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Willie Nelson: The outlaw at 80

 

Todd Leopold

CNN News Wire

(CNN) -- Does the singer come first? Or the songwriter?

Let's start with the songs: "Crazy." "Hello Walls." "Funny How Time Slips Away." "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground." "On the Road Again."

Just the catalogue alone would qualify him for any number of musical halls of fame -- and, indeed, Willie Nelson is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Kennedy Center Honors. He has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association, the first it ever presented. They decided to name it for him.

Then there's the voice, that baritone as smooth as fine whiskey, capable of jaunty sing-alongs, angry despair, pensive melancholy. Amazingly, his delivery was once considered too unusual for Nashville, with a start-stop phrasing that skipped around the beat. Now it's as welcome as his other voice, the well-worn Martin N-20 acoustic guitar he calls "Trigger."

Add to that Willie Nelson the man.

He's the man who co-created Farm Aid, the annual festival that has raised more than $43 million to help farm families. (That got him into the Agricultural Hall of Fame.) He started BioWillie, which makes fuel out of soy and vegetable oils. He has a street named for him in Austin, Texas, his home since the early 1970s.

He's still at it, raising money for the victims of the West, Texas, explosion. West is not far from Abbott, where Nelson was born.

OK, Willie Nelson isn't without flaw. He's been busted for marijuana on more than one occasion. He hasn't always been faithful to his wives; his first one famously tied a passed-out Nelson in a bedsheet and beat him with a broom handle. He had a little tax problem with the IRS and put out a 1992 album called "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?" to pay his multimillion-dollar debts.

But who would want a flawless Willie Nelson?

On Tuesday, Willie Nelson turns 80. He'll be playing music, of course -- the Germain Arena in Estero, Florida, according to his website. What else would he do?

"I seem to be happier when I'm working," he told The New York Times in 1995. "I tend to get into trouble with too much time on my hands."

That's OK, Willie. We hope you never stop.

 

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