Though ZZ Top and Willie Nelson certainly have different sounds on stage, they both share quite a few similarities, from their blues inspirations to their instantly recognizable hairstyles. This is perhaps the reason why the rock band’s guitarist, Billy Gibbons, got along with the country legend so well while performing together.
Recently, Gibbons described his backstage experience with Nelson during a few New Year’s Eve performances. During the stint, the ZZ Top guitarist found out just how quickly things change during one of Nelson’s sets.
“I was invited to join Willie for a New Year’s appearance down in Austin,” Gibbons explained to UCR. “We did seven consecutive appearances with Willie on New Year’s Eve.”
The evening started off smoothly enough. In fact, Gibbons was clicking so well with Nelson that someone from the stage crew asked the ZZ Top member to communicate with the country star on the upcoming set.
“One of the more recent moments on stage, someone said, ‘Gee whiz, you’re pretty much in tune with what Willie does. Do you want to go talk to him? Maybe there’s something different this go-around,'” Gibbons recalled. “We stepped on board the bus backstage. I said, ‘The ball will be dropping shortly. Is there anything we should prepare for?” He said, ‘Let’s do something different. Let’s start off with ‘Milk Cow Blues.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, ‘Milk Cow Blues,’ what key?’ He said, ‘Let’s do it in the key of C.’ I said, ‘Sure ‘nuff, I’ll be ready.'”
ZZ Top Guitarist Recalls How Willie Nelson Called an Audible Mid-Song
Naturally, this key change was far from a challenge for the legendary rock band behind hits like “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” And so, they prepared for Nelson’s ‘Milk Cow Blues’ for their next round of New Year’s Eve entertainment.
But there was just one problem.
“And the ball began to drop and when the new year rolled in, Willie stepped up to the microphone and started in with, ‘Whiskey river take my mind …’ [Laughs.] In the key of E, mind you!”
Instead of following through with his previous plan, Nelson had decided to perform the song in a totally different key. For the audience, it may not be noticeable. Perhaps they thought it was intentional! But for Gibbons, it was just one of the hilarious consequences of working with Willie.
“But that’s Willie for you,” Gibbons said. “He calls it on the spot. Just stay on your toes and be ready to rock.”
Of course, Gibbons and ZZ Top were more than willing to endure plenty more surprise key changes if it meant they could keep playing with Nelson. Though, it could get hard to see him past the cloud of smoke that seemed to follow the herbal enthusiast.
“But that decision to just check in with Willie, I had to peek through a cloud to make sure I was talking with Willie. I said, ‘I think I can see you. I can certainly hear you. But is that you?'” Gibbons joked.