At 79, Willie Nelson has written and recorded some of the most enduring music of our time. He played a major role in helping to shape Austin into what it is today. He's worked with some of the biggest musicians in every possible genre.
It's working with his children, though, that makes Nelson happy these days.
On his new album, "Heroes" (Legacy Recordings), Nelson's son Lukas plays a central role, sharing songwriting duties and contributing vocals, as does his brother Micah.
"It's probably as good as it gets for a parent to be able to work and sing and play and make music with their kids," Nelson said over the phone last week from his tour bus. "Especially if they're good, and Lukas is really, really good. Him and Micah and Amy and Paula, I've got a bunch of talented kids, and it's a lot of fun to play music with them."
Lukas wrote three of the songs on the album, including "No Place to Fly," "Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her" and the sad and epic "The Sound of Your Memory." Lukas and Micah also helped Nelson choose some of the covers on the album, including Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe" and Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House." Sheryl Crow joins in on the latter, adding a gospel feel.
Never one to shy away from performing the work of others, Nelson doesn't overthink when it comes to choosing what he plays.
"Well, if I like the song, that's always required. That's all I've ever looked for is something that I've liked," he said. "I have to believe that my likes and dislikes can't be that much different from the next guy, so I kind of go with what I like."
In addition to Nelson's sons and Crow, "Heroes" is packed with guest spots from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard and rapper Snoop Dogg, who steps into the unlikely role of singer on "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die." "I thought he would probably rap it, I had no idea he was going to croon it. He did a good job," Nelson said.
"Heroes" is the first release on a new deal between Nelson and Sony's Legacy Recordings, which was Nelson's label for nearly 20 years beginning in 1975. In addition to five new albums, the deal also involves archival releases that Nelson will help curate.
"A lot of those demos I did back in the early days, the ‘60s back there, were pretty good I thought. They had good musicians, Jimmy Day and all the great pickers from Nashville. There are maybe a hundred of those," Nelson said. "And there were some pretty good records. I thought that some of those old demos were just as good as the released versions that came out later."
Despite the excitement over the new album and archival releases, Nelson continues to feel the loss of longtime Family Band bassist Bee Spears, who died in an accident late last year.
"Losing Bee was one of those things you don't get over. He was a good friend, and has been for many years, ever since he was a young teenager when he first came to work playing bass," Nelson said. "You get pretty close to a guy when you play music every day and you ride the bus and travel together. It was a big shock, and he will be missed."
Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696