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Willie

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By Sean Dietrich

 

Last week, my wife surprised me with tickets to a Willie Nelson concert, saying, “Pack your bags, Miss Daisy.”

 

The next thing I knew, we were sitting 400 feet away from the Red Headed Stranger himself.

 

He played all the classics. One by one. And when he sang “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” I cried. Since my mama decidedly failed in this regard.

 

Willie finished the concert by welcoming Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter onto the stage. Seven thousand of us rose to our feet and nearly tore the place apart. The 91‑year‑old president hugged the 83‑year‑old cowboy. I couldn’t have been happier if I’d seen Bear Bryant and Jesus shake hands.

 

Then Willie sang “Amazing Grace.”

 

So did Jimmy and Rosalynn.

 

So did I.

 

Seven thousand folks set their beers down—since this is what you do while singing hymns. The woman next to me sat down and just stared into the night sky, listening to all the voices.

 

Willie sang the second verse.

 

I closed my eyes.

 

We sang this song at my grandmama’s funeral, at my grandaddy’s, my uncle’s, my cousin’s, father‑in‑law’s, and Daddy’s. To people of my pedigree, this song is sacred.

 

Willie rounded the fourth verse. When we’ve been there, ten thousand years…

 

Jimmy Carter raised one hand. That’s what self‑respecting Baptists do during hymn singing. It’s our way of saying, “Here comes the good part.”

 

Of course, Jimmy was right to do that. This was the best verse. At funerals, it’s what you sing just prior to tossing a handful of dirt into a giant hole—just before you sob for eight days straight.

 

Waterproof mascara doesn’t stand a chance during this verse.

 

Because this is when it all becomes real. When you understand your loved one will never come back. Once upon a time, Daddy drew breath into that big chest. Now his lungs are empty.

 

In this moment, you should feel angry and alone. But you don’t. The song prevents it somehow.

 

That’s why Willie Nelson sang it. Why Jimmy and Rosalynn sang it. Why Mama sings it to this day.

 

Because sometimes, you wonder how you’ve made it this far without busting in two. You wonder whether it’s blind luck or some kind of mercy from On High.

 

Well, 7,000 Georgians seem to know exactly what it is. After all, they’re singing about it. They call it grace. I don’t care what you call it.

 

It saved a wretch like me.

 

And Willie.

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