NASHVILLE, Tenn. — America loves its outlaws, and few are as admired and lionized as Willie Nelson.
As the enduring American icon recently turned 80, he’s been honored with lifetime achievement awards, serenaded at special performances and saluted by musicians from every genre of music. And Nelson has taken it all in with a smile.
“It’s a nice thing to do for someone on their birthday and I appreciate it,” Nelson said in a recent interview aboard his bus. “Usually I like to forget my birthdays as much as possible.”
Nelson has a new album out last month called “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” which includes some standards and country classics.
The singer occupies a unique space in America’s cultural memory. A walking bag of contradictions, he wears his hair long in braids and remains arguably conservative country music’s greatest songwriter. He’s accepted by left and right, black and white and is instantly recognizable to a majority of Americans.
Like few other music stars, his image has grown to represent more than the notes he’s played or the lyrics he’s written. Like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra, he’s become a figurehead for an American way of thinking. He represents the outlaw and the maverick. If Elvis was all about the pelvis and the sexual revolution, Nelson is American independence: a raised finger tossed with a twinkle in the eye.
“America is a bizarre place and Willie is our captain,” said Jamey Johnson, Nelson’s friend and sometimes opener. “Willie in every way represents all the greatest things about America.”
Nelson didn’t set out to be a folk hero, as Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum calls him. He spends something like 200 days on the road, a pace that challenges men a quarter his age.
In a series of interviews over the last year, Nelson explained he just came to Nashville wanting someone to buy his songs. That young man never imagined he’d be on the road for more than 50 years. His first real songwriting job paid $50 a week. He played, and sometimes slept, at Tootsie’s on Lower Broadway in Nashville, just a few miles away from Music Row.
Nelson thinks that young man wouldn’t know what to make of the spectacle he’s become. “He’d probably wonder what’s that old man doing out there,” Nelson said with a chuckle. “He’s got a house. He’s not homeless. Why don’t he go home?”
The truth is Nelson is home as he sits at the pleasantly cluttered kitchen table of his bus. With its portrait of an American Indian on the side and its reputation for mellow encounters, the bus is as much a part of Nelson’s mythos as his braids and battered old guitar.
An invitation to join Nelson on the bus is coveted. For Nelson, it’s a refuge, office, songwriting room and parlor where he hosts friends and band members for morning coffee.
“I’ve lived in this house longer than I’ve lived in any of the others, all combined,” Nelson said glancing around.
Nelson has pursued this nomadic lifestyle for more than four decades, almost unchanged. The personnel in the band has remained the same. Until recently, harmonica player Mickey Raphael was pretty much the new guy. He recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with Nelson.
So, to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, the outlaw thing’s been overdone. All he wanted to do was play his own music the way he chose. In Nashville, that idea was sacrilegious.
Two things happened in the early 1970s to give Nelson the advantage in those wars: his decision to leave Nashville and relocate to Austin, Texas, and the release of “Outlaws.” The album, a collection of odds and ends from Nelson, Jennings and others, was the first country album to go platinum and was timed to take advantage of an obsession with Southern culture in the U.S. during the Age of Burt Reynolds.
Quickly, Nelson was not only a well-known singer with a group of suddenly popular friends, but he was an actor on film and television. His influence spread quickly.