Illustration by Adrien Korczynski
What would we do without Willie?
What would we do without Willie?
Let’s hope we don’t have to find out, at least not for a long time. I ponder the question because Willie Nelson is turning 80 on Monday. Yet the man feels timeless, looks ageless — now more than ever.
As I sit here listening to Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Willie’s 67th studio album in a recording career that spans 51 years, I am once again struck by his utterly prolific artistic nature. At an age when most singers, songwriters and musicians have eons ago stopped recording new music, and some have altogether retired, Willie keeps going. This is his fourth album since 2010.
His voice is whiskey-soaked; a deep husk tempers the nasal twang. His jazzy, behind-the-beat phrasing is intact. His penchant for mining the American songbook, and then some, remains fervent.
On the new album he interprets Irving Berlin (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”), Carl Perkins (“Matchbox”), Frank Loesser (“I Wish I Didn’t Love You”) and Spade Cooley (“Shame on You”), to name a few. His trusty guitar, Trigger, doesn’t fail him. His beloved Family Band, including sister Bobbie Nelson, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and drummer Paul English, is there giving him that richly organic blend of traditional country and free-form jazz.
Willie is a constant. We always know what to expect from him, and it’s incredibly comforting. When he ventures into reggae, blues, pop and brooding rock, he always remains Willie.
Willie the musician extends into Willie the human being. He savors life the way he embraces music. He’s open to trying just about anything at least once — even a collaboration with rapper Snoop Dogg on the wink-and-nod tune “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” from 2012’s Heroes. He’s a man always ready and willing to entertain a crowd, sing with a friend and extend a helping hand.
Nobody had to ask him to turn Sunday night’s concert at the New Backyard in Bee Cave, Texas, into a benefit for the West Volunteer Fire Department. Willie declared it so last week after the fertilizer plant explosion that crippled the town near Waco. Whenever his home state is in peril, Willie is there to do what he does best — play music for a good cause. West is personal to him. It is roughly six miles from his hometown of Abbott.
Willie has a huge heart. He’s raised money and awareness for farmers via his Farm Aid charity concerts, for animal rights, for the LGBT movement, for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, for the environment and a myriad of other organizations. That he would extend his graciousness to West is a given.
So much about Willie Nelson can be taken for granted. He tours incessantly. He walks into a recording studio whenever he feels an itch to sing a new (or old) song. He spreads his generosity without giving it a second thought. His artistic reach is far and wide. He recently filmed an 80th birthday party for Country Music Television’s Crossroads series, featuring Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Norah Jones, Jack White, Leon Russell, Ashley Monroe and Neil Young.
Let’s make sure to treasure what we have. What would we do without Willie? There’s a question that won’t soon be answered.
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