We are sitting in a tiny country chapel. There’s faded pine paneling on the walls, smooth-worn old pews and a giant disco ball hanging from an unfinished ceiling.
And our pastor today wears a black ball cap that says “Zeke’s Social Club.”
If that seems weird, well, we are down the road from a golf course where folklore tells us that par is what the pastor says it is. What’s more, we are in sight of the pastor’s “World Headquarters” where he once pulled water from the air.
Clearly, we are in Luck, and our spiritual overseer is none other than Willie Nelson.
Along with several dozen SiriusXM contest winners and some media and VIPs — hello, Turk Pipkin, howdy, Dallas Wayne — we’re here to preview Nelson’s newest album, “Ride Me Back Home,” which is due for release in June.
A short drive from his Pedernales Country Club home, Nelson constructed this tiny town for his 1986 Western film “Red Headed Stranger” — inspired, in turn, by Nelson’s album of the same name a decade earlier.
In the decades since, the $800,000 investment has served as a backdrop for many music videos, countless Nelson interviews and several other films. You might remember it as Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the beloved miniseries “Lonesome Dove.”
(There’s no official list of movies that have filmed here, but among them was the 1991 adaptation of “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” Yes, Rod Steiger walked these dusty streets.)
The saloon at the top end of the street now serves as Nelson’s clubhouse — the “World Headquarters” where he plays chess, sips coffee, enjoys music with friends and, yes, once pitched an environmentally friendly machine that would extract water from the humidity in the air.
We’re not invited into the clubhouse, but the little chapel at the other end of the street is open to all. Nelson preached there as the Rev. Julian Shay in “Red Headed Stranger,” but today’s he’s sharing the pulpit with producer and friend Buddy Cannon and daughter and SiriusXM host Paula Nelson.
By way of introduction, Cannon is ready with some numbers: He’s produced 13 Nelson albums and more than 200 songs (many of which he co-wrote with Nelson) in the last 12 years. He’s arguably one of the most important people in Nelson’s inner circle these days.
During the next hour we’ll hear eight songs from the upcoming album, along with a good amount of applause, a few jokes and one admission from Cannon that the first time he met Nelson was in a broom closet at a coliseum in Amarillo.
(This seems more reasonable when you know the meeting was preceded by the question “Hey, you want to smoke a joint with Willie?")
Overall, the album seems fun and enjoyable, if unlikely to rake in the kind of critical acclaim received by “God’s Problem Child” or “Last Man Standing.”
Nelson and Cannon preview three songs they co-wrote:
“Come On Time” — A swinging ode to old age that serves as a companion piece in tone and topic to the better Nelson hit “Still Not Dead.”
“One More Song to Write” — The arrangement falls just short of tropical, but this laid-back song wouldn’t seem out of place on a Jimmy Buffett album.
“The Seven Year Itch” — “It means something different to me every time I hear it,” Cannon tells us of the groove-and-move tune. “I still don’t know what that is.”
SiriusXM’s Jeremy Tepper steps in at this point to point out, accurately, that “Seven Year Itch” bears a resemblance to the Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons” and ask if it was inspired by the 1940s hit.
Nelson either doesn’t quite hear or is confused by the question. But in defense of our host, he’s clearly tired. He played the night before in New Braunfels and now he’s not-quite-slumped into his chair, arms crossed low across his belly.
Nonetheless, at the end of the event, he will step into a biting spring wind and pose for pictures with each of his fans with good-natured grace.
More notable than the Nelson originals on the album are the cover tunes. Two that we hear are more open to criticism:
“My Favorite Picture of You” — The languid piano and crooning vocals stand in contrast to Guy Clark’s starkly personal original.
“Just The Way You Are” — Originally meant for a Billy Joel tribute album that never materialized, it seems out of place in this context. And yet, Billy Joel himself emailed Cannon to thank him for “breathing new life into my old song,” when he heard Willie’s cover.
But the preview is book-ended by a couple of covers that will no doubt be clear hits with Nelson fans.
By the end of session, Nelson has the whole crowd singing along with the joyous “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” which was such a big hit for Mac Davis in 1980 that he got away with singing “I must be a hell of a man” on the Muppet Show. With Nelson encouraging us on the chorus, we sing it just as shamelessly in our little white chapel.
The standout song, though, is the album’s title track. Sonny Throckmorton wrote “Ride Me Back Home” after he heard about Nelson’s work adopting and fostering horses in need of a rescue and rehabilitation.
Nelson perks up as the conversation turns to his horses — one of his 70 or so can be seen through an open window, grazing contentedly in a corral not far away — “they’re spoiled rotten,” he happily admits.
Throckmorton is on hand to hear the Nelson cut of his song for the first time — a gentle Western tune overflowing with heart and love for the cowboy’s constant companion.
We’re so used to Willie Nelson the musician or Willie Nelson the marijuana ambassador that sometimes we’ve forgotten about Willie Nelson the cowboy.
But Nelson hasn’t forgotten. At 85, he’s still the same cowboy at heart he was as a boy in Abbott, trying to ride the family cow or follow in the footsteps of movie heroes Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
Trigger, after all, is not just a random name for a guitar. No, it was named after Rogers’ horse. Those music videos filmed here? Nelson has said in prior interviews they are often fueled by a desire to spend some time on his horses at his ranch.
This afternoon was not just about hearing new music or spending a couple hours in the presence of a renowned musician. No, we got to stay a little while in the place where an American icon still lives out his childhood dreams.
We are in Luck, indeed.