Why Willie Nelson’s old outlaw habits die hard
Willie Nelson beams like a proud grandpa as he takes a CD from its case and pops it into the player on his tour bus. With the push of a button, out comes Willie's familiar voice - singing Kermit the Frog's kids' classic “Rainbow Connection.” And somehow, he even sounds a little like Kermit.
"Look like him some, too," he says with a trademark grin.
The song is the title track of Willie's upcoming album, which is somewhat of a family affair. “This last Christmas I got 'em all down there in Luck, Texas, and we did a bunch of songs,” he explains. “There’s about four daughters of mine there, some sons-in-law, some granddaughters and grandsons."
Willie sits back and listens to the music, relaxing in his faded black jeans and black T-shirt. He's just now unwinding after performing for over two hours to a packed concert hall in Lake Tahoe, one of over 200 shows he'll play this year.
"I enjoy being on the road," says Willie, who recently turned 68. "I think healthier out here. I've tried stopping, and it's not good for me."
Besides, Willie still has fun onstage, where he plays more than 40 songs every night. "I do pretty much what comes to mind," he explains. "If I miss one, the audience will let me know. I usually let my hands tell me how long we should play. After a while, they get tired."
But offstage, the hours on the road can get long. "I get bored when there's nothing to do and the weather's not good enough to play golf," he says. "I watch a lot of TV, and listen to a lot of music and talk on the phone a lot."
Some of the people he keeps in touch with are his "Highwaymen" buddies - Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. "I got a letter from John just before he got sick," he recalls. "I check on him every now and then, and he checks on me, too. I talk to Kris occasionally, and Waylon, too."
Willie is a long way from the days when he and Waylon shook up country music with the 1970s "outlaw" movement. But he still maintains a handful of outlaw habits, as the telltale smell on the tour bus gives away. "I guess I have that outlaw thing because of what I wear ... or what I smoke," he chuckles.
Willie is a musical rule-breaker, too, still busting down barriers between styles with his recent Grammy-nominated blues album Milk Cow Blues and an upcoming reggae CD. Previous records have also included jazz, pop and standards, but everything Willie does springs from roots firmly grounded in country and gospel music.
"I just believe it's all one kind of music," he says. "You put on different beats and different instruments, and you have your different categories. Luckily, I've learned a lot of different kinds of music.
"You can take the same song, sing it country with a fiddle and a steel, then do the same song with reggae rhythms and it's an entirely different song - but it's still good. It just depends on how you present it."
As for plain ol' country, Willie isn't fretting over its health or popularity. "The good stuff always comes back," he says. "I've seen it go through the cycles where this fad or that fad comes in, but nobody ever gets tired of Hank Williams or Bob Wills. As long as there's guys who keep singing the music, it'll always be there."
And you can bet one of those guys will be Willie Nelson.
"All I do is play music and golf," he chuckles. "Which one do you want me to give up?"