In Charlotte, N.C., back in May, fans at Willie Nelson's Outlaw Music Festival only saw a few moments of the country legend. He walked stiffly across the stage, struggled to put on his guitar, then, clearly frustrated, he tossed his hat into the crowd and walked off stage. Nelson had already canceled a string of performances in February, citing a bad case of the flu. Some fans were wondering whether this was it. But just a few months later, he's recovered and is back on the road again (including a re-do in Charlotte).
At 85, Nelson hasn't had anything to prove for years. He established himself long ago as one of the most important voices in the history of the American Songbook, and yet, he's still at it. He released a new album earlier this year called Last Man Standing. He has a tour scheduled through November and another new album slated for September.
Although he's still as busy as ever, where Nelson likes to be these days is with his family. Nelson's 87-year-old sister, Bobbie plays piano and bunks with him on the tour bus. Sitting on Nelson's bus with his wife and two sons feels like a Nelson family dinner — everyone all together and trading old stories, like the one about Willie giving his youngest son Micah the bizarre nickname Particle Kid.
"He said, 'I meant to say welcome home Prodigal Son, but I was so stoned that it came out as Particle Kid,'" Micah recounts Willie saying. "It's close enough. I like it better."
When asked if they smoke as much as their dad, Willie interjects: "Nobody does."
As much as Willie Nelson loves living, he's done a lot of songs recently about dying (i.e. "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die"). But his illnesses this year were serious, and Willie got nervous when it was bad enough that he couldn't sing, his wife Annie says.
"We went to Maui. He got some fresh air, but it took a good month," she says. "Then, he was a little nervous about it, but I heard him singing so I knew he was fine. He would sneak off in the music room and sing and pick."
He came back fiercer than ever, Annie says, and his sons both say he's been playing better than ever. "Just the last two shows have just blown my mind," his son Lukas says. "We're playing really good music and Dad is singing his ass off."
Lukas, who has his own band called Promise of the Real that regularly backs Neil Young, has a voice strikingly similar to Willie's. Lukas and Micah often play with Willie on tour, and the trio recorded songs together, collected on Willie and the Boys: Willie's Stash Vol. 2.
"There's nothing that makes a parent happier than having your kids up there doing things with you, especially if they're good," Nelson says.