Willie Nelson, in San Francisco

Joel Selvin, of www.sfgate.com wrote this about Willie at the Fillmore this week:

For Willie Nelson, five nights at the Fillmore Auditorium is usually longer than he stays at home. The 73-year-old singer does about 250 dates a year, so whenever he is home, he’s usually pretty much just coming back or just leaving again.

He is sitting at the tiny table in his bus parked outside the Fillmore, eating a bowl of strawberries and milk before his first show on Sunday, thinking about whether five nights would be a long time for him to be home.

“Yeah,” he says, “Yes, it is, come to think of it.”

Nelson has spent all day sitting in his bus parked on the street outside the hall. He doesn’t rent a hotel room and he doesn’t use the backstage dressing room. He walks straight from the bus up the backstairs directly to the stage. He is already wearing his stage clothes — a black T-shirt from a barbecue joint in some Texas oil puddle.

For five years, Nelson has been playing these shows almost every year at the Fillmore, although this sold-out five-night run, through Thursday, is his longest yet. “Willie gets the most amazing cross section,” says Michael Bailey, who books the Fillmore. “Stoner hippies. Republicans in suits and ties. Everybody loves Willie.”

At the Fillmore, in front of a giant Lone Star flag, Nelson and his tight-knit band put on a peerless two-hour display, shifting in a heartbeat from one song to another, the band lending spare, subtle support to Nelson’s minimalist vocal style. All the band members have been with him at least 20 years. The piano player is his sister.

Nelson himself is a Zen master of a musician: If he sang any less when he tucks into a number, he’d no longer be singing. And when Willie Nelson sings them, they stay sung. He can make any song sound like a classic. He plays an impossibly beat-up nylon string guitar and coaxes, bangs and squeezes sounds out of it that would have made Django proud.

He plays without a set list. “Saves a lot of problems in figuring out what I was going to do,” he says.

He has pumped out new records, each one a minor gem, at a rate of three a year for the past three years. This year, he has already released a double-CD set with fellow country music immortals Merle Haggard and Ray Price. He just finished a tour where the three were backed by western swing specialists Asleep at the Wheel. The Chicago show was filmed for PBS to be aired during the fall fundraiser. He’s already on to his next project.

On his bus, he greets an endless procession of guests and is unfailingly gracious and personal. Everyone brings him a gift, and he receives them all warmly. His longtime drummer, Paul English — Nelson has had four wives, but only one drummer — takes a seat on the bench in the front and exchanges greetings with his boss.

The manager of Jamaican reggae singers Toots and the Maytals stops by with a small present. They discuss a possible future duet — Toots and Willie have sung on each other’s records before — and Nelson stands up to pop a CD into the changer above his cubbyhole to play something he has in mind. They talk, and when it registers with Nelson that this is not going to happen in time for his new album, he shifts gears. “We’ll work something out,” he tells the manager.

Among the songs Nelson has already recorded for the new album is the freshly timely Randy Newman song about a flood, “Louisiana 1927,” with the chorus “Louisiana … they’re tryin’ to wash us away.” He has also cut Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He also has another Kris Kristofferson song, “A Moment of Forever.” “Good song,” says Nelson, standing up again to click to the track on the overhead CD player.

Onstage Sunday night, his music contains multitudes. He sings Irving Berlin or Hank with the same compassion and wit. His own songs are often the best songs he sings, although he sings the best songs written by the greatest songwriters of the past 50 or so years. He sings two Kristofferson songs in a medley — Nelson is fond of medleys the way Sinatra liked brass — “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” and then stops to introduce a third one, the new song he’d been playing on the bus stereo, “A Moment of Forever.” He makes it sound like an instant classic.

If Nelson makes his art appear effortless, that may be because, for him, it is. He says he makes no special efforts to improve his craft.

“No,” he says, thinking over the question. “I don’t think so. I work on my health and that reflects on my craft. That’s not the only reason I work on my craft, I do it for my health also. That’s selfish and staying alive at the same time. At the same time, I’m also healthy enough to do 250 days a year, which is not bad. So is Paul over there, and he’s older than I am.

“It’s just a matter of the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

That doesn’t work for everybody.

“Not many things that work for me work for everybody,” Nelson says. “There’s a whole lot of people out there who shouldn’t go by what I do.”

E-mail Joel Selvin at jselvin@sfchronicle.com.

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