The Genius and Mystery of Willie Nelson

Unlike fellow giants like Williams, Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton, who have plenty of obvious imitators, no one sounds like Nelson. He’s an uncanny vocal phraser: “The three masters of rubato in our age are Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson,” said the late producer Jerry Wexler. “The art of gliding over the meter and extending it until you think they’re going to miss the next actual musical demarcation – but they always arrive there, at bar one. It’s some kind of musical miracle.”

In a time when America is more divided than ever, Nelson could be the one thing that everybody agrees on. “The Hells Angels love him, and so do grandmothers,” says Raphael. But in private, he can seem introverted and given to long silences. He will often describe his life in brief, purely factual terms, saying things like, “Oh, why does a guy write? I don’t know. You get an idea, and you sit down, and you write it.” Over the course of 30 interviews with his friends, family and band members, a lot of the same words come up – generous, charismatic, loyal and, as Keith Richards has said, “a bit of a mystery.” “He’s really good at throwing out a one-liner that will get you off of what you’re talking about,” says Shooter Jennings, who has known Nelson since he was a kid tagging along on the Highwaymen tours with his father, Waylon. “You’re like, ‘Fuck, Willie, answer the question!’ There’s a lot of exterior there. That’s why you’ll never quite fully get that picture.”

“You never get to know him like you should, but you know there’s more there than what you’re seeing,” says Loretta Lynn. “I know there’s more there because of how he writes. He can’t fool me!”

“He’s a hard man to know,” Johnny Cash wrote in 1997. “He keeps his inner thoughts for himself and his songs. He just doesn’t talk much at all, in fact. When he does, what he says is usually very perceptive and precise. . . . He has a beautiful sense of irony and a true appreciation for the absurd. I really like him.”

Patrick Doyle, in Rolling Stone, on the story of a music legend.

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Photo: thomashawk, Flickr