(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Willie Nelson will turn 79 on April 30, and the man never fails to amaze. Just when you think he’s painted himself into a musical dead end, here he comes zipping around the corner riding a fresh, spirited horse.
He’s been writing and recording music for six decades now, and I frankly don’t know how he manages to stay relatively fresh and relevant. But he does.
Just as he did with his two Atlantic albums (Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages) that seemed to come from nowhere and that creatively turned around his solo recording career that had fizzled out in Nashville, so he did with the album that his label Columbia initially rejected. Red Headed Stranger went on to become his career-defining work. And then there was Stardust, which seemed sheer folly. An aging country star records jazz and pop music classics? It became a multi-platinum seller.
No bad for a man who once turned his back on Nashville and moved to Texas to raise pigs. Then he discovered Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters and walked through that doorway into a whole new world.
His new album, Heroes, is being released May 15 and samples and leaks from it are appearing many places. I’ve been living with a CD copy for several days and am finding portions of it to be deeply satisfying. For the music lover in me as well as for the Willie fan in there.
Maybe his songwriting pen isn’t as frenetic as it once was, but he still gets his writing licks in. And maybe his voice isn’t as strong as it once was, but he still tells the story — and sells the story. He’s still adding the occasional new original song, as well as originals from other writers and recycled older material. The thing is, I think his ear for a good song is as acute as it has ever been.
A few songs in particular here stand out to me. The two that have drawn the most attention are, understandably, two high-profile numbers. “The Scientist,” the Coldplay song became a celebrated TV commercial for Chipotle during the Super Bowl. It champions sustainable farming, as Nelson has done with the Farm Aid campaign. Willie had recorded it as a single last year, but it was the TV exposure that spread it far and wide.
Then there is a new marijuana song. It’s no secret to anyone that Willie is a devotee of weed. He’s been busted enough times. Here he co-wrote a fairly high-spirited but low-key song called “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” The message is pretty simple. Willie performs it here with Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and rapper Snoop Dogg. I think I can sniff a Willie-Snoop remix and single release coming up. And it could be billed as the rapper and the kindly, benign grandfather.
Throwing himself fully into the spirit, Snoop is releasing a book of his lyrics printed on rolling papers so his songs can be smoked.
I think, once you strip away all the trappings around Willie’s long career, the central lesson is this: He did not achieve any real success until he decided he didn’t give a damn — about what anybody thought about him, about what Nashville thought about him or what anybody else in the music business thought about him. He would either succeed, or he would fail. Either way, it would be on his own terms. He determined to try it his own way, the results be damned. And you know what? It worked, most of the time. It set him free.