Willie Nelson watched snow fall from his bus two weeks ago in Michigan, part of a tour that would take him to Madison, Cedar Rapids, down to Nashville and then back to Austin for Sunday’s show at the Backyard. From there he is on to Florida, Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Georgia, Indiana, back to Michigan, Iowa, South Dakota, Atlantic City, New York, Toronto and a handful of other shows in Canada and back down to Fort Worth for his annual Fourth of July Picnic at Billy Bob’s. And that’s only a couple months of a schedule that already extends through September.
Nelson, who turns 80 on Tuesday, is where he wants to be.
“We take a few days off every now and then to let everybody rest up a little, but most of us, after we’ve been off a while we’re ready to go back,” he said.
Willie joked about his schedule. “I thought I’d speed up. I figure I’d start hurrying up so I make sure I get everything done,” he said. “Seriously, I’m still rockin’ along, doing it one day at a time. We’re still drawing good crowds and still enjoy playing.”
While on his endless tour, Nelson finds days off to record and release new music at twice the pace of people half, or even a quarter his age. The latest, out last week, is “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” a collection of standards, recorded in Austin with the Family Band and producer Buddy Cannon. Aside from a rerecording of his song “Is The Better Part Over” (something he did on his last album, “Heroes,” with song “A Horse Called Music”), the record finds the icon offering up his takes on works by Irving Berlin, Carl Perkins, Django Reinhardt and others.
Nelson compared the album to his much-loved 1978 album “Stardust.” “Sister Bobbie and I have been playing all these songs for years,” he said. “We just started playing things that we really liked to play.”
The exception was the title track, by Irving Berlin, which Nelson said he had not sung before and was suggested by a friend. He admired versions by Diana Krall and Frank Sinatra and thought it was something he wanted to try. He also liked what he called the positive message of the song. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, but what can you do about it except face the music and dance?” he said.
Nelson said it was a difficult song for him to record. “The chord structures, the arrangement, just everything about it,” he said. “It’s an Irving Berlin classic. I don’t know what he was smoking when he wrote it, but I’d like to have an ounce of it.”
The new album also includes a cover of “Nuages,” by jazz guitarist Reinhardt, who Nelson said is “the greatest guitar player ever.” He was first turned on to Django via fiddler Johnny Gimble (who played with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Nelson, Ray Price and others) and then again by a taxi driver in either France or Germany, who introduced Nelson to Reinhardt’s later work with an electric guitar, which inspires the version heard on “Let’s Face the Music.”
Nelson offered heaps of praise for the guitarist: “The sound that he gets from the guitar; the notes that he plays, the fact that he was in a fire where his left hand was burned so badly that he only had the two fingers and his thumb that he played with. He also had Stéphane Grapelli, the fantastic fiddle or violin player that played with him, and the Hot Club Band, he was surrounded and surrounded himself with great musicians.”
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” doesn’t feature the cast of guest stars that appeared on the last album (Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow and others), though Nelson has another duets album in the works for later this year with female vocalists including Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Barbra Streisand.
Nelson said that recording a song with Streisand is something he’s been wanting to do for the past 20 years. “I guess she heard about it,” he said “She had a song written, and she went in the studio and recorded it with her great band and left me a vocal track, so now we’ve got a new song.”
Nelson and Streisand weren’t in the studio at the same time, but he recalled meeting the singer and actress on the set of the 1976 film “A Star is Born.” “She liked my singing, I liked hers, so we sang together for a while. In fact, she came on the bus and I sang her some songs for a couple hours.”
As for his big birthday, Nelson, predictably, isn’t making as big a deal out of it as the rest of the world. “Honestly I’m trying not to think about it that much; as far as I’m concerned it’s just another day,” he said. “I have a show on the 28th at the Backyard, with me and Paula, Luke and Micah and all the kids, that will be fun, I’m looking forward to that. That’ll probably be our family get-together on that day.”
What: Show with Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, Paula Nelson Band and Folk Uke, benefiting the volunteer fire department of West. Cash and gift cards will be collected.
When: Doors at 5 p.m., show at 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Backyard, 13801 Bee Cave Parkway, Bee Cave
The concert will air live on SiriusXM’s Willie’s Roadhouse channel beginning at 8 p.m. It’ll also be rebroadcast Tuesday — the day Nelson turns 80 — at 7 p.m.
Happy birthday, Willie
We’ve always celebrated Willie, and we are again for his 80th. At www.austin360.com/willie, check out:
• Our Happy Birthday, Willie, video card, featuring faces famous and not. And our birthday photo gallery (it’s not too late to add yours).
• A Willie song list.
• Tons of past stories on the Family, Sister Bobbie, Willie and Darrel Royal, shows, the statue and more.