In a way that Willie Nelson himself would probably appreciate, the idea for a Nelson tribute at Cafe Nine arose first from an idea of No Line North’s Jon Schlesinger to perform the country legend’s concept album Red Headed Stranger in its entirety.
“I really love that album,” Schlesinger said, “and I thought it would be fun to cover it from beginning to end.”
On second thought, he said amiably, “it freaked me out how much work that was going to be.” But the idea of a night devoted to Nelson stuck, and he got organizing.
The result is the the “Willie Nelson Songbook Celebration,” which takes over Cafe Nine on Saturday night.
Hosted by Schlesinger and Michael Kiefer of Twin Lakes Records, it features Bop Tweedy, Frank Critelli, Dave Hogan, Paul Belbusti and Lys Guillorn, Kelly Kancyr, No Line North, Olive Tiger (performing solo), George Hakkila, The Sawtelles, Wayne Noregretzky, and Xavier Serrano (from Kindred Queer). The songs everyone selected span virtually all of Nelson’s storied career, from his earliest hits in the late 1950s to his latest records.
Organizing the night took a while. But it fell into place in time. “I just reached out to a couple friends and people I knew, and then they suggested more people,” Schlesinger said. “It’s a diverse group.”
That’s in keeping with Nelson himself, who, pillar of country music that he is, has always had a sound that branched into other genres. In getting ready for the show, those who worked up his songs developed a new appreciation for the qualities of Nelson’s songwriting, which marries timeless melodies with deceptively difficult harmonic structures.
“It’s almost skeletal,” Schlesinger said of Nelson’s song craft, “but so big, so complex.” In addition to performing some of Nelson’s material as No Line North, Schlesinger is backing up Serrano on lap steel. Serrano, Schlesinger said, “was saying it was such a cool thing to explore his catalog. The early stuff really resonated with him.”
Throwing a tribute to the 83-year-old Nelson also felt fitting in a year that has already seen some tough losses. When Schlesinger first brought up the idea of a Nelson-focused night to Kiefer, he said, Kiefer liked that “you get to celebrate him while he’s still here — it’s a nice thing to do.”
So the long, rambling road from Red Headed Stranger to Saturday night will tip its hat to the outlaw country artist who wrote a hit for Patsy Cline, the actor and biodiesel champion, who just might have smoked a joint on the roof of the White House in 1977.
“It’s all come together,” Schlesinger said. “We’re all ready to go and excited to participate in it.”
The Willie Nelson Songbook Celebration happens on May 28 at Cafe Nine, 250 State St. Doors open at 8 p.m.; show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5. All proceeds go to Connecticut Food Bank.