Kacey Musgraves & Willie Nelson at the 12th annual Producers & Engineers Wing Celebration celebrating Nelson
Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images
Why "Everyone Loves Willie" Nelson, With Kacey Musgraves, Dave Matthews & More
Last night, eight-time GRAMMY Winner Willie Nelson was honored at the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing 12th Annual Celebration at the Village Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., for his years of "artistic achievements and creative genius." But the truth is, the outlaw country trailblazer is not only one of the most accomplished songwriters and performers of all time, he's also probably the most well-liked public figures history has ever known.
"He has this unique ability to unite and really bring people together," said Kacey Musgraves during her heartfelt speech in Nelson's honor. "Underdogs, outliers, republicans, rappers, presidents—everyone loves Willie."
A fitting choice for honoree this year, Nelson has rambled and roared throug more than 200 albums in over six decades, shifting the tectonic plates of our culture with his work as an artist and an activist. In addition to his eight GRAMMYs, he's also been awarded GRAMMY Legend Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award, and won so many accolades he's become part of our American consciousness. But at the P&E Wing Celebration, the industry crowd has a much more profound reverence for the braided one as a champion for their craft and for the power of music to change lives.
Willie Nelson on stage at the 12th annual Producers & Engineers Wing Celebration
Photo: Getty Images
The uber-exclusive celebration event returned to Los Angeles and its home at the remarkable Village Studios after last year's soiree followed the GRAMMY Awards to New York to honor Alicia Keys and Kasseem Dean, aka Swizz Beatz, at the iconic Rainbow Room. While Willie's vibe might be a bit more rugged than his East Coast honorees, the event was every bit as breathtaking, with each room in the Village—a studio with too rich a history to even summarize—decked out with a variety of cutting-edge equipment demos and delicious dinner, drinks and deserts, all flanked by elegant décor and a Gatsby-esque sense of opulence with the right amount of artistic swagger.
With a legend of Willie Nelson's magnitude as the focal point of the evening, it might be hard to imagine another force in attendance could compete with his presence, and really nothing could. But the Producers & Engineers Wing Celebration is also about gathering the best in the studio business to celebrate the craft and community of recording. Names that will never be household ones, but yet are instantly recognizable and widely revered in the world of record-making, roam the hallowed halls of the Village with a trove of stories to tell.
Likewise, the young producers and engineers who both aspire to break and have broken through the obstacles obscuring success rub elbows with their heroes at this event, often to find out they've inspired their studio idols in return. So goes the discourse in this invaluable annual celebration for a rare breed of music industry professionals who seldom have the benefit of congregating, especially in a social setting. As one grizzled and celebrated producer told me years ago of the often-isolated nature of his vocation, there's no softball team.
But on this night, passion for great music, great audio and great progress galvanized the community, and of course, Nelson was the flame. His acceptance speech, albeit brief, expressed a clear appreciation for the crucial role producers and engineer play—and also drew a few laughs from the audience of studio professionals.
"Thank ya'll, this is a great honor," said Nelson, taking the podium. "I want to thank the producers and engineers over the years for making me sound as good as I could. And I'm glad they like me because they could have really screwed me up."
Just after Nelson accepted the special award from Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow, and his short-and-sweet speech made way for the evening's highlights, the performances. GRAMMY winner Dave Matthews dug deep for a moving solo acoustic version of "Funny How Time Slips Away" before playing his own song "Gravedigger," which Nelson recorded for his 2008 album Moment Of Forever.
Dave Matthews performs at the 12th annual Producers & Engineers Wing Celebration
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Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson, Willie's two sons, then joined Matthews on stage to make this a family affair. The heretical similarities might seem eerie were Lukas and Micah not so talented and authentic in their own musical personas. Backed by a minimal yet soulful band, they launched into a soulful "Crazy," easily one of Nelson's most ubiquitous compositions, made ultra-famous by Patsy Cline's 1961 version, followed by a medley Lukas and Micah put together of some of their father's favorite songs, including "I Thought About You, Lord," "Time Of The Preacher Theme" and "Hands On The Wheel."
"Dad, do you want to come out here for 'Promiseland'?" Lukas offered. Willie obliged and added some lead guitar work behind the voices of Matthews and his two sons. Next, the Nelson supergroup fired up "On The Road Again," a song so intrinsically Willie, who still tours hard at age 85, there could be no better closer to night.
(L-R) Micah Nelson, Mickey Raphael, Dave Matthews, Lukas Nelson, and Corey McCormick perform onstage during the 12 annual Producers & Engineers Wing Celebration
Photo: Getty Images
On this night, the Village was bursting with support for Willie for an impassioned and grateful producer and engineer community—and they are far from alone in their adoration, which you might think would become exhausting for Nelson after all these years. As Musgraves' continued in her speech, "Speaking of presidents, I asked Willie one time, 'why don't you just run for President?' and he was like, 'because I'd win.' [laughs] Touché."
Indeed, everyone loves Willie.