Willie Nelson seems to be living by the wise words of Mark Twain: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” The country music legend, who turns 80 on Apr. 30, released Let’s Face the Music and Dance last Tuesday. The album serves as a collection of new studio performances by Willie Nelson and Family—his established background ensemble—and is only the first of many releases and events set to celebrate the singer’s noteworthy birthday.
Another significant celebration coinciding with the album release is over forty years of collaboration with Family. Although the members have evolved over the past four decades, the band is currently composed of Nelson’s piano-playing sister Bobbie, percussionist and son Micah, drummers Billy and Paul English, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, bassist Kevin Smith and organist Jim “Moose” Brown. An assortment of contributions on different tracks adds some variety to the album, although Nelson and his guitar “Trigger” are featured on every song.
On Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Nelson performs a wide collection of rock, pop, jazz, blues and country classics from the 1930s through the 1950s. Although he covers songwriters including Irving Berlin, Carl Perkins and Django Reinhardt, Nelson infuses every melody with the unique combination of elegance, grit, honesty and undeniable country twang that has made him such a tremendous force within the music industry. Nelson also improves on his own older hits, recreating a superb arrangement of the 1989 tune, “Is the Better Part Over.”
Above all else, the most important thing to note when analyzing Nelson’s new album is the incredible timelessness behind the pop-country patriarch. The singer’s name has been and continues to be synonymous with the success and resilience of the American music scene. In fact, Willie Nelson is not only timeless, he is still improving. As if to drive this point home, his 2012 album Heroes was his most successful album on the Billboard Top 20 since his 1982 hit “Always On My Mind.”
A few of the many reasons behind Nelson’s endurance are his endeavors outside of music. His carefree and all-revealing memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die—Musings from the Road, rose to the top of the 2012 The New York Times bestselling non-fiction list. He has also ventured into an assortment of charity work, cofounding a concert series to raise money for family farmers and petitioning against animal cruelty and slaughterhouses.
Another explanation for Nelson’s continued success is the simple fact that his energy, talent and vocals are as strong as ever. His tours are year-round and are known for lasting hours on end.
Finally, the main justification behind a six decade-long career is Nelson’s inimitable, engaging and outspoken personality. Known for his frank support for pot legalization and his love of partying, Nelson is a favorite among drunk, rowdy, country-loving crowds. As he said, “My doctor tells me I should start slowing it down – but there are more old drunks than there are old doctors so let’s all have another round.”
Together, these factors are only a glimpse into the everlasting legacy that is Willie Nelson. With over 60 albums, seven Grammy Awards and an AMA Lifetime Achievement Award to his name, it is safe to say that the Texas-born singer, guitarist, songwriter, producer, writer, actor and activist is an icon of the current generation—and multiple past generations, too.
While it is safe to say that Nelson’s particular style of music has retained a consistently strong following over the years, one thing that has altered over the course of the artist’s career is the role and popularity of country music. Loved for its American origins, distinctive sound and the unique stories it tells, the genre of country music has experienced periods of much higher regard than it does currently. Today, in a time when country music often remains in the shadows of more trendy pop, hip-hop and rap tunes, Nelson retains an extensive and devoted fan base. Although it is easy for laid-back, “hillbilly” artists to get out-shined by the personalities of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, Nelson’s versatility and legendary personality allow him to remain a prominent force in the current music scene. This could be seen as a commentary on the industry itself. Trends come and go, but classic acts are termed ‘classic’ for a reason.
It is impossible to say what the future may hold for this talented octogenarian, but Willie Nelson seems to be nowhere near the end of his reign as a leading symbol for country music lovers everywhere.