Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century; 14: Willie Nelson, Country Singer

WHEN FRANK Sinatra died, several obituaries named him, with some justification, the Voice of America. Willie Nelson - happily still with us and still performing - is something else, not so much the Voice of America as a road map of America.

In a nation whose popular music has been shaped and defined by the shiftless nature of its people, Nelson is the ultimate hobo. Born in 1933, north of Waco in Texas, in a cotton-farming town called Abbott that doesn't even exist any more, Nelson has barely stopped moving since.

Abbott was the kind of town built for escaping from. Around the time Nelson was born - at the height of the Depression - it looked like a B western, the scene where the tumbleweed blows down the dusty main street and the camera zooms in on the old town limits sign: "population 300", carved into a lopsided battered board.

But unlike thousands of other performers emerging from backwoods beginnings, Nelson is no country cornball, no Wild West cliche. His father was a travelling mechanic; his mother went looking for work one day and never returned; so Nelson was raised by grandparents with an eclectic record collection, including Sinatra and jazz as well as popular Western swing artists such as Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills.

These varying influences were not lost on Nelson, which is probably why he has always managed to appeal to audiences for whom the words "country" and "western" in any kind of proximity are normally anathema. Nelson's jazz phrasing is as distinctive an element of his music as the melancholic autumnal voice that can render the most banal material deeply affecting. In the twilight glow I see her/ Blue eyes crying in the rain/ When we said goodbye and parted/ I knew we'd never meet again. This fairly unremarkable opening stanza from one of Willie Nelson's greatest hits is elevated by his performance into a kind of truck-stop poetry.

Perhaps it is because he is singing about what he knows. For 40 years, carrying the same battered guitar, Nelson has criss-crossed his homeland. The Willie Nelson website describes him as "a highwayman, a sad, spiritual poet endlessly travelling America, his voice as cracked and weather-beaten as the well worn leather skin that clings to his frame. He doesn't want to stop. Probably can't."

But if Nelson had merely carried on until retirement age performing more or less the same act, he would probably earn nothing but our scorn. He has in fact continually renewed his artistic vision. His albums, which number more than 100 - some estimates put the figure as high as 200 - draw deeply on pretty well every strand in American popular music.

Nelson's endless striving for something new has no doubt played a part in his chequered romantic history - four times married - and his experiments with various drugs alongside his beloved whisky.

The affection felt for Nelson by his compatriots crosses not just musical divides but social and political borders as well. He understands redneck culture, yet behaves like a hippy. He regularly joins family farmers to campaign against factory farming. Some idea of the support Nelson commands became apparent when he was landed with a $16m claim for back taxes. His defence - "I forgot" - was in fact quite convincing, coming from Nelson, and when he was forced by the IRS to sell his possessions, the purchasers returned them to him.

But Nelson was far from being a tax-dodging pariah; his contemporaries beat a path to his door to record with him - Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and others - while the man himself continues to get his kicks on Route 66 and wherever the muse takes him.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas