- Check out KERA’s special 50th Anniversary microsite
When you picture Willie Nelson in your mind’s eye, what do you see? A white beard, certainly. Braids, likely. Maybe a red, white and blue guitar strap?
Those visuals have become Willie trademarks, but it wasn’t always that way. How do I know? I’ll tell ya how – I just got finished watching a concert that he performed here at KERA that aired on Channel 13 in 1974. That Willie is mostly clean-shaven – just a hint of 5 o’clock shadow. And his dark hair is just over the collar.
And yet …
So many of the things we’ve come to associate with Willie were already firmly entrenched nearly 40 years ago. Trigger, his trusty guitar, already has that second hole in it. (Trigger is a classical guitar, which don’t typically come with pick guards since classical players don’t use picks. Willie does, hence, the hole.) And that voice is the same as it ever was. I challenge anyone to listen to him sing “Whiskey River” today and listen to the opener to the 1974 show and correctly pick out which is which without guessing. You’ll probably hear him sing it on Monday at his 4th of July picnic.
The reason for this look back is KERA Classics, a series the station has put together to celebrate its 50th birthday. Kicking off the series is a rebroadcast of a show that used to air on the station called Opry House, an Austin City Limits-type show that actually predates ACL. Country music performers would come by, we’d invite a studio audience and broadcast the whole thing. (When I say “we,” I mean those people who worked here before I was born.) Future episodes that will be rebroadcast in July and August include Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, David Allan Coe and Michael Murphey. KERA was definitely country before country was cool.
Willie’s performance is first up, airing this Sunday at 6 p.m. In addition to “Whiskey River,” he runs through “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Hello Walls” and a power-packed medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” That last one will make you wonder why he’s not more widely regarded as a first-rate guitar player.
He also takes requests, which is actually pretty surprising to see during a live television show. Audience members shout out “Sad Songs and Waltzes!” and “Pick Up the Tempo!” and Willie and the band hardly blink before launching right into them.
About half way through the show, Sammi Smith joins the band on stage for a quick duet. Willie tells her to not go too far – she’ll be coming back to to sing her hit “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” But unfortunately, that footage has been lost to history.
How can that be, you ask? I wondered the same thing. So I tracked down Bill Young, who’s in charge of television programming around here. He tells me that the Willie Nelson episode of Opry House was a 90-minute show. Back in those days, you would sometimes film on a 65-minute tape and then a 30 minute tape and marry the two together where the overlap occurs. In preparing to put the series together for KERA’s 50th, Bill says he and his staff turned the building over searching for that second tape to no avail.
So Smith’s performance, plus a special appearance by Jerry Jeff Walker to sing “Up Against the Wall Red Neck Mother,” are lost to history. Gone to that great television in the sky.
Luckily we hung on to the first hour of this program. Tune in Sunday night, and you’ll be glad we did.
Check out a related story about this program on dallasnews.com.