Upon a casual listen, Willie Nelson's forthcoming Lost Highway album, "The Great Divide," sounds like it could be pages ripped from the Red-Headed Stranger's road-worn journal. Themes of passionate re

Upon a casual listen, Willie Nelson's forthcoming Lost Highway album, "The Great Divide," sounds like it could be pages ripped from the Red-Headed Stranger's road-worn journal. Themes of passionate rebellion, relationship discord, and the consequences of time are as comfortable to Nelson as a weathered bandanna.

The songs feel intensely personal. On "The Great Divide," Nelson once again does what he's always done best: sing songs that strike a universal chord. He remains the quintessential Everyman, serving up tunes in a way that lets the audience know that he has been there, and he knows they have too.

A prime example on "The Great Divide," due out Jan. 15, 2002, is the poignant ballad "This Face." It opens with the lines: "This face is all I have worn and lived in/Lines beneath my eyes, they're like old friends/And this old heart's been beaten up/My ragged soul, it's had things rough."

Nelson admits his first instinct was to shy away from recording a song that drew attention to his 68-year-old visage, because it was "calling a lot of attention to something I'd rather not call attention to."

He changed his mind "after other people heard it, and they convinced me it was a really great idea because they were all relating to it in their own individual ways," he says of the song penned by Bernie Taupin, Matt Serletic, Jim Cregan, and Robin Le Mesurier. "In the beginning, I thought it was me talking too much about myself, and then as I got into it and listened to it more, I realized it was everyone's situation. That's a pretty universal type of idea. Everybody has a face, so everybody can relate to that one."

Known as one of America's most-accomplished songwriters, Nelson also has a book due in January through Random House titled "The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes," a collection of songs, jokes, and anecdotes he penned on his tour bus.

On "The Great Divide," Nelson only contributes the title cut as a writer. Far from being just an assemblage of great tunes, the songs he chose fit him like a well-tailored suit, and he gives producer Serletic a lion's share of the credit. "I turned it over to Matt and let him run the whole show," Nelson says. "When you take on a producer, you have to let him drive the bus. That's what I did with him. You have to have confidence that he knows what he's doing, and I had that confidence."

For Serletic, it was a golden opportunity to work with a legend. "Willie brings a magical sense of rugged American character to every phrase he sings, note he plays, and song he writes," he says. "'The Great Divide' is honest, passionate music, as told by the world's most unforgettable storyteller."

The stories Nelson relays were crafted by a stellar cast of writers that includes Taupin, Leslie Satcher, Mickey Newbury, Cyndi Lauper (he covers "Time After Time"), and matchbox twenty lead vocalist Rob Thomas, who contributed three cuts ("Maria," "Won't Catch Me Cryin'," and "Recollection Phoenix").

"I really like his writing," Nelson says of Thomas, adding that if Thomas had submitted more songs, he would have cut them, too. "He's got a way of saying things that takes [his compositions] out of categories. You could listen to them on any station."

Thomas, a longtime fan whose first music purchase was one of Nelson's albums, lends vocals to "Maria." In typical Nelson fashion, "The Great Divide" contains multiple duet partners, including Brian McKnight on "Don't Fade Away," Kid Rock on "Last Stand in Open Country," Lee Ann Womack on "Mendocino County Line," Bonnie Raitt on "You Remain," and Sheryl Crow on "Be There for You," which the duo performed Nov. 7 on the Country Music Association Awards show.

"Someone told me the other day that I was in the Guinness Book of World Records for doing more duets than everybody else in history. I don't doubt it," Nelson says with a laugh. "I like to sing with other singers. There's a time when it was real difficult to [do] because of label restrictions. When Waylon [Jennings] and I got together and did our stuff, he was on RCA, and I was on another label. It was really the first sort of outlaw movement. It's nice to know we can do it openly now with blessings of most of the record companies."

During the last week of December, Nelson will shoot a video with Womack for "Mendocino County Line," the album's first single. "She's great," Nelson says of Womack. "She's a Texas gal. She sings good and comes from a good place. She really has her head on straight."

"The Great Divide" is Nelson's fifth album with the Island Def Jam Music Group (following "Spirit," "Teatro," "Milk Cow Blues," and "Rainbow Connection"). The previous four were on Island Records, and "Divide" marks his first release on Universal's Lost Highway label. As for how Nelson moved within the Universal system from Island to Lost Highway, Luke Lewis, chairman of Mercury and Lost Highway, says, "I begged for it. That's pretty much how it happened. It made my year just knowing he's here."

Though unsure at first about the change, Nelson says he's impressed with Lost Highway. "Lost Highway has a great staff working for them," he says. "They are coming off a huge hit with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," and they've done a great job with that."

Lewis says, "The Leslie Satcher song, 'You Remain,' just slays me. The fun of it for me is the pure pleasure of having him on Lost Highway, because it speaks to what we're all about, and the Island Def Jam people are being really supportive. We have all our muscles working on this one. He's made a bunch of brilliant records the last few years, but I've got a feeling this one's money."

Lewis is not alone in that prediction. "It's pretty damn cool," says Jeff Stoltz, senior music buyer for the Torrance, Calif.-based Wherehouse chain. "A lot of people are saying it's like [Santana's "Supernatural"], but Willie is the king of duets. He's been doing them his whole career. 'Maria' with Rob Thomas is a strong pop song. The Lee Ann Womack song is beautiful. Then he's got some neat old stuff, like 'I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)' and the Cyndi Lauper song. Willie is the man. He's the original American outlaw."

"The Great Divide" will also benefit from a new piece of technology called the CD Key. "You put it in your computer's CD-ROM player and go to a special Web site listed inside the album," Annie Balliro, director of marketing for the Island Def Jam Music Group, explains. "You'll get all kinds of cool extra stuff -- behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the record, excerpts from the book, and special photos no one has ever seen before."

As for the future, retirement is not in the Abbott, Texas, native's vocabulary. Nelson just got his black belt in Tae Kwon Do and already has three additional albums in the can: a reggae album produced by Don Was; a jazz album recorded with friend Paul Buskirk; and a duet album with his old boss, Ray Price, who counted Nelson as a member of his famed Cherokee Cowboy Band in 1961.

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