Willie Nelson (photo: Bob Jagendorf)
Many people who are not fully invested in the country music scene have a set, stereotypical, and often unfair view of what a country music fan is and what a country musician is. That “good ol’ boy,” truck with an American flag on it, gun totin’, nationalistic (waaaaaaaaaay beyond patriotic), uber-christian, largely unpleasant vibe. The viewpoint is: Texas, and all of the disdain for women that comes with it. It’s the deep south and confederate flags. It’s cowboy hats and racism.
There is that, of course, but there’s so much more. Anybody who watched Saturday Night Live this past weekend will have seen a brilliant performance by Brandi Carlile — that show’s best musical guest so far this season. The alt-country star, who is proudly gay, should be the face of contemporary country. She’s super talented — brilliant in fact (we saw her at the Chris Cornell Tribute Concert, one of the vocal highlights of the night) — and she stands for all that’s good and decent when it comes to social issues.
But here’s the thing, country artists who aren’t jerks are nothing new. I would argue that the two most iconic country artists still alive today are proudly progressive. That’s Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Now remember, a punk artist or an indie rock artist who vocally stands on the left is risking very little. But a country artist advocating for the vaccine and the rights of people of color, among other things, are going to receive massive amounts of abuse from their fanbase. These guys do it anyway. Should they get a parade for doing the right thing? No. But we can still acknowledge the career risk.
Last weekend, I went to see Willie and his Outlaw Fest at the FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine, Orange County. That is a string of things that some might think could spell trouble: “country,” “Orange County,” and let’s add “pandemic” to the mix too.
As the results of recent elections, not least the presidential election and the failed attempt to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, demographics in Orange County have definitely changed of late. The days of a clear blue/red divide between the counties of Los Angeles and Orange County are all but gone.
In addition, there’s the simple fact that Willie Nelson attracts a very diverse crowd. Like Johnny Cash, Nelson transcends his genre. Punks, metal heads, rock & rollers, folkies, pop fans, all stand a solid chance of enjoying Willie’s music.
And then there’s the politics. Nelson did his best to be Switzerland and stay neutral for a long time, but there must be some sort of a cannabis leaf-shaped Willie signal because when he’s needed he’ll show up.
Weed is an obvious place to start. Decades before legalization became a realistic option, Nelson was an advocate for marijuana. Some might say that, outside of Cheech & Chong, he’s the most iconic advocate marijuana has ever had. So that’s a given. Willie Nelson smokes weed. Dogs chase cats.
But how about the fact that, this very July, he stood on the steps of the Texas Capitol and sang “Vote Them Out” during a rally to protest that state’s laws to restrict voting rights. He couldn’t have been more public, for a very just cause.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Nelson sang, “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote them out,” while 75-year-old Brenda Hanson told that publication, “I felt like I needed to be here. It is a history-making event that is so necessary right now. I am a descendant of slavery and I am not interested in moving back, I want to see this country go forward. I have lived well over three quarters of a century and I have never seen us go backwards like this before.”
“I ask you to think about every man and every woman who had the courage in their convictions and did what they needed to do in their own moment of truth in this country’s history,” former congressman Beto O’Rourke said to the crowd, with Nelson providing the soundtrack.
In fact, Nelson performed at a fundraiser for O’Rourke. And he certainly doesn’t believe in a border wall, telling The Guardian:
“We have a statue that says: ‘Y’all come in,’” he said. “I don’t believe in closing the border. Open them suckers up!”
So with that in mind, I had no real issues with going to see Nelson, plus The Avett Brothers, Gov’t Mule, Lucinda Williams, and Ida Mae, in the OC. Wisely the venue, which is now done with outdoor concerts for the year, had tight COVID restrictions in place. Vaccinations, negative tests, masks, the whole nine yards, and we didn’t see a single person complain.
There will certainly have been people there who didn’t agree with Nelson’s politics (we saw one vocal right winger in a Hank Williams Jr. shirt) but they sure kept quiet in the presence of the great man.
Nelson sat down next to his son Micah, with beat up guitar in hand, and rolled through a set that ran through his career, taking in some fun covers along the way:
“Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”
“Good Hearted Woman”
and of course “On the Road Again” and “Always On My Mind”
It all sounded incredible. Micah’s own Particle Kid song “Everything is Bullshit” was sung heartily by the crowd, then we got renditions of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble” and it was done.
So yeah, before you go mocking country music and making assumptions, remember that Willie Nelson is essentially a brand ambassador for the genre and he’s one of the best.