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Times change but Willie Nelson doesn't

Posted 11:46pm on Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2011

Willie Nelson is many things, nearly all of them contradictory.

He can't play guitar particularly well, yet he's regarded as a performer of particular nuance.

He can't sing with the sort of effortless grace of George Jones or Hank Williams, yet his voice is one of popular music's most unmistakable.

He hasn't had a hit single -- let's be honest, here -- since the Reagan administration, yet he continues to maintain a brutal touring schedule.

None of the shortcomings matter. Willie (and he's deserving of the one-name status) is America's inimitable and indestructible icon.

At 78 years old, he is as active now as many musicians half his age, playing well north of 200 shows a year. Sold-out audiences still pack into wherever he and his tight-knit band are playing, whether it's the Meyerson Symphony Center or the Winstar World Casino (Friday), Billy Bob's Texas or a benefit concert. And they cheer a set list that doesn't appreciably change from year to year.

Nelson -- who will be in town Thursday, during the Lone Star International Film Festival, to receive the Stephen Bruton Award -- is a living example of an artist working outside any and all conventional boundaries.

His story is a strange but true epic, one of enduring celebrity that often defies explanation.

Despite multiple scrapes with the law (the back taxes saga in the '80s, his more recent marijuana-fueled imbroglio), unabashed activism (for legalized pot and environmental causes in oil-addicted Texas) and an unpredictable personal path (four marriages, four arrests), Nelson continues to build an ever-larger audience and command ever more respect.

By any measure, he should be a footnote, a forgotten totem of an era long since passed into memory. But Nelson may be more relevant now than he's ever been. He is regularly name-checked by young Turks like Toby Keith, Dave Matthews or Zac Brown. Hell, almost anyone starting out in Nashville these days credits Nelson. And he is a frequent collaborator with many relatively youthful talents, such as Norah Jones or Wynton Marsalis. Last month, he helped headline a wildfire relief concert in Austin with the Dixie Chicks, Asleep at the Wheel, Lyle Lovett and George Strait. Saturday night, he'll help launch the opening of Rio Brazos Live, a new music hall in Granbury.

A second generation of Nelson performers is carrying on his traditions: His son, Lukas, has founded a psychedelic rock band, the Promise of the Real, and his daughter, Amy, has built a career as a torchy singer-songwriter. Neither has quite generated their father's fan base yet, and neither has quite the je nais se quoi of dear ol' Dad either.

Lately, Nelson has been mildly obsessed with revisiting the past, as evidenced by his most recent studio effort, 2010's Country Music, which was produced by fellow Texan T Bone Burnett. (He's also got a new collection of others' classic country songs, Remember Me, Vol. 1, due out Nov. 21.)

Country Music is a collection culled from the genre's early days, presented in deceptively straightforward fashion, often allowing his collaborators (like harmonica maestro Mickey Raphael) to rise to the forefront. (That's another Willie-ism: blending seamlessly into the background and showcasing those around him -- how many superstars do that regularly?)

But something about Country Music and even the preceding, clanging misfires (2009's American Classic, an album of jazz standards, was a master class in fumbled execution) pulls the listener in closer. The shortcomings fall away -- Nelson's quavering tenor, the half-attentive plucking of the well-worn guitar known as Trigger -- and the tunes blossom. His music is captivating.

Think of classics like Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain or Funny How Time Slips Away or newer, more elegiac compositions like Moment of Forever. There's an element of timelessness at work; these are performances that will be celebrated long after Nelson is dead and gone. They strike a chord in the soul, they force one to stop and ponder life.

So perhaps, in spite of all his perceived shortcomings, that is what has kept Willie relevant, through disco and punk, through hair metal and rap-rock, through Nashville's golden years and its current bubble-gum fixation: his ability to write and perform a handful of songs that can rightly be called standards.

Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski (he wrote 2008's definitive tome Willie Nelson: An Epic Life) thinks the Red-Headed Stranger's key to sustaining longevity is even more specific than that.

"He loves performing more than anything, which includes film, since he really got hooked on Western movies at the Saturday picture show at a young age and got to shake Johnny Mack Brown's hand when he convinced his poor family to buy a war bond," Patoski says. "If you and I were in the same room as Willie right now, he'd love nothing so much as to play for us. That's why."

The love of a crowd, coupled with tweaking what he's doing just enough to stay interesting, or, failing that, the enduring appeal of consistency (if we're not counting his ill-advised foray into reggae), Nelson is a durable icon, a man never out of fashion.

If he came up as an unknown now, he'd likely not even make it past the auditions of American Idol. Too many rough edges, too little polish. Too authentic. He is as much a reminder of the way things used to be as he is a tireless vanguard, plunging ahead into the next century.

Nelson doesn't try to sing more sweetly, play a newer guitar or curb his opinions or his weed habit -- he simply ties on his bandanna, heads for the microphone and does what he loves most: being himself.

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