Willie Nelson in the Twilight Glow

by Steve Leftridge

7 February 2010


At last year’s Farm Aid concert in St. Louis, Willie Nelson made a guest appearance during Dave Matthews’ set to sing a duet on Matthews’ “Gravedigger”, after which Matthews remarked, “Whenever we get behind the things he believes in, the better off we’ll all be”. Certainly, when you consider Willie’s remarkable run of longevity in terms of artistic relevance and physical stamina, it’s a hard sentiment to knock. What Willie believes in are singing, playing guitar, living on the road, running, golfing, smoking weed, meditating, supporting family farms, playing cards, using bio-diesel fuel, protecting animals, and being nice to people. It’s a formula that, the older Willie gets (77 in April), the more people gravitate toward the Willie aesthetic as their favorite way-of-life fantasy.

Oh, to be Willie, they say, and when Willie walks into any room or accepts hugs and handshakes outside his bus afters shows, his fans feel like some of that magical Willie grace has rubbed off on them a little. One night, while waiting for Willie to come off of his bus, a friend of mine told his wife that if Willie tried to kiss her that she should “go with it”.

Everybody loves Willie. He’s music’s biggest democratizer, with everyone on the left and right of the political divide claiming him as one of their own. Yes, Willie walks between the raindrops, even when it seems that the shit is in the vicinity of the fan. While everyone made IRS jokes for ten years after Willie got pinched for $17 million in back taxes, Willie later said, “It was no big deal at all”. 

What, obviously, more than anything has kept Willie going is his herculean commitment to playing and singing country music. Willie once told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes that when it was his time to go, he wanted to walk over to his grave, play a final guitar flourish, and then fall in.  But the life he loves of making music with his friends shows no signs of even slowing, let alone stopping. He continues to play some 200 shows a year, and his band, the Willie Nelson Family, the same ragtag bunch of hippies he’s been touring with since the ‘70s, are still intact, only now showing signs of attrition with the retirement of guitarist Jody Payne. 

On Willie’s 2009 shows, he couldn’t bear to replace Jody although young son Lukas is starting to slide into the role now and then. Most often, though, Willie is the only guitarist on stage, and he rides that beat-to-hell Martin hard, often trading riffs with harp player Mickey Raphael, who has a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on, more evidence of the Willie grace factor. 

In the studio, Willie continues to turn out records at a dizzying pace. Keeping up with Willie Nelson albums has always been a chore, but up until about 1993, Willie was “only” churning out an album or two a year, besides truck-stop mix-tapes, and you pretty much knew which albums you were supposed to own (Phases and Stages) and which were for completists only (hello there, Island In the Sea).  Across the Borderline, the excellent Don Was-produced mostly-covers project, launched the Willie Renaissance, a full-scale rediscovery/re-appreciation bandwagon that has lasted to this day, with every producer, artist, and songwriter alive wanting a piece of those good Willie vibes.

Willie has never been one to turn people away. As a result, there has, for the last 15 years, been a new record with every change of season—big-budget blowouts, acoustic affairs, genre exercises, collaborations—plus a couple dozen of those duet/tribute specials. Willie with Keith Richards! Willie with Steven Tyler! Willie with Ghostface Killah!  Hey, is that Charo!? 

The Aughts saw a decade-long frenzy of Willie studio output.  It’s well established that he works extremely fast in the studio, usually happy and ready to move on after the first take, and with studio output at this pace, quality control is an issue. While most of the decade’s records, the majority on the Lost Highway label, are hit-and-miss, each contains some real keepers, which Lost Highway, a single-disc collection released toward the end of last year tried to make sense of. Whether the label picked the right tunes for that mix is, of course, subject for debate, but at 17 tracks spanning nine albums, it’s a useful compendium of where the icon has been.

And he’s been all over the place, starting with 2002’s The Great Divide, a star-studded semi-disaster that had too much of everything—too much goopy, string-laden production, with Rob Thomas and others trying to shoehorn Willie into songs designed for the Adult Contemporary charts. Songbird, the Ryan Adams-produced album from 2006, sounds great in comparison, with Adams’ backing band, the Cardinals, playing live in the studio and Adams dreaming up cool covers for Willie to sing. Lots of keepers on that album, especially the title track, the Christine McVie classic from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

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