Austin 101 Magazine

Legend Willie Nelson Returns to Tape Austin City Limits after 15 Years

Willie Nelson is synonymous with Austin City Limits. He was the first performer to tape the ACL TV show 44 years ago in 1974, and his larger than life bronze statue is out front. You can also see tons of amazing concert photos of him inside the venue from ACL photographer Scott Newton. This ACL Live taping for the longest-running music television show Season 44  (produced by KLRU) marks his 18th appearance after a long 15 year absence. Although the location has changed (the original ACL venue was located on campus and was quite small), it’s still the best damn place for music you’ll find. The smell of weed filled the room and the smoke filled the air. If you were lucky, you caught the live streaming of the taping online.

Willie Nelson. Courtesy of KLRU-TV, photographer Scott Newton

The fact that Nelson is still going strong at 85 and still touring the country to his favorite spots is a natural wonder and he really is famously ‘on the road again’ all the time (I mean c’mon look at his tour schedule). He looks almost exactly the same with his signature svelt figure, long gray braids, and red bandana. He still loves his famous acoustic guitar (Trigger which he’s had since he was 13) with his red, white and blue strap. He looked a little stiff when he walked and you could see him working his hands often during the show. But otherwise, it was the same Willie.

Nelson says “Well hello there, it’s been awhile”. He wore all black, including his black cowboy hat, jeans, t-shirt, and his puffer coat. He wore a cool necklace. When he took his hat off, the crowd cheered. He made us all laugh hard when he tossed his famous red bandana to a happy audience member, only to turn around to grab another one from his stash (this happened several times). He showed his famous mannerisms of holding one finger in the air throughout the show.

Willie Nelson. Courtesy of KLRU-TV, photographer Scott Newton

The set was brief, a little over an hour but in his classic style of continuous songs where they all seem to roll right into the next one. He played many from his enormous catalog and also songs from the Frank Sinatra tribute My Way, his new LP and the show was streamed online. He kicked off the show with ‘Whisky River’ then a guitar solo then ‘Still is Still Moving to Me’. Although known in the beginning for his country/outlaw style of music, Nelson is much more than that. We love the diverse sound, going from blues to ragtime to country in his classic style. He also did many covers of his legendary music friends including “This one’s for Waylon (Jennings)” as he rolled into. ‘It’s All Going to Pot’ and then Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. And “Then one for Merle (Haggard)” ‘It’s all going to pot’ then ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die’. Then he continued with several more covers- many of the songs were covers. His sister’s piano solos, his own, and harmonica were highlights. His biggest cheers and standing O come from hit songs at the end, ‘Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys’, ‘On the Road Again’, and ‘Always on My Mind’. He closed with his gospel style faves, ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away’ which was awesome and longtime favorites from the beginning. We hadn’t heard many of these songs in years but the lyrics came back instantly to our brains. See the full set list from tonight at Setlist.

We thought he would bring his family up during the taping but didn’t. His son Lukas Nelson recently did his own taping of the show and it was an epic experience with his band, Promise of the Reel (including brother Mika). No star-studded show with all his favorite friends (and trust us, there are many). He still loves the crowd interaction and audience participation (it’s mostly a sing-along the entire night) and he often holds his hands up to one ear as the crowd yells during key phrases in each song. He doesn’t talk significantly to the crowd and treats the tv taping like a regular concert but shares many a “thank you very much”. He is still incredibly humble and appreciative. He exited with a simple “Thank you Austin City Limits”. His smile is as iconic as his voice and beloved guitar.

Willie Nelson. Courtesy of KLRU-TV, photographer Scott Newton

We have been fortunate to cover Willie many times over the last few years, including at his Luck Ranch for Luck Reunion, many concerts, the Beto political rally, and various music festivals. But this one was incredibly special. We hope it’s not his last ACL taping. We don’t know how much longer we will be honored with his presence and we try to soak up as much of him as possible every time. Regardless, we don’t think any other Willie concerts will go down in history as special as this one.

The band consisted of drums (Paul English), bass guitar (Kevin Smith), harmonica (Mickey Raphael), percussion (Billy English), piano, (his sister Bobbie Nelson is an icon herself), he holds his cup up to cheer her into her amazing solo. He often gives the band ample time to shine during solos. (which gives him a little break). There were a few times when his rhythm wasn’t in sync with the band, but mostly everything went smoothly.

If you missed this one in person, don’t worry, Nelson has his annual string of shows back at ACL for New Year’s.

You won’t want to miss this special show when it airs. See the info and the schedule for airing the show (sometime in 2019) at KLRU.


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