Midway through his new recording of "Walking My Baby Back Home," a pop standard written in 1930, Willie Nelson calls out to Bobbie Nelson for a piano solo: "Little sister," he says to the sibling three years his elder.
Nelson always has had a unique approach to time.
Nelson, who was born in Abbott, turns 80 on Tuesday. He has in those years become as identifiable as any entertainer in the world. He wrote some of the best songs of the 20th century. Some were hits he delivered in his expressive, instantly recognizable voice, others were made famous by singers like Patsy Cline and Faron Young. As a singer, songwriter, interpreter and instrumentalist, he is in rarefied company among American musicians; Ray Charles has similarly broad skills.
Thanks to his music, Nelson's reputation as a nonconformist and his history of playing the sorts of summer festivals that are particularly popular now, Nelson's appeal crosses generations and cultures, well beyond the progressive country-music listeners who made him a star in the 1970s. He also has kept working: A prolific musician, he made more than a dozen recordings in his 70s.
Nelson's latest album, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," takes its title from a 1935 song by Irving Berlin, one of his favorite songwriters. Though written for a musical comedy, the song's lyrical tone is not only ominous about the future but defiant as well: "There may be trouble ahead/But while there's moonlight and music/And love and romance/Let's face the music and dance."
"I felt the lyrics were very appropriate for the times," he said.
The album also includes a new version of Nelson's "Is the Better Part Over," which, as many of his songs do, takes a hard look at the end of a relationship. "I can't live while fearing tomorrow," he sings, a line Nelson admits he's pretty proud of.
"I think I'm more of a guy who likes to live in the moment," he said. "I think now is all we have any control over. Things are the way they are and that's the way they are right now. If we're OK, then no complaints."
Playing with time
Nelson's relationship with time is an essential part of his music and persona. His phrasing has never followed a standard, steady rhythm: Like a cat batting around a ball of yarn, he toys with words and beats, lagging behind and then speeding ahead. His shows are built from the same song book, but they vary in content and length.
For more than 50 years, time has informed many of his greatest songs. Nelson sings often about love and time, and the effect of time on love. He growls the word with uncharacteristic ferocity at the beginning of his 1975 breakthrough album, "Red Headed Stranger." "Slow down, old world," he sings in another. In Nelson's lyrics, time has healing hands, and it's funny while slipping away. Many of his songs, particularly the early ones, express a dark, sometimes hopeless, anxiety about the future. Others exhale a stream of smoke and settle into a philosophical haze: "Time," he sings, "will take care of itself. So just leave time alone."
Nelson seems to process time - an artistic photosynthesis - to create songs his devoted audience relates to.
"The central quality about Willie that is so appealing is his honesty," singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett says. "He just tells the truth all the time - in his life and in his songs. And his songs, they're valuable in that way. They give some insight into him, which gives us insight into ourselves. That's the thing about Willie: His songs are without agenda."
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