NASHVILLE, Tenn. — America loves its outlaws, and few are as admired and lionized as Willie Nelson.
As the enduring American icon’s 80th birthday has approached, he’s been honored with lifetime achievement awards, serenaded at special performances and saluted by musicians from every genre of music. And Nelson has taken it all in with a bemused smile.
“It’s a nice thing to do for someone on their birthday and I appreciate it,” Nelson said in a recent interview aboard his bus. “Usually I like to forget my birthdays as much as possible.”
The hubbub is as much about celebrating Nelson as it has been celebrating with Nelson.
The singer whose birthday is today or Tuesday – Nelson says April 29, the state of Texas claims April 30 – occupies a unique space in America’s cultural memory. A walking bag of contradictions, he wears his hair long in braids and has a penchant for pot smoking, yet remains arguably conservative country music’s greatest songwriter. He’s accepted by left and right, black and white and is instantly recognizable to a majority of Americans.
His image has grown to represent more than the notes he’s played or lyrics he’s written. Like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra, he’s become a figurehead for a uniquely American way of thinking. He represents the outlaw and the maverick. If Elvis was all about the pelvis and the sexual revolution, Nelson is American independence: the raised middle finger tossed with a twinkle in the eye.
Nelson didn’t set out to be a folk hero, as Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum calls him. He spends something like 200 days on the road still, a pace that challenges men a quarter his age.
In a series of interviews over the last year, Nelson explained he just came to Nashville wanting someone to buy his songs. That young man never imagined he’d be on the road for more than 50 years. His first real songwriting job paid $50 a week.
Nelson thinks that young man wouldn’t know what to make of the spectacle he’s become.
“He’d probably wonder what’s that old man doing out there,” Nelson said with a chuckle. “He’s got a house. He’s not homeless. Why don’t he go home?”
The truth is Nelson is home as he sits at the pleasantly cluttered kitchen table of his bus. With its portrait of an American Indian on the side and its reputation for mellow encounters, the bus is as much a part of Nelson’s mythos as his braids and battered old guitar.
“I’ve lived in this house longer than I’ve lived in any of the others, all combined,” Nelson said. “I feel at home here. It moves around. I have a mobile home. That’s about the size of it, and I enjoy it.”