Full Nelson, half baked

The rock era has provided countless high-profile examples of how not to deal with the aging process. On the one hand, we’ve seen geriatric, surgically-mauled Peter Pans pathetically pretending that they’re still carefree teenagers. On the other, a string of icons so resistant to the burdens of a long life, they simply checked out before reaching their 30th birthday.

But if you’re looking for a positive example of how to reach old age gracefully, Willie Nelson is the gold standard.

On April 29, the Lone Star State’s most beloved singer-songwriter turned 75. At three-quarters of a century, Nelson makes no effort to look or act youthful, yet he maintains an open spirit and a curiosity that many people lose by the time they finish high school. Whatever his physical condition may be, you sense no hardening of the mental arteries in him. By all accounts, he’s warm, generous, progressive, and at peace with himself, handling adversity (drug busts, breakups, IRS troubles) with a philosophical shrug and a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Without making a big, self-congratulatory noise about it, he lives life on his own terms. He smokes his weed, plays his music for adoring fans, shoots as many rounds of golf as he can manage, makes the occasional movie cameo, and hangs out with a wildly diverse group of friends ranging from Snoop Dogg to ex-president Jimmy Carter to legendary football coach Darrell Royal.

In Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (Little, Brown), Joe Nick Patoski’s exhaustive new Nelson biography, Nelson’s friend Bobby Arnold (a security guard who Willie impulsively entrusted to engineer sessions at his Pedernales recording studio) captures the essence of Nelson’s Zen magic. “I can’t think of any time there wasn’t any chemistry,” Arnold says of Nelson’s frequent vocal duets. “People would adjust to Willie. Willie didn’t adjust.”

That adjustment took many forms. A white-suited, immaculately coiffed Julio Iglesias adjusted to a bearded, ponytailed, blue-jean-clad Nelson when they united at Pedernales in 1983 to sing the lotharios-have-feelings-too anthem, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Ray Charles and others adjusted to Nelson’s idiosyncratic sense of time, which leads him to lazily sing just slightly behind the beat. His various wives and lovers adjusted to his upfront resistance to anything resembling old-fashioned monogamy and domestic tranquility. And, most significantly, the hippies and rednecks of early ’70s Austin adjusted to being in each other’s presence, because both crowds found themselves drawn to Willie’s maverick brand of roots music.

Willie spent the 1960s building an estimable reputation in Nashville as a songwriter (“Hello Walls, “Nite Life,” “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”) but floundering as a recording artist under Music City’s assembly-line approach. When he relocated to Austin in the early ’70s, he let his hair down literally and metaphorically, and became forever linked with an “Outlaw Country” movement that continues to echo in contemporary alt-country. By achieving stardom without compromise at the age of 40, Nelson sealed his legend so firmly that nothing — whether it was crooning with Iglesias or covering Kermit the Frog on “The Rainbow Connection” — could destroy it.

Even though he rebelled against Nashville convention, in at least one important sense Nelson remains a product of the old ways he learned there. He cranks out albums with great haste, giving little thought to how each one might fit in the context of his career. If he feels like dedicating an an album to the songs of his friend Cindy Walker, or collaborating with Leon Russell, that’s exactly what he does.

Singers of the ’50s and ’60s tended to flood the market with product because they worried that they’d soon lose their audience and needed a short-term cash-in. Willie floods the market for the opposite reason: He’s so confident that his core audience will never leave, he doesn’t allow his creative urges to be slowed by supply-and-demand market considerations.

A few Nelson albums stand out in the crowded field: The seminal outlaw statement Shotgun Willie; the acclaimed concept work Red Headed Stranger; the risky, way-ahead-of-the-curve standards set Stardust; and the spacy, haunted Daniel Lanois production, Teatro. But Willie’s reluctance to edit himself makes his work, like that of Ray Charles, more impressive in a career-spanning setting than on individual albums.

That’s why Columbia/Legacy’s new One Hell of a Ride is such a welcome compilation. A four-disc set beginning with a 1954 radio-station recording of “When I’ve Sang My Last Hillbilly Song” and ending with a 2007 live performance of the same tune, it enables you to hear a titanic American music figure morph from a Lefty Frizzell wannabe into a darkly observant songwriter and a wonderfully nasal singer so unmistakable that he became a genre unto himself.

Nelson’s stature is demonstrated by his next project, an album with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, called Two Men With the Blues. Marsalis, a jazz purist who publicly derided his brother Branford in 1985 for teaming with Sting, might seem like an unlikely musical partner for a grizzled old cowboy from Abbott, Texas, but he seems to recognize that Willie’s sense of phrasing owes at least as much to jazz as country. Lauding Nelson for his innate integrity, Marsalis describes Nelson as part of “that last group of a certain breed of musicians.”

In his book, Patoski persuasively argues that Nelson defines Texans more than any person in his lifetime, but it seems more true to say that Nelson represents what we’d like to think Texans are. This state may have produced Karl Rove and George W. Bush, but we’d prefer to think of ourselves as opinionated but non-judgmental; filled with big ideas but not with big egos; informed by history but not chained to it; and fun-loving but not shallow. Just like Willie.

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