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Willie Nelson: a productive senior citizen

By Tom Netherland, September 1998

Willie Nelson is as American as the flag. A blue collar American, that is. Long known for his love of the road, this year alone he will perform nearly 200 concerts. From California to Maine, Florida to Washington, Nelson will log thousands of miles on his home on wheels, his bus, Honeysuckle Rose II. Nelson completed a successful tour of Europe in May. Truly, he's seen nearly every corner of the world.

Like his song says, Willie Nelson really "can't wait to get on the road again."

Kinda makes you wonder, though, just how he can record so darned much. In September, Island Records, Nelson's primary label, released "Teatro."

Earlier this year, Luck Records became the first company to market a country album solely over the Internet. It was Nelson's album with The Offenders, "Me And The Drummer."

In June, Rick Rubin's American Recordings/Sony released Nelson and Johnny Cash's "VH-1 Storytellers," gleaned from the hit cable TV show.

Busy indeed, and yet though now 65, Nelson shrugs off any notions that he is somehow defying his age, saying, "I like being busy."

In fact, he's having a blast, especially as opposed to his often struggling early days in the music business. "It's a little more" fun these days," he says. "I really don't remember much (about) that (his struggling days) anymore. Fortunately, I don't have to."

Produced by Daniel Lanois (Emmylou Harris, U2, Bob Dylan), "Teatro" is yet another sound departure for the enigmatic Nelson. Composed of several cover tunes - yet mostly originals, the album's title is Spanish for "theater."

Fitting in that it was recorded in Lanois' new studio, a converted theater in Oxnard, Cal. by the name of Teatro.

Lanois, who has produced classic albums for a spectrum of acts, including U2 (1987's "Joshua Tree"), Emmylou Harris (1995's "Wrecking Ball") and Bob Dylan (Grammy-grabber "Time Out Of Mind"), appears to have worked a similar magic with Nelson.

Willie has worked with a litany of legendary producers, chief among them Don Was ("Across The Borderline") and Booker T. Jones ("Stardust"). He indicates a similar confidence in Lanois.

"Well, there's a lot of similarities, first of all," Nelson says. Each has the ability to "turn it into a finished product - and you know that it's being done right. It's gonna sound great when they get through with it. Those three guys particularly."

The album has a mystical feel, as with past Lanois productions. Nelson's gut-string guitar blends with Lanois touches such as an atmospheric Wurlitzer, lending the album an introspective yet other-worldly sound and aura. Given that Nelson's 11 original and 3 cover tunes touch various points of human emotion - from love to death, the musical accompaniment is all the more fitting. Nelson's voice at times sounds a bit ragged, but one gets the notion that it shouldn't be any other way.

Indeed, the "finished product" pleases Nelson, who calls "Teatro" "my best album yet," though he holds little hope that country radio will notice.

"You know, it seems to me that they're leaving out a lot of the really good country music," and yet "the good songs will be there, the good artists will hang in there," he says.

And while he says he doesn't write as often as he once did, Nelson says he now writes only when the urge or inspiration hits him. "I really don't have to (write) like I used to."

Indeed, fame as a singer has given him the luxury to write less, yet concentrate more on what he has written, Nelson said. And it shows, as but 4 of the 14 tracks on "Teatro" are new Nelson compositions, while 7 others were songs he wrote over 30 years ago.

As for his album with The Offenders, his band of old cronies (Johnny Bush, Johnny Gimble, Jimmy Day), Nelson says he had a great time recording with his pals. "This is the old band I used to play with (as a part of Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys), you know, years and years ago. We traveled together," Nelson says, and recorded some, too.

The album wasn't planned. "Jimmy Day was in the studio (Nelson's own Pedernales Studio in Spicewood, Texas) doing some instrumental stuff, and he had called Floyd Domino (piano), David Zettner (bass), Johnny Bush (drums) and Johnny Gimble (fiddle) to play with him," Nelson says.

"I just happened to be home and he asked me if I'd come in and sing a couple of things. I said 'sure.' It was so much fun we decided to do a lot more songs, so we just stayed in there and did song after song."

Loose and fun, the album has a freewheeling aspect to it that seldom appears on contemporary releases. Nelson and his merry band of buddies, it's obvious, had a blast. "It was fun to do it again," a smiling Nelson says. "It's good stuff. Old stuff."

Indeed, the album is about as different from "Teatro" as rain and snow.

Speaking of different, several completed albums yet to see a record store shelf, are that and more. Willie Nelson doing reggae? Yep. And a blues album? Not as much of a reach, but yep again. In fact, for much of his concert dates over the past two years he has incorporated several of the reggae tunes in his act. Most notably, Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and "Sittin' Here In Limbo."

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