The Wily Willie
Willie Nelson is a lot of things. A singer. A song-writer. A musician. An actor. A producer. An author. An entrepreneur. An activist.
The one man is bringing those many talents to Harrah’s Laughlin for a performance May 17 at the Rio Vista Outdoor Amphitheater.
One of the pioneers of the “outlaw country” genre, Nelson has a new studio album entitled Ride Me Back Home via Legacy Recordings coming out on June 21. He shared the title track on his website and other outlets from his sixth album in the last four years. It is a heartfelt tribute to horses that have seen better days…“Now they don’t need you/There’s no one to feed you/There’s fences where you used to roam. I wish I could gather up all of your brothers and you would just ride me back home.”
The subject is close to Nelson’s heart because he has more than 60 rescue horses on his property outside Austin, Texas, which he calls Luck. One of his favorite things to do is walk across his driveway to his fence and watch them approach him, one by one.
“I’ve bought a lot of horses that were gonna be slaughtered,” Nelson said. When he heard Sonny Throckmorton’s song, he was floored. “It’s a good story,” Nelson said. “I heard it and I said it fits exactly the same thing I’m doing. It just seemed natural.”
Once again he collaborated with Buddy Cannon to produce the third album of a trilogy that also includes 2017′s God’s Problem Child and 2018′s Last Man Standing.
He continues to record like a man on fire.
The 11-track project includes a mix of songs Nelson wrote with Cannon and tunes penned by an unexpected variety of pop and country songwriters and performers — Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are,” Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard To Be Humble,” Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes” and “My Favorite Picture Of You,” Buzz Rabin’s “Maybe I Should Have Been Listening,” and more.
Willie’s sons Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson both contribute to “It’s Hard To Be Humble.” Nelson also reached way back into his old saddlebags of self-penned songs to dust off “Stay Away From Lonely Places,” which he first recorded for his 1972 album The Words Don’t Fit The Picture.
What Willie Nelson album would be complete without his wicked sense of humor somewhere in the mix?
The album contains funny songs about getting older (“Come on Time”), and temptation (“Seven Year Itch,” with the line, ’I have the seven-year-itch and I scratched it out in three.”
“It’s an old joke I’ve known since childhood in Abbott,” he laughed while talking about it. He adds that “My Favorite Picture of You,” by Guy Clark, might be his favorite track on the album.
In between all of that, Nelson starred in a faith-based movie, “Waiting for the Miracle to Come,” which was released in April. The film centers around a young girl who is sent on a journey of discovery. Faith, love and completion all come to her, clothed in the broken state of loss, as powerful changes sometimes do. The DVD is available online.
Nelson was one of those renegade artists back in the ’70s who didn’t exactly fit Nashville’s idea of a country star, but then neither did Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. They couldn’t deny Nelson was a hell of a songwriter, but that nasally twang didn’t seem to hit the right note.
But somehow these slightly irreverent gentlemen gravitated toward each other, joined forces and blew the doors off the country genre both individually and collectively, taking the music in a whole different direction. Their country fans latched on to this new “outlaw” movement and followed them for years, all the way to those last tour stops, and since then, they have yet to waver.
Known as a great songwriter by early Nashville and Memphis music centers, when he decided to sing his own songs he was almost laughed out of Dodge. But a move to Austin changed all of it. He pushed ahead, and although it took quite a while, he broke through as one of country music’s most iconic singers.
Nelson’s different approach to his music is one of his constants. For example, everyone in the music industry said an album had to have 12 songs of about three minutes tops in length, each having a different topic or theme.
Well, Nelson went out and recorded an album that told one long story about a strange man filled with sorrow over a lost love, utilizing ballads that wound the theme around his haunting acoustic guitar work. Songs would fade away, meld into each other, appear again later on the album... the sum creating a national sensation that introduced Nelson to a bigger audience than most artists would ever enjoy. The album was the heralded Red Headed Stranger (1975) and set the stage for more second-guessing by the experts on Nelson.
