by John Beck
More than a singer-songwriter, Willie Nelson is a national folk hero. That’s why when one of his tour buses crashed a few weeks ago, everyone cringed at the headlines before discovering that his band mates walked away with minor injuries and Nelson was unscathed.
Over the years, the Texas troubadour who rose to fame in the 1970s with the outlaw country albums “Shotgun Willie” and “Red Headed Stranger” has sold more than 40 million albums and appeared in dozens of films, from “Honeysuckle Rose” to “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”
His classics — “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” — roll off the tongue even if you don’t think you know the words.
Before Nelson and The Family touring brigade roll through the Wells Fargo Center next Friday, here are the Top 5 things you need to know about Willie Nelson right now:
1. Adding to his more than 30 acting roles, Nelson plays an updated jolly old St. Nick in the new Christmas movie “Angels Sing.” Paired with Harry Connick Jr., Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett, Nelson steals the show with renditions of “Silent Night” and “Amazing Grace.” The screenwriter, Turk Pipkin, also wrote the 2006 book “The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart,” which offered Willie-isms like, “If someone’s a jerk, that’s their misfortune, not yours.”
2. A few weeks ago, Nelson (or likely his assistant) tweeted “Trigger is like me. Old and beat up.” And yet his lifelong six-string partner in arms — the 1969 Martin N20 that he bought for $750 and named Trigger — is still hanging on by a thread. Rumor has it that when the IRS was freezing his assets back in the 1990s, Nelson had Trigger squirreled away so it couldn’t be seized.
“The holes I’ve worn in Trigger are from my pick zinging up and down a million times on the face of an acoustic guitar that’s not supposed to be played with a pick,” he has said. “But at this point, those holes are part of what makes Trigger sound exactly right.”
3. Ever the road warrior, Nelson turned 80 earlier this year. Flash back to the late 1950s, when he was making $50 a week as a songwriter for hire, and you’ll see the wheels already turning for “Crazy,” the song he wrote that Patsy Cline would make famous in 1962. Can you imagine telling that kid that five decades later, he’d be rolling around the country in a bus (The Honeysuckle Rose IV) powered by his own patented Bio-Willie biodiesel?
4. In 2012, Nelson released his memoir “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die — Musings From the Road.” In it, he never misses a chance to wax poetic about two of his favorite subjects — weed and taxes: “We should leave marijuana users alone but tax them. It’s already been proven that taxing and regulating marijuana makers makes more sense than sending young people to prison for smoking a God-given herb never proven to be fatal to anybody.”
In October, his new album “To All the Girls” entered the Billboard Top 200 at No. 9. It features duets with 18 of his favorite female singers, from Dolly Parton and Wynonna Judd to Carrie Underwood and Norah Jones.
5. Reviews of Nelson’s latest tour have been mostly raves. Two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News said, “Nelson’s Southern gospel roots shone through, making the kindred room feel like a spirited church service, where beer-toasting and occasional curse words didn’t get a second glance.”
In September, the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote, “His melodies are timeless, but when he sang, he avoided them almost entirely, instead improvising vocal lines that landed far ahead of where one might expect them. That seemed to leave him more space to respond to the vocal lines with equally adventurous guitar licks.”
Look for about a 90-minute set and Hank Williams covers like “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over,” plus Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”
Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat.