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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