Graeme Thomson

The weird, hypnotic world of Willie Nelson

The songwriter is the same age as the FBI, but even at 91 he retains a zen-like ability to communicate the essence of a song

Many years ago, I wrote a book about Willie Nelson. At its conclusion, I reached for an elegiac, valedictory tone. In 2006, when The Outlaw was published, Nelson was already 73, and it seemed plausible to suggest that one of the great American lives might be winding down. I pictured Nelson rolling off the road and into the sunset, his work on Earth more or less complete.

Nelson embodies both sides of an increasingly divided nation; hippie and redneck, patriot and agitator

Well, scratch that ending. Having recently turned 91, Nelson is still going strong. The touring has slowed down a tad – we haven’t seen him in Britain for years, partly due to the effects of long-distance travel on an ageing body, but also because feeding his prodigious weed intake becomes a trickier proposition overseas – but the albums are still coming.

The latest is The Border, his tenth in the past seven years. As he sings on ‘How Much Does it Cost’, ‘I’m a songwriter, and always will be’. He’s more than that, though. Nelson is a living link to a vanished America. Hailing from hardscrabble rural Texas, he was born into the Great Depression. A near contemporary of Hank Williams, he is the same age as the FBI. He started writing songs when Truman was President. His timeless standard, ‘Crazy’, was a hit for Patsy Cline in 1961. Elvis Presley covered ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ in 1970. He runs through American music like a river.

He also embodies both sides of an increasingly divided nation. Nelson is both hippie and redneck, patriot and agitator. He wrestled with the Nashville establishment before swapping hard liquor for marijuana and relocating to Austin, Texas, at which point he became the spaced-out poster boy for the outlaw country movement.

The cartoonish veneer – bandana, pigtails, weed, weed, weed – conceals a darker, more complex reality. Up close, I found Nelson weird and hypnotic. His eyes were black, his epigrams gnomic: ‘We’re all thinking basically the same thing. We’re all basically the same person. A lot of things are happening at quantum speeds.’ A sense of slightly crazed stillness radiated around him. During one occasion we spent together, in a hotel room in London, one of his friends literally bounced off the wall before falling into a deep stupor, lying comatose at our feet as we talked. Nelson seemed entirely unfazed. ‘We lost him. He went out the door.’ He brings all this to his music. Whether written by him or not, the material on The Border smartly plugs into Nelson’s mythos. ‘Many a Long & Lonesome Highway’, one of two songs written by fellow Texan Rodney Crowell, paints him in romantic colours as a windblown troubadour. ‘Hank’s Guitar’ is about the lasting power of Hank Williams’s music, but cannot help but evoke the legacy of Nelson via his own trusty, totemic and truly dilapidated instrument, Trigger. His guitar playing still sparkles, lithe lines flowing through
several songs.

In his prime, Nelson was vocally as facile and adept a conversationalist as Sinatra; a master at making the listener believe they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with him on a pair of barstools as he delivers alternately wry and woebegone tales. Naturally, some weathering has taken place. There is grit in the pearl these days, but Nelson retains a zen-like ability to communicate the essence of a song; a truth. Of the four tracks co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, ‘Once Upon a Yesterday’ is the pick, a soft, sentimental ballad with all the weight of his nine decades pressing upon it.

At this stage, perhaps the most we can reasonably hope from The Border is that the songs spark connections with those from Nelson’s prime. The Tex-Mex roll of the title track, also written by Crowell, evokes the spare, dusty majesty of 1998’s Teatro, on which he worked with Daniel Lanois. ‘I Wrote This Song For You’ echoes ‘Sad Songs & Waltzes’ as it deconstructs the songwriters’ craft, while slyly acknowledging that the one thing a wayward musician can always do when in a tight corner, spouse-wise, is knock out a heartfelt love song.

Above all, the record’s sombre, stately mood recalls his mid-1990s classic, Spirit – although Nelson can still swing when the fancy takes him. The honky-tonk hoot of ‘Made in Texas’ distils a lifetime’s listening to Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb into three perky minutes, while also doubling as a pithy summation of home-state pride.

As for valediction: ‘Nobody Knows Me Like You’ – filled with ‘memories I can’t outrun’ – transmits a palpable sense of an ending, yet the closing ‘How Much Does it Cost’ makes clear that Nelson will be doing this until he drops. ‘Maybe I’ll write another hit song,’ he croons, ‘And we can all sing along.’ Why stop now? And why stop here? Hell, he’s old enough to run for president.