When any legendary performer who’s climbing up into his years comes anywhere close to Little Rock, I dial up his age, add about 10 years for hard living and road wear and, if that puts him anywhere near 80, which is the upper reaches of an average American male’s life expectancy, I usually drop what I’m doing and catch a show. Apply that system on Friday and you’ll feel an extra bit of urgency when you go hunting tickets. Willie Nelson, who was probably drinking and smoking weed when my father was but a gleam in my grandfather’s eye, is 75, and B.B. King, who’s surely played more gigs (an estimated 15,000) than anyone ever, is 82.
You should feel urgent; two musical innovators of such status don’t team up to tour very often. But don’t worry about the age thing: Surely, Willie and B.B. are immortal. Since, and maybe even before, James Brown’s passing, they’ve been the hardest-working men in show business, recording and touring almost constantly.
Nelson, as any elder statesman of music should, has lately seemed to be doing pretty much damn well what he pleases. He’s put out a reggae-country hybrid album; stumped for Dennis Kucinich; advocated for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws); released a song, following the “Brokeback Mountain” hubbub, called “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other”; and appeared in films like “Beerfest,” “Dukes of Hazzard” and, soon, “Surfer, Dude,” where he’ll stretch his acting chops to play, by the looks of the preview, a weed-smoking guru. Earlier this month, he released “Two Men with the Blues,” a duet album with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
King, whose longevity might have something to do with the fact that he’s a vegetarian who doesn’t drink or smoke, has lately been less prolific in the studio, tempering his recording pace and focusing more of his energy on touring. In recent years, he’s played a long set alongside Phish, headlined at Bonaroo and performed some 300 shows a year. In 2006, he launched his “Farewell Tour,” which threaded through Europe and South America. When an incredulous Brazilian reporter asked him if this was, indeed, his farewell tour, King name-checked Sean Connery, “his favorite actor,” and mentioned Connery as James Bond in “Never Say Never Again.”
Recent reports put King in the studio with producer T. Bone Burnett, who’s apparently hoping to bring it all back home for King with a ’50s-style sound. That sounds like a great plan — the blues always sounds better unadorned. And speaking of bringing it all back home, surely you’ve heard the story of how the love of King’s life ties in with Arkansas? Back in the ’50s, at a club in Twist, Ark., where King was gigging, two guys got in a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, which caught the place on fire. Like everyone else, King rushed outside. Then, realizing he’d left his $30 acoustic guitar inside, he rushed back in, narrowly, as legend goes, escaping death, and retrieved the guitar. When he found out the fighters were brawling over a woman named Lucille, he named his guitar after her, so he’d always remember not to act crazy and fight over a woman. Since then, all of King’s guitars have been named Lucille.
It’d be a shock if King and Nelson, long-time mutual admirers and occasional collaborators, don’t duet for a couple of songs. Keep your fingers crossed, too, for King to do a Louis Jordan number or two. He released a tribute album to the Brinkley native some years back. Surely, someone will let him know that it’s the centennial of Jordan’s birth.