When I bought my ticket to see Steve Martin, Deep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell, I didn’t realize that the date was the day before I promised my friend Kristin that I would go with her to see Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves and Alison Krauss and Union Station in Canandaigua. So completely unintentionally, I wound up scheduling a weekend that was exclusively focused around bluegrass and country music – a shock to the system of someone who only really dabbles in both genres. While I know my way around the collected works of Martin, Brickell and the Deep Canyon Rangers, I was going into the second show much more blindly. I was only vaguely aware of who Kacey Musgraves was and I had a rudimentary at best knowledge of Alison Krauss and Union Station – I certainly had heard of them but beyond a few of their songs being used at weddings that I attended, I wasn’t sure how much of their music that I would actually know. Even the legendary Willie Nelson was something of an unknown quantity to me; when I was pressed to come up with his songs that I knew, the best I could come up with was “You Were Always on My Mind,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” and “On the Road Again.” Beyond that, I mostly knew Willie as a marijuana enthusiast and from a guest appearance on King of the Hill, as well as from whatever I picked up from Kristin since Willie is her hero. I was looking at the concert as a learning experience and a chance to be exposed to some new musicians. I’m always up for some sort of pop culture adventure. Plus I love a good road trip.
After a quick dinner with our friend who was putting us up for the night, we were on our way to CMAC. Though it should have taken us about ten minutes to get there, traffic was so congested that it took us close to 50 minutes. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting in a car with absolutely no control over the situation; Kristin remained far calmer than I would have, considering how excited she was for the show. We managed to get into the auditorium just as Kasey Musgraves was starting her set and I got to show Kristin just how fast I can walk. Don’t let the short legs fool you people – I can motor when I have to. This is a side effect of hanging out with a lot of people who are more than a foot taller than me; I’ve learned how to keep up with the best of them by taking two strides to another person’s one. I’m also an expert at assessing the crowd and determining who to pass and how to navigate through a bunch of people quickly; if there is ever a concert Olympics, I’m a shoe-in for the gold medal. Kasey was about halfway through her first song as we found our sets, so we thankfully didn’t miss much.
Since we were in such a hurry to get in to the show, I didn’t make my usual pre-concert bathroom stop. I had hoped to wait until the intermission between sets, but multiple beers with dinner meant that wasn’t going to happen so I had to duck out after about four songs. This was actually fortuitous timing, as there were absolutely no lines and I was able to pop back to our seats in record time (again – I walk REALLY fast). The older couple at the end of the aisle made absolutely zero effort to make it easier for me to get past them to get to my seat; I actually got tangled up in my dress trying to climb past and almost fell flat on my face. I got the distinct feeling that they were annoyed that I had to get up – a suspicion that was confirmed when Kristin got up later to get a drink and they informed her that was the last time they were going to let us through, like that was up to them.
On the one hand, I’m slightly sympathetic; it can get super annoying when people are constantly getting up and disrupting you. I get that. But that’s also the price that you pay for sitting in an aisle seat – you may get more leg room, but you have to deal with more people trying to get out of the row. And we had each gotten up once before they decided that they were revoking our privilege to get up. That’s a pretty low threshold to decide that you are going to be a jerk. And I hate to break it to them, but they really don’t have the power to dictate the frequency with which we moved about the auditorium. By all appearances, they were not trolls guarding a bridge; I did not have to pay a toll or answer a riddle to continue my journey.
This nonsense was unfolding against the backdrop of Musgraves’ performance, which I was quite enjoying. I knew that she was a person to watch in country music and I understood why – she had a pretty voice and her songs were extremely catchy. She may not have the power that some female country singers have, but there is a sweetness to her voice that is incredibly appealing. Musgraves also writes most of her own songs and her lyrics paint a vivid picture and evoke emotion without taking herself too seriously. “Merry Go Round” is her biggest hit – a dark look at growing up in a rural town that gives her album its title (Same Trailer Different Park) – but the song that I couldn’t get out of my head was “Follow Your Arrow,” an anthem about being true to yourself which I’m sure has upset some in the conservative country music industry with its comparably progressive lyrics:
Make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.
All in all, I was quite charmed by her performance and have listened to her album several times since the show. Taking a chance on this concert was already paying dividends; the opening act had exposed me to a talented performer that I may not have necessarily otherwise listened to. And there were still two more acts to go.
