BY JOHN B. MOORE
Like taking that pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj, submerging in the Ganges or observing mass at the Vatican, witnessing Willie Nelson standing on the 136-year old stage inside the ancient Gruene Hall just outside of Austin is a religious experience. On a rare cold night in New Braunfels, Texas, Nelson, six decades into his career and nursing an obvious cold, managed to bring a hometown crowd to the point of near rapture with decades-old songs and the occasional sly smile.
Billy Joe Shaver, the unsung hero of the Outlaw Country movement and longtime Nelson confidant, did his part to warm up the crowd for Texas’ favorite son. But the warm up was hardly necessary, as the show sold out minutes after the box office opened. Still the 71-year-old Shaver, a badass in his own right (just Google “Billy Joe Shaver” and “shooting”), did a commendable job mixing in songs off his just-released Long in the Tooth and a dozen or so of his classics like “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Live Forever,” with Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael sitting in for most of the set.
While Shaver was on stage, the 81-year-old Nelson climbed though a special door that had been cut into the back of Gruene Hall years ago, just for him. And with little fanfare and no introduction, he and his longtime band sauntered onto the stage, settled in and launched into a crisp, but memorable “Whiskey River.” Standing on a stark stage with the flag of Texas above as the only ornamentation, the redheaded stranger, long since gone grey, clad in all black (jeans, a t-shirt and felt cowboy hat), showed no signs of growing bored with the song that has been a live staple since 1973.
The night was a mix of fan favorites (“Always on My Mind,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”) and new classics like “Beer for My Horses” and the Shaver-penned “Hard to Be an Outlaw” (Shaver joined him on an empty mic just a few lines into the song). Nelson also managed to mix in some old gospel songs and a Hank Williams tune.
The unpretentious Gruene Hall, with its worn-down wooden floors, has seen little renovations since it opened in the late 1800s. The only seating available are the wobbly benches located against the side walls and a couple of pool tables moved aside for shows. Located in the heart of Hill Country, it’s close to the city that launched Nelson’s career – and Outlaw Country for that matter – and only holds about 800. The venue has hosted everything from high school dances to badger fights to a who’s who in Country and Americana over the past century.
The audience that night was a brilliant snapshot of the community, a mix of unironic cowboy hats and big belt buckles mixing in with hipsters from Austin, several decades younger than the cowboy set. But he managed to unite everyone inside that dancehall.
Nelson and band ended the night with a medley of spiritual songs “Uncloudy Day” and “I Saw the Light,” as well as a modern hymn, Nelson’s own “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Even for an admitted Agnostic (an optimistic Agnostic, but one nonetheless), seeing Willie Nelson perform at Gruene Hall was as close as a spiritual moment as I’ve ever had.
Photos credit: Carly Moore