Fans of genuine country music found reason to celebrate in Lincoln, Nebraska Wednesday, June 7th when a caravan of country stalwarts came to deliver its goods at the Pinewood Bowl Theater. Robert Earl Keen, Dwight Yoakam, and Willie Nelson were on the bill on a beautiful night at the 5,500-capacity venue.
Keen and his band were the first to take the stage and get things rolling. Announcing they would play for about 50 minutes, Keen and his band got to work and set the tone for a night that would be filled with lots of familiar songs, tight compositions, and solid musicianship. Keen offered up some of his more popular tunes including “Feels Good Feeling Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon” that were punctuated by strong leads on mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar.
Finishing on the proverbial high note, Keen and his band made a run through The Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider” before giving a nod to Waylon Jenning’s with a cover of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and closing his set with his own high energy sing-along, “The Road Goes On Forever.”
After a short break, Dwight Yoakam’s band took the stage, glittering in sparking suits. Yoakam himself wore his signature jean jacket and snug denim jeans, and of course his big, white, low-riding cowboy hat.
Taking his honky tonk Kentucky roots and giving them a little Hollywood spit-shine, Yoakam has built a career spanning over 30 years. He has plenty of his own material to choose from, but he took a portion of his set to “play a few for Merle,” explaining the influence Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had on him as he launched his own performance career. As Yoakam sang Haggard’s lyric “Silver Wings, shining in the sunlight…” an airliner was cutting across the western sky, adding a perfect visual to the lonely lyrics. Yoakam told a story about Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and the controversy it created back in 1969, and poked a little fun at Nelson for recording the seemingly anti-hippie song. Cornhusker fans were delighted when Yoakam changed the lyrics of the song to “Football’s still the roughest thing down in Lincoln.”
Yoakam teased a bit of Nelson’s “Me and Paul” before joking that he didn’t want to get fired for playing Willie’s song at a Willie show. He also expressed some true sentiment when he said that he jumps at every chance he has to play with Nelson. The set also featured many of the best-known Yoakam tunes, including “Little Sister,” “Little Ways,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “1000 Miles from Nowhere” and “Honky Tonk Man,” all delivered with spot-on instrumental and vocal integrity. The 60 year-old executed his unmistakable shimmy/shuffle several times throughout his set, bringing cheers from a highly attentive audience.
After two satisfying appetizers, it was time for the main course. Willie Nelson and Family took the stage to cheers you’d expect for a living country music legend, and launched into “Whiskey River.” That was the beginning of a hit parade that would roll non-stop until after curfew.
“Beer For My Horses,” Good-Hearted Woman,” “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and “Me and Paul” were all played, and that was only about a third of the way into the show.
With Nelson, having recently celebrated his 84th birthday, it might seem appropriate that the backing musicians take the duty of leading the band through the songs, and letting the front man ease through. But that was not the case here. This was Willie Nelson’s show, and he was out in front physically and musically. He and his trusty guitar pal Trigger had people shaking their heads in amazement. Nelson’s guitar leads are enchanting, and his ability to bridge the gap between genres is solid gold. Asking the audience to “listen to what the blues are saying,” he showed us how deep that blues conversation can go. He also rode Trigger into the territory of jazz, bluegrass, soul, and of course country music, keeping the crowd enraptured all the while.
The Family Band really rounded things out, with Nelson’s sister Bobbie taking some beautiful solos on the grand piano and Mickey Raphael really accentuating compositions with harmonica, especially on tunes like the cover of Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind.”
Back to the hits, the set list included “On The Road Again,” “Always on My Mind,” Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” and the Nelson/Haggard composition “It’s All Going To Pot.” From time to time, Willie would throw his bandana into the crowd before replacing it with a fresh one that would later be offered up in the same way.
Several musicians from the opening bands came onstage to sing along toward the end of the show, adding vocals to “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” which morphed into “I’ll Fly Away.” Willie Nelson and Family played a few more songs, including the title track to Nelson’s new album, God’s Problem Child, before the set-closing “I Saw The Light,” during which Nelson tossed the rest of his bandanas and slowly walked off stage, stopping to wave to his adoring fans along the way. The smiles on the faces of fans showed the glow of having witnessed a true country music legend play his heart out just for them.