Willie Nelson, T.V. Guide, May 24, 2003

Live and Kickin
by Jennifer Graham

As Willie Nelson turns 70, a new concert special shows he still loves making music with his friends – including Shania Twain, Eric Clapton and Nora Jones.

Willie Nelson is sauntering through the lobby of New York City’s Beacon Theatre, nearly blind from the blazing TV camera lights of E! Access Hollywood, Extra and the rest.

He makes his way across the room, politely parting a crowd that seems as heavy on other music stars as it does on reporters.  They’ve gathered to prepare for Willie’s 70th-birthday party, which will unfold in a few hours in front of a TV director’s lens.

The big-name guest list:  Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Nora Jones, Shania Twain, Steven Tyler, Wyclef Jean.  These A-list musicians and many more, from numerous genres and generations, are taking part in the taping of the TV concert event, Willie Nelson and Friends:  Live and Kickin’.  A very hip crowd for a father of six, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of four.

Married now to his fourth wife, Annie D’Angelo, his long red braids gone mostly gray, Nelson has become nothing less than an icon.  And his friends and fans can use the word beloved without exaggeration.  “He’s so sweet,” says JOnes, the sophisticated blues crooning juggernaut of this year’s Grammy Awards.  “He’s like everybody’s uncle.”  At 24, Jones seems an unlikely Nelson admirer, but don’t try to tell that to her.  “I say it in all my interviews,” she insists.  “My music is heavily influenced by him.”

On the surface, Jones and Nelson make unlikely compadres.  She’s a pop jazz pianist and singer; he’s an old-time country traditionalist with an aging six-string uitar that he calls Trigger, after Roy Rogers’ famous hors. But his spare melodies and matter-of-fact lyrics about women and whiskey and road trips have clearly made an impact on performers across the musical spectrum.

“He writes with the gift of a poet,” says Kris Kristofferson, pretty high up in the songwriting pantheon himself, as well as a fellow member of the Highwaymen, the 1980’s country-music coalition that included Nelson, Johnny Cash and the late Waylon Jennings.  “Every songwriter in Nashville has been influenced by Willie,” Kristofferson says.

Fielding reporters’ questions, Nelson shakes off such compliments.  “[Songwriting] was always one of the earliest things for me to do.  I’m fortunate that it comes natural for me.”  And with characteristic frankness, he says that televising his birthday was less his idea than his record company’s.

He certainly has not allowed a high profile to get in the way of his nonconformist spirt.  Nelson, along with Jennings, pioneered country’s outlaw movement of the 1970’s, ditching the slick pop trappings of Nashville.  And then there’s his longtime (and unapologetic) allegiance to marijuana.  Not to mention his well-known trouble with the IRS.

“I grew up in the Methodist Church,” he says.  “I was bombarded with religion from the time I was born until the time I got away.  I think it’s been good for me to always have that base.  But you know, I haven’t always been good.”

No regrets, though, for his musical risks.  “I’m proud of the outlaw thing, applied to music,” he says, “and I recommend it for everyone.”  At 70, he’s confident in his own well-worn skin and sees nothing but blue skies.  “My 60th birthday party (also televised) went so good, they decided, “Hey, let’s do it 10 years later,” he says.  “Maybe 10 years from nhow we’ll do another one.”

(And I hope you do, Willie! I’ll be watching) — lindalee

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