The unstoppable Willie Nelson | Bleader

The unstoppable Willie Nelson



Willie Nelson
  • Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson has long since established himself as a living embodiment of some of the best things about American culture, and few popular artists of his age and experience—he turns 79 on April 30—have remained as prolific and inspired for so long. Road dog that he is, Nelson rolls through west-suburban Aurora for performances tonight and tomorrow at the Paramount Theater, and on May 15 he'll release his second album in six months.

In November Nelson put out Remember Me, Vol. 1 (R&J), a great covers collection that includes some of his favorite country songs (as well as a Rosemary Clooney pop hit from 1954), most from the golden era of honky-tonk in the 50s. Willie doesn't try to out-George Jones the great George Jones on a cover of "Why Baby Why" or match the comic darkness of Johnny Cash on "Sunday Morning Coming Down," but he has such a distinctive voice that he makes all 14 songs thoroughly his own—no mean feat considering how closely songs get linked to the performer who scored a hit with them. Among the other singers he covers are Ernest Tubb, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Haggard, Webb Pierce, Vern Gosdin, and Bob Wills. For most artists, covers collections are throwaways, but Nelson has used them as statements—Remember Me, Vol. 1 doesn't equal Stardust, his album of tunes from the Great American Songbook, but he brings something new to the material and reveals something about himself.

The Nelson record coming in May is called Heroes (Legacy), and it's a mixed bag that aims for pop crossover, with high-profile cameos from Haggard, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, and Jamey Johnson, among others. A new song, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," features fellow bud proponent Snoop Dogg. He covers a Tom Waits number ("Come On Up to the House") as well as one by, um, Coldplay ("The Scientist," which was originally recorded for a Chipotle video celebrating the company's embrace of sustainability). It sounds like a recipe for a terrible album, but the results are actually pretty good. Below you can hear a cover of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe," which also features vocals from Nelson's son Lukas, who sounds amazingly like a younger version of his father (he appears on a bunch of the songs).

Willie Nelson (featuring Lukas Nelson), "Just Breathe"

photo: David McClister