Willie Nelson's famous face is tanned and weathered. White whiskers increasingly dominate his two-day stubble, and streaks of gray color the waist-length braid trailing down his back.
The country music legend is sitting on a bench seat inside a tour bus parked behind the bullpen at Diamond Stadium in Lake Elsinore, Calif., waiting to take the stage. He displays a youthful vitality that many younger men would envy.
"I'm real lucky," this 76-year-old road warrior says, leaning forward and flashing an easy grin. "My health is as good as it's ever been. My lungs are in good shape — and there are lots of people all over the world wondering how that could be, like Michael Phelps."
Nelson lets out an infectious laugh at the not-so-subtle reference to his celebrated affinity for pot and the Olympic swimming champion's troubles after photos of him inhaling from a marijuana pipe surfaced. "So, I'm in good health and I appreciate it."
When Nelson laughs, there's a gleam in his eye that's ageless; it's there, too, when he talks about reconnecting with the kind of songs he first heard as a boy growing up in Texas during the 1930s and '40s. It was a time and place where the rural music of the South — then labeled "hillbilly music" — commingled with the pop and big-band sounds most of the rest of the nation was enjoying, most prominently in the western swing sound pioneered by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
"It all fits together," says Nelson, who will perform a sold-out concert Tuesday at the Cotillion. "Western swing is just jazz. The musicians Bob had, the musicians Asleep at the Wheel has ... these are jazz musicians who can play anything; it just so happens they settled in on western swing."
Having recently passed the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, Nelson decided the time was right to return to that fertile trove of songs in "American Classic," his album released last fall. The title describes the Great American Songbook of pop standards he's drawing upon and the man himself, who is rivaled only by Merle Haggard for the title of country music's greatest living songwriter.
The field of pop-classic vocal albums has gotten crowded in recent years, with singers as wide-ranging as Michael Buble, Cyndi Lauper and Queen Latifah taking swings at songs largely written before they were born. It takes chutzpah, to say nothing of serious vocal chops, to tackle songs famously recorded by Tony Bennett ("Because of You"), Ray Charles ("Come Rain or Come Shine") and Frank Sinatra ("Fly Me to the Moon"), as Nelson does on "American Classic."
"Of course, I'm a huge Sinatra fan," Nelson says. "There are other guys who've made great versions of that song: Vic Damone, some of those guys.... It's probably been recorded 1,000 times, but you always remember Sinatra."
Nelson says his heart always has belonged as much to jazz as to country.
"Django (Reinhardt) is my favorite guitar player," he says. "That stuff is the real deal."
Nelson himself is nothing if not laid back about revisiting songs that have been recorded by many of the greatest singers of the last century. He's been down this road before.
He concedes that he was ribbed for having had the temerity to cover Ray Charles with "Georgia on My Mind." That was back in 1978, when Nelson helped put the standards ball in motion with his "Stardust" album. It wasn't the first by a performer outside the Sinatra-Bennett adult-pop world to explore that canon, but it quickly became one of the most popular and influential. It has since sold more than 5 million copies.
"For me, it was a no-brainer," he says. "I thought, heck, these are great songs, we've got a great band, a great producer and arranger with Booker [T. Jones]. This has got to be a winner. But it wasn't that easy to sell the record companies on it. Back then we had to battle to get it out there."
When it's suggested that it often seems that he can sing anything, Nelson laughs again. "That's the problem sometimes," he says. "Sometimes you may have to rewrite on the spot — I think that's where jazz got started, because a guy forgot the melody."