Confession: Something was missing in my recent bit on Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday.

But I only realized it last week during a long walk home crosstown from the Cutting Room, where I and my new two friends had just seen Buster Poindexter (more on that later). During the show’s intermission, Lincoln Foley Schofield, the club’s booker, asked me how I liked the Willie celebration. It hadn’t even been a week, and I’d already forgotten I’d seen him there.

I mentioned my forgetfulness—why, I can’t remember—to my new friends, and then told them what little I could still recall about the Willie party. And then I started rhapsodizing about Willie, how most people love him as everybody’s favorite high-as-a-kite uncle/grandfather figure—not so much the Red Headed Stranger.

Indeed, unless you’re a longtime country music fan, what are the odds you can name a Willie song—let alone album–besides “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” (which was really just a big collaboration hit with Julio Iglesias) and maybe “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”? Who among the non-country names I listed who taped Willie birthday greetings could do it, besides Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow? Barbra Streisand? Tony Bennett? Ozzy Osbourne? Marky Ramone?

It’s not like Johnny Cash: Everybody knows “I Walk The Line” and “Ring Of Fire” and probably “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue,” and Cash had a series of acclaimed and hip recordings with Rick Rubin at the end of his life, including, of course, his celebrated cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” and the Grammy-winning video accompanying it.

Yet like I noted previously Willie, like Cash, remains a most lovable icon, an institution like Cash and Tony and very few others—their progressive political tendencies notwithstanding.

“People just love the concept of Willie Nelson!” I told my new friends. “That’s what I should have said: They love the concept of Willie Nelson: The reality of Willie Nelson is secondary at best.”

Jim Bessman

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