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Willie Nelson Still an Outlaw at 80

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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."

A career in four parts

Nelson's career is often divided into four stages: the Nashville songwriter of the '60s, the Texas trailblazer of the '70s, the muse-less drifter of the '80s and the iconoclast of the '90s and beyond. He has had ups and downs, notably several arrests for marijuana and a $16.7 million unpaid tax bill from the Internal Revenue Service. But during each period he made songs that stand as his best.

Nelson's enduring album "Shotgun Willie" turns 40 this year. Among his finest recordings, it provided an outline that suggested the areas he'd continue to explore throughout his career, including collaborations, re-purposing original songs, paying tribute to his predecessors and establishing concert war horses.

On "Shotgun Willie" Nelson didn't just dabble in rock 'n' roll, he brought in players like Doug Sahm and Leon Russell to perform. It included one of his great early tunes, "She's Not for You," which he recorded again years later. He covered a Bob Wills' standard written by Cindy Walker; Nelson would record these songwriters' classics time and again, including an entire album of Walker's songs. And how many thousands of Nelson shows have opened with the clanging opening chords of "Whiskey River?"

Nelson lore emphasizes his return to Texas from Nashville in the early 1970s. His shows - long, improvisational expressions of country and rock music that became communal celebrations - appealed to both hippies and good old boys. Bridging those audiences required tact, certainly, but also the right songs. "In general," says Russell, his friend and collaborator, "he likes most forms of music."

Nelson became a breakthrough star at age 40 in an industry that puts a premium on youthful genius. And he did so by playing up the parts of his musical identity - such as his calm demeanor - that others tried to tamp down.

"As soon as he developed that personality," songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard said, "there was no stopping him."

Never faded away

Nelson made concept albums and tribute albums. He made albums of pop standards when the idea seemed outrageous rather than safe. And he put together a stage show that carried on nightly without a net, emphasizing improvisation and fluidity. Nelson has covered songs by Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Coldplay and Pearl Jam.

Unlike Johnny Cash, Nelson never faded away only to be musically reborn. For Nelson, albums come and go - sometimes they're great, other times not so much. He seems to create in the moment without much concern as to how any one recording is received. This tendency has endeared him not just to his original fans, but also to those who were born later.

"Willie's such a favorite with young folks, and I think it's because he doesn't want to sell them short," Kinky Friedman said. "Take a guy like Johnny Cash: Young people like his music, but they knew him differently than the way I did. They don't know the early stuff the same way. I don't think that's the case with Willie. They know most of his stuff, and to me, that's the ultimate tribute. Jimmy Buffett may have all the middle-aged lawyers who want to go back to happier times. But he doesn't have young and old the same way Willie does. It's an eclectic audience. And everybody in it knows everything he's doing."

Still out on the road

The day will come when Nelson is no longer on the road singing about being on the road, when he'll sing his last hillbilly song. But he still puts on more than 100 shows each year, seemingly impervious to time.

"The authority with which he plays, he's like a bull charging through," Lovett said. "But there's also something about his songs where you listen and have the feeling everything's going to be OK. It's fascinating, this wonderful career and life he's had. It never ceases to be interesting. Even when he's starting a set with 'Whiskey River' - how many times has he done that? But it's still about right then. And you're locked right in there with him. He's truly one of the most compelling and powerful live performers I've ever seen."

Mickey Raphael, who has played harmonica with the Family band for 40 years, marvels at Nelson's guitar playing. "I tell you, he's getting better with age," he says. "His playing is getting more and more out there. More expressive."

More recently, Nelson has had to reinvent the Family band that has backed him for four decades. Guitarist Jody Payne retired in 2008, and drummer Paul English stepped away briefly after suffering a stroke in 2010. Bassist Bee Spears died in 2011. The players can't be replaced, but the positions can be filled, which Nelson has done. His commitment to his peculiar way remains intact. "Sometimes when a song ends, he'll look at us and make the universal sign of 'safe' like a baseball umpire," Raphael said.

So Nelson's 80th birthday seems worth celebrating, even though he shrugs it off.

"It's just another day," he says, before closing a conversation with a line that suggests an easy acceptance of time.

"See you down the road."


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