Jamey Johnson, Jessi Colter and more shine in benefit
Editor’s note: This article was originally published May 21, 2014
It started unassumingly and sincerely enough: Nashville singer-songwriter Alyssa Bonagura performed her song “Warrior” in memory of the late Nikki Mitchell, whose foundation to prevent pancreatic cancer was the beneficiary of Tuesday’s “Full Moon Full Life” fundraiser at The Backyard.
By the time the music stopped two and a half hours later, what had transpired was a top contender for local show of the year. Billed as a tribute to Waylon Jennings, with whom Mitchell worked for many years, and legendary songwriter Hank Cochran, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, the event felt like a private jam session built around an unassailable repertoire of country classics.
Participants included Jennings’ wife and son, Jessi Colter and Shooter Jennings, as well as his namesake, Waylon Payne; Paula and Lukas Nelson, children of Willie; Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson and The Departed leader Cody Canada; and soulful country singer Jamey Johnson, whose band provided ace support throughout.
Together, they (and a handful of others) amounted to much more than the sum of their parts, clearly because everyone was drawing on a common love of the honorees. Indeed, the stars of the show ultimately were not the performers, but the songs themselves.
Cochran tunes that were played included “I Fall to Pieces” (by Bogarusa), “Ocean Front Property” (by Canada), “Set ’Em Up Joe” (by Canada and Johnson) and “Don’t Touch Me” (by Payne). Overall, the evening’s set list leaned more toward Jennings’ catalog — a choice that allowed for many other great writers to be included, since Jennings primarily recorded songs by other writers.
And so, alongside Jennings’ own tunes such as “Never Could Toe the Mark” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” the extended cast cranked up terrific renditions of Steve Young’s “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” Bill Hoover’s “Freedom to Stay” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” all part of Jennings’ oeuvre. And although Willie Nelson wasn’t onstage, he was there in spirit and in song when Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings joined Johnson for a spirited rendition of their fathers’ classic collaboration “Good Hearted Woman.”
A few of the best moments were departures from the Cochran/Jennings theme. Colter and Payne admitted that “we’ve never done this before” as they launched into a spellbinding rendition of Buck Owens’ “Under Your Spell Again.” Colter moved to piano for a beautiful reading of her signature tune “Storms Never Last,” and then turned up the heat with Lukas Nelson on searing electric guitar for the blues standard “See See Rider.”
Near the end of the night, Benson struck the perfect sentiment with “It Ain’t You,” a song from his new album that Jennings co-wrote with Gary Nicholson. In remembering the departure of Jennings, Cochran and Mitchell, its lyrics hit home: “You wake up to the changes, but deep inside you’re still the same.”
The Nikki Mitchell Foundation accepts donations on its website, which states its mission as being “dedicated to seeking and supporting the most breakthrough data available for the early detection and cure of pancreatic cancer. Not tied to any one hospital, the NMF will support the most promising research with a focus on gene-based therapies along with a special emphasis on prevention and patients’ preferences in determining their care.”