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.
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 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.
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.