“A Match Made in Heaven”: The LBJ Foundation and Willie Nelson

Lynda Robb, second from left, and Luci Baines Johnson present legendary Texas singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, with his wife Annie, left, the LBJ Liberty & Justice for All Award at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, on May 12, 2023. photo by Jay Godwin

By S. Pulse

The LBJ Foundation honored Willie Nelson by awarding him their most prestigious honor, the “Liberty and Justice for All Award.” This humanitarian award was presented at a gala held at the LBJ Library on the University of Texas campus. Willie Nelson received the award accompanied by his wife Annie Nelson. Also in attendance were President and Mrs. Johnson’s daughters, Lynda Johnson Robb, and Luci Baines Johnson, who presented Nelson with his award. In fact, most of the extended multi-generational Johnson family was in attendance; they were a good-looking crew that exemplified Texas glam, adding boots and cowboy hats to their evening attire.

Check out our red carpet photos from the event here.

Luci Baines Johnson, Lyle Lovett, Lynda Johnson Robb

Walking the orange carpet at the event, Luci Baines Johnson shared with us her take on Nelson’s contributions, “When I think of rural America and I think of bringing them justice, I think of Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson has taken up the cause and made sure that all of the rest of us know that this (farmland assistance) is critical for us all, and not just rural Americans. Willie has made sure that we are all on the front row for this cause and tonight we are going to be on the front row for Willie to remind him of the importance of his contributions.”

Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett performs in tribute to Willie Nelson at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, on May 12, 2023 at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin.

Artist Lyle Lovett, who performed at the gala, told us “This is a humanitarian award and as a humanitarian Willie’s greatest contribution is just how he is every day with anybody that he meets. He is such a kind person, a kind soul. He makes time for anyone that wants to speak to him. He makes everyone feel special. He is such a great example of how to be as a person, and how to be as an artist. His songs set the bar high and give you something to shoot for as you are writing a song. Willie Nelson lives his life as his values every day. And he has always been so kind to me. For him to receive a humanitarian award is such an appropriate thing because he is just one of the best humans that God ever made.” 

Larry Temple, Chairman of the LBJ Foundation, summed up the suitability of the evening’s humanitarian award perfectly by saying, “The award fits Willie, and Willie fits the award. No one has done more for the American farmer than Willie.”

While a late U.S. President and a country music outlaw may seem to be an unlikely pairing, it is their shared advocacy for farmers and rural communities that is the basis for creating the newly established “Willie Nelson Endowment for Uplifting Rural Communities.” The net proceeds from the gala will support this program. The endeavor will focus on eliminating hunger, providing sustainable agriculture, promoting resilient energy, creating sustainable water programs, and aiding with natural disaster recovery to rural and agricultural communities.

When asked about the convergence of her father and Willie’s shared focus on supporting rural Americans, Luci Baines Johnson aptly remarked, “It’s a match made in heaven.” Ms. Johnson went on to highlight the importance of the endowment to everyone adding, “The backbone of this country is rural Americans. We need to give them the opportunities, the thanks, and the support they need. And we also need to educate future generations about just what their needs are, because we owe our very life and substance to that community.”

Ms. Johnson’s comments on the appropriateness of the pairing of LBJ and Willie are well rooted. Prior to a career in politics, President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a teacher in an impoverished community where he witnessed struggles unique to rural America. He also recognized the importance of agricultural pursuits stating, “The farm people of this nation have made, and are continuing to make a contribution to our national prosperity.” This outlook germinated many of President Johnson’s programs geared toward improving life in the rural community.

Likewise, growing up in small-town Abbott, Texas, a young Willie Nelson worked the fields picking turnips, green beans, cotton, and bailing hay. He experienced firsthand the poverty and hardships that exist in rural communities. It also cemented his lifelong appreciation for farmers having said, “I’ve always believed that the most important people on the planet are the ones who plant the seeds and care for the soil where they grow.” His annual fund-raising concert Farm Aid has raised over $70 million dollars for programs supporting agricultural communities and broadened awareness of issues facing farmers.

With such a convergence of interests, one wonders if President Johnson and Willie Nelson ever met. Willie told the crowd at the gala, “Lyndon Johnson and I were good friends. We hung out together for a bit. Wherever we played, like a concert or a ball game, he would always come over and shake hands. And, you know, like good friends do, fellow outlaws you might say, our motto was, ‘if it ain’t broke, break it’”. The quote is a reference to both men’s knack for questioning the status quo. His outlaw, non-conformist attitude, has helped Willie stay true to his heart and the causes he believes in. Country star Sam Hunt, who performed at the gala, declared his admiration for this aspect of Willie saying it is, “His individuality and free thinking that inspires me the most.” 

In lieu of a speech from Mr. Nelson, the evening included an endearing conversation with Willie Nelson and Mark Updegrove, the President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. When asked about growing up in Abbott, Nelson quipped, “The population never changed. Every time a baby was born, a man left town.” The crowd erupted in laughter. Updegrove continued the conversation about his upbringing explaining that Nelson was raised by his grandparents, whom he credits with giving him the greatest gifts possible: love and music. Nelson added, “Music, whether its gospel, country jazz, or whatever, brings people together; it’s a great unifier.”  Mr. Nelson has used his music platform to unify people and bring awareness to various causes, but perhaps no single cause is dearer to his heart than Farm Aid.  Updegrove asked, “Is the farmer better off today than when you launched Farm Aid almost 40 years ago?” Willie Nelson responded, “I think so. I think talking to farmers around the country, and you know Farm Aid had a lot to do with taking care of some of the farmers when they really needed help. But somebody had to do it. We were there. We did it. We were proud of it.” The creation of his endowment with the LBJ Foundation will aim to sustain and expand that impact for future generations.

Country music singer-songwriter Eric Church performs in tribute to Willie Nelson at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, on May 12, 2023. photo by Brian Birzer

Music is what draws people to Nelson, so it was fitting that some of the best in the business turned out to honor him with song. Gala guests were treated to performances by Lyle Lovett, Elle King, Eric Church, and Sam Hunt. Each artist performed a stripped down, two-song acoustical set.

·       Eric Church kicked off the evening with a bluesy rendition of Willie’s, “Funny How Time Slips Away” before singing his own song, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young.” 

·       In a timely nod to Mother’s Day weekend, Sam Hunt played his new tribute song “Women in My Life”. He followed it with Willie’s classic hit “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” 

·       Elle King on mandolin, accompanied by guitarist Joey McClellan, performed Willie’s, “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way”. King changed a line in the lyrics to “But, Willie knows that I love him.”  King then launched into her song “Love Go By.”

·       Austin’s own Lyle Lovett closed out the evening. Lovett performed his favorite Willie Nelson song, “Hello Walls” followed by another Nelson song, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”

In all, it was a stellar evening spent honoring Willie Nelson, an American icon that continues to be relevant, active, and inspiring. Earlier this year, he took home a Grammy for Best Country Album. Last month, a star-studded two-night concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl in honor of his 90th birthday. Later this year, he will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But tonight’s honor focused on more than music. It was an evening dedicated to honoring Willie Nelson and his humanitarian contributions. Looking to the future, the establishment of his endowment cements his legacy and ensures that future generations will continue to benefit from Willie Nelson’s vision. 

Check out all our coverage of Willie Nelson and other Austin concerts and events on Austin 101 Magazine.

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