Meeting one of my country music heroes following a mind-blowing performance

I was in the middle of an intense classic country music phase, a senior in college and my new favorite professor at University of South Florida, Willie Reader, was teaching a poetry class that includes fascinating analysis of lyrics by the likes of Willie Nelson.

My friend, we'll call him Charlie, drove us from Tampa to Gainesville to see Willie Nelson perform in a parking lot outside a venue called Brick City Music Hall, which I think had recently been gutted by a blaze. It was a Thursday, March 16, 2000.

We arrived early and found Red Headed Stranger, the Nelson band tour bus, and, well, loitered. Paul English, Nelson's longtime drummer and partner in crime immortalized in Nelson's song "Me and Paul" came out and greeted us. I think he got a kick out of hearing a 22-year-old clutching a can of beer (me) raving about their music.

By the time the concert started, a fun crowd ranging from twentysomething neo-hippies to God-fearing grandmas filled the fenced-off parking lot area. My professor, Willie Reader, was there, too, and we bonded over a couple longneck Budweisers.

Nelson and his outstanding band played for about two hours and it went by in a blur of Americana brilliance. Nelson mixed his classic originals ("Funny How Times Slips Away," "Crazy," "Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground") with songs by the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and the greatest hillbilly poet of 'em all, Hank Williams. Nelson did all his big hits, too, ("Always on My Mind," etc.) and really impressed me with his acoustic guitar playing, some of the finest I had ever witnessed.

The show ended and I about sprinted to Nelson's bus and soon found myself at the front of a long line of fans waiting to meet the legend. He came out through a cloud of, yep, marijuana smoke. I shook the hand of the man I addressed as "Mr. Nelson" and then started talking to Paul English again, who was standing nearby.

Everyone had their autographs and Nelson turned to me and said, "You got something you want me to sign?" I was happy with a handshake, but, hell, it's Willie Nelson and he's asking. I handed him my ticket stub and he scribbled his name with a black Sharpie. Mr. Nelson also handed me a guitar pick. Of course, I still have the signed ticket stub, the guitar pick, and a very special memory.  

 

Willie Nelson & Friends will be at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota for a sold-out show Oct. 17. Have a suggestion for a great place to eat, drink, play or stay in Southwest Florida? How about a pop culture topic? Email me at wade.tatangelo@heraldtribune.com. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.