Willie Nelson is now officially a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just don’t ask him what he has to do with rock & roll. “It’s been a long ride from my first DJ job to being here with y’all,” he said during his acceptance speech. “And as a DJ, I was playing those first songs by Elvis. I remember writers calling that ‘rockabilly’ rather than rock & roll, and I never did pay much attention to categories, and I’m not sure the fans did either.”
The 90-year-old country music legend — and here, that word “legend” is appropriate — was inducted into the Rock Hall during Friday night’s ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Naturally, the nonstop touring artist also performed.
Nelson, ever the collaborator, joined Chris Stapleton for a lively run-through of “Whiskey River,” the Johnny Bush song that the Red-Headed Stranger has been using to open his concerts since time immemorial. The two musicians sat side by side onstage, making eye contact as they sang. He also teamed up with fellow 2023 inductee Sheryl Crow for a version of “Crazy,” the 1961 ballad that Nelson wrote, and Patsy Cline made her signature.
Crow sang the opening and traded verses with Nelson for an emotional performance. Then almost immediately, the drums picked up and Nelson, Stapleton, Crow, and Dave Matthews, who opened the segment with a solo version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” and officially inducted Nelson, wrapped up the tribute with an all-star singalong of Willie’s rambling anthem “On the Road Again.”
Matthews’ induction speech was one of the funniest and most animated of the evening since he was admittedly nervous and had to drape his six-foot-two frame over what he called “one of those low microphones.” Matthews recalled how a reporter once asked Nelson when he would retire, to which Nelson said, “Well, I play golf and I play music. Which do you want me to give up?” He also joked about how much Nelson enjoyed smoking weed with Nelson listening on placidly backstage as Matthews recounted how Snoop Dogg once quipped that Nelson was the only person to out-smoke him. Matthews’ mom, the singer said, still proudly owns a photo of her son with Nelson high on Nelson’s bus.
Matthews also praised Nelson’s altruism, especially the singer’s work with Farm Aid. “Willie is an example of how the world could be if we could just straighten up and fly right,” he said.
In Nelson’s acceptance speech, he spoke further about how genre never mattered much to him as he performed songs with Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. “We just sang the songs we loved,” he said. And he reflected on the present. “I’d like to thank my family band for hanging out with me on this ride,” he said, acknowledging his sons, Micah and Lukas Nelson, who back him up. “Thank you for including me tonight and thanks for appreciating my music.”
Nelson has a long history with each of the artists who saluted him. He and Stapleton have toured together, and Stapleton sang a pair of Willie songs at a 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl earlier this year. Nelson also cut Stapleton’s “Our Song” for his 2020 album First Rose of Spring. Matthews and Nelson have also shared a stage together; both men are members of the Farm Aid board. But it’s Crow who likely has been onstage the most with Nelson: She’s been a frequent collaborator of Willie’s at various tribute shows throughout the years.
The induction of Nelson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comes a year after Dolly Parton was inducted. Both were already members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and joined other dual members like Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley.
Nelson already has tour dates on the books for 2024. He’ll perform at the Stagecoach festival in Indio, California, and join Stapleton on his All-American Road Show Tour stop in Seattle. On the day of his Rock Hall induction, Legacy Recordings released Willie Nelson Greatest Hits, a new collection that assembles 25 of his key recordings. A live recording of his two-night birthday party, Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90 Live at the Hollywood Bowl, drops on Dec. 15 and airs as a TV special on CBS on Dec. 17.