CIRCLE OF FRIENDS

Willie Nelson adds to his title as the king of duets with a star-studded group of 'Angels & Outlaws.'

It's a safe bet to say that Willie Nelson has had more duet partners than any other singer in history. He's not about to give up that distinction now.

On this day in Los Angeles, for example, he's sharing a microphone with Toby Keith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kid Rock, Merle Haggard, Lee Ann Womack, Carole King and The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, just for starters. All are present to tape Willie Nelson & Friends: Angels & Outlaws, Willie's third annual all-star get-together for the USA television network.

Onstage at the moment are a cowboy-hatted Willie and surprise guest Bob Dylan - his identity somewhat disguised by a tight-fitting ski cap - running through Hank Williams' "You Win Again." Their musical interaction brings a rare smile to Bob's face.

"I thought he was doing a good job of singing harmony," pronounces Willie afterward, resting on his bus. He admits that's a challenge - Willie regularly sings behind the beat, and he often changes the way he delivers a line, never singing a song the same way twice. "A lot of people wonder how other people sing with me," he notes with a grin.

"Honestly, you just do the best you can," chuckles Shelby Lynne, also present to perform with Willie this day. "He's a complete stylist, and if he did everything the same way twice he definitely wouldn't be Willie."

Another thing that makes him Willie, according to Lee Ann, is his sense for picking just the right song for any given duet. On this show, he has asked her to sing the Tennessee Ernie Ford/Kay Starr classic "I'll Never Be Free," a song she had never heard before - and she loved it. "Willie has such great taste in music," she laughs. "He and I like a lot of the same kinds of stuff."

In fact, Lee Ann and Willie - who earned a Grammy award for their teaming on the hit "Mendocino County Line" - have discussed making an album of duets together, possibly a gospel CD or a tribute to Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Cindy Walker (whose incredible track record includes writing some 500 songs for country and pop performers).

"I'm working on it," says Lee Ann. "My wheels are spinning, and I heard he's got a little bit of time off coming up, so I'm like, 'OK, I can spend a little time in Texas and make some music with Willie.' It'd be really cool."

Lee Ann is certainly not the only person who lights up at the idea of making music with Willie. His easy disposition and his sense of humor - not to mention his unique talent - endear him to fans and fellow performers alike.

"Willie has a lot of love in his soul," says Shelby. "Whether it's a fan of his or famous people, he always shows respect. He doesn't change hats with people - he's always Willie. He's a very kind, giving person."

Toby agrees. "Willie is one of the kindest, most beautiful, sweethearted persons that I've met in my life."

-- Tom Roland

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