Work is play

It’s been quite a few years since Willie Nelson played an official concert on Maui. So Saturday’s show at the Maui Tropical Plantation marks a significant event when the country music icon headlines a benefit for the Montessori School of Maui’s Cynthia Winans-Burns scholarship fund.

“It’s a memorial concert for Cynthia, who built the school,” Willie says. “On her death bed, she said she wanted to create a scholarship fund for children of alumni, so if times were hard they would have an opportunity for their kids to go there.”

The concert will open with performances by Lily Meola with Tom Conway, followed by Lukas and Micah Nelson and Promise of the Real, and then Lukas’ band will back the country star.

This has been a busy, productive year for the 80-year-old legend. Most recently, Willie released the critically-acclaimed album, “To All the Girls,” showcasing 18 new duets with a range of female artists, including Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples, Wynonna Judd, Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones.

“It was incredible, some of the best singers in the world,” he says. “It’s something I have long wanted to do.”

“To All the Girls” opens with one of the album’s highlights, the beautiful ballad “From There to the Moon and Back,” sung with Dolly Parton. “She wrote it; it’s a great song,” says Willie.

Some of the many standouts feature the classic “Always On My Mind” with Carrie Underwood, “Walkin’ ” performed with Norah Jones, Bruce Sprinsteen’s “Dry Lightning” with Emmylou Harris, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” with daughter Paula Nelson.

So how did he figure out which song would best fit each artist?

“Buddy Cannon (the album’s producer) and I worked on it together,” Willie explains. “We were on the phone and text a lot. He’d cut the tracks, and I’d go in and I’d do my vocals, and he’d get the girls in to do their vocals. It was quite a project.”

Besides the veteran country stars and rising talent, the album showcases Willie with gospel legend Mavis Staples on Bill Wither’s soulful “Grandma’s Hands.” “Buddy Cannon put that together,” he says. “I thought it was a great idea; I love her.”

And what a treat for Maui’s Lily to be included in such august company, singing one of Willie’s songs, “Will You Remember Mine.” “It’s good for her,” he notes. “She deserves it; she’s really good.”

Lily’s contribution is unique, in that, it marks the only one on the album that is initially sung by the female guest. “I noticed that also,” he notes, smiling.

Entering at No. 2, the duets set extended Willie’s record for the most Top 10s in the nearly 50-year history of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. He tallied his first such hit with “Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style” in 1966.

Besides “To All the Girls,” Willie released another well-received album this year, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Recorded with his family band, the album features a range of pop, rock, jazz and country classics.

A Paste Magazine review praised: ” ‘Let’s Face the Music’ features some of his strongest and most engaged performances in a decade.” And the Austin Chronicle hailed it as “an exquisitely contemplative turn into 80.”

“It’s just me and the band playing the old standards that we like to do,” he says humbly.

Along with Irving Berlin’s title song, the album includes covers of Carl Perkins’ rockabilly classic, “Matchbox,” The Platters’ “Twilight Time” and “Nuages,” a tune by his favorite guitarist, gypsy jazz icon Django Reinhardt.

“He’s the greatest guitar player ever,” Willie enthuses. “Every guitar player I know will agree: This guy was the best. I try to learn his songs, and it’s a challenge.”

By the age of 80, has he got it down?

“No. I listen to me playing it, and then I go back and listen to him playing it. Sorry, Django, I didn’t want to screw it up for you. Norah Jones told me one of her band players said that I play like Django with one finger.”

Few leading artists, let alone those two decades shy of 100, are able to release a couple of outstanding albums in the span of less than a year. It’s quite an achievement.

“I don’t know why; what are they doing?” he responds, laughing about the handful of great musicians in his age range who haven’t kept up with him.

“It’s one of those things you don’t think about,” he says. “I don’t feel much different than I did last year at this time. I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing. Everybody slows down a little bit, but I can’t tell it that much.”

Other achievements this year include being awarded an honorary doctorate by the Berklee College of Music. “Kris (Kristofferson) presented me with it,” he notes.

And recently, he collaborated with one his veteran buddies, Merle