It was “Crazy.”
Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, who wrote the Patsy Cline classic, was honored Wednesday night with a rollicking concert in staid DAR Constitution Hall as he received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
The “outlaw country” singer, 82, still wearing his long hair in a braid, was recognized for his lengthy career and the more than 2,500 songs he’s written. Nelson, among other singers like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, came to define the genre because their music eschewed the smooth, clean-cut country sound of Nashville.
A native Texan, Nelson often wrote about the hard-drinking, hard-partying life of the cowboy and the working man. His music drew from topics eternal to country music; songs about life on the road, barrooms and heartache.
In a letter read by the concert emcee, actor Don Johnson of “Miami Vice” fame, former President Jimmy Carter wrote that the legendary singer “enriched the lives of people far and wide for decades.”
A roster of A-list performers paid tribute: including Paul Simon, a previous Gershwin Prize winner; his wife, singer Edie Brickell; Fort Worth, Texas, soul singer Leon Bridges; bluegrass-country singer and fiddler Alison Krauss; singer and country royalty Roseanne Cash; pop singer-songwriter Cyndi Lauper; and rock and roll legend Neil Young.
The concert began with Young playing Nelson’s signature opening number “Whiskey River,” not a song the honoree wrote, but one he loves. It was the closing number for the show, as well, this time with Nelson singing it with the entire cast.
It was a night from Nelson’s songbook: Simon sang “Remember Me,” Bridges performed “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Krauss did a rendition of “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and Raul Malo of The Mavericks sang “Crazy.” Nelson, meanwhile, offered his classic, “On the Road Again.”
He’s truly one of the greatest American songwriters ever.
Cappy McGarr, a founder of the Gershwin Prize
The Library of Congress, the nation’s center for preserving American culture, awards the Gershwin Prize for lifetime achievement in writing and performing songs. Nelson is the seventh winner, named for the legendary songwriting team of brothers George and Ira Gershwin, who created the modern popular songbook in the 1920s and ’30s, their work ranging from jazz to Broadway to opera.
“It is a great honor to be receiving the Gershwin award,” Nelson said at a Library of Congress luncheon that was part of the two-day celebration. “I have been a fan of Ira and George Gershwin’s music since I was a little guy and in appreciation for the award – and also I wanted to make some great music – I’ve just recorded a complete Gershwin album. It’s called ‘Summertime.’ ”
The song is perhaps the most famous piece from their 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess.
Acting Librarian of Congress David Mao, flanked by members of Congress, presented the prize – a medal with the Gershwin brothers on it – to Nelson, whom Mao earlier called “one of the world’s most creative and inventive people.”
“Part of Willie’s secret is the first part of his life was struggling to keep up with his dreams,” said Kinky Friedman, a singer-songwriter-novelist from Texas, of Nelson’s early struggles to find success. “He’s been an angel on the shoulder of so many of us songwriters, I can tell you.”
Nelson and Friedman recorded Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” for Friedman’s recently released album “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met.”
“It’s the first time that the Library of Congress has honored country music,” said Cappy McGarr, a Dallas-based businessman and producer who was one of the creators of the award in 2006.
The Grammy Award-winning Nelson was also a Kennedy Center honoree in 1998. He is also known for his advocacy of legalizing marijuana and his work with Farm Aid, the annual concert to raise money for family farms, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary.
The tribute concert will air on PBS stations nationwide at 9 p.m. EST on Jan. 15.