Willie Nelson: A 74-year-old Superman

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11908290392438.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119082916025575.jpg’, ‘Photos by Nels Akerlund’, ‘Country music legend Willie Nelson performs at a charity concert in Peru, Ill. (top photo). Proceeds from the concert will go toward building a playground for a local school. Below, a young girl sends a warm message to Willie, who was issued a widely-publicized $16.7 million bill for back taxes. A diehard Willie fan (above photo) displays a portrait of the country music legend.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11908291932436.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11908292652439.jpg’, ‘Photo by Nels Akerlund’, ‘Willie Nelson at Farm Aid in New York City.‘);

“Too many pain pills, too much pot, trying to be something that I’m not…Superman.”

These are the lyrics to Willie Nelson’s 2005 song “Superman.” For a 74-year-old country music legend, Willie is more akin to a Superman than he is to an old man.

A month ago, I was not a fan of Willie Nelson. Since that time, I have been to two Willie concerts: the first was Farm Aid in New York City, and the second was a small charity concert in Peru, Ill.

Mary Noonan, owner of Lou’s LaGrotto restaurant and bar in Peru, was the mastermind behind this concert. Mary has founded Concerts for a Cause, an organization that donates a portion of the proceeds from every show to a local organization or person in need. After three years of petitioning Willie Nelson to come and perform, he finally agreed. With more than 5,000 tickets sold, this year’s proceeds will go to build a playground for a local school.

The crowd in Peru was peppered with young and old alike, and erupted with fervor when Willie’s famous bio-fueled bus pulled up alongside the stage. Willie took the mic at 8:30 p.m., and enthusiastically played 37 classic songs—all the while, the crowd was on their feet, finally chanting him on to several encores. Since these events, my iTunes music library has been expanded to welcome the textured vocals of Willie and the many diverse artists with whom he has collaborated. I can honestly say I have become a country music fan (just don’t tell anyone).

Born Willie Hugh Nelson in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, Nelson’s childhood was surrounded with music: gospel songs from his grandparents who raised him, and African-American and Mexican-American music from the laborers in the cotton fields where he worked. With such diverse influences, Nelson’s first single was released when he was 24 years old.

Since that release, his career has mimicked a Who’s Who in American culture, and he has lived anything but a dull life. He has appeared in 17 movies, was issued a widely-publicized $16.7 million bill for back taxes by the IRS (paid in three short years by his devoted friends and fans), performed with everyone from Waylon Jennings to U2, has dozens of albums to his credit, and has worked for 22 years to help family farmers stay on their land through his Farm Aid concerts.

Willie is famous for many things, but two of them are his long (usually braided) hair, and his sidekick “Trigger.” Trigger is the 1969 Martin guitar that Willie plays at all of his concerts, and was purchased sight unseen from a dealer in Nashville. Over the past three decades, holes have been worn into the guitar, and it has been signed by more than 100 of Nelson’s friends. It is rumored that when the guitar finally wears out, Willie will retire from the music business altogether. Let’s hope that day is nowhere in sight, because I would love to hear more from this 74-year-old Superman.

from the Sept. 26 – Oct. 2, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!