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“Willie Nelson & Family”: The Good Life on the Bus


Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Willie Nelson & Family” premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 24, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

By Vanessa Zimmer

Three things you should know about Willie Nelson: He’s never compromised his music. He’s always found his way back to Texas. And he and his Family have always protected Trigger.

As revealed in Willie Nelson & Family — a four-episode documentary that premiered in the Indie Episodic Program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival — Trigger is a battered guitar. It is the one Nelson found years ago that delivers the unique “Willie sound,” and one he thinks best replicates the instrument of his idol, Django Reinhardt. Trigger is locked up in a vault when not on the road, and he’s been rescued from a house fire and from seizure by the IRS.

Known for his resonant song stories, his soaring nasal voice, and his nimble guitar work, Nelson sees this particular guitar as a vital part of his music. From his first guitar, a simple Sears Stella given to him by his granddaddy, he recognized the stringed instrument’s value: “I knew that box of wood could sing and I knew by holding it against my chest, it would hear my heart. It became a part of me.”

Nelson’s roller-coaster life and career unspools in this film, peopled with family and Family members, and musical colleagues from Wynton Marsalis to Dolly Parton — the latter amusingly describing the young, clean-shaven, short-haired Nelson she met back then as “kind of dorky-looking.”

From growing up a red-haired, freckle-faced kid in Abbott, Texas, with his “first and best friend,” sister Bobbie (and, later, his piano-playing bandmate); to subsisting on the income from his songwriting; to finding his bliss in traveling and performing on the road with the band, Nelson has survived his setbacks with a resilient, optimistic spirit. 

He is 89 now, the red locks and signature braid gone gray, but his gnarled, veined hands still come alive on the guitar. “He’s got more lives than any pussycat you’ve ever met,” says manager Mark Rothbaum.

In the Q&A following Tuesday’s screening, co-directors Thom Zimny, who has previously made docs on Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash, and veteran independent filmmaker Oren Moverman explained the genesis of the documentary series. Rothbaum and film producer Keith Wortman came to them with the proposal: Willie Nelson wants to make a movie, and he’s not in a hurry. 

That setup provided them enviable access and also opened up vaults of archival footage and images. It also eliminated any idea of a “talking head” documentary. Those people they did bring in for interviews, says Moverman, were generous with their time out of their respect and love for Nelson — each of them saying: “I will stay as long as you need for this man.”

“We stepped into Willie World,” says Zimny — where there’s Family, family, and fans who consider themselves family. One woman in the Q&A audience described attending a concert, making repeated eye contact with Nelson, and feeling an instant and abiding connection. 

Another fan in the audience mentioned Bobbie Nelson, who died in March 22, at age 91, whose death was not mentioned in the film. Says Moverman: “We made a decision that no one was going to die in this movie… We didn’t want any finality in it.”

And then a hopeful fan asked if Nelson is attending the Festival.

“As far as we know, no,” says Moverman.”But you never know with Willie. If you see a big bus…”

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