Willie and Family/Willie Nelson & Friends

Live/Honeysuckle Rose/San Antonio Rose (Sony Legacy) / Run That By Me One More Time/Stars & Guitars/Live and Kickin' (Lost Highway)

As altcountry forefather Willie Nelson celebrates his 70th year of raising hell, a flood of welcome reissues and new recordings greets loyal fans, highlighting his dual role as a hick-music trailblazer and a defender of traditions. Through nearly 50 years of tireless touring, Nelson has emerged as America's most versatile and amiable superstar, which is one of the many reasons that fellow musicians still crowd in to collaborate with the crown prince of Americana.

In the early 1970s, Nelson turned the country-music world on its head when he left the bright lights of Nashville for the smoky dives of Texas, going "outlaw" and championing the DIY indie-billy scene that still thrives today. Nelson's stubborn independence paid off by decade's end, when his albums went platinum and gold and the nation came to know him on a first-name basis.

Like many old-school country stars, Willie has learned to rely on fans more than radio airplay or record company marketing strategies: If there's one thing he does well, it's throw a badass party at all of his shows. The recently reissued 1978 Live album and the soundtrack to his 1980 feature film Honeysuckle Rose reveal Willie at his most sizzling, backed by a wildly nimble band that careens effortlessly between jazz standards and hillbilly rock, following his eclectic sensibilities and subtle shifts of mood.

In the early '80s, Willie spread the wealth and used his superstardom to bring new listeners to some of his old friends. One of the gems among his many duet albums was 1980's San Antonio Rose, which reunited Willie with his old boss, Ray Price, a Texas hard-country crooner whose honky-tonk band featured Willie playing bass before he made it big in Nashville. The album was a sweet, laid-back homage to the western swing they grew up on. The pairing was remarkable: Although Price's glory days were long behind him, Willie spurred him on to a soulful performance more vigorous than anything he'd done in years. More amazing still is that 23 years later, as the two old-timers collaborate yet again, they not only match the charm of that classic release, but surpass it by miles. Run That By Me One More Time is a gorgeous album, both for its elegant, effective arrangements, and for the vocal power and emotional depth each man brings to the table. Willie and Price share an intimate understanding of how to sing these sentimental old tunes with a mournfulness and conviction that are largely missing from today's prefab country scene. The result is simple perfection: This is one of the best country albums of the new century, and a record that will definitely stand the test of time.

Also worth mentioning are two star-packed new concert albums, Stars and Guitars and Live and Kickin', with guests ranging from the cream of the current Nashville crop to un-billy artists like Diana Krall, Steve Tyler, and Wyclef Jean. Inevitably, there's a live version of "Beer for My Horses," a leaden chart-topping duet with macho top-country musclehead Toby Keith, and other songs from Willie's most recent commercial renaissance. Although these discs are a bit uneven and lowest-common-denominator-y, one collaborator stands out: Norah Jones is one of the few artists here who really seems to "get" Willie's unique grasp of the stylistic link between country and jazz. (Let's cross our fingers and hope that a Willie/Jones duet album is not long in coming!) Yet even the wobbliness of a few of the performances is a testament to the legend's easygoing openness.

Willie isn't just a bridge between country and the (supposedly) hipper world of rock. He is the very embodiment of musical inclusion, a guy who grew up on pop, jazz, and hillbilly music, loves them all still, and told the show-business establishment to take a flying leap when it tried to smooth out his sound. He might be older than your grandmother's uncle, but Willie's still cooler than any 20 artists you could name today.

 
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