Today, Willie Nelson releases his 67th studio album, Last Man Standing. Which is incredible, though it’s literally only half the story. Factoring in collaborative albums, live records, compilations, and various other releases, Nelson has actually put out around 150 albums since 1962’s …And Then I Wrote. That averages out to about three albums per year for 56 years. He’s been as prolific as Robert Pollard for about as long as Robert Pollard has been alive.
On Sunday, Nelson turns 85. A few weeks after that, assuming he isn’t troubled by the same illnesses and breathing problems that forced him to cancel dates earlier this year, he’ll be back on the road, playing amphitheaters in the south and midwest. Nelson is currently scheduled to perform dozens of concerts through the end of November. If his health holds, there will surely be dozens more shows in 2019, along with at least one new album, possibly more.
These are the ways that we measure Willie Nelson’s incredible, indomitable longevity. Numbers try to tell the tale that superlatives and adjectives no longer can — biographer Joe Nick Patoski referred to Willie’s existence as an An Epic Life in 2008, and Willie himself said It’s A Long Story in 2015, when he published the fourth book about his own life. But the story just keeps getting longer and more epic.
Willie Nelson has been around for so long that he’s outlived any attempt to put a cap on his career. The Grammys gave Willie a Lifetime Achievement Award back in 1999, the same year that the current crop of college freshmen was born. The Country Music Association actually named its lifetime achievement award after Willie Nelson in 2012, and a few years later gave it to Willie’s old friend and fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash, more than a decade after The Man In Black died. But Willie keeps moving forward, impervious to those who try to freeze him amber.
So, it’s back to numbers: 25 No. 1 country hits. Eleven No. 1 country albums, including two this decade. He has starred in about three-dozen films and many more television shows, working with directors such as Michael Mann, Barry Levinson, Sydney Pollack, and whoever made Beerfest and The Country Bears.
The point is, Willie Nelson is immense. The cliché about his legacy is that Willie Nelson is the only thing left in American life that feels universal. But just because we’ve run out of original ways to contextualize Willie Nelson’s hallowed place in contemporary culture don’t make the cliches any less true. He really is the sole link between so many disparate worlds — Toby Keith and Snoop Dogg, Bob Dylan and Julio Iglesias, Kacey Musgraves and Kermit The Frog, Patsy Cline and Pearl Jam, Django Reinhardt and the Pet Shop Boys. Once Willie goes, so goes the common thread.
But if you really want to get to the bottom of how Willie Nelson got here — and why here is never there for this guy for very long — I think it comes down to something you can’t quantify, which is will.