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Matt Kinnaman

Willie Nelson’s Legacy

Written by

Willie and Trigger

Willie Nelson turned 90 on April 29th and celebrated with two nights of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Willie pulled together a lineup of musicians that only he could: Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Keith Richards, Beck, George Strait, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Jones, Lyle Lovett, Snoop Dogg, Rosanne Cash, the Chicks, Tyler Childers, Stephen Stills, Allison Russell, Ziggy Marley, Chris Stapleton, Dwight Yoakam, Dave Matthews, Margo Price, Miranda Lambert, Edie Brickell, Bob Weir, Sturgill Simpson, the Lumineers, Jack Johnson, Gary Clark Jr., Jamey Johnson, Leon Bridges, and Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah.

Willie Nelson always gets referred to as a “country music icon,” which he is. But Willie is much more than that, and by now, so many reviews and retrospectives have been written, it feels totally redundant to recount Willie’s career. But what the heck, let’s do it again, because it’s so amazing and unrivaled and enduring that it turns out to be…singular.

It’s nearly impossible to sum up his impact, his reach, his accomplishments, his talent, his longevity, his commitment to his craft, his love of his audience, his songwriting ability, his continuing creativity, his energy at 90, and his influence on American music (and music globally). And Willie keeps going, and keeps on adding new pages to his story.

On the road again and again for nearly 70 years ago now, with 99 studio albums to his credit (plus a ton of compilations, live albums, special releases…), the statistics, and more importantly, the impact, of Willie’s life and music are by now beyond capture. His work infuses our entire American musical culture and story.

Sinatra sang about doing it his way, but Willie Nelson is a guy who truly did. Early in his career, with his popularity and success in Nashville on a steady upward trajectory, he decided he was done with the industry’s creative constraints and corporate constrictions. In what some observers and insiders saw as career suicide, Willie left Nashville and went to back home to Texas, to Austin, where he could freely create music the way he wanted to. Along the way, he inspired the explosion of a new Austin music scene which continues to grow, vibrate, and reverberate today.

But for a moment, let’s take a quick detour away from Willie…

This week, I found myself in a conversation with a successful school teacher. I say “successful” according to success by Willie’s standards. She keeps going strong in her third decade of classroom teaching. Her commitment to her craft is as heart-felt as the day she began. Every day she summons the creativity and energy required to deliver life-changing knowledge to her students. And even though she hears no cheering audiences, receives no lucrative gates, gets no profits from merchandise sales, and does it all with no support or production teams, she gives it her all in the near-anonymity that characterizes everyday life for most of us. (Maybe this makes her accomplishments even greater than if she were a star on a big stage, a possibility that seems worthy of further reflection.)

But here’s what struck me: In our conversation, she remarked that with the last day of school now only three weeks away, she feels she’s running on fumes and she feels her students know it. She feels she’s not fun for them anymore, that she’s letting them down. Teaching is her mission. Even though her platform is small in the eyes of the world, in her eyes, its responsibilities and opportunities are huge. And she wants to perform at the highest levels, always.

A few days before my conversation with this teacher, Willie Nelson spoke with an interviewer, who asked him what he wanted his legacy to be. Now, think about the possible answers Willie might have given. Almost nothing he said would seem too grandiose for a person of his stature and impact. But Willie kept it simple. He said he wants his legacy to be “That I always showed up.”

Boom! What an unexpected gift. I realized immediately that I need to say this to myself everyday. And I felt good about sharing it with the teacher, too. “Just show up. Just keep showing up. It will work.”

I guess a lot of us might still want to step in and answer the interviewer on Willie’s behalf. We might want to make the case that his legacy is so huge, even transcendent, that his simple statement somehow fell short. But I don’t think so. Because if Willie didn’t start by always showing up, he couldn’t have built a life and a legend that’s actually too big to adequately describe.

For every one of us, wherever we are and whatever our mission might be, It starts with showing up. Somehow, the rest takes care of itself.

PS Enjoy the finale of Willie’s 90th Birthday concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

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