Nelson still 'Live and Kickin'

By GARY GRAFF, United Press International  |  July 7, 2003 at 3:00 PM
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Willie Nelson is known throughout the music industry as someone who throws a good party -- sometimes on his tour bus, sometimes with his Old Whiskey River brew, annualy at his Fourth of July Picnic concert in his native Texas.

But this year people have been throwing the party -- or parties -- for Nelson, to commemorate the legendary singer, songwriter and musician's 70th birthday. And he's been enjoying every minute of it.

"Yeah, I'm having a good year. I can't complain," Nelson -- who turned 70 on April 30 -- says by telephone from his tour bus, which is rolling through Vermont at the moment. "Fortunately, my short-term memory keeps me from remembering too far but, but I know we've had some good years and we had some that weren't that great.

"This one is a real good one, though. Everyone is just kinda rolling with it."

Looking back, Nelson -- who was raised by his grandparents in Abbott, Texas, and started his career by playing guitar in local polka bands -- says he would have been happy with modest artistic achievements. "I'm more of a band guy," explains Nelson, who contemplated a career in law at one point. "I played guitar in several Western swing bands and had more fun than anything. I would've been happy to just keep doing that."

Instead Nelson became a songwriter -- penning "Crazy" for Patsy Cline and "Pretty Paper" for Roy Orbison -- and an artist unto himself. He created standards with songs such as "On the Road Again" and "Always on My Mind," and he joined Waylon Jennings in starting the "outlaw" movement of insurgent country artists who didn't want to conform to Nashville's confining protocols.

In fact, Nelson is far from strictly a country artist. Blues, jazz, folk and pop all course through his music, and his duet partners, from Julio Iglesias to Bob Dylan and Ray Charles to Bonnie Raitt, reflect the creative range he's achieved.

That breadth was duly celebrated at Nelson's favorite 70th birthday event, the all-star "Willie Nelson & Friends: Live & Kickin' " held April 9 in New York City and used for a subsequent TV special and album. Nelson performed with Charles, Prince, Shania Twain, Norah Jones, ZZ Top, Paul Simon and others, and he remains touched by all of their participation.

"I know Ray Charles had played in Switzerland the night before; he got up at seven in the morning and flew to New York," says Nelson, who enjoyed a No. 1 country hit this year with "Beer For My Horses," a duet with Toby Keith that's included on "Live & Kickin'". "Leon (Russell) flew in from Nashville. Eric Clapton from London. Ray Price had been sick, but he got up and caught a plane.

"That has to be one of the highlights of my life. I think we all appreciate each other's music and we're all each other's fans. It was hard to beat."

The Nelson birthday celebration has also included the re-release of numerous Nelson titles by his previous record companies, plus some new best-of collections. He and Price -- for whom Nelson once played bass -- recently released "Run That By Me One More Time," their first joint album since "San Antonio Rose" in 1980.

Nelson's next big get-together this year will be the annual Farm Aid concert, slated for Sept. 7 in Columbus, Ohio. Farm Aid co-founders Young and John Mellencamp will be joined by Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, Brooks & Dunn and others. Meanwhile, Nelson is eyeballing a movie project -- a Western titled "Blood Diamonds" with Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Fairchild -- as well as a new studio album that will feature duets with Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and Nelson's daughter Paula.

From the sounds of things, there may be enough work for another 70 years -- a notion that makes Nelson chuckle.

"I've been pretty fortunate," he says. "The last 70 years have been really outstanding. I can only look forward and be grateful for how ever many more years I get."

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