His Holiness, The Willie 

Mr. Nelson comes to Sun Valley

Last weekend, dignitaries, luminaries and other sundry rich and important people traveled to Ketchum for a religious communion. These worshippers streamed in from cities untold to learn from one of the planet's holiest of leaders--a man adored by millions, a tireless advocate for peace and, some suggest, a conduit to God himself. They came to see Willie Nelson.

What, you were expecting maybe the Dalai Lama? Oh, was he also in the area?

On Saturday, September 11, about 9,000 fans crowded into a makeshift venue near the Big Wood River and braced themselves against the unseasonably cold night. It easily dipped into the low '40s as the opening act, Reckless Kelly, left the stage and the promoter rightly introduced Willie as the "Walt Whitman of America."

The expectant crowd shuffled and braced themselves against the chill. Finally, Willie's band took the stage. Prompted by a familiar series of staccato downstrokes on his beaten-down old Martin classical guitar, Willie launched into his traditional opener, "Whisky River," and the audience surged.

Never mind, it was damn cold. Never mind Willie, depending on your perspective, is damn old at 72. The original redheaded stranger performed a set as spry and energetic as ever. As expected, he nailed his crowd-pleasers--those three-chord, chart toppers that have paid the pot bill since the 1970s--such as "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies (Grow Up To Be Cowboys)" and "Good Hearted Woman."

Incredibly, he also sold his jazzier, more melodically complex numbers--"Crazy," say, or "Funny How Time Slips Away"--as if he wrote them yesterday. OK, so he might have scatted his way through some of the harder-to-nail notes. Cut the man some slack, he's eligible for Social Security and can still pick a line and party your 20-something ass into the dirt.

In true Willie fashion, he smiled at the ladies, shamelessly manipulated the crowd with exaggerated hand clapping, and wore every hat thrown up on stage--including, at one point, a Boise State ballcap he wore backwards like a frat-boy. As always, Willie delivered. Willie played for a solid two hours and never succumbed to the cold or his age.

The same, alas, cannot be said of the crowd, at least half of them Sun Valley Willie Nelson-bandwagonners who folded like children in the unseasonable chill. After the first hour, the exodus began. At first, a trickle. Then, briefly, a flood. The retreat abated soon enough as the recently converted Willie fans, draped in kitschy "neo-Western" designer clothing, shuffled off to their warm, $2.8 million Ketchum condos. What remained were the hardcore. The fans who have stayed with Willie through the good times and the bad.

And make no mistake, His Holiness, The Willie, has experienced the brutal ups and downs of American stardom for over 40 years--from his early songwriting success in 1960s Nashville to his high-water mark of outlaw country superstardom in the 1970s to the federal tax debacle in the 1980s that forced Willie to sell off everything he owned. By 1992 he was the butt of jokes, raising money with a double-CD, the cover of which featured a smiling Willie wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Shit Happens."

But the 1990s brought a slow--and rightly deserved--return to respectability. Helped along by an MTV Unplugged album with Johnny Cash and ironic guest appearances in mainstream film comedies, Willie finally reclaimed his proper mantle: American icon.

And here is the beauty of the man: Through it all Willie, has never changed his style, his sincerity, nor, for that matter, his appearance. His trademark pigtails are the same today as when he recorded "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" some 30 years ago. His band remains the same ridden-hard-put-away-wet group of road-dogs that traveled with him from the beginning.

Yet Willie remains accessible and open to all comers. He has a knack for singing with virtually every musician to pick up an instrument, from Julio Iglesias to Bob Dylan to Toots Hibbert, who is featured on Willie's most recent reggae album. Yes, you read that right, a reggae album. And no matter the genre or the accompanying musicians, Willie has a way of making each song his own, that distinctive nasal twang in his voice as timeless and as recognizable as Mount Rushmore.

All too many artists fail to retire at the right time. Performing in ever shrinking venues and offering ever paler versions of their former greatness, until they at last pull a Sinatra, collapsing into self mockery.

That day may yet come for Willie. But he's showing no sign of it. On stagem in Ketchum, he out-holied His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He embodied his own word "Just like the sun over the mountain tops, you know I'll always come again."

The beer flowed, college kids smoked their weed and danced, the old hippies smoked their weed and danced, the biker's drank their tequila, the cowboys drank their whiskey and grandmas sang "Always on My Mind" to their grandchildren. In all, it was a uniquely American event that could only be pulled off by the genuine article. A holy man. A man of the people. A man of God. In short, Willie Nelson.

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