Music

Willie Nelson's "America the Beautiful": An Independence Day Classic

No doubt, this weekend will herald many patriotic displays in honor of America's 245th birthday. Considering this Fourth of July is our first major holiday, post-vaccination, many Americans are excited to reunite with friends and families -- to barbecue, watch fireworks, or just hang out in the sun. Celebrations may feel particularly poignant following a year defined by mass tragedy and cultural reckoning. Emerging from such a dark moment in American history, I'm reminded of Willie Nelson's performance during America: A Tribute to Heroes, a benefit concert held in the wake of the 9/11. He sang "America the Beautiful."

'America: A Tribute to Heroes'

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a benefit concert was organized to aid victims' families as well as New York City firefighters and police officers. America: A Tribute to Heroes was recorded on September 21 in Los Angeles and aired as a telethon, commercial-free, on Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS. In addition to the country legend Willie Nelson, the event included many big names. Among them: Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, U2, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, Neil Young, Alicia Keys (who sang "Someday We'll All Be Free"), Billy Joel, the Chicks, Dave Matthews, Mariah Carey, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Sting, Eddie Vedder, Paul Simon (who sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water), and Céline Dion (who sang "God Bless America").

Nelson reflects on his participation in his new book, Willie Nelson's Letters to America. Some of the performers were his friends, while others met for the first time that night. Regardless, the entire space united in the moment of Nelson's stirring performance, which concluded the event. The country singer writes:

"When our country was mourning after 9/11, you gave me the opportunity to do my part for the live concert America: A Tribute To Heroes. That inspiring event had one of the largest audiences in television history. I followed a string of great artists -- Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Alicia Keys, and many more. Then I got to lead everyone in an inspiring rendition of your beautiful song, 'America the Beautiful.' As we sang on stage that evening, I felt that I could hear the television audience singing, too, a nationwide chorus raising our voices from sea to shining sea."

Read More: A Review of Willie Nelson's New Book, Letters to America

Willie Nelson's Rendition

After a dramatic introduction from Clint Eastwood, Nelson took to the stage to close out America: A Tribute to Heroes. Leading an ensemble in "America the Beautiful," Nelson's twangy guitar enlivened the familiar tune. As you can see above, watching Nelson's version of the song, he captures the camaraderie of the lyrics. The camerawork, panning across many of America's favorite celebrities, also cemented the enormity of that moment. It's not country music, exactly. It's the music for the whole country.

Though Nelson is himself a songwriter, having penned hits like "On the Road Again" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy," he also delivers some excellent covers. There's the entire Stardust album from 1978. "Always On My Mind," sung by many musicians including Elvis Presley, before Nelson's own take topped the country charts. Similarly, Nelson made "America the Beautiful" his on that September night.

Another Classic

Obviously, Willie Nelson's version of "America the Beautiful" has stood the test of time. But if we're talking historic covers, please check out the inimitable Ray Charles' bluesy spin on the old standard. (It's my personal favorite.)

"America the Beautiful"

Although "America the Beautiful" is one of our most established national odes, many Americans only know the first verse! Check out the full, poetic lyrics below. You might even add it to your Fourth of July playlist.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress,
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country love
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Oh beautiful for halcyon skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress,
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought
By pilgrims foot and knee!

Oh beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife,
When once and twice for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till selfish gain no longer strain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

Now Watch: One of Merle Haggard's Final Collaborations With Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson

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Willie Nelson's "America the Beautiful": An Independence Day Classic