After Red Headed Stranger, there were those who thought he should clean up his act to help his career roll along. What did he do? He let his hair grow even longer and took to wearing in-your-face braids and a scraggly beard. He plowed along, and with friend Jennings in tow, fanned the whole “outlaw thang,” warning every mama not to let their “babies grow up to be cowboys.”
This pairing gave a shot in the arm for both Nelson and Jennings and gained them respect outside the country music genre.
It looked like the honky tonk road was the one that Willie Nelson was going to travel now. He owned it and could sing songs about whiskey, women and worry until the truck broke down. But in true Nelson fashion, he turned left when everyone else was going right. On the heels of the release of the Wanted: The Outlaws album, he released a compilation of classic songs from the American songbook in his Stardust album, singing “Blue Skies” and “Stardust.”
But it wasn’t that far-fetched an idea. The wily Willie knew what he was doing. His natural jazz-influenced vocal stylings, with his syncopated and half-beat lag, worked wonders on these songs. The album became the most successful of his career to date, reaching No. 1 on the country charts (no one knew exactly where to put this album so they went with Nelson’s identity as a country singer), earning multi-platinum sales awards and a Grammy.
Many established singers, and friends of Nelson, were now fully on board with him. Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash joined him for the Highwaymen album; the duets started flowing in great number; movie roles came his way (“The Electric Horseman,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Stagecoach” and others); and then the IRS came calling.
It has always been said that “you can’t fight City Hall.” Nelson had a $16 million bill from the IRS, and his take on it was, “I think it’s funny that a cotton picker from Texas owes the government $16 million dollars.” But that cotton picker could also sing, so he sold off a lot of his assets, held concerts “for the government” and settled his debt within a couple of years. He fought “City Hall” and came away just fine, thank you very much.
As the years accumulated, Nelson became more than just a country singer/Western actor. He became something of the “wise man on the mountain.” To that end, a few years ago, he came out with a book called “The Tao of Willie” in which he relates his journey of bumps and scrapes, forks in the road, detours, disastrous twists and hairpin turns — from swimming against the currents of a whiskey river to the Zen-like figure of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin.
Another publishing venture, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die – Musings from the Road,” was published by HarperCollins in May 2012.
A few years ago he recorded a tribute to Ray Price, called For the Good Times.
He’s also been letting his sons Lukas and Micah take the reins in the recording studio, and the three of them spent time singing and picking together. The result, Willie’s Stash, Vol. 2: Willie Nelson and the Boys. (Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings provided their vocals for “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” as the theme song for the Netflix series “The Ranch”).
Nelson had a health scare a couple of years ago, undergoing a lung operation. But the procedure was successful, Nelson recovered and he hit the road again. He has always been about beating the odds — both in his career and his life.
Nelson makes regular appearances in Laughlin, sometimes with members of his family in tow. But no matter who tags along, Nelson’s stripped-down simple family and band configurations create a more intimate, more enjoyable way to hear every lyric and every note, the way nature intended. But then Nelson might just toss in a surprise or two, just to keep his audiences guessing.
With Nelson always keeping at least one iron in the fire, how could he ever be satisfied enough to call it quits?
His response: “All I do is play music and golf — which one do you want me to give up?”
Besides, while he’s savoring both passions, he might just have a little toke…for the good times.
Nelson has been controversial — and outspoken — about his fondness for marijuana. He graced the cover of Rolling Stone for its “weed issue.” The 86-year old musician launched his own signature cannabis brand, “Willie’s Reserve,” in 2015.
He and his wife have created a line of health and wellness products that started off with hemp-infused coffee — described as a medium-dark blend with balanced acidity that packs a powerful aroma, with flavor notes of cherry and cocoa.
“Hemp production in America was stifled for so long, but it could now make all the difference for small independent farmers,” Nelson said in a statement. “Hemp isn’t just good for our farmers and our economy, it’s good for our soil, our environment — and our health.”