the latest image

Willie and Billy


The Latest Image is a photo that was taken in 1978 at Kings Dominion near Richmond, Virginia. I was in a band called Billy Kemp and the Paradise Pickers, and we did a show early in the afternoon at the amusement park. Later that afternoon, Willie Nelson and Family performed. I caught up with Willie after the show as he was getting ready to get on his bus. He was cordial, soft spoken and very focused, though he may have been at a different altitude than myself. His aura just about knocked me over. It was all over the place, thick as a hot August night.


His performance was one of the most electrifying concerts I had ever seen. It was the first time I’d seen Willie in concert. Since then I’ve seen him about a dozen times. The Family featured a Noah’s Ark presentation. There were two of every instrument except for the harmonica, but I think there was a saxophone, which would make two wind instruments. There were two drummers, Paul English and Rex Ludwig; two bass players, Bee Spears and Chris Ethridge; two guitarists, Jody Payne and Grady Martin; two keyboard players, Bobbie Nelson on piano and Leon Russell on Fender Rhodes electric piano; Mickey Raphael on harmonica; and an unknown saxophonist. And of course, Willie on his Martin guitar, Trigger.


Our band had been together just a year, and Willie’s had been together for five, since 1973. I was twenty-four, and Willie was forty-five. I hadn’t recorded anything yet, and Willie had cut twenty-three albums. I knew three chords, and Willie knew at least eight. Just listen to “Georgia On My Mind.” Willie released his Stardust record on April 17 and according to a web search, the concert at Kings Dominion was on September 30. It was time to learn new chords.


At the start of Willie’s show, and, at the end, a flag would unfurl as a backdrop to the stage. This happened in the song, “Whiskey River,” on the opening line, “Whiskey River take my mind.”  On the word “mind” the flag would drop. The start of the concert featured the Texas state flag, and the ending would feature the American flag. It lit up the crowd each time it happened. 


The thing I remember about the concert was how spontaneous his show was and how he has continued to do such great improvisation. His Family is like a jazz ensemble. The one thing I have taken away about guitar playing and solos from Willie is that he often stays around the melody of the song in his solos. At the time I wasn’t, and I started to do more melodic playing like that. 


I didn’t wear a cowboy hat very long as I never have felt comfortable with one on. There aren’t many photos where I’m wearing a hat, and I’m glad I had it on that day for the photo. I’m wearing an Ernie Ball t-shirt. In those days, I was using his strings. Now, I use D’Addario. I need to get a D’Addario t-shirt. 


Nearly two years after this photo was taken, I met Willie again at a backstage post-concert gathering at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, in the summer of 1980. Willie signed my photo and said, “Good luck with all of your music, Love, Willie Nelson.” 

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