After a short intermission, it was time for Alison Krauss and Union Station, who I knew were very well respected in the bluegrass community. What I didn’t know was that Dan Tyminski, one of the members of the group, was both the singing voice for George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou and the male vocals on Avicii’s hit song “Hey Brother.” I guess Tyminski likes projects that have the word “brother” in the title. This was an ironic discovery, since I credit O Brother, Where Art Thou for introducing me to bluegrass and here I inadvertently was hearing the man responsible kickstarting my interest in the genre.
Alison Krauss and Union Station were as solid as I expected them to be and they had the relaxed ease of stage of a group that has performed together for a long time. I even recognized more songs than I expected and was impressed with just how talented they were. Kruass occasionally would talk to the audience and I get the sense that she has a very weird sense of humor; she was very laid back in her stage patter and told anecdotes about the band that were a little odd or seemed like non sequiturs. It felt a little awkward at first, but once I kind of got a read on her vibe, I found it amusing.
It was sometime during the very enjoyable set that our old friends “the gatekeepers” started complaining about how long Krauss and company were on stage. They wanted to see Willie Nelson and they wanted to see him now. When they asked us when Willie would perform, we explained to them that he was a co-headliner with Alison Kruass and Union Station and that they would be playing a full set, not just a few songs like Kacey Musgraves, who was a true opener. This did not sit well with them at all, and the wife said that she was going to the box office to demand their money back. If she had, I was totally going to follow them and watch that scene unfold, since there was of course no way that was going to happen. They never did attempt to get a refund, though they pulled out their tickets to re-read what they said (like we were making this information up). They hemmed and hawed throughout the rest of the set, which was silly to me; here they were given the opportunity to hear an extremely talented band that stylistically is not that different from the performer that they were there to see and they weren’t even giving them a chance. Seemed like a wasted opportunity.
Finally, it was time for Willie Nelson, the man of the hour. I learned two very important facts during his set:
1) Willie Nelson wrote the song “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline; and
2) Willie Nelson’s sons are pretty good looking
Not being a country music aficionado, I had no idea that Nelson was as prolific a songwriter; he played a lot of covers during his set – including “Beer For My Horses,” “Shoeshine Man,” “Texas Flood,” Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” which really confused me – so I just assumed that “Crazy” was another cover. I was even cocky about it; I proudly announced to Kristin every time that I recognized a song, and when “Crazy” started, I signaled that I knew it, but ended with “but that’s not his song.” Kristin, a far more seasoned country music fan than I, set me straight. So it was not only a concert, but a teachable moment.
Willie Nelson is almost 82 years old and at this point he kind of sing-talks rather than just singing. That wasn’t really an issue – he still sounded great – and whatever he may have lost to age in his vocal abilities he more than made up for in his guitar playing. There’s no other way to say it – I was just straight up impressed with his dexterity and skill. I’m 40+ years younger than Willie and I’m already beginning to get some aches and pains in my hands, thanks to spending way too much time typing at a keyboard, so to see a man who has been playing as long as he has perform with what appeared to be minimal drop-off was very cool to see. Good for Willie!
I was especially tickled when Nelson put on his trademark red bandana and I had to chuckle when I realized that he had an entire stack of bandanas on stage with him; he’d throw one into the audience after he wore it for a while and then just reached back to grab another one. I don’t know why I found this so amusing, but I did. I also cracked myself up with a theory that I hatched during the show – Johnny Depp has randomly been playing in Nelson’s band, turning up at shows. I decided that the member of the band that Nelson introduced as his sister was actually Depp in disguise. She had long hair and a giant hat that covered her face, so I reasoned it was possible; dressing up as a woman is not outside of the realm of possibility with Depp and I was endless entertained with this (erroneous) possibility. Yes – I’m weird.
While I don’t know that Willie Nelson will become part of my regular music rotation, I certainly have a new respect for the man and enjoyed his set far more than I anticipated. He put on a very solid show and I’m glad that I can say that I’ve seen him perform. Though he shows no real signs of slowing down any time soon, we don’t have much time left with Willie and to get the chance to see a legend is not something to be quickly dismissed. I’ll be more likely to give him a chance in the future and less likely to shake my head in bewilderment when Kristin says how much she loves him. I may not 100% agree with her assessment, but now I understand it. Kacey Musgraves and Alison Krauss and Union Station joined Willie on stage for the final three songs, bringing the whole show full circle.
And the cranky couple that complained about everything and were just there to see Willie? They left early. Because of course they did.
Willie Nelson and Alison Kruass and Union Station are out on tour through the end of July; this show was Kacey Musgraves last stop on the tour – she is currently opening up for Katy Perry on select dates.