My Mom and Willie Nelson

My friend Jackie said recently: “You can’t be in a bad mood when listening to Jack Johnson.” I gather that she had been having a bad day at work and put in her earphones (the adult version of covering your ears and going, “Blah Blah Blah Blah I’m NOT LISTENING!”) And she Jack-Johnsoned herself right into a better mood.

I feel the same way about Willie Nelson.

I had just been thinking that you can’t be in a bad mood when listening to Willie Nelson. It was the day I was marveling over my revamped iTunes and playing some new music that someone had given us. I got down to the W’s and discovered that my Willie Nelson music collection has grown considerably.

Willie has always been the music I put on when I need to put all my troubles into perspective. It’s kind of hard to worry about your kids’ grades, retirement savings, or your decision to go with Huntington Beige instead of Monroe Bisque in the back bedrooms, when you’re listening to a guy who wears the same black t-shirt every day and whose sister brushes out his braids every night in the bus.

Suicide prevention counselors should use Willy in cheer-up sessions. Who could contemplate ending it all when you hear “There are worse things than being alone”  and “If the world keeps on turning as I’m sure it’s bound to do, I’ll keep on loving you” and “I gotta get drunk and I sure do dread it, ‘cause I know just what I’m gonna do.” Perspective, people; ever heard of it?

It’s going to be a sad day when Willy Nelson dies.

I know he’s human and he has a lifespan of only slightly longer than regular middle-class people. (From what I understand, the rich-and-famous live longer because they have “people to do that” when it comes to stress, driving on the freeway, heavy lifting, and other unhealthy, life-shortening tasks. Although I understand Willie does his own taxes now.)

Maybe because Willie and my mom had a moment in 1982, he holds a special place in my heart.

When I was a reporter in Coshocton, Ohio, I got backstage passes for an outdoor concert headlined by Willie Nelson. Picture this concert using these elements: Rural BF Middle-of-Nowhere Township, Ohio + beer + the heat of summer + beer + girls with no bras and in some cases no tops at all + beer + country music + pouring rain at the very end + beer.

Yeah, I took my mom to that.

It was memorable on a couple of fronts, but she forgot all about the goings-on in the “audience” when she got to meet Willie Nelson. (Sorry but I just had to put "audience" in italics and quotes. I don’t know what stand-alone word to use for the group of rednecks with drinking/drug problems that had gathered in that field.)

We got to the concert fairly early and some other nondescript bands were playing. We were shown to the “backstage” area (again in quotes and italics, because it was a cordoned-off patch of dirt with a fold-up table, a couple of chairs and a cooler of complimentary beers. An open air Green Room, as it were).

My mom walked over to a gate near the back of stage left. On the other side of the gate was a field and a dirt road.  When she learned that this was where Willie’s bus was going to pull up and where he was going to walk to get onstage, she planted herself front and center at that gate.

She didn’t move to get some complimentary backstage food. She didn’t move to get a drink of water, let alone a free beer. I brought her sustenance until others started to gather near the gate and then I joined her. Over the next few hours, the crowd got larger, there was a little bit of pushing and obnoxious behavior, but my mom stayed put. Front and center of the gate.

Sure enough, after a long time, here came that big black bus with the airbrush Indian scenes on the side. After a long, long wait, some people started to get out of the bus.

And then here comes Willie, walking straight up to the gate. He saw the crowd waiting for him and smiled and walked up closer. And then he saw my mom. And I’m not kidding, his face lit up. He looked like he recognized her. He walked straight up to her with his hands out and took her hands in his and said, “Good to see you” or something like that.

I was too busy snapping photos of him over my mom’s head to register what he actually said. I was stunned by his reaction at seeing my mom, a woman in her late 50s, shorter than anyone else at the gate (and probably at the whole concert for that matter.) But he was genuinely glad to see her.

I heard Michael Keaton tell a similar story about his mom and Pope John Paul II. That his excellency treated old Mrs. Keaton like she was the most special person in his supremely important life right at that moment. And that forever after that, actor Michael Keaton had a respect for the pope that is unique to people who treat your mom right.

I don’t know about the pope, but I think Willie was glad to see my mom because she was close to his own age, she was dressed like a normal person and she wasn’t blotto drunk in the middle of an August day. Plus my mom had FRIENDLY LADY written all over her face. Everyone liked her.

So when I hear Willie, I think of him as one of my mom’s friends. And cheerful perspective music or not, it’s going to be a sad day when he’s gone.

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