Print this page

Willie Nelson – The Outlaw

Written by Alan McGee
 Willie Nelson Alan McGee  ZANI 1.

One song that has been making a welcome return on my iPod is Willie Nelson's '82 version of Always on my Mind. A beautiful and laconic reading of the song made famous by Elvis Presley, it reminded me of what an iconoclast Nelson still is. This decade has been an interesting one for him.

Like Dylan, he is forever on tour. Yet, unlike the Dylan of the past 10 years, he has taken up some interesting causes as of late. The cover of January's High Times sees a 74-year-old Willie holding up two huge marijuana buds and wearing a NORML T-shirt, from the organisation fighting for the legalisation of the drug. In 2006, Nelson's tour bus was busted - police found two and a half pounds of marijuana and three ounces of magic mushrooms, but Nelson escaped serious charges.

However, Nelson is far more than just a pothead. For over two decades he has been the guiding force behind Farm Aid, an organisation to help farmers out of debt, and an active advocate for biodiesel fuel. There is also a Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute. Musically, the man is beyond reproach. Not only is Nelson is extremely prolific - he's released 117 albums - he is adventurous, taking on five different genres in the last decade alone, from the reggae crossover of Countryman through to instrumental jazz standards on Night and Day.

Nelson came to country and western as a songwriter, composing 60s standards such as Crazy, Hello Walls and Pretty Paper. Yet it was when he decided to break free of the Nashville sound that Nelson gained infamy in his own right as an artist. Along with Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, he is regarded as part of the "outlaw country" set that started in the early 70s as a reaction to the overproduced, Nudie-suited Nashville sound, and to keep pace with the revolutions in rock'n roll of the 60s. His stature as performer grew throughout the 70s to that of worldwide superstar, despite (or perhaps even because of) some strange artistic decisions including duetting with Julio Inglesias on To All the Girls I've Loved Before and releasing an album of standards by Cole Porter.

Willie Nelson Alan McGee  ZANI 2.The 90s weren't so kind to Nelson. His albums stopped selling and his battles with the IRS stripped him of nearly $17.5m. Nelson then released the wryly titled Who The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories to settle his debt with the tax collection agency. It was here at his lowest that Nelson went on to release two of his most important albums, Spirit and Teatro.

After Johnny Cash worked with Rick Rubin, and Jack White collaborated with Loretta Lynn, fans were waiting to see what Willie Nelson's response to these records would be. In 2006, the record company Lost Highway teamed up him up with Ryan Adams and released Songbird. Far from the gothic gravitas of Cash's American Recordings, Songbird was a simple case of Nelson applying his artistry in a different scenario as he had done many times before. The follow-up saw him playing with Merle Haggard and Ray Price on the traditional covers album of Last of the Breed.

What I find impressive is that in all his 73 years Willie Nelson has never once shown signs of caring about critical opinion. Whether he is releasing albums of Americana classics or singing with Mariah Carey, he has always done what he wanted to do, an American outlaw - and icon - to the last.

Reproduced by Kind Permission of Alan McGee

Read 4975 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 15:34
Rate this item
(0 votes)
Alan McGee

Alan McGee

Latest from Alan McGee

Related items