Willie Nelson's performance at the Ohio State Fair was simply 'fabulous'

·3 min read
Willie Nelson performing at the Ohio State Fair Saturday night.
Willie Nelson performing at the Ohio State Fair Saturday night.

Willie Nelson’s autobiography, “It’s A Long Story” written with David Ritz, was published in 2016. It was then — and still is —  a long story.

Nelson, with help from his family performed in the Celeste Center of the Ohio State Fair Friday night just three months and change after his 89th birthday. Last night he said his recent recording, “A Beautiful Time” was his 89th album.

A long story, indeed. One peppered with so many hits as a recording artist and especially as a songwriter, that even loyal, longtime fans might be left saying, “Oh, I forgot about that one,” when reviewing his accomplishments — which, by the way, include appearing in 30 films.

He did as thorough and memorable an overview of that history as could have been hoped for last night during a fabulous set with a stripped-down band that included himself and son Micah (known professionally as Particle Kid) on acoustic guitars, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Billy English on one standup snare drum, and double bass player Kevin Smith.

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It all began with “Whiskey River,” a song written by Johnny Bush but associated with Willie forevermore based on his recording of it on “Shotgun Willie.” That 1973 album was a breakthrough for Nelson, who’d grown tired of the stale Nashville establishment sound and, along with Waylon Jennings, spearheaded the cure: “outlaw country.” It was to revitalize country music for decades.

But that’s another story, though last night Willie followed that with “Still Is Still Moving To Me” (from 1993) and “Bloody Mary Morning,” from his masterful song cycle and follow-up to “Shotgun,” “Phases And Stages.”

Willie Nelson's hourlong performance intimate, generous

As he sorted through many decades of his and classic country songwriting, it became clear the show was to be something of a revue. But it couldn’t have sounded and felt further from a showbiz revue. His voice was warm, in tune, and faithful to that spiritual sound we know as Willie Nelson. Where there might have been physical limitations, he made it sound as though there were none. Rather than rushed readings trying to touch as many bases as possible — that would have taken a couple hours — his tour felt like it came from a guy sharing a bunch of stories over a drink. The sheer honesty, intimacy, and generosity of his presentation trumped any such concerns.

Willie Nelson's concert at the Ohio State Fair reflected a decades-long career.
Willie Nelson's concert at the Ohio State Fair reflected a decades-long career.

And he didn’t dwell on the past, nor his lauded history as one of country’s greatest icons. It was all of Willie on show here, including his well-known pot smoking and cannabis activism. Micah said his dad once said to him, “If I die when I’m high, I’ll be half-way to heaven,” adding that it sounded like a great song title. So he penned “Die When I’m High (Halfway To Heaven.)” Last night it was not only a humorous tribute to his dad’s lifestyle but also a fine generational bonding. Willie’s “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” continued that theme.

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The tradition, though — as written by Willie and other country greats — was never far away. “Move It On Over” by Hank Williams and Terry Fells’ immortal “Truck Drivin’ Man” were in the pocket. The set included the timeless “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” as well as a couple arrangements traceable to the bluegrass tradition.

If it’s been a long story, Willie Nelson summed it up short and sweet last night, clocking in at just one abundantly satisfying hour.

Noah Guthrie and Good Trouble opened with a set that nodded to both the Allman Brothers (a cover of “Whipping Post” and a couple blues tunes inspired by them and the likes of Chris Stapleton) and contemporary country. Guthrie’s serviceable voice and sturdy originals mostly carried the ball but his backing band was impressive. A onetime cast member of the TV show “Glee,” Guthrie has a solid future in country music with two albums under his belt.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Nelson performed Friday night.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Willie Nelson delivered a 'fabulous' concert at the Ohio State Fair