art by: Stavros Damos
by: Chris Richards
AS VEGAS — Another Saturday night on Earth. How is this one different?
“Honestly, nothing is distinct after a while,” Willie Nelson confesses. He’s talking about life on the road at 81, when wisdom makes the totality of life feel intensely connected to the present — but also when age makes the details feel slippery.
He’s come to Las Vegas for his seventh gig of the new year. After tonight, roughly a hundred more to go. And if they all blend together, that’s okay, as long as he’s learning more than he’s forgetting, which he thinks he is, which is all that really matters.
When most veteran musicians tour this hard toward the sunset, they’re usually fattening their fortunes, paying down their debts, polishing their legacies, nourishing their egos or simply keeping their loyal employees employed. For Nelson, the road seems more like a spiritual path — an asphalt Mobius strip, the long way to enlightenment or both.
His buddy Kinky Friedman proudly calls him “the Hillbilly Dalai Lama.” His most devout fans think of him as a messenger, or even a manifestation, of God. Sitting on his tour bus before the show, salt-and-cinnamon braids dangling to his belly, Nelson radiates a serene warmth when he says that he embraces these responsibilities without much fuss.
“It’s not a responsibility that’s just mine,” he says. “It’s everybody’s out there. They have the obligation to set an example. ‘Do unto others.’ The old Golden Rule. It’s an easy one to follow. Sometimes.”
There were times when he didn’t, of course. He was once a hot-tempered songwriting ace prone to burning bridges before learning that burning marijuana could calm his screeching mind. But the road from turbulence to tranquility was long and formidable. As a kid, he couldn’t see past 21. At 21, he swore he’d be dead by 40. “Here I am at 81, and everything is cool,” Nelson says.
And here he is in Vegas, for a gig like any other, only maybe not. In many ways, Las Vegas is a luminescent fantasyland designed to provide its visitors with an opportunity to escape their own heads. A Willie Nelson concert won’t allow that. Even when they’re light, Nelson’s songs pull us deeper into ourselves, with Nelson singing about the weight of yesterday and the uncertainty of tomorrow with the easiness of right now. His songs are essentially about time, which makes them about life, which makes them about everything. Older listeners remember. Younger listeners imagine. There’s a lot going on.
“It’s been that way as long as I can remember,” Nelson says of his multi-generational flock. “When you go to church, it’s young and old. The audience, for me, is very similar to a congregation. It’s all ages out there.”
Tonight, plenty of congregants bought their tickets simply to genuflect, get drunk and shout out the words to “On the Road Again.” But many younger fans in the room quietly acknowledge that they’ve made this pilgrimage with bittersweet intentions. They’re here to see Nelson before he leaves this plane, seemingly unaware that their presence is exactly what keeps that from happening.
Born and raised in a peaceful fleck of Texas called Abbott, Nelson learned from his grandmother that, in addition to keeping us alive, the human breath is what carries a song. So he started singing from his diaphragm and picked up the rest from the voices wafting out of his radio. Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams. He especially loved listening to the way Frank Sinatra breathed.
As with Sinatra, so much of Nelson’s magnetism originates in the intimacy of his vocal phrasing. Vocally, he can saunter ahead of the beat, then stumble behind it, somersaulting through his lines, always landing on his feet. And all of this magic still reveals itself in the length of a breath.
To keep fit, Nelson currently rides a bicycle and plays a little golf, but he vows that exhaling music from a stage is the ultimate form of exercise. And while he says he doesn’t meditate, his explanation of why he doesn’t certainly sounds like meditation: “To think about my breathing would defeat the purpose. The object is not to think.”
The other pillars of his spirituality remain simple and sturdy. The Lord’s Prayer still comes in handy when he needs his brain to go blank. And his long-standing belief in reincarnation grows stronger each year. “I think everything that’s happened [in my life] enhances the idea,” he says. “Once you invite that idea in and start kicking it around, you see that that’s the only way it could be.”
Ask Nelson heftier questions about life, death and the great beyond, and he begins speaking in Zen zingers. At first, it seems like he’s dodging. But catch up to him, and you’ll realize he’s telling big truths through little jokes.
