Country Legend Willie Nelson Sets Songs, Souls, And Spirits Free at Philly’s Mann Center

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Willie Nelson loves to relax on his Luck Ranch in Texas.  As for this past weekend, though, the country music legend demonstrates that he’s still got the unmistakable tenor of his vocals, the twinkle in his eye, the same long braids of the hair, now gone from gleaming red to gray, the same unquenchable spirit, and most of all, the songs cherished over generations.  Philadelphia is the perfect setting for Willie Nelson to show that being a fresh 88 in no way indicates any slow shuffle into retirement.  Instead, his stay at The Mann Center was a reunion of dear friends, a welcome back to the road, and another treat of singing with one of his sons, as the Philadelphia Inquirer relates.  The Liberty Bell was quiet, but Willie and friends kept the hall ringing!

Margo Price is much more than Willie Nelson’s opening act

It’s no understatement to say that Margo Price is a fully-fledged member of the Willie Nelson clan.  Not only has the Midwest Farmer’s Daughter stellar singer-songwriter played every Farm Aid event since her 2016 debut on behalf of farm families, but also, as Country Music Alley announced in its May 2021 feature on Price, she and Willie Nelson’s wife, Annie, serve on the Board of Directors.

Without question, Margo Price knows every word and note of Willie Nelson’s show opener, “Whiskey River.”  The past year brought a whole new dimension to “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” for the artist.  Her pandemic saga started with her husband, guitarist, and co-writer, Jeremy Ivey, contracting the virus early on.  His state diminished to “weaker than I’d ever seen” before his recovery.  Margo promotes and records videos for her acclaimed third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, through the pandemic surge.  She admits candidly, however, that “I fell off the tight rope.”

Maintaining the balance of motherhood, her musical creativity, marriage, life without the viability from an audience became too much.  Now, like Willie Nelson, Margo Price is back to fine form and a new song with her husband, “All Kinds of Blue.”  Clearly, audiences crave the insight and poignant truth that only Price provides and she loves playing live again.  She dedicates Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to the Texas turmoil over women’s reproductive rights.

Sturgill Simpson brings out the band for Willie Nelson

Despite single-handedly spearheading the lasting country outlaw movement with his trusty guitar, Trigger, the “Red Headed Stranger” never had the biggest ensemble behind him for the Outlaw Music Festival Saturday night (September 11).  Surprisingly, Grammy-winning Americana-Country showman, Sturgill Simpson brought a superlative, multi-piece band to play his set, including “Living the Dream” and “Oh Sarah.”  Simpson draws largely from his 2020 album, Cuttin’ Grass, and his new effort, Ballad of Dood & Juanita, a concept album conceived and recorded within one week.

Coincidentally, Sturgill Simpson was the producer for Margo Price on That’s How Rumors Get Started.  Even though Margo concedes that Simpson can be loud with his opinions, she also credits his motivation in the results.

Nothing so sweet as a father and son

The Philadelphia reviewer points out that Willie Nelson had a briefer set than Sturgill Simpson or Margo Price.  It’s hard to tell from the shared videos on YouTube.  What matters is that both Willie Nelson and each and every fan in attendance realize all too well in these times that life is fragile, music is a gift, and every second blessed by sharing breath and song together is a gift.

Every headliner on this bill has a strong stance from both personal experience or personal safety regarding the virus, as Willie Nelson advocates.  Strict protocols of proof of vaccination or testing came with admission and mask compliance was mandatory. The length of the set or the selections made no difference to the hearts and ears enjoying Micah Nelson and his dad duet on “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”  Naturally, “If I Die When I’m High I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven” (written by Micah, title inspired by dad) is thrown in, too.

The sight of Willie Nelson singing from a seat in no way detracts from “Crazy ” or “Night Life” or “Always on My Mind.” Actually, the focus moves more strongly to the artist and his legacy.  The encore assembles everyone on stage as a gospel chorus for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away,” beautifully accompanied by sister, Bobbie.

The stops for this outlaw ensemble are just underway, but Willie Nelson knows something he speaks on stage—“ To know me is to love me,” with a wry smile.  Surely more special memories and sacred moments in song lie ahead with the Texas treasure.

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