Coun­try nomad, hero turns 80

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Chris Tal­bott

NASHVILLE — Amer­ica loves its out­laws, and few are as ad­mired and lion­ized as Wil­lie Nel­son. As the en­dur­ing Amer­i­can icon’s 80th birth­day has ap­proached, he’s been hon­oured 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 be­mused 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.”

The hub­bub is as much about cel­e­brat­ing Nel­son as it has been cel­e­brat­ing with Nel­son.

The singer whose birth­day is Mon­day or Tues­day — Nel­son says April 29, the state of Texas claims April 30 — oc­cu­pies a unique space in Amer­ica’s cul­tural mem­ory. A walk­ing bag of con­tra­dic­tions, he wears his hair long in braids and has a pen­chant for pot smok­ing, yet 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 a uniquely 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: the raised mid­dle fin­ger tossed with a twin­kle in the eye.

“Amer­ica is a bizarre place and Wil­lie is our cap­tain,” said Jamey John­son, Nel­son’s good friend and some­times opener. “Wil­lie in ev­ery way rep­re­sents all the great­est things about Amer­ica to me.”

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 still, 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 — but re­ally a mil­lion 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.

“I’ve never smoked weed ever in my en­tire life,” Lady A’s Hil­lary Scott joked. “But if I got in­vited on the bus I might have to make a con­ces­sion just be­cause of purely what it is, what it rep­re­sents.”

For Nel­son, it’s a refuge, of­fice, song­writ­ing room and par­lour 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. “I feel at home here. It moves around. I have a mo­bile home. That’s about the size of it, and I en­joy it.”

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, though he’s not ex­actly sure when that date fell.

“I was never of­fi­cially hired,” Raphael says with a grin, “but I was never asked to leave.”

Nel­son hangs onto his buses till they’re over a mil­lion miles, still wears a black T-shirt and that red, white and blue gui­tar strap. His chil­dren grew up on the bus and now they play in his band from time to time.

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. And while Nel­son was some­thing of a known quan­tity in town — he had writ­ten hits and was a mem­ber of the Grand Ole Opry — con­ven­tional wis­dom said he was never go­ing to amount to much if he in­sisted on singing his own songs in a man­ner that didn’t fit Mu­sic City’s coun­try­poli­tan ways.

“You ever heard the song me and Way­lon did back in the old days called Write Your Own Songs?” Nel­son says with a laugh. “I still do that one oc­ca­sion­ally. I get a kick out of do­ing it be­cause it takes you back to the days when me and Way­lon were fight­ing the out­law wars here in Nashville and los­ing. I en­joyed those times. I even en­joyed be­ing the out­law and the out­cast. I thought, ‘All right, that’s great. I must be do­ing some­thing right.’ You re­mem­ber the old say­ing, ’You keep on do­ing it wrong till you like it that way?”’

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 accidentally timed per­fectly 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 well­known singer with a group of sud­denly pop­u­lar friends, but he was an ac­tor on film and tele­vi­sion. His in­flu­ence spread quickly. Friend Kris Kristof­fer­son in­vited Nel­son down to Mex­ico to the set of Sam Peck­in­pah’s Pat Gar­rett and Billy the Kid, where he in­tro­duced him to Bob Dy­lan. Nel­son played a song for a group of new friends.

“And Bob Dy­lan was so knocked out that he made him keep play­ing,” Kristof­fer­son re­mem­bered dur­ing a visit to the bus late last year. “I think you played there all day by your­self.... Dy­lan was just amazed. It made me re­spect Dy­lan, too. But (Nel­son) has al­ways been a song­writer’s hero. Be­cause he’s a great song­writer. Be­cause he’s absolutely un­like any­body else and be­cause he’s the fun­ni­est hu­man be­ing on the planet. And very much like God.”


Ac­ci­den­tal out­law Wil­lie Nel­son is ac­cepted by left and right, black and white and is in­stantly rec­og­niz­able.

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