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On his 75th solo album, Willie Nelson confronts the politics of 'The Border'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Willie Nelson has just released his 75th solo album. And yes, you heard that right - 75th. This latest album is called "The Border." And at 91 years old, you might forgive Nelson if he just phoned this one in, but that is not what he did at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS ME WHEN YOU'RE THROUGH")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Then you tell me that you wish that you never heard of me. When you close your eyes, I'm not the one you see. Well, kiss me when you're through.

DETROW: Here to talk about Nelson's newest effort is The Tennessean's Nashville country music reporter Marcus Dowling. Marcus, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARCUS DOWLING: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

DETROW: Willie sounded really good at 91.

DOWLING: Absolutely. Well, he's still a contemporary country artist. I mean, with the other - the road show and with numerous other projects, he's still regularly touring, and he is cognizant of all of the artists who are releasing country records right now. They all reference him as a favorite artist. And, you know, he has his favorites as well. So he is just as contemporary as any other, you know, authentic, roots-based country artist right now.

DETROW: I said 75 solo albums. If you count collaborations, he's at double that number. And as we mentioned, he's 91 years old. What does Willie Nelson have to say on this latest album?

DOWLING: He's saying that there is value in the accrued intelligence that time allows you to garner. I think that's the most important part of this record, is that, you know, he's 91 years old, so he's seen everything twice and forgotten half of it.

DETROW: Yeah.

DOWLING: So I think there's a value in him offering to the world that he's a person of intellect, and that has value, I think, to all of the conversations that we're having, both in modern music and also in modern society.

DETROW: A lot of conversations about that. And I think a lot of people do feel like older people are discounted in a lot of different ways. So that's an interesting point of view to be hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY KNOWS ME LIKE YOU")

NELSON: (Singing) Through every storm when I've been weak, promises I failed to speak, day to day, the dreams denied, the truth I've told and the times I've lied, nobody knows me. Nobody knows me like you.

DETROW: One of the songs that jumped out to both of us, it's called "Nobody Knows Me Like You." Tell me what that's about and how it fits into this theme we're talking about.

DOWLING: Well, it's about his wife. He's been with his wife, Annie, for quite some time, and they've been through a lot. You know, he went through a financial issue with the bankruptcy. He went through numerous health concerns, and she stood by his side. She was, you know, an intrinsic part of his life and helped him, you know, survive all of that. Being 91 and being able to reflect on that is important because obviously in country music, there are songs about marriages and songs about divorces and songs about losing partners and gaining partners and falling in and out of love. But to reflect the longevity of staying with the same person and the positives and negatives of that, I think that that's truly impactful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY KNOWS ME LIKE YOU")

NELSON: (Singing) Nobody knows me like you.

DETROW: There is this sustained moment of country being at the front and center of pop culture and music right now and all these interesting crossovers and blending with hip-hop, among other genres. How do you sort Willie Nelson into that scene? What can you point to in current country music and say, that is a direct descendant of what Willie Nelson has been doing for decades?

DOWLING: All the red dirt stuff that's popping off right now. If you look at, like, the Wyatt Flores of the world, if you look at Kaitlin Butts, like, there's just artists - if you go from Austin to Dallas, up to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, like, anybody who's in that through line right now, like, if you ask them point blank where is Willie Nelson in their sound, they could point to at least five things that are obviously a clear homage to, you know, a 91-year-old artist who's made 150 albums.

DETROW: What's your personal favorite part of his sound?

DOWLING: It's the honesty. It's - there's a - there's something about the ability as a songwriter, first. Like, Willie Nelson's career is intrinsically based within this songwriter tradition. He wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, so he gets it. And then when you look at the back half of that career in Austin, in that scene in the '70s where he is able to dive in and work as a song stylist and as a guitar player and blending those things together, it's all honest.

DETROW: Let's get to the title track of this new album, "The Border."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BORDER")

NELSON: (Singing) Where the smugglers do business, that's where I make a stand. I know this old desert like the back of my hand.

DETROW: So this is a song that was written a while ago, but this album is coming out at a time when the border is this intensely political topic. It's dominating the upcoming election, and it is something that, depending on your point of view, you have a wildly different understanding of the basic facts of the situation. And Willie Nelson is making this decision to not just put this song on this album, but to make it the title of the album as a whole, to really center this narrative, and it's a narrative about one particular person and his story. What do you think he's trying to do here?

DOWLING: I think that it's a fascinating story, this song. So Rodney Crowell wrote it 20 years ago - Rodney Crowell, who is a '70s and '80s country icon. He wrote it about a time in American history in the early 2000s, where the Nuevo Laredo border was at - in crisis. But I think the spin of it, of diving directly into the border agent, is the fascinating part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BORDER")

NELSON: (Singing) I come home to Maria in a bulletproof vest, with the weight of the whole wide world bearing down on my chest.

DOWLING: In reducing this - and not in a negative way but an honest way - to a person who carries the weight of the world, in some cases literally, on their shoulders every day, in having to make decisions that on both sides of the political axis are either frustrating or lauded - and there's a lot there, yes, to unpack. But I think that's the point, is that it's presented so flatly and so well by Nelson that in many cases the topics unpack themselves here. And we get the flattest conversation about border politics in modern culture that we've ever had.

DETROW: Given that and given again, 75 solo albums, how do you place this latest one, "The Border," in his catalog, in his body of work?

DOWLING: To me, it falls - if you would have placed it in the era of, like, the late '70s Nelson albums. So this would be after "Red Headed Stranger" and somewhere after "Stardust," before the '80s pop cultural boom kind of, like, handles his career with "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" and so on and so forth, like it's right in there. This is one of those truly important and ultimate Nelson records.

DETROW: That's Marcus Dowling, Nashville country music reporter for The Tennessean. Thank you so much.

DOWLING: Absolutely.

DETROW: Willie Nelson's new album is called "The Border."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MUCH DOES IT COST")

NELSON: (Singing) How much does it cost to be free, free from heartache... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.