Willie Nelson plays Another sold-out show in Kansas (3/27/07)

By Brian Dugger

Willie Nelson is so many things to so many people. Inevitably, any attempt to discuss his life or explain his five decades of success will be met with choruses of dissent. It’s impossible to package his importance to music in America, into one neat, tidy story.

The safest thing to say about him is that Willie is just Willie. He will be in Wichita Tuesday for a sold-out show at the Cotillion.

In 1961, Nelson made a name for himself as the songwriter of “Hello Walls” and “Crazy” which became No.1 hits for Faron Young and Patsy Cline, respectively.

But in 1970, he took the first steps down the path of becoming a cultural phenomenon when he turned his back on Nashville and its insistence on homogenized, string-laden arrangements.

Nelson returned to his home state of Texas and became engrossed in the emerging hippie culture and musical scene of Austin. It was there that Nelson discovered that country could coexist with a variety of other styles of music. His sound eventually fused pop, Western swing, jazz and traditional country.

Like Bob Dylan, his seeming lack of a traditionally “good” voice didn’t detract from his powerful artistry. His skill as a songwriter shone through, and people eventually accepted, then grew to love the voice that spun them the story songs.

Nothing exemplified the storyteller aspect of Nelson more than his concept albums.

At a party in Nashville in 1971, Nelson grabbed his old Martin guitar and sang all the songs he’d written for an album he wanted to call “Phases and Stages.”

“The concept was to look at marriage and divorce from a man’s point of view on one side and the woman’s point of view on the other,” Nelson explains in his biography “Willie.”

When he was done, Jerry Wexler, who was starting a country division at Atlantic Records, told Nelson that he wanted to release that album, which he did in 1974, adding that “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

It was the start of what became known as the Outlaw Movement, which eventually encompassed Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. The Nashville of that day was producing prepackaged, squeaky-clean stars dressed in suits, while the Outlaws wore their hair long, dressed in denim and leather, and sang about drugs and alcohol, arranged with more rock than country.

Decades of hits followed for Nelson. In 1978, a duet album with Jennings spawned the hit “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” “On the Road Again” hit No. 1 in 1981. “Always on My Mind” rose to the top in 1982.

As late as 2004, Nelson was on top of the charts. That year he won the Academy of Country Music’s Video of the Year for “Beer for My Horses,” a duet with Toby Keith.

Don’t try to package Nelson under any sort of stereotype or try to explain how he has grown into such a legend. It’s simplest to say, Willie is just Willie.

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