by: Tony Sauro
Willie Nelson quite probably is the only musician whose image ever will appear “on the cover of the Rolling Stone” at age 81.
Not too many country musicians — with Nelson’s long-haired hippie/cowboy look and vibe — have established that level of cultural universality.
It might be ironic. “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” a sardonic 1972 song recorded by Dr. Hook (Dennis Locorriere) & the Medicine Show — from Union City, N.J. — was written by Shel Silverstein (1930-99), who supplied country singers with hit songs and children with timeless books (“The Giving Tree,” “A Light in the Attic,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”).
Nelson, from Abbott, Texas, has developed the same kind of multi-tiered, permanently faithful audience and mainstream familiarity.“At Home With America’s Most Beloved Outlaw” and “All Roads Lead to Willie” is how Rolling Stone’s editors expressed it in the Aug. 28, 2014, edition. That destination is Luck (Willie World), Texas, a tiny town west of Austin that Nelson had built for a movie version of “Red-Headed Stranger.”
A 1975 concept album, it swept him to a rarefied level of artistry — and new, younger audience — rarely conceded to “country-western” singer-songwriters.
He’ll join Ed Sheeran, Usher, Janelle Monáe and Coldplay’s Chris Martin for a Feb. 10 concert dedicated to Stevie Wonder. It’ll be televised Feb. 16 on CBS. Nothing “country” about that.
Of course, Nelson’s infamous bus keeps rolling him down those roads — where he’s developed a familial following of loyalists with The Family Band.
He returns to Stockton on Tuesday, bringing his equally loyal band to the Bob Hope Theatre. In recent years, he’s performed there as well as Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, the San Joaquin County Fair and Stockton Ballpark. Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys, too.
When Nelson plays his two-hole acoustic guitar — with signature headband or hat — in front of a huge Texas state flag, his followers always get to hear Mickey Raphael, 64, one of the world’s primo harmonica players. Genuine outlaw Paul English — profiled in the Oxford American’s winter 2014 issue devoted to “Texas Music” (“The Man Behind Willie Nelson”) — Billy English, Kevin Smith and sister Bobbie Nelson have stayed with him, too. Jody Payne (1936-2013) and Bee Spears (1951-2011) were there until the end.
Nelson is one of the most prolific artists in any genre — 17 albums in the past 10 years — has released 117 albums and 110 singles, 25 of which reached No. 1, during a 59-year career.
That includes “Band of Brothers” and “December Day,” the first volume from his “Stash” — a sly reference to his marijuana diet and IRS issues — of material he recorded with Bobbie Nelson, The Family Band keyboard player.
In recent years, The Family Band ethic has spawned recording careers for son Lukas Autry, 26, who leads his own L.A.-based group (Promise of the Real). They’re opening for Neil Young on his 2015 tour. Daughter Paula Nelson, 44, has her own band and a new album (“Under the Influence”).
Nelson’s shows are laid-back, generous, almost informal — covering major songs (“Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Always on My Mind,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground” and, naturally, “On the Road Again.”
He’s received almost every available award and is widely respected for helping found Farm Aid, which supports American family farms nearing extinction.
Once “Homeless and Broke” in the estimation of a 1991 National Enquirer headline, Nelson told Rolling Stone’s Patrick Doyle in a 10-page story:
“I just like to keep moving. I could lie down and go to sleep and not go anywhere or do anything real easy. I’m lazy. I have to make myself do it. But once I do, I’m happy.”