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Willie Nelson at Britt: The man still has it

Willie Nelson came onto the Britt stage Wednesday night singing “Whiskey River” in a black cowboy hat, head turned down, seemingly focused on Trigger — the beat-up Martin N-20 classical guitar he plays with a pick — and you could feel people wondering if he still had it.

The whimsical “Beer For My Horses” was a desultory sing-along. But the singer became increasingly energized as he segued into “Funny How Time Slips Away,” swapping the hat for a bandanna. The energy built as he slipped into “Crazy,” then hit an early peak with a big rave-up on “Night Life.”

Willie hasn’t really been around forever. Just longer than the competition. When he wasn’t writing songs, some of them immortal, or touring constantly, which he still does, he’s acted in movies, lost an epic battle with the IRS, invented a genre of music (outlaw country), co-wrote several books and has been an activist for family farms, bio-fuels and recreational marijuana.

This night he followed Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, not your usual opening act. Unlike Nelson, it only seems that the multi-Grammy-winning Krauss has been around forever. How do you look so young and still sound downright angelic after 30 years in the business? It helps if you started at 14, as Krauss did in 1985.

Her visibility is even more remarkable considering that her field — bluegrass — doesn’t exactly burn up the sales charts. Aside from her boatload of awards and all those movie soundtracks (including “O Brother, Where Art Thou?), part of her visibility may stem from her record as a collaborator with the likes of Robert Plant, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Gillian Welch, Phish, James Taylor, Brad Paisley, Sting and on and on.

Krauss’s show set was marked by the easy charm of her vocals and fiddle, Douglas’s dobro and the singing of ‘Dan Tyminski, who sang “Man of Constant Sorrow” for George Clooney’s character in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” She closed the set with a soulful take on “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray.”

Nobody sounds like Willie, alternating jazzy lead lines with strumming accompaniments on Trigger for country honky-tonk and standards and delivering laid-back lyrics that lope ahead of the beat or tag along behind, more like a Billie Holiday or Carmen McRae than your usual country singer.

“Me and Paul,” a song he wrote about his longtime drummer, Paul English, came to life under Willie’s phrasing, which has a way of sounding thrown-off but isn’t. “On the Road Again” — Willie’s paean to the life of the touring musician — got the crowd going. By the time of “You Were Always On My Mind” Willie’s focus was so tangible you were no longer thinking of age stuff.

When deadline witching hour came for a reviewer, Willie was deep into a Hank Williams medley that started with a raucous “Jambalya,” segued into a delicious “Hey Good Lookin’” and then went who knows where. The voice may be a little tattered around the edges, but the thrill ain’t gone. The man just rocks.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Willie Nelson is a seven-time Grammy winner. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRITT FESTIVALS.