On the road again - and still a superstar

Willie Nelson is criss-crossing the country this summer, red bandanna and all

Anyone who has ever walked through a pawnshop has seen better-looking acoustic guitars than the one that hung around Willie Nelson's neck at his April 23 concert at a nightclub called the Moon. The instrument looked as though it had taken a direct hit from a small-bore shotgun.

But the notes that emerged were studio-perfect; Nelson is known for his sublimely adenoidal voice and catchy pop-country lyrics, but he is also one of the most inventive guitarists on stage today.

And in the musical world of pampered slowpokes, Willie takes the stage when he says he will.

A good-sized crowd milled around in front of the Moon that Wednesday night, enjoying the sweet night air, when someone from the club stuck his head out the door and shouted, "Y'all get on in! Willie's starting in five minutes and finishing at 9:45 - sharp!"

Five minutes later, Willie walked onstage, trademark grin flashing under a black cowboy hat. By the second song, he had hurled the hat into the crowd and donned a red bandanna, an article of clothing that has come and gone in American pop culture, still used by working people everywhere to mop their sweaty brows.

In his Rambo phase, Sylvester Stallone sported a bandanna, as did Bruce Springsteen when "Born in the U. S. A." was on the charts. But Willie still wears his, and though from time to time he tossed the bandanna of the moment into the crowd before grabbing another one, throughout he looked less like a country-music star and more like the guy who has come to your house to jump-start a balky air conditioner, or patch a leaky roof.

As he played, Willie picked out different audience members and wiggled his fingers at them like a fond grandpa.

He turned 70 on April 30; a tribute concert featuring him along with Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Shania Twain, Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, and other guests was taped in New York recently and will air May 26 on the USA Network.

On the other hand, Willie's grin is so cherubic that it's not hard to imagine what he looks like in his baby pictures. The truth is, as long as he continues to perform, Willie Nelson will occupy a permanent position between that of precocious youth and honored veteran.

Although he first stepped on stage at age 4 and began composing songs when he was 7, his earliest commercial success was as a tunesmith writing for stars like Patsy Cline and Faron Young. As Adam Gopnik observes in a recent essay in The New Yorker, Willie didn't become known as a performer until middle age and thus never had to fight to hang on to his fading youth, a struggle that more pop stars have lost than won.

That doesn't mean Willie's road has been an easy one. His domestic battles are legendary; one story has him coming home drunk and being sewn up in the bedsheets by an angry wife. His run-ins with the law are a matter of record, as is his fight with the IRS over unpaid taxes.

But just as he strikes the observer as neither young nor old, Willie seems neither proud nor ashamed of his offenses. He doesn't hide them: when asked, he tells the stories on himself and then shrugs as if to say, well, we all have a past, don't we?

And while the past may be a nice place to visit, who wants to live there? As soon as Willie finished a pop classic like "Blue Skies" or "Funny How Time Slips Away," he slipped into a blues or swing tune or a flamenco-tinged ballad, often by another songwriter.

If Willie swallowed a line now and then or sang a note off-key, well, nobody's perfect. (Besides, that's what he has been doing from the very beginning, as evidenced by the new CD "Crazy: The Demo Sessions," recorded in the 1960s but just released this year.)

Throughout, there were constant reminders of his guitar skills as he toyed with tempos and ringing-chord changes that sounded more like the gypsy riffs of Django Reinhardt than American country.

Then, at 9:46 p.m., Willie thanked everyone for coming, asked "Y'all got time for a couple more?" and concluded with a medley of up-tempo spirituals.

Willie Nelson is a one-man Mount Rushmore of American music, a craggy-faced superstar who stays that way by acting like the guy you called because you need some help around the house.

Willie will be crisscrossing the country playing mostly small venues like the Moon, before winding up in Saratoga, Calif., on Oct. 1.

It's a grueling schedule for a septuagenarian. But for a working man who still has to make his way through a lot of bandannas, it's what you have to do to get the job done.

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