What goes through his mind when he walks onstage? “Try not to trip over a wire.”
Do his fans truly know him? “I think they think they do.”
Does he have a relationship with God today? “Well, how you doin’?”
That last reply seems to materialize in a moment of octogenarian fog, but in actuality, Nelson is 10 steps ahead: He believes that God speaks through all of us. His sense of humor and his spirituality are inextricable. Life is a joke. The funniest one we’ll ever know.
And while his cosmic wit explains Nelson’s eminence as a troubadour-guru, it says even more about his skill as a country songwriter. Every lyricist on Music Row aspires to think this elegantly, finding ways to pack the universe into pithy, coherent, pleasingly rhythmic bundles that report on the finer details of the human condition in plain English. The words also have to rhyme, and it helps if they’re hilarious or devastating.
In Vegas, Nelson’s set list is teeming with evergreen punch lines, hang-ups and jabs: the misadventures of “Me and Paul,” the delirious regret of “Crazy,” the dagger-twist at the end of “Funny How Time Slips Away.” But the most rousing singalong comes during “Roll Me Up,” a newer ditty that confronts the imminence of death with a weed joke.
Chopping away at his instrument — a famously loyal guitar named Trigger whose soundboard bears a gaping second hole, as if it took a shotgun slug for its owner — Nelson looks pleased as he sings the hook: “I didn’t come here and I ain’t leavin’?/ So don’t sit around and cry?/ Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.”
Visualizing the aftermath of Nelson’s death (breathing him in, breathing him out) should not be this fun, this funny, this comforting or this weirdly poetic — which is the upside-down brilliance of it all. It’s by far his most generous and perverse gesture of the night.
But singing backup is Nelson’s daughter Amy, whose eyes flash with discomfort each time the refrain comes around. Backstage, she admits that it’s hard for her to sing those words. “I don’t want to affirm anything like that,” she says. “So when we sing that song, in my head, I’ll look at him and think, ‘Nope!’?”
Willie Nelson performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York on May 24, 1984. It was the first in a series of six concerts at Radio City, all of which sold out, the first time for a country-western act. (Richard Drew/AP)
Nelson speaks about the need to revive family farming at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6, 2004. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Sure, he thinks there are more songs for him to write. Nelson describes the creative moment as a vibration he catches in the breeze, a friendly signal from someplace else. Being on the road might expose him to more transmissions. Sometimes, they come in clear. Other times, he just hears static.
“It either happens or it doesn’t,” Nelson says of the process. “You can’t push it or rush it. I don’t really think about what it takes to write a song. I really don’t. But if I get a good idea, I try to write it down as quickly as possible. And I have an iPhone now, and it’s easier to get in there and leave some notes for myself.”
He’s always written his lyrics first, confident that good melodies are more plentiful than good words and easier to locate, too. As for cutting his songs, he’s quick. He released two fine albums last year, and when he presses a button on the tour-bus stereo, out jumps a zesty new duet he recorded with Merle Haggard a few weeks ago.
It’s from a forthcoming double-tribute album honoring proto-country star Jimmie Rodgers and Django Reinhardt, the French jazz maestro whose guitar-playing has mesmerized Nelson for decades. In fact, Nelson has been taking guitar lessons of late, trying to decode how Reinhardt’s fingertips once dashed across the fretboard. “You can never learn it all,” he says.
Haggard, 77, might be Nelson’s closest peer in that he’s a legendary country-music agitator who continues to tour relentlessly, even after an excruciating lung surgery in 2008. Haggard has characterized life on the road as a compulsion, an addiction, a disease, maybe even a 50-year mistake.
But for Nelson, touring into his 80s is something else entirely. Somehow, his journey generates more energy than it siphons away.
“The music, and the love of playing, and the love of having the music enjoyed by a lot of people,” Nelson says, “there’s a lot of power in that.”
So this great honky-tonk slog, this never-ending odyssey that requires an increasingly fragile body to breathe melody 100 nights a year — this is actually the thing that keeps him alive?
“Oh yeah,” he says with a firm nod. Then he smiles. The idea makes him feel either deeply contented, a little frightened or nothing at all.