pun—to the penetrating lyrics and rhythms of Paul Simon , Neil Diamond, and, I must confess, some years later Madonna. (Just in case anyone is wondering, now I find myself impressed with the zany, even wild, and intelligent Lady Gaga, but that gets me off point. Just want young readers to know I’m not a fossil–yet.)
So, back to the story, one evening I came home and greeted Ellen with the news that I had just bought two tickets to an upcoming Willie Nelson concert at the Nebraska State Fair for only $8.00 per ticket. She said with a look of deep puzzlement on her face:
“Why did you get tickets to that?”
I was a bit taken aback by her reaction, but my overall excitement was undaunted.
Willie and his red bandana.
The night of the concert brought a special anticipation. When my children Joy and Bob were growing up we traveled, almost always by car, to all forty-eight of the contiguous U. S. states. Car trips were such a big part of our lives, infused with the music that surrounded us. My favorite travel song was, and still is, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” a song that almost always triggered a sing-along in the car. Knowing that we would certainly hear Willie sing this song during the concert that evening made me especially eager for what was to come.
We filed into the big arena where prize livestock were paraded in each year to be judged and a few to be awarded with Grand Prize, 1st Place, 2nd Place, and 3rd Place ribbons. Owners of some of Omaha’s finest steak houses bought the Grand Prize winners from year to year, at premium prices, and then displayed their photos with these fine animals in their restaurants to show customers that they were about to dine on the very best.
We got into the arena early to get good unreserved seats. We were surrounded by highly authentic cowboys from western Nebraska, men who were weathered from their endless work with cattle on the vast ranges in the Sandhills and the starkly beautiful panhandle of Nebraska. Some of these men had bushy Fu Manchu mustaches, others full beards, and many with long pony tails similar to Willie’s when he’s not wearing long braids. Also mixed into the crowd were city slickers like us who wore our jeans and plaid shirts–similar to presidential candidates stumping the Heartland–to try to look the part enough to avoid stares from the cowboys.
Willie’s appearance on the stage set off a rousing, almost deafening, round of applause with whistles, waving hats and red bandanas, and a general jolt of spontaneous human electricity. Before she knew it, Ellen was rollicking with the crowd, involuntarily charged by the electric air as Willie belted out his trademark distinctive sound.
From that point on, even to this day, Ellen was and is a devout Willie Nelson fan. His performance was special to say the least. Here were Nebraskans from all walks of life, from every corner of the State, gathered for something that looked and felt like a communal musical bath. By the time Willie got around to singing “On the Road Again,” Ellen and I, along with thousands of others, could not resist singing along with this everlasting hymn of the road.
Over a decade later, living in our adopted Austin, Texas, we are nearly neighbors of Willie Nelson. He lives as the crow flies about twenty-five miles west of us. Austin, touted as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” held its premier grand opening of our new Long Center for the Performing Arts headlined by Willie Nelson, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, and Lyle Lovett. As expected, Willie was the last of these three acts to appear on stage. When he came out, dressed more formally than usual in all black for this special event, the crowd again roared to its feet—with Ellen and me in the middle of it—with the same electrical charge that roused us at the Nebraska State Fair over a decade earlier.
I bought those first $8.00 tickets that Ellen questioned. The latter tickets were many times more expensive, and it was Ellen who suggested that we buy them.
In fact, before Willie finished his opening song back at the Nebraska State Fair, I think she knew why I bought those tickets. She hasn’t outright said it, but I believe she is still grateful that I did.