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60 Years of Recordings, and Willie Nelson Says He's Still Going Strong

Country music's favorite outlaw released 69th studio album, is on tour through November

In “Come on Time,” Willie Nelson sings with both defiance and resignation about the futile race against the clock.

Time, you're not fooling me

You're something I can't kill

You're flying like a mighty wind

You're never standing still

And neither is country's favorite outlaw.

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Nelson, who turned 86 in April, is no closer to hanging up his spurs than he was when he released his first single in 1959. That was “The Storm Has Just Begun,” which he wrote at age 12 while playing for a polka band in his native Abbott, Texas.

"Come on Time” is one of 11 songs on Ride Me Back Home, his 69th solo studio album since 1962 and 13th in the past 10 years. His explanation for such a furious pace?

"Good songs keep coming along. That's the secret, I think,” Nelson says from his bus — also his home for much of this summer and fall — as he tours the country. He's on the road with his own concerts, the traveling Outlaw Music Festival and a Farm Aid show from Aug. 1 to Nov. 29.

In the Ride album's accompanying essay, music journalist Mikal Gilmore describes Ride Me Back Home as the last in a trilogy of albums focused on mortality, following 2017's God's Problem Child and 2018's Last Man Standing. While Ride's songs do confront the challenges of a shrinking future, Nelson says he doesn't dwell on age.

"Getting older is better than the alternative,” he cracks. “I don't think about it."

Nelson is just too busy. Nearly 60 years after crafting the classic “Crazy,” the best known version of which is by Patsy Cline, Nelson continues to write, record and tour with the determination of a rookie chasing his first radio hit.

Yet nothing is bush league in Ride Me Back Home's homey, rambling tunes that manage to be lighthearted, poignant and sorrowful without turning schmaltzy. It's Nelson's 13th album with producer and cowriter Buddy Cannon, a partnership that's both comfortable and productive.

"We trust each other, we like each other and we work well together,” says Nelson, who first met Cannon in the 1970s. “We take each other's ideas and run with them. We don't ever really disagree about anything."

The pair cowrote the album's three originals, “Come on Time,” “One More Song to Write” and the humorous “Seven Year Itch.” (I had the seven-year itch; scratched it out in three.)

The title track, cowritten with Sonny Throckmorton, addresses the plight of unwanted horses destined for slaughterhouses. The horses Nelson adopted and keeps on his 700-acre Luck ranch in Spicewood, Texas, inspired Throckmorton.

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"I have a lot of horses, about 50 rescue horses, and I love them all,” Nelson says, expressing hope that the song and accompanying video will raise awareness and help move legislation to stop the destruction of horses. “We owe a lot to the horses. There was a time this whole country was dependent on them. We fought on horseback for years and years and years. They're great animals."

In addition to covering Billy Joel's “Just the Way You Are,” Nelson tackles the 1980 Mac Davis hit “It's Hard to Be Humble” with his youngest sons, Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson.

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"I've loved that song ever since I first heard it,” Nelson says. “Mac is a good friend and a good writer. I thought it was a good opportunity to do that song with the boys."

Nelson pays tribute to country-folk songwriter Guy Clark with “My Favorite Picture of You,” a touching ballad, and the timely “Immigrant Eyes,” a song from Clark's 1988 Old Friends album. The latter finds a man reflecting on his grandfather's Ellis Island arrival and hard life as a newcomer to America. Clark, who died in 2017 at 74, was a cherished friend, but Nelson had a more compelling reason to revive his song.

"With the immigration situation the way it is today, I felt like we need to let the people know in the rest of the world, especially in Mexico and people south of us, that we still welcome them to the United States,” Nelson says.

Nelson excavated his own discography for “Stay Away From Lonely Places,” an obscure track that he and Don Bowman cowrote for Nelson's 1972 album The Words Don't Fit the Picture. It's a moody saloon tune that easily would have fit on Nelson's Grammy-winning My Way, an homage to Frank Sinatra released earlier this year.

"I would have loved to hear Sinatra do it,” says Nelson, who is at work on a sequel of Old Blue Eyes standards. “He was a great singer and phraser. His attitude toward music and life was very admirable. I don't think there's anybody coming along out there that's as good or even in the same category as Frank Sinatra. He set a standard that's going to be there for a long time."

Nelson is similarly old-school about country music.

"There are a lot of great albums out there, but I still look at country as the legendary guys — Hank Williams, Ray Price, Bob Wills. All those folks were my heroes, and they still are. I grew up with it, and I still like to hear those guys sing."

Long identified with his native Texas, Nelson maintains homes at his Austin-area Luck ranch, where he has a recording studio, and on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

“Your lungs are the biggest muscle you have. When you sing for an hour, you've had a good workout. One show a night is enough exercise for me.

- Willie Nelson

"Texas is home,” he says. “My horses are there. I have a lot of friends, relatives, kids, grandkids in Texas, so I really enjoy staying there. Maui is an escape. I call it my hospital zone. That's where I go to heal up."

His third home is the tour bus, which serves as a rolling endorsement for biodiesel, a passionate cause that he believes is gaining traction in the energy conversation.

"Time is proving to be on our side,” Nelson says. “We will see people eventually move away from oil and gas."

And despite trade-war setbacks, he remains hopeful about the future of family farms and the effectiveness of Farm Aid, the nonprofit organization he founded in 1985 with Neil Young and John Mellencamp.

"We have more reasons to keep doing Farm Aid,” Nelsons says. “There's been a few things that happened recently that's hurt our farmers, a few of the administration's decisions with China. One day we'll realize the importance of our farmers and take care of them."

Nelson, cochairman of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, for decades has championed legalizing marijuana. He created the Teapot Party (motto: “Tax it, regulate it and legalize it!") after his 2010 arrest for marijuana possession.

The time is now “to release all the people who have been going to jail,” he says. “It's time to stop all that and move on and realize marijuana is a medicine that can help you."

This octogenarian doesn't grumble about the demanding pace of his music and activism. The grind of touring?

"It's so good for me,” he says. “Your lungs are the biggest muscle you have. When you sing for an hour, you've had a good workout. One show a night is enough exercise for me. When I'm off, I do the other things. I ride a bike, I swim a lot, I try to stay in pretty good condition.

"Retirement is not on my mind,” Nelson adds. “I tell people, ‘I don't do much except play music and play golf. Which one should I quit?’ I've played golf long enough that I should be better."

He remains a martial-arts enthusiast, often practicing in the bus aisle. Five years ago, at age 81, he received his fifth-degree black belt in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do.

"Back when I was just a kid growing up in Abbott, Texas, all we had to read in comic books was Charles Atlas, kung fu and jujitsu. I started out picking up this and that,” Nelson says. “When I got to Nashville, I got into kung fu and later moved into tae kwon do.

"It's good for you. It's good physically, mentally, every way. You learn to overcome fear. Fear can really hurt you. If you're not afraid, it's one obstacle out of your way."

In “One More Song to Write,” Nelson reveals a deep commitment to his music and his fans, and closes with a thought on the cost of such a public life:

There ain't no secrets left to hide

My life's an open book

Turn the page and have a look

Regrets? He hasn't had even a few.

"No, it doesn't do any good,” he says. “It does harm to look back and say, ‘I wish I'd done this or that.’ I don't like to do that. I do what I feel like. Fortunately, there's nobody around telling me I can't do it. I can't complain."

Edna Gundersen is an American journalist and a former longtime music writer and critic for USA Today.

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