Is Willie Nelson The Best Guitarist In Country Music?

He may be 80, but Willie's still got nimble fingers and an unpredictable approach.
Willie Nelson at Ravinia

Willie Nelson at Ravinia (photo by Kurt Wolff)

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What branded Willie Nelson an “outlaw” decades back is still true today. Whether on record or in concert, this 80-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer and musical legend is not one to follow conventions, rules or anyone’s expectations.

There’s no better way to get a feel for what Willie is about than to catch him live. Which isn’t that hard–he tours a lot. He stopped by Ravinia in Highland Park, Ill., near Chicago this past Sunday (July 14), accompanied as usual by a band he calls the Family (his sister Bobbie, son Lukas, longtime friend and drummer Paul English, and other assorted–and highly skilled–players). And during a nearly two-hour set, he freely mixed his own originals with a wide range of standards that touched on honky-tonk, blues, pop, and even jazz.

WIllie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson WIllie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson. (photo by Kurt Wolff/Radio.com)

Many of the songs may have felt low-key and seemed nearly effortless in their presentation, but that’s the mastery of Nelson’s work. His personality and style are famously warm and laid-back, but watch his fingers on that fretboard and working those strings–there is nothing “laid-back” about the way he’s laying into that guitar.

First off, it’s an unusual guitar, a nylon-string Martin acoustic that he plays with a pick (he’s named it Trigger, and it’s famous for its countless signatures and gaping hole worn from all those years of picking). Most artists of his genre would choose a steel-string guitar, and most nylon-string guitarists would play with their fingers, so right off the bat he’s forged his own path. But he’s done so for good reason. As he said in a 1984 interview with Frets Magazine, he’s long been a fan of the legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. “I wanted to look for a guitar that I could use to find that tone that Django was getting,” Nelson told the magazine. “The guitar that I am using now is the closest that I could find to that.”

Related: What Have You Done For Us Lately, Willie Nelson?

He may be 80 but when it comes to picking, Willie’s still got nimble fingers, and a wild and unpredictable energy–far more than many players decades younger. He plays all his own leads these days, and seems happy doing so (his longtime lead guitarist, Jody Payne, retired from the band in 2008).

And his approach changes song to song. On the always-lovely “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” for example–one of his own songs and an easy highlight of Sunday’s show–he carefully picked out individual notes, his gaze focused and his fingers all over that fretboard.

For others, though, he shifts to straight-up strumming, a style that may seem imprecise, but one that that turns his seemingly gentle acoustic into an instrument of assault. For instance, on the version he played last night of “Night Life”–a true country classic that he wrote some five decades back–his guitar leads gave the otherwise bluesy, laid-back song a tone that was dirty, rough, and borderline dissonant.

All this raises the question: Is Willie Nelson the best guitar player in country music? That’s debatable, of course, but it’s clear he is among the top contenders.

Nelson’s vocals, too, echo that edge of unpredictability. He famously half-speaks many of his lyrics, a style that keeps things loose and plays up the warm, dusty tone of his voice. And like his guitar playing, his singing doesn’t simply sit on top of a neat and tidy arrangement. Nelson moves to his own rhythm, at his own pace. His guitar and voice at times jump a few steps ahead, at other times hang slightly back. The rest of the band keeps a steady pace, never getting in the way–a method that succeeds beautifully in holding the whole package together and, to borrow a line from his song “Me and Paul,” keeping him “upright on the ground.”

Willie Nelson and Family at Ravinia

Willie Nelson and Family at Ravinia, Ill. (photo by Kurt Wolff/Radio.com)

Altogether, Nelson’s unconventional arrangements and presentation share more with jazz than traditional country or pop. But the fact that it all works–and does so quite beautifully–makes a Willie Nelson show a vibrant experience. Sure, many of the songs are familiar, especially for those who’ve seen him live over the years–”Whiskey River,” “Always On My Mind,” “Crazy,” even his Hank Williams medley. (He usually mixes in a few recent ones, too–at Ravinia these included “Superman,” which he released in collaboration with Snoop Dogg, and “Let’s Face the Music And Dance,” the title track of his latest album). But whether the song was new or vintage, original or a cover, it makes little difference. Because through every note, across every arrangement, the music at a Willie show simply feels alive.

A nice surprise toward the end of Nelson’s Sunday night show was the appearance of fellow country singer Jamey Johnson. The two are buddies, and it turns out Sunday was Jamey’s birthday, so likely there was some celebrating involved. Jamey even brought his daughter Kylee out on stage, who was visibly thrilled to get to hang with Willie. And when they launched into a fun version of “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” Nelson’s 2012 single that featured Johnson, Kylee sang along to every word.

- Kurt Wolff, Radio.com

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