On Apr. 18. Willie Nelson gathered with friends and fellow musicians to celebrate his 80th birthday at Third Man Records, a shop and recording studio owned by Jack White in Nashville. The celebration was part of the CMT Crossroads series, which brings together country acts with bands/artists from other musical walks of life.
For CMT Crossroads: Willie Nelson & Friends from Third Man Records, which aired June 23, Nelson swapped lyrics on some of his most notable songs with Neil Young, Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Norah Jones, Ashley Monroe and Leon Russell.
Hosted by White, the show served as an all-star tribute to Nelson's life and music. The band, put together by White's bassist Dominic Davis, included Nashville session players, longtime Nelson bandmates and other White musical cohorts - Phil Madeira (guitar), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Lillie Mae Rische (fiddle), Marco Giovino (drums) and utility man Fats Kaplin.
Nelson opened the show with his new anthem, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," which was appropriate, considering the country singer's embrace of all things marijuana. What followed was a series of duets, starting with Ashley Monroe (of "Weed Instead of Roses" fame) joining Nelson on the timeless classic, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
Wearing a cowboy hat and his trademark long white hair and beard, the iconic singer-songwriter/pianist Russell then teamed up with Nelson on his tune, "A Song For You," which Nelson originally covered on the Shotgun Willie album in 1973. For this tender version, they ditched the band and delivered one of the night's best performances.
Nelson's longtime Farm Aid partner Young honored him with "Long May You Run." Jones, who's part of the Nelson tribute band, the Little Willies, played piano and traded verses with Nelson on "Funny How Time Slips Away." Current country misfit Johnson dueted with his bud on "Shotgun Willie," a comical tune about a guy sitting around in his underwear. Nelson and Crow shared an intimate moment on "Far Away Places." On the latter, they reminded of Johnny Cash and June Carter for good reason; Nelson and Crow have toured together and, in 2002, had their own CMT Crossroads special.
No birthday party is complete without a cake, and CMT made sure to provide Nelson with a guitar-shaped model. After he blew out the cabdles, everyone returned for the rebel-rousing "Whiskey River" finale.
A theme that ran through the show was White's fascination with "Red Headed Stranger," Nelson's song and album from 1975. The White Stripes' frontman nudged Nelson until they started playing the song in his studio, pretty much impromptu. During their numerous interludes, the surprisingly glib White proved to be the perfect foil for the quiet, unassuming and droll birthday boy.