Next Tuesday, Seattle-based pianist, composer, songwriter and frequent Royal Room performer Michael Stegner will bring together many special guests for a night of music celebrating the great Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday. We talked with Michael about his lifelong admiration for Willie Nelson, and what to look forward to in this night of songs:

RR: When did you start listening to Willie Nelson?

MS: When I was little kid, like 4 or 5, I had the Willie/Waylon duets records from the outlaw movement that they marketed back then. Those guys kind of bucked the tradition of Nashville country music, they didn’t wear the outfits, the fancy clothes. Not just hippie, but rough around the edges, “outlaw” because they really didn’t conform to what Nashville’s idea of a country record was. Still, both became some of country music’s biggest artists, all while respecting the people who came before them. Years later, after I’d gone to jazz school and moved to Seattle, I did the first Willie Nelson birthday show. It was weird how much of an imprint those songs made - I remembered all the lyrics. It was powerful.

So you’ve been doing the birthday shows for a while now.  

Willie & Waylon

Yeah, I think this will be the fifth year. These shows are kind of the reason my band Fascination Nation started in the first place. I hadn’t sung in ten years, had just been a keyboard guy, but Andy, the band’s drummer, and I had been playing at The Park Pub every Thursday and randomly decided to do a Willie Nelson night with me singing. It had definitely been a while! At that first show the bartender was like “well, you’re not Frank Sinatra, but you have most of the notes!” Since then, the show has moved around. We’ve done it at Conor Byrne, The Mix, and this year at the Royal Room.

What material will this year’s show cover? 

Willie’s 1974 July 4th Picnic, kind of like a Tuesday night at the Royal Room.

Willie’s birthday has always been a thing – every year he throws two big parties/shows, one on July 4th and one for his birthday. In the early days he’d do it on some fairground or open field in Texas and all his buddies would play. Leon Russell, Waylon Jennings, all of them. Later on he started doing a TV special where he would sing duets all night. The lineups were always amazing. There are videos of him with Norah Jones, Ray Charles, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan. That’s what we’re hoping to re-enact with this show on the 30th.  We’re going to have a lot of guests and focus on collaborations.  Jeremy Manley will help do some of the Waylon and Willie stuff (he has an amazing Waylon Jennings cover band, The Outlaw ), Jeff Fielder will do some songs, Katie Jacobson will sing off of Stardust, the jazz standards album Willie put out in the 70s, Cuong Vu as well, because of Willie’s collaborations with artists like Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis. At the end my band will probably do the Red Headed Stranger album straight through.

Is Red Headed Stranger your favorite Willie Nelson album?

Seems like every time I hear something of his, that’s my favorite. There are a few people who just know how to treat a song – Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra. I think Willie’s on that level. But Red Headed Stranger was the album that made him known as more than just a songwriter. The way he put it, only people in Texas liked his singing. He was living in Nashville and couldn’t get a gig. Mostly people just used his recordings as demo reels for other artists. Red Headed Stranger was his first album as a solo artist. It was a concept album based on a story about a preacher who goes crazy, but it also included a lot of covers. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain was the hit all the DJs started playing off that record, and that was the beginning of his huge career as an artist.

In your opinion, what makes him so distinct?

His voice is so unique, and especially for a country musician he takes a very free approach. He sings to the room, very in the moment. It’s fascinating because as a songwriter he has a reputation for being the best, but he also does a lot of covers. Country musicians tend to have a pool of songs they all cover over and over, but Willie picks songs from genres not even in the same ballpark as country.  At the show we’re going to focus a lot on the covers he made famous. There are tons – Remember Me (When The Candle Lights Are Gleaming), Hands on the Wheel, Stardust, Georgia on My Mind, You Don’t Know Me, Yesterday. It’s a long list.

So you’ll be covering covers, among other things. What do you like about performing other people’s songs?

None of us came from a vacuum, we all have our influences, and to be able to acknowledge that through a show every once in a while is a cool thing. One of the things that makes the Royal Room unique is that it brings together original artists, people who write their own music, into situations where they’re performing covers for the sake of project nights like this one. So its kind of a win-win for the fans – they get to hear stuff they know while also getting to see original performers in a different light.

Do you know what Willie’s doing for his birthday this year?

I think he’s playing a show! I did email his daughter who runs his operation, asking if they’d throw us some support. She wrote back and said they really wanted to contribute, but were booked way too far out. But she did wish us well and told us to have a good show!

But yeah, it’s a big year. I think last year for his birthday Willie did a show in Amsterdam with Snoop Dogg.

Snoop & Willie.

Have you ever been to see him?

No, I’ve never seen Snoop Dogg or Willie Nelson! I’m always working. But I will. Soon.

Willie Nelson’s Birthday Celebration will take place at the Royal Room on Tuesday, April 30th at 8 PM. $12 advance/ $15 at the door. Available now from Stranger Tickets.



This Friday, April 12th, we are thrilled to bring back local favorites The Tallboys (who also hold a Royal Room residency the second Sunday of each month) alongside Louisiana super group The Revelers for a night of Cajun and country music! See what Tallboy Charmaine Slaven (rhythm guitar, vocals, flatfooting, square dance calling) has to say about both bands:

(The Tallboys live at the Redmond, WA performing arts center)

RR: Can you tell us a bit about the band – how The Tallboys come to be, and what the group is up to currently?

CS: The Tallboys started up as more of a bluegrass band in 2003.  The original members – Charlie Beck (banjo), John Hurd (bass), Paul McGowen (mandolin), & Rob Adesso (guitar) – would play bluegrass tunes and songs together for fun, and some of Charlie’s original material.  They soon found Joe Fulton playing fiddle at the Pike Place Market and added him to the band.  After a few months of playing bluegrass-type material, they discovered the Foghorn Stringband ( out of Portland, OR – a group of young guys playing old-time tunes, which have a distinctly different feel to bluegrass.  The Tallboys delved into the old-time material, researching old fiddlers from the 20′s and earlier, discovering a community of local old-time music in the process.  In 2005, they invited myself, Charmaine Slaven, to perform as a clog dancer.  I also took on promotions, and helped with booking.  As the band grew busier, Rob Adesso quit to focus on his day job, and Paul McGowen moved back to his home state of Arkansas.  I started playing guitar. Later, in 2010, Joe Fulton moved to the midwest, and could only have part time involvement with the band, so we recruited WB Reid to fill in on fiddle.  Joe is now moving back to Seattle, and we’re excited to have both WB and Joe on the fiddling.  WB is also a talented mandolin players, so will switch from time to time.  We also recently started a Honky-Tonk version of our band, as we’ve all become more and more interested in learning old country songs, so we are now occasionally performing with Charlie on lap steel, WB on electric guitar, John on electric bass, myself on rhythm guitar, Joe on fiddle, and Cahalen Morrison on drums.

Besides concerts, The Tallboys play in a lot of more lively/social settings like square dances. Why are get-togethers such a big part of what The Tallboys do?

We like to think of performances as a chance for everyone to get involved.  I personally remember when I moved to Seattle from Montana, I was very surprised that there was so little dancing at shows. People seemed uncomfortable with anyone even dancing near them, everyone was so serious, and the music was so loud that nobody could even have a conversation.  I think it made it difficult as a new person to Seattle to meet people.

I think that for a music community to really thrive, everyone needs to be an active part of the process, so involving the crowd as dancers is a tried and true way of inclusivity! Square dancing & social dancing very successfully overcome some of these hurdles. When dancing is actively encouraged, people find themselves moving just because somebody gave them permission to – it’s amazing to see all the smiles when folks get out on the floor.  We also try to foster a socially active climate at our dances, meaning that the music is at a volume level where folks can still have a conversation and get to know one another. Also we often say on the mic to please ask others to dance and fill up the dance floor.  I think it really makes it fun for everyone, and we get a lot more out of the performance watching our listeners physically enjoy the music!

You’ll be sharing the stage with Louisiana band The Revelers. Have you played with them before? What are they all about?  

The Revelers are actually a new project, but we’ve been friends with many of the band members when they were in the Red Stick Ramblers.  They visited the PNW a few years ago as guests at the Festival of American Fiddletunes and there they talked me into coming to visit them down in LaFayette for the Black Pot Festival which they founded and organize every year.  They are amazing musicians, and true bearers of the cajun music tradition, a vein of American music that was almost lost due to the lack of young folks learning the music about a decade ago.  Thanks to the efforts of the Balfa Brothers and many others, the music is once again thriving, and we’re so pleased that these guys enjoy visiting the NW and bringing their wonderful music and culture with them.  They live in a true dance culture, where folks just aren’t shy about dancing at all, and the band really plays with such a groove, it’s impossible to sit still!

The Tallboys Country Band & The Revelers will play at the Royal Room on Friday, April 12th,at 8:30 PM. No cover – donations suggested & appreciated.