America loves its outlaws, and few are as admired and lionized as Willie Nelson.
As the enduring American icon's 80th birthday has approached, he's been honored with lifetime achievement awards, serenaded at special performances and saluted by musicians from every genre of music. And Nelson has taken it all in with a bemused smile.
"It's a nice thing to do for someone on their birthday and I appreciate it," Nelson said in a recent interview aboard his bus. "Usually I like to forget my birthdays as much as possible." The hubbub is as much about celebrating Nelson as it has been celebrating with Nelson.
The singer whose birthday is Monday or Tuesday — Nelson says April 29, the state of Texas claims April 30 — occupies a unique space in America's cultural memory. A walking bag of contradictions, he wears his hair long in braids and has a penchant for pot smoking, yet remains arguably conservative country music's greatest songwriter. He's accepted by left and right, black and white and is instantly recognizable to a majority of Americans.
Like few other music stars, his image has grown to represent more than the notes he's played or the lyrics he's written. Like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra, he's become a figurehead for a uniquely American way of thinking. He represents the outlaw and the maverick. If Elvis was all about the pelvis and the sexual revolution, Nelson is American independence: the raised middle finger tossed with a twinkle in the eye.
"America is a bizarre place and Willie is our captain," said Jamey Johnson, Nelson's good friend and sometimes opener. "Willie in every way represents all the greatest things about America to me."
Nelson didn't set out to be a folk hero, as Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum calls him. He spends something like 200 days on the road still, a pace that challenges men a quarter his age.
In a series of interviews over the last year, Nelson explained he just came to Nashville wanting someone to buy his songs. That young man never imagined he'd be on the road for more than 50 years. His first real songwriting job paid $50 a week. He played — and sometimes slept — at Tootsie's on Lower Broadway in Nashville, just a few miles — but really a million miles — away from Music Row.
Nelson thinks that young man wouldn't know what to make of the spectacle he's become.
"He'd probably wonder what's that old man doing out there," Nelson said with a chuckle. "He's got a house. He's not homeless. Why don't he go home?"
The truth is Nelson is home as he sits at the pleasantly cluttered kitchen table of his bus. With its portrait of an American Indian on the side and its reputation for mellow encounters, the bus is as much a part of Nelson's mythos as his braids and battered old guitar. An invitation to join Nelson on the bus is coveted.
"I've never smoked weed ever in my entire life," Lady A's Hillary Scott joked. "But if I got invited on the bus I might have to make a concession just because of purely what it is, what it represents."
For Nelson, it's a refuge, office, songwriting room and parlor where he hosts friends and band members for morning coffee.
"I've lived in this house longer than I've lived in any of the others, all combined," Nelson said glancing around. "I feel at home here. It moves around. I have a mobile home. That's about the size of it, and I enjoy it."
Nelson has pursued this nomadic lifestyle for more than four decades, almost unchanged. The personnel in the band has remained the same. Until recently, harmonica player Mickey Raphael was pretty much the new guy. He recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with Nelson, though he's not exactly sure when that date fell.
"I was never officially hired," Raphael says with a grin, "but I was never asked to leave."
Nelson hangs onto his buses till they're over a million miles, still wears a black T-shirt and that red, white and blue guitar strap. His children grew up on the bus and now they play in his band from time to time.
So, to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, the outlaw thing's been overdone. All he wanted to do was play his own music the way he chose. In Nashville, that idea was sacrilegious. And while Nelson was something of a known quantity in town — he had written hits and was a member of the Grand Ole Opry — conventional wisdom said he was never going to amount to much if he insisted on singing his own songs in a manner that didn't fit Music City's countrypolitan ways.
"You ever heard the song me and Waylon did back in the old days called 'Write Your Own Songs?'" Nelson says with a laugh. "I still do that one occasionally. I get a kick out of doing it because it takes you back to the days when me and Waylon were fighting the outlaw wars here in Nashville and losing. I enjoyed those times. I even enjoyed being the outlaw and the outcast. I thought, 'All right, that's great. I must be doing something right.' You remember the old saying, 'You keep on doing it wrong till you like it that way?'"
Two things happened in the early 1970s to give Nelson the advantage in those wars — his decision to leave Nashville and relocate to Austin, Texas, and the release of "Outlaws." The album, a collection of odds and ends from Nelson, Jennings and others, was the first country album to go platinum and was accidentally timed perfectly to take advantage of an obsession with Southern culture in the U.S. during the Age of Burt Reynolds.
Quickly, Nelson was not only a well-known singer with a group of suddenly popular friends, but he was an actor on film and television. His influence spread quickly. Friend Kris Kristofferson invited Nelson down to Mexico to the set of Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" where he introduced him to Bob Dylan. Nelson played a song for a group of new friends.
"And Bob Dylan was so knocked out that he made him keep playing," Kristofferson remembered during a visit to the bus late last year. "I think you played there all day by yourself. ... Dylan was just amazed. It made me respect Dylan, too. But (Nelson) has always been a songwriter's hero. Because he's a great songwriter. Because he's absolutely unlike anybody else and because he's the funniest human being on the planet. And very much like God."
Except maybe when he's telling dirty jokes. Nelson and Vince Gill have plenty in common, but it's their love of off-color quips that cemented their friendship.
Gill says Nelson remains relevant in the 21st century for a simple reason. He continues to show people the way.
"He's the most unique singer I've ever heard," Gill said, "and that to me is the whole point: For you to flip the radio on and know exactly who that is. That's what you dream of."