ON APRIL 30, 2003, Willie Nelson turned 70, and celebrated with the release of his latest greatest hits collection. The Essential Willie Nelson (Columbia/Legacy), a two-CD set, has an intriguing 1970s-vintage cover shot that sets exactly the right tone for 40 years of selective tracks. Nelson's unkempt long red hair and scraggly beard frame his thin, almost Bob Hope nose. His mouth twists slightly, a smile just short of a sneer, in sardonic, knowing reaction to the world behind the camera. His eyes, couched in wrinkles and bags, stare straight and deep into the lens, and suggest hard-to-fathom distances and recessions at the same time they focus you into connecting. This interaction, evasive, seemingly casual, direct and subtle, represents the essence of Nelson's sly, almost unobtrusive art.
The Essential Willie Nelson demonstrates once again that the Red Headed Stranger's nonchalant gospel-flavored, jazz-inflected voice and guitar have remained essentially themselves for decades despite an everexpanding variety of musical backdrops: barebones string bands, sleekly glossy Nashville productions, twangy 1970s Outlaw country rock, jazzy standards with strings, gospel-laced soul.
Maybe that breadth is a major reason Nelson's recurrent duets with Ray Charles are almost always so charged—and so much fun. After all, only Charles and Bob Dylan have traveled as sure-footedly across as farflung a constellation of genres and expectations as Nelson has and still remained themselves; Charles and Nelson have long shared material and appearances. (A 1984 show at the Austin Opera House, captured on The Willie Nelson Special, features excellent versions of “Georgia,” “I Can't Stop Loving You,” and the old hillbilly fave “Mountain Dew”) Part of this odd couple's magnetism stems from their representing opposite poles of the American spectrum. Charles, the consummate be-suited black professional trained in the tough world of low-rent postwar rhythm and blues whose nonpareil voice influenced countless singers, is a hard-bitten recluse who heads a thriving business dynamo and a drilled band. Nelson, the white country-music renegade, tried pig farming for a while when his