Big Willie Style

Willie Nelson doesn't have to continue performing—which makes his insistence to keep doing so all the more remarkable

He walks onto the stage, smiles kindly, waves sheepishly and, simply enough, dives right into his music.

Aside from a few awkward PA squeals, there's nothing remarkable about the start to Willie Nelson's set on this Fourth of July eve—well, nothing except the fact that this is yet another beginning to yet another set that Nelson, long after having paid his music industry dues, doesn't really have to be doing.

Guy's got nothing left to prove. His reputation has long been cemented as a country music icon, a songwriting legend and an American institution—any superlative you want, really. Still probably doesn't do him justice.

But here he is, again onstage, again performing the same songs he's been performing for the past 50 years, again to an audience willing to pay good, hard-earned cash to be here.

No big deal. Right.

See, on this night, no one is paying. On this night, Nelson's performing a free soft-opening show at Willie's Theater (yes, it's actually called that), housed inside Willie's Place (uh-huh), a truck stop that has taken up residence in Carl's Corner and aims to be the world's biggest biodiesel fuel stop. He's playing to a full 500-person auditorium of fans who've traveled long and far (at least, if the RVs parked across the street are any indication) and who've shown up early to see a show that, surely, they've seen before. And seeing how Nelson's showing no signs of slowing down—the rest of his summer and early fall schedule is booked with shows across the country—it's a show many of them will probably see again.

But, still, Nelson gives them an inspired hour-and-a-half-long set. He still brings in his famous friends to share this bill (his openers tonight: David Allan Coe, Ray Price and Merle Haggard, among others). He still wows the crowd with special guests during his own performance (on this night, it's Coe who's invited to sing along). And he still panders to his listeners' tastes, again offering up his greatest hits (surely, he has no yearning desire to again sing "On the Road Again") to a crowd that knows them all, word by word, note by note. And he does it all with a smile on his face.

Mostly, he does this because he can. Mostly, he does this because he's Willie freakin' Nelson. And that's plenty reason enough.

It's the same reason he's smacking his name all over this truck stop on Interstate 35E, an hour south of Dallas, just north of the I-35 split. It's the same reason he's bankrolled the place's efforts to become the largest biodiesel fuel stop in the country. It's the same reason he hasn't stopped making new music, even after turning 75 in April.

Why? Because Willie just wants to. He truly seems to enjoy it. And you've really gotta respect the hell out of that. He could spend the rest of his days curled up on a couch somewhere, smoking joint after joint, watching his own highlight reels and reveling in his own ability to endear himself to the American public for so many years (Internal Revenue Service incursions and terrible acting roles be damned).

But even now, performing live, despite his age, he still shows up his band, which he fills with friends and family. It's the same show it's always been, really, a sort of Prairie Home Companion for the less literary. And he performs it the same way he always did; the only differences: the potbelly behind his acoustic is a little bigger, the hands in front a little older. Atop his head is the same bandanna and cowboy hat combination that crowns him king of the working man.

Really, talk of biodiesel fuel aside, this show could be taking place in 1978. Willie's not showing his age; if anything, he harks back to another one. The crowd is filled with blue-hairs who are seemingly transported too. Just in front of the stage, a woman no younger than 60 stands alone among her seated peers, dancing her heart out, doing all she can to win Willie's gaze. When he repays her effort with the toss of a sweat-filled Lone Star flag bandanna, she swoons like a teenager at an Elvis show.

It's surreal.

But it makes sense: Nelson, and to a lesser extent, Haggard and Price, might as well be the last of the living Beatles—well, at least, so far as this crowd is concerned. They're the remaining staples of a bygone country music era, where great songwriting about heartaches and heartbreaks reigned supreme; an era surely long forgotten in the corporate Nashville offices, where taste has long since degraded from this perfect purity and into the realm of overproduced, over-riffed tracks about tractors being sexy and chrome being the greatest color on earth (like Kenny Chesney's and Trace Adkins' respective outputs). By continuing to perform—and perform well—Nelson and his cohort continually remind audiences of that slowly fading, much adored time, back when country music was, well, made by actual rural citizens, instead of deluded pop stars looking to break into a new market (like Jessica Simpson and Kid Rock).

No wonder, then, that Nelson's audience is so big on this night. The crowd spills into the truck stop's concession area, with people crammed up by the entrance to Willie's Theater, just hoping to catch a glimpse of the man in action. The parking lot is filled with people in lawn chairs glancing about, just hoping to soak up the atmosphere. In fact, the 134-person population of Carl's Corner makes up just a small percentage of the people here on the grounds.

You know, they could've gone to see fireworks instead. Maybe hit up a barbecue at a friend's place. Didn't have to be here.

But they were. And all Willie offered was a smile, a wave and his music.

Hell, that's all he ever has to do.

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