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With more than 200 recordings under his cowboy belt, Willie Nelson heads out on the road again to make some music with his friends.

Mr. Record Man

Willie Nelson
The Carpenter Center
8 p.m.
Friday, May 14

uch of Willie Nelson's life has been one long, wild run down a performing road that stretches out forever. So it's understandable if he's a little unclear about when he last played our fair town.

"I was trying to remember the last time I was in Richmond," he says, his Texas drawl sounding a trifle road-ragged over the phone from Asheville, N.C. "I can't really remember." With this Nelson pauses before he laughs and drops the other verbal shoe. "Of course, it could have been six months ago."

Hazy memory thus admitted, Nelson's good humor comes off easy and honest. He adds that he's touring with the same band he's played with for more than 25 years, and he jokes about rounding up the troops. "It's the same old deal," he says. "I get 'em out of jail, wherever they are."

In conversation, Nelson, 66, seems to laugh at himself as much as at the wonder of life. It's easy to guess that good humor and music have helped him through both success and a lifetime of personal and professional train wrecks. But he's also serious about his music.

"I may enjoy what I do," he says shifting tone. "And I think that occasionally it shows up in the music." His more than 200 albums (with two more scheduled for release, including one CD of instrumental standards) are proof aplenty of his enjoyment and his love for the music.

Nelson's most recent release, "Teatro," is more evidence that he's as musically strong as ever. The project grew from his manager's suggestion that he work with producer Daniel Lanois, Nelson explains. Aware of Lanois' previous edgy work with everyone from U2 to Emmylou Harris, Nelson decided to give it a go and presented Lanois with 200 songs. The producer chose 20 of those, and in a week they recorded 15 songs. Propelled by some surprising Latin rhythms, the project has a loose, spontaneous feel.

"Yeah, there were a lot of one and two takes …," Nelson says, describing the recording process. "We were still having fun then." Nelson brought his old friend Harris in to sing harmony on many songs. "We got to talking about getting someone in to sing, and I said, 'There ain't but one gal,'" he recalls, laughing softly.

Like other Nelson recordings, "Teatro" has a story to tell. There's despair, tragedy and sorrow, yet Nelson somehow emerges with a sense of hope. Heard from this slant, "Teatro" becomes almost a metaphor for Nelson's life. For nearly four decades, Nelson has walked an adventurous path across America, unafraid to create the unexpected or to experiment with unlikely styles or collaborations. He's survived both disasters and fame and emerged as one of our country's best song stylists.

Nelson started exploring music as a kid growing up in Texas in the early '40s. He started writing at age 7 and two years later was fronting sister Bobbie's husband's polka band. Soaking up musical influences from the Grand Ol' Opry to Western Swing to blues to Frank Sinatra, Nelson never got bogged down as a purist, and his syncopated singing delivery marked him as a different sort.

"I love the swing, jazz," he says, explaining his eclectic taste. "It's all connected."

Of course, mixing all this up and trying to pass it off in '60s Nashville proved a tough trick. Thanks to other singers recording his songs — like Patsy Cline and her rendition of "Crazy" — Nelson scored some hit records. He grabbed a slot on the Opry, but music moguls weren't willing to completely accept his singing style. After 10 years of professional doors slamming, a second marriage down the tubes and a home destroyed by fire, Nelson bagged Nashville and returned to Texas in the early '70s.

He settled into Austin's magic melting pot of lifestyles and his fortunes changed dramatically. Accepted by both Texas farm boys and dope-smoking hippies for his musical honesty and independent ways, Nelson became a front man for a new left-of-center country music style. Nelson suddenly had hit it huge.

Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, Nelson continued to record and explore many musical avenues. He made movies and won Grammies. He scored a hit — "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" — in an unlikely pairing with Julio Iglesias. He helped organize Farm Aid and ran seriously afoul of the Internal Revenue Service. He also took time to polish up his golf game.

Nelson says he's been on the road all his life and it's simply what he does. But, for many, this rather mundane summation ignores the crux of the matter, because running down that endless highway is a true musical treasure. Willie's unique style, timeless songwriting and interpretive takes on both sadness and good times seep easily and soothingly into many a listener's

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