"Funny How Time Slips Away" isn't just one of Willie Nelson's best songs. It's the perfect caption for his long, storied history in Fort Worth, where he performed Saturday night before a capacity crowd at Billy Bob's.
To the Red Headed Stranger — now 82, his once-fiery locks gone gray and tied up in long braids — it probably seems like just yesterday he was a clean-cut DJ hosting The Western Express on the now-defunct KCNC. Sixty years later, the newly-honored recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song made another triumphant return to the Stockyards, the site of so many memorable Fourth of July Picnics and the setting for his 2004 album Live at Billy Bob's Texas.
His sweet nasal tenor was as distinct as ever, though the passage of time had stolen some the thunder from his fingers. He struggled time and again to hit the right notes on Trigger, his battered old warhorse of a guitar, especially in the show-opening "Whiskey River."
But the longer Nelson played, the more limber his digits got until he sounded like a teenage punk-rocker doing imitations of Andrés Segovia and Django Reinhardt. When he played the blues at the end of "Night Life," he made his acoustic guitar roar like a Fender Stratocaster turned to 11.
Nelson's veteran band was brilliant as usual, especially harmonica ace Mickey Raphael, who stirred in bits of Chicago blues or Parisian folk depending on the mood. So strong was Raphael's role in the show that whenever he wasn't blowing, the songs sounded anemic. Sister Bobbie Nelson kept things jumping on grand piano and Willie's daughter Amy overcame a hesitant start to contribute soulful backing vocals to a half-dozen songs.
Barely speaking to the crowd, Nelson steamrolled through two dozen tunes in an 80-minute set. He covered all the bases, offering up his own classics ("Crazy," "On the Road Again"), his hit versions of others' tunes ("Georgia on My Mind," "Always On My Mind") and slew of old-time gospel tunes and songs by Hank Williams Sr.
The one new tune was "It's All Going to Pot" from his recent album with Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmy. A wickedly funny ditty about smoking weed to cope with a world gone crazy, "Pot" segued into his 2012 classic "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" for an extended tribute to Mary Jane. Nelson may go down in history as the architect of outlaw country, but Saturday night he made it clear he also wants to be remembered as country's pied piper of the pro-pot movement.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org