At 88 years old, Willie Nelson is still going strong… and music fans around the world still can’t get enough.
Videos by American Songwriter
A fixture of pop culture’s landscape since he helped lay the foundation of modern country music in the late 1950s—penning hits for the likes of Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Faron Young, and more—Nelson has become a “living legend” of sorts. Then, moving to Texas after becoming disillusioned with the Nashville scene in the early ‘70s, he forged a style and sound that remains beloved by folks from all walks of life—hippies, hillbillies, blue collars, and white collars, all alike… and now, you can even add “digital-age Zoomers” to that list of admirers.
That’s because Nelson’s work has a certain timeless quality that’s continued to resonate through all these years. Still touring, he frequently sells out multi-thousand-seater venues, often holding his own as the lone guitarist on stage (in fact, the only other harmony instrument in the group is usually piano, which is played by his 90-year-old sister, Bobbie Nelson). Beyond that, his records still do well too—with 5.6 million monthly listeners, his top tracks alone have accumulated hundreds of millions of streams… and that’s not even counting all the folks who listen to his songs on old CDs, vinyl records, and downloaded tracks from the pre-streaming days.
All this combined, it’s clear that there’s something about Willie Nelson that just makes him loveable… and maybe one of the biggest factors playing into that is his songs themselves.
Tunes like “Always On My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” both capture a sense of love, passion, loss, and longing that, in a way, speaks to the currents of American culture at large. With unabashed candidness and sentimentality, Nelson embraces the image of the rugged country man while conveying an emotional and powerful sense of humanity. To that end, the dual nuance and simplicity of the tunes make them nothing short of works of brilliance.
On the flip side, songs like “On The Road Again” or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” accomplish the same feat, but from an entirely different angle. Embracing the rowdy, honky-tonkin’ tradition of his Texas roots, his more upbeat tunes have an air of inimitable humor, while still carrying a deeper meaning—a celebration of sorts of the culture from which he hails.
And while Nelson is obviously a world-class songwriter, when he covers someone else’s tune, he can transform it into a wholly new entity, straddling the context of the original composition and his own canon of tune-smithing (as demonstrated by “Mamas,” “Blue Eyes” and “Always On My Mind”). Another one of his most beloved cuts is his version of “Rainbow Connection,” which came about as a tribute to Nelson’s own daughter, Amy.
Amy Nelson isn’t the only Nelson kid in the public eye, however—in fact, his sons, Lukas and Micah, are often the first to come to mind when thinking about Nelson’s grand musical family (in part thanks to their appearances at the majority of Nelson’s high-level shows). Lukas, 32, has made waves in Americana circles as the frontman and songwriter for Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real; Micah, 31, has made a name for himself as a proprietor of psych-y, alt-country with his project, Particle Kid. Both boys have joined their dad on stage numerous times over the years, mostly filling in the guitar parts with blazing solos and tasteful rhythm playing.
With his dynasty of talented kin lined up and ready to carry the torch onward, it’s clear that Nelson’s legacy will continue to reverberate for years and years to come… but that’s not slowing him down while he’s still here. Playing shows and still recording new records, he hasn’t stopped pursuing his craft… and he hasn’t stopped his legendary use of cannabis either (though he did quit smoking in 2019).
“Willie does what he wants when he wants regarding smoking—there are numerous ways of consumption, he has not given up cannabis,” his publicist, Elaine Schock, told USA Today. In the same article, Nelson is quoted talking about how marijuana helped save his life: “I wouldn’t have lived 85 years if I’d have kept drinking and smoking like I was when I was 30, 40 years old. I think that weed kept me from wanting to kill people. And probably kept a lot of people from wanting to kill me, too—out there drunk, running around.”
And who knows—with his smoking days behind him and more musical projects ahead, Nelson could have a whole lot more time to continue growing his already massive legacy. At 95, Tony Bennett is still a household name and recently earned 6 Grammy nominations for his latest record with Lady Gaga.
What’s definitely clear, though, is that there’s only one Willie Nelson, and no matter what, he will be a treasured icon of American music forever.
Read more coverage on Willie Nelson HERE and watch him and his sons perform “If I Die When I’m High, I’ll Be Halfway To Heaven” below at Farm Aid 2021 below: