Asher on Aspen: Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday celebration |

Asher on Aspen: Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday celebration

A two-night tribute to the country music giant at the Hollywood Bowl

Shannon Asher
Asher on Aspen
Willie Nelson performs at star-studded concert celebrating Nelson's 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl on April 30, 2023.
Randall Michelson/Courtesy photo

My gut was telling me to just do it. To just book the flight, buy the ticket, and leave town the next morning. After all, this was Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday bash.

How could I miss this legend’s star-studded, two-night festival chock full of my favorite country-music artists? So like any super fan would have done, I booked my flight on a whim with two of my best friends on a Thursday afternoon and flew out to Los Angeles the following morning. This may have been the most impulsive thing I have ever done, but the decision proved to be well worth it. Money comes and goes, but this kind of experience and opportunity is once in a lifetime.

We hopped off the plane at LAX on a Friday afternoon. Almost immediately, we made dinner plans to go to Yamashiro, a sushi restaurant nestled amid gardens and a koi pond in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the city.

It was here where I met the brilliant and incredibly charming George Clooney. Apparently, he loves Aspen as much as I do. We hadn’t even been in L.A. for more than a few hours, and I had already met one of the most acclaimed actors of all time. This was a sure sign that it was shaping up to be an unforgettable weekend.

Snoop Dogg performs with Willie Nelson at Nelson’s 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl.
Joshua Timmermans/Photo credit

Willie Nelson’s back-to-back birthday concerts, officially dubbed “Long Story Short: Willie 90,” at the Hollywood Bowl featured an unbelievable lineup of performing artists. Nelson called up some of his closest friends, including Beck, Billy Strings, Bob Weir, Charley Crockett, Chris Stapleton, Dave Matthews, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Gary Clark Jr., George Strait, Jack Johnson, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Bridges, Lukas Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Margo Price, Miranda Lambert, Nathaniel Rateliff, Neil Young, Norah Jones, Orville Peck, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Shooter Jennings, Snoop Dogg, Stephen Stills, Sturgill Simpson, The Avett Brothers, The Chicks, The Lumineers, Tyler Childers, Warren Haynes, Ziggy Marley, and surprise guest Keith Richards.

Willie Nelson and Keith Richards perform at concert celebrating Nelson’s 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl on April 30.
Randall Michelson/Courtesy photo

Our seats on Saturday night were plopped down in the center of the arena. We were somewhat far from the stage, but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be there. It was energizing to be surrounded by so many like-minded music junkies. The entire show was a riveting, continuous flow of talented country-music artists performing back-to-back with one iconic Willie Nelson song after another. When one renowned artist walked off the stage, another equally-amazing musician followed.

The stand-out moments that blew me away on Saturday night included seeing: Kris Kristofferson perform “Lovin’ Her Was Easier” with Rosanne Cash; Stephen Stills reuniting onstage with Neil Young to perform “Long May You Run”; Chris Stapleton’s rendition of “Always On My Mind”; Willie and Snoop Dogg singing the stoner anthem “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”; Miranda Lambert thrilling the crowd with a rousing, sing-along version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”; and Tyler Childers belting out “Time of the Preacher.”

It was at some point during Stapleton’s performance when I met a fellow concertgoer whom I immediately hit it off with. After getting to know one another a bit more, we exchanged numbers and eventually went our separate ways. I didn’t think much of this interaction until the following morning when I received a text from him. He informed me that he couldn’t attend the second night and offered me and my friend his front-row tickets for Sunday night’s show. We were beside ourselves. I couldn’t believe our luck! After I thanked him profusely, he explained that “someone did something really nice for me last week, and I want to pay it forward.”

Needless to say, Sunday night was a dream come true for any country-music lover. My jaw dropped to the ground as we were shown to our seats that were nearly hugging the stage. I was now sitting in the front row of the Hollywood Bowl with a crowd of more than 17,000 people for Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday party! How did we just score these ridiculous, once-in-a-lifetime tickets? Someone pinch me. Is this real life?

Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones at Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl on April 30.
Randall Michelson/Courtesy photo

Sunday night’s highlights included seeing Jamey Johnson, Lukas and Micah Nelson, Shooter Jennings, and Roseanne Cash performing “The Highwaymen”; Billy Strings’ live debut of “California Sober” with Nelson; and Keith Richards emerging from the wings to surprise the crowd and join Nelson for two songs: “We Had It All” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.” The latter of the two songs had everyone on their feet singing along and smiling as they watched the 79-year-old guitarist of The Rolling Stones belt out the lyrics “I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna cross that river, I’m gonna catch tomorrow, now.” Cowboy hats whistled and applauded, while hippies danced in the aisles, and weed smoke wafted in the air.

The star-studded celebration also featured special tributes and presentations by comedians Chelsea Handler and Gabriel Iglesias, as well as actors Ethan Hawke, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Owen Wilson, and Woody Harrelson. All performers and presenters reunited back on stage at the end of each night for a grand finale to close out the show by singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” in unison.

“Thank y’all,” Willie said, with his trusty guitar Trigger in hand. “Happy birthday to me!”

Willie Nelson celebrating at the Hollywood Bowl.
Randall Michelson/Courtesy photo

Over two eventful nights in L.A., the endless, profound love for Nelson across all generations was abundantly clear.

“All of a sudden, it doesn’t matter if you are a hillbilly or a hippie — everyone is a Willie Nelson fan,” Owen Wilson said earlier in the night. Willie’s tribe of friends and family illustrated one common theme throughout the course of the weekend: Willie brings people together. Looking behind me at the sold out, open-air Los Angeles amphitheater, it felt like there was nothing bigger, no one more prolific or iconic than the musician, actor, author, and activist whom we were there celebrating.

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