MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Story by Chris Neal

Do not mess with Willie Nelson -- he's a black belt. "A couple of years ago, my wife and boys went to the tae kwon do school, and I decided I was not about to let them get ahead of me," he chuckles. "So I went down and started doing it. I actually caught up with them and passed them -- they're black belt candidates, but I got mine before they did."

And this is not 68-year-old Willie's first experience in the martial arts. "When I was a kid, I got into jujitsu," he recalls, "and when I first went to Nashville I was into kung fu. I've always been interested in boxing and wrestling -- that was just what we did growing up. Every day was some kind of controlled fight -- or uncontrolled fight!"

It's unlikely anyone would want to pick a fight with peace-loving Willie these days. The legendary Texan is still pleasing audiences on the road -- and is back on the charts with "Mendocino County Line," his duet with Lee Ann Womack. Willie says the combination was a natural.

"Lee Ann is a fellow Texan," he says, "and a great singer."

The song is from his latest album, The Great Divide, which pairs Willie with a wide and intriguing variety of duet partners. It turns out that those unique pairings, with stars like R&B crooner Brian McKnight and roots-rocker Bonnie Raitt, weren't Willie's idea -- but he was happy to do it.

"I hadn't given it that much thought," he admits. "I had planned to let the producer make all the major decisions, and one of those decisions was to do some duets. He called me and asked what I thought about this person or that person, and I always liked his ideas. I never did say no to anything.

"So he called the artists, brought most of the songs, hired the musicians and did the arranging and producing -- all I had to do was learn the songs!"

Willie's not done with duets, by any means. He'll also have a famous singing partner for his next album -- fellow country icon Ray Price. "I think there's one or two on there that I sing by myself, but most of it is Ray and I," reports Willie. "We did a lot of standards and some that he'd written, some that I'd written and a couple we'd written together. This is a complete departure from The Great Divide."

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