Willie Nelson celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend with some of his talented friends and admirers — from Keith Richards to Billy Strings — at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. Just a few days later, the iconic singer-songwriter also added to his accolades by becoming a newly elected member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. From covering rock and pop classics to collaborating with non-country acts both live and on record, here are 10 of the mercurial master’s best rock-influenced performances.
“All Things Must Pass” (with Lukas Nelson)
Ex-Beatle George Harrison’s 1970 classic retains the hopeful theme of spiritual rebirth as Willie and his guitar take a backseat to son Lukas on lead vocals. It’s a poignant highlight of The Willie Nelson Family LP, which was released just four months before sister Bobbie Nelson’s death.
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“Don’t Give Up” (with Sinead O’Connor)
Less than 24 hours after nearly being booed offstage at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary tribute in New York, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor joined Willie in the studio to sing this tender and reassuring ballad. Originally written and recorded by Peter Gabriel in 1986, with fellow Rock Hall inductee Kate Bush sharing the vocal (after Dolly Parton turned him down), the song is now an enduring anthem to resilience.
“With a Little Help From My Friends”
Willie’s been getting by — and getting high — with a little assistance from his many collaborators for decades, but other than Mickey Raphael’s unmistakable harmonica, this Beatles cover from 2022’s A Beautiful Time, puts Nelson’s sturdy vocal center stage. It’s an absolute delight from one of Nelson’s most consistently enjoyable LPs in recent memory.
“Tower of Song”
In 2008, during his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Leonard Cohen read the lyrics to this song, which he’d recorded 20 years earlier. With its lines alluding to the perils of romance and the futility of ignoring one’s destiny, it’s no wonder Willie delivers it with such authority and passion.
“Motormouth” (with J.J. Cale)
Texans and Oklahomans may have a rivalry that stretches back more than a century, but that didn’t stop Sooner State-born guitar hero J.J. Cale from enticing the Texas legend to join him on this tongue-twisting cut from 2005’s Mad Dogs & Okies compilation. Willie takes a backseat to the “Cocaine” songwriter, but it’s one hell of a ride.
Paul Simon co-produced Nelson’s 1993 album Across the Borderline with his longtime producer Roy Halee and Don Was, so it’s natural that two Simon compositions are featured on the LP. Those include “American Tune,” on which Simon duets with Willie, and the title track of his landmark 1986 recording. The Red Headed Stranger inserts a mention of his beloved Austin, Texas, in place of New York City in the song lyrics but otherwise matches the jubilant, sparkling rhythm of the original.
“The Thrill Is Gone” (with B.B. King)
Or, “When Lucille met Trigger,” as B.B. King joined Nelson on a potent, twang-tinged rendition of the guitar great’s best-known tune. Willie’s Milk Cow Blues LP featured additional appearances from blues and R&B performers, including Johnny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, and Dr. John, and showcased King and Nelson on the latter’s now-standard, “Night Life.”
In addition to his debut film role alongside veteran screen stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, Willie contributed half of the songs on the soundtrack to 1979’s The Electric Horseman, including this Top 10 country hit. Originally recorded by the Allman Brothers at the start of the decade, Willie’s version packs enough wattage to light up a Vegas marquee.
Dave Matthews’ 2004 Grammy-winning song perhaps appealed to Willie because of its haunting and indelible images built around themes of mortality and posterity. Its striking video captured an aging country artist whose contemplative mood was accompanied by a twinkle in his still-sharp eye.
“Dry Lightning” (with Emmylou Harris)
Although it retains some of the dusty feel of Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 original, first heard on The Ghost of Tom Joad, this duet with Emmylou Harris from To All the Girls… blends the earthiness of that version with a distinct Tex-Mex flavor. It’s a sensational collaboration that’s not only a highlight of the 2013 LP but a high-water mark in the careers of three of contemporary music’s essential artists.
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