It might seem that musician Willie Nelson is known to nearly everyone even vaguely acquainted with popular culture today. Shot through with age and almost supernally amiable, his face — and his beard and his headband — have become visual shorthand for a man who stands up to The Man, tirelessly performing decades’ worth of country music classics on a battered guitar named Trigger as he soldiers onward, endlessly touring the world.
Willie Hugh Nelson has lived several lives in the years afforded to him: football halfback, polka guitarist, songwriter, actor and “outlaw country” musician. He marks his 56th year as a musician, and his appearance at the Canyon with his group Willie Nelson and Family will include sons Lukas Nelson on guitar and Michael Nelson on percussion, and Nelson’s sister Bobbie on piano. Kevin Smith, formerly Dwight Yoakam’s bassist, takes over for longtime Family bass player Dan “Bee” Spears, who passed away in Nashville in December after 43 years with the Family. Some of Nelson’s hits you may hear during the performance include “Whiskey River,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” “Always on My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
This is the music that has seen Nelson through some of the most difficult struggles of his many incarnations. A 1990 battle with the IRS over back taxes resulted in the 1992 double album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? Nelson’s presence — his public face — lends credibility to his fight to legalize marijuana and to popularize alternative fuel sources with his trademark Willie Nelson Biodiesel, which has fueled his tour bus and other vehicles since 2005.
And yet it’s not strictly about the music when so many things that spring from it make Nelson’s life remarkable. It’s more like a naturally occurring organism, this life that he’s made for himself. In its way, it exists as one of the most conceptually difficult and courageous things an artist can do for his art — to be about something. Willie Nelson’s art can be summarized with one word: perception.
See Willie Nelson in silhouette and there are the braids, the headband, the beard. He’s even recognizable now in shadow because the way that he is perceived has become so deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Farm Aid, the IRS, marijuana legalization — by championing the outlaw, by embracing the struggle of what ultimately emerges as the common man, the lives of the subjects of his songs hinge on perception. The lives of the drinker, the sentimentalist, the lover — all easily identifiable archetypes that serve as doors to perception that regularly open and close throughout songs which span more than 60 of his studio albums and countless concerts.
How do you perceive country music? How do you perceive Texas? How do you perceive an aging man? When you look at the phenomenon that is Willie Nelson, what are you really seeing?
Icon, renegade, singer, father, psychonaut — these are all ways in which Nelson has been perceived over almost six decades of music-making and activism. It’s not surprising that he recently co-wrote a book titled The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart (Gotham Books). “I don’t know if the things I write here will change your life,” Nelson admits, “But they sure changed mine.” When you’re pushing your eighth decade of life, matters of serenity become extortionately crucial, and admittedly, even serenity is a matter of perception.
So which Willie Nelson will you see? He’s more than just the music he makes. It’s how he appears to you — and for you — as you see him up there on stage. It’s about how you bring him into your life as he stirs your emotions using little more than that battered six-string guitar and his years spent immersed in the lives and the acoustics of countless rooms different from the one you are in now.
Willie Nelson will perform at the Canyon on Monday, July 16, 9 p.m. Tickets are $65 and $89. For more information, visit www.canyonclub.net.