Howard County Times
Howard Magazine

Retro Baltimore: When Willie Nelson and Jimmy Carter made music together at Merriweather Post in Columbia

Former President Jimmy Carter’s political and philanthropic legacy is well known, but his singing legacy seems to garner less attention. In 1980, as the chief executive enjoyed a Willie Nelson concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the country singer stopped the show with a personal request.

“I’d like to invite the president to come up and help us sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ " he said. So Carter took the stage and, with Nelson, delivered a duet that earned rousing applause. It was, the media reported, the first time that a sitting president had performed as such in public.

Country star Willie Nelson, left, sings “Georgia on My Mind” with President Jimmy Carter on stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 21, 1978.

The concert, billed as a fundraiser for Carter’s reelection campaign, drew 10,000 people, each of whom paid $10 or $15 to hear Shotgun Willie sing “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and other hits. An unabashed fan of Nelson’s music, the president had collected his records and even entertained the scruffy artist at the White House. Asked to headline a fundraiser in Columbia for Carter, then locked in a tight race with Ronald Reagan, Nelson agreed.

The commander-in-chief arrived by helicopter, landing nearby at the farm of James Clark Jr., president of the Maryland State Senate. At the concert, Carter sat up front, flanked by then-Gov. Harry Hughes and U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.


The Sun acknowledged the president’s campaign ploy, musing that he had taken “a lucrative and exciting ride on Willie Nelson’s pigtails.”

In 1978, Carter — a onetime Georgia peanut farmer — attended an earlier Nelson show at Merriweather, arriving unannounced, having flown in from Camp David with his wife, Rosalynn. That evening, under the stars, the Carters stayed for the entire 2-1/2 hour performance by Nelson and country singer Emmylou Harris, sitting among a wave of spirited fans dressed mostly in cowboy shirts and jeans. Sartorially, only the Secret Service agents stood out.

At one point, in a nod to the then-new president, Nelson broke into a moving rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” after which Carter emerged from the crowd, removed his jacket and tie, strode onstage and embraced the singer. At concert’s end, the presidential party drove to the grounds of Howard Community College where they boarded their helicopter and returned to Camp David.