You know what’s brilliant about Willie Nelson’s music? Well, a lot of things. But we’re specifically thinking about the great yin and yang to the country legend’s work.
Not only is he a singular vocalist that can cover anyone else’s song and make it his own. The man’s own compositions are universal. He writes songs that pretty much any kind of musician is able and eager to cover.
We saw proof of that, time and time again, Saturday night at the famed Troubadour in West Hollywood, at the Americana Music Association’s annual pre-Grammys salute — this year, to the songs of Nelson, reports The Tennessean, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
It was an inspired night of appreciation and rediscovery of Nelson’s catalog, and all of the dozen-plus acts on the bill truly delivered.
Sadly, the night didn't include scheduled guest Tanya Tucker — her producer and friend Shooter Jennings said she was fighting bronchitis and "holding it out" for Sunday's Grammys.
Still, we’re going to put a spotlight on a few of the performances that went above and beyond – and occasionally put a brilliant new spin on a classic, just like Willie would.
Willie Nelson wasn't in attendance to witness this all-star salute, so the legendary Prine became the man of the hour.
The master songwriter played three of his favorite Nelson tunes: "I Gotta Get Drunk," "I've Just Destroyed the World I'm Living In" and "Pretty Paper."
Prine also shared a vivid memory from his early days on the scene.
"I played Willie's first Dripping Springs Reunion back in 1973. It was the fourth of July, and I was 27 years old, and what a ball I had ... people were thinking about Woodstock and stuff, and it was the first show where it was a bunch of hippies and a bunch of rednecks, and they were all drinking beer and getting along. And it was all because of Willie.
"It was hot as the devil that day, and that night, I get a phone call. They say, 'Willie's having a party up in his room.' So I go on up to the party. I walk in the door to Willie's suite, and sitting on this one sofa was Waylon (Jennings), Leon Russell, Tom T. Hall, Doug Sahm. I'd give anything to have that sofa today, man, I'll tell you. And there was two clowns from Ringling Brothers. I had a half-hour conversation with those two clowns, and I got two great songs out of it."
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Madison Cunningham, "Hands On the Wheel"
The 22-year-old talent — nominated Sunday for Best Americana Album — brought an already attentive room to whisper, lending her serene vocals to this gem from 1975's "Red Headed Stranger"
Yola, "You Were Always On My Mind"
She’s just going to steal shows all weekend long. One night after she belted out “Cryin’” to a standing ovation at the Musicares salute to Aerosmith, the British phenom was applying a lighter touch to “Mind.” Nelson didn’t write it, and he wasn't the first to record it, but he defined it in 1982. For one night, Yola made it her own, too.
Andrew Bird, "Blue Skies"
To the surprise of no one, the virtuoso, singer-songwriter and violinist delivered a dizzying, pitch-perfect rendition of the standard, included on Nelson's massive "Stardust" album.
I’m With Her, "Wake Me When It’s Over"
We've rarely heard a trio — let alone a super-group — more in sync than Sara Watkins, Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Jarosz, whose tight-knit harmonies worked wonders on one of Nelson's earliest singles.
Calexico and Iron and Wine, “On The Road Again”
A brilliant, wholly new take on a tune we've all heard sung the same way for decades. The indie-folk duo made a few radical changes to Nelson's classic, taking the tempo from "tour bus" to "covered wagon," and sanding down some of the legend's trademark melodic edges. It was hypnotic, vivid and fresh.
The War and Treaty, "Can I Sleep In Your Arms"
The married couple (and rising Americana stars) immediately enchanted the crowd with their chemistry during a captivating duet of "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" — a beyond-vulnerable ballad, penned by Hank Cochran and covered by Nelson on "Red Headed Stranger."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Grammys 2020: Willie Nelson honored by John Prine, more in concert