Willie Nelson: you can hear the sound of Texas in his voice

Sometimes the emblem of a place eclipses the place itself. I remember first coming to Texas, driving through steel and glass ribbons of urban development in Dallas, and wondering where I had landed. I really didn't knowm I was in Texas until I found myself on some endless plain listening to Willie Nelson on the car radio singing:

My heroes have always been cowboys, And they still are, it seems. Sadly in search of, One step in back of, Themselves and their slow-moving dreams.m

Willie Nelson, the emblem of Texas, came to Boston the other night, with a giant Lone Star flag behind him, wearing his bandanna, pigtails, and sweet smile - his husky voice trailing in the air. For an hour and a half, you could feel the dry heat of a Texas night, all the wildness and untamed mystery of the place.

Nelson is currently crisscrossing the country on a tour. Judging from his performance here, there will be more of Texas in those cities where he sings than there usually is in Dallas.

It was a steamy evening in Boston, when Nelson and his five-piece band (six pieces counting him) took the stage. A plane circled overhead, dragging a welcome banner from the local country-music station. Willie Nelson fans don't need much priming, and he doesn't do any staging. He just wandered out, put on his guitar, and started singing.

''The night life ain't a good life, but it's my life,'' he sang, his rough baritone striding up the chord changes with that laconic style that has become his trademark. His sister Bobbie sat at the piano, waist-length silken hair falling under a black cowboy hat.

Nelson sang a nonstop string of melodies, his own and others. The nostalgia and melancholy of a Willie Nelson ballad like ''Sweet Memories'' crept up on you the way memories will. For someone who puts out his share of pointless trivia on records, Nelson's stage shows are remarkably packed with high-quality, memorable music. There was something earthy and mournful - and yet celebratory - about what he sang and the way he sang it. The low-end reverberation of his guitar and his voice took on a personality all their own.

A lot of what Nelson and his group do is rhythm and blues, country picking, strumming, and harmonica playing, amplified with the usual double banks of speakers one sees at these outdoor concerts. And this stuff sets a blistering pace at times.

Somehow, Nelson manages to project an affable, diffident persona in the midst of all the techno-amplification, as he sings about life on the low end, all full of anguish and anger. Most of his songs are about the working- class heroes that have replaced the myth of cowboys in his part of the world. ''Don't cross him, don't boss him,'' he sang of the cowboy who had lost his lady love and who shot another woman for touching the lady love's horse . . . quite justifiably, according to the song.

This stuff overpowered a capacity audience in this outdoor-concert arena in Boston. The surrounding buildings, with music lovers leaning out of windows and balconies, reverberated with the sound of his unpretentious, sweet voice. There were cheers, raised arms, and wild approval as he sang his trademark down-and-out-of-love material.

Toward the end of the concert, he segued into the songs from his ''Stardust Memories'' album. That is the record, you may recall, that Jimmy Carter listened to when he was feeling low; and it is in many ways the high point of Nelson's singing accomplishment. He took songs like ''Stardust'' and ''Blue Skies,'' ballads that have been appropriated by some of the legendary crooners, and put his own melancholy stamp on them. (Later he came out with an album called ''Over the Rainbow,'' which tried the same approach to different material and wound up maudlin and unconvincing.)

There was nothing unconvincing about ''Georgia,'' from the ''Stardust Memories'' album, as he sang it in Boston, and the crowd roared in recognition as he strode into the first few bars.

This last group of songs - from a different era and demographic backyard than the one Willie Nelson is generally associated with - highlighted the fact that he has been a strange and durable phenomenon on the music scene. He has been a country-and-western singer with a strong following among the rock and blues audiences. His appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners was apparent from the amalgamation of white-collar, blue-collar, and youthful sets that gathered to hear him the other night.

The only thing they had in common was Willie Nelson and the feeling that they all knew what Texas was reallym like.

Nelson will appear in Kansas City, Mo., tonight; Waterloo, Iowa, tomorrow night; Beaumont, Texas, on the 22nd; Fort Worth, Texas, on the 23rd; and Arlington, Texas, on the 24th. On Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, he will be in Atlantic City, N.J.

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