Willie Nelson turns 80 today. A transcendent figure, a vital part of America's musical DNA for nearly four decades, he's one of those elite American artists so recognizable they're easily identified by first or last name alone.
Musically and culturally, Mr. Nelson was a uniter and not a divider before that phrase existed. He gained fame in the '60s by writing hit songs for others. Musically ahead of his time, stardom eluded him until the 1970s, when, like his friend Waylon Jennings, he wrested control of his music from Nashville record producers, the essence of country's "Outlaw" movement. Hit singles including "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "On the Road Again" and "Always on My Mind" established his fame, as did best-selling duets with Jennings and other country stars.
Mr. Nelson revealed musical tastes far beyond country as he fearlessly explored other genres. His lifelong love of the Great American Songbook led to "Stardust," his now-classic 1978 album of pop standards. He and Julio Iglesias scored with the ballad "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." Over the decades he's recorded albums of pop, traditional country, alternative rock, folk, reggae, western swing and even a gutbucket jazz effort with Wynton Marsalis.
Willie Nelson at 80: A look back at his life and career
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Rich Kienzle looks back at the life and career of country music superstar Willie Nelson. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 4/30/2013)
His flair for merging music with social activism predates his annual Farm Aid concerts. When Charley Pride, country's first African-American singer, began touring in the mid-60s, Mr. Nelson defused tension onstage at one Texas show by playfully kissing him on the mouth. He became a force for generational healing in the '70s as conservative country fans and hippies found common ground in their love of his music. America's current re-evaluation of marijuana laws in some ways echoes Mr. Nelson's own long-held viewpoints.
Country singers were once expected to thrive and grow within limits, reflecting the music's niche audience and the industry's conservatism. That's in the past. Today's artists are free to pursue their creative visions any way they desire. For that, much of the credit goes to Willie Nelson. Entering his ninth decade, few American singers have done more to reveal the art of the possible.
Rich Kienzle blogs about music at http://communityvoices.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainment-living/get-rhythm. First Published April 30, 2013 4:00 AM