It's hard to believe that one of the eminent forces in country music is now nearing 70 years old, but at 67, Wille Nelson has neither become the sanguine voice of nostalgia, nor succumbed to resting on his considerable laurels. In fact, as he continues to push himself in different directions musically, Nelson is as busy these days as he's ever been. Arguably one of the most colorful characters in country music, Nelson's career spans more than five decades. And, since his meager days back in 1956 hawking his first recording to the listeners of his show in Vancouver, Wash., he has gone on to sell nearly 30 million albums worldwide.
He also continues to play anywhere between 200 and 250 shows per year. A ragged pace even for a hungry 22-year-old rocker looking to lay claim to a career. A feat certainly remarkable for a man of Nelson's age. In keeping with his work ethic, Willie is on the road again, and Saturday will find him winding his way into Myrtle Beach to play the Palace Theater. The day after that, he'll be on stage at his annual Farm Aid event, held this year in Bristow, Va. The plight of the American farmer weighs heavy on Nelson's heart, having worked the land himself as a youth. And this being an elections year, everything the candidates are saying or nor saying has his ears buzzing.
"The candidates aren't thinking about farmers," says Nelson via telephone as he prepares for a show later in the evening in Carlsbad, N.M. "The only thing I've heard them talk about is the estate farm tax. I don't know many farmers that have an 'estate,'" he says with a laugh. "I don't know what they're thinking, but farmers are the backbone of our country."
Drawing inspiration from Bob Dylan, Nelson asked the crowd from the stage at Live Aid, "Wouldn't it be great if we did something for own farmer right here in America?" He then put his money where his mouth was, co-founding Farm Aid in 1985, with John Mellencamp and Neil Young. The three legendary musicians staged the first Farm Aid show just six weeks after the idea was born. Eighty thousand fans arrived at the show that day in Champaign, Ill., raising $7 million. Since then, the organization has raised $14.2 million in aid for farmers in need.
Despite his busy schedule, The Red-Headed Stranger is still the president of the Farm Aid organization. He is also still signing all the checks. How does he find the time to devote to the charity?
"Once your'e there," he explains, "there's no stopping. You're in your place and it and it keeps on going.
In addition to his music and his humanitarian efforts, Nelson has had many other successes. He had various film roles (including one in 1997's "Wag The Dog," also staring Dustin Hoffman). He has won just about every award in the music industry. So far the tally is five Grammys, eight Country Music Awards, and four Association of Country Musicians awards. He was also, among other things, inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Nelson also earned a spot in the Playboy Hall of Fame (indeed). The list goes on and on, but other highlights include a position as a Kennedy Center Honoree. Most recently, he was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Grammys.
Over the years Nelson has dodged the IRS, while getting clobbered in the process. He was later arrested on a marijuana possession charge. He eventually reconciled his tax debt, and, thankfully, he came out smelling like a rose — a Texas rose, that is.
Born Wille Hugh Nelson on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, he and his sister, Bobbie Lee, received music lessons via mail-order early on in their childhood. Their grandparents taught them their lessons and had them regularly involved with church and gospel music. But Willie, a radio junkie — avidly soaking up broadcasts of The Grand Ole Opry, New Orleans, jazz, Big Band singers, and Western swing — would find, firsthand, a recurrent source of inspiration in the cotton fields where he worked as a young man.
"I grew up working the black guys and the Mexican guys singing in the fields," he says. "The black guys were singing the blues and gospel, and the Mexican guys sang Mexican corridas."
When asked if the three genres ever came together in the field, Nelson says with a chuckle, "No, but maybe we combined them later."
Having already released recordings of standards, a concept album, gospel, and a tribute album to Lefty Frissell, Nelson finally paid homage to his Latin influences on 1997's Teatro (Island). But he had yet to release a blues album despite having written and performed such blues tunes over the years as "Whiskey River," and "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain." To fill the voice, Mr. Nelson has created "Milk Cow Blues" (Island) slated for release Sept. 19.
A collection of blues standards, personal favorites, and song from his own catalogue retooled with shades of the blues (including an amazing version of "Crazy), "Milk Cow Blues" pairs Wille with everyone from Susan Tedeschi and Francine Reed to Keb' Mo', B.B. King, Dr. John, Johnny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepard.
To Nelson, this latest foray into the blues isn't much of a commercial stretch. He feels people are hungry for all types of music and that the blues doesn't stray very far from the country music road.
Iv'e been singing 'Milk Cow Blues' my whole career," he admits. "The blues and country have more in common that people thing. They both come from the same place — folk traditions." What Nelson seems more concerned with is stretching his boundaries, performing whatever genre of music he wants, as long as it has substance. In fact, soon he will head back into the studio to finish a project that has been shelved for a while. He plans to join join producer Don Was, Ziggy Marley, and The Wailers to record a reggae album that was planed on hold when Island Records founder and president was forced out by the suits at Polygram headquarters in 1997.
Feeling that soul has been supplanted by formulaic pragmatism when it comes to the current stream of "hits" being churned out of Nashville, he says he has been mining deeply to find something — anyone — telling real stories with grit and guts. "Man, I've been searching," he admits with a wry chuckle.
Aside from the old guys — Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Kris Kristopherson, Billy Joe Shaver — no one is making music relevant or interesting to Nelson. It's certainly not as if he's wishing for the "good ole days." (He did say he like Hank Williams III, or "Tri-cephus, if you will).
In the plastic, hermetically sealed bubble that has become Nashville, could we ever edxpect to see the likes of, say, the Highwaymen again? Nelson is optimistic about the future of country, saying that everything moves in cycles. He thinks the good stuff will come around again.
But what about those Highwaymen?
"John (Cash), who knows where he is," Wille explains. "Waylon's (Jennings) doing great. Kris (Kristopherson) is in Hawaii with his wife somewhere. He wouldn't tell me where though..." he says with a laugh. When asked if it was a good thing Kristopherson hadn't revealed his location to Nelson, Willie laughs, "Yeah," he mused. "Maybe so, maybe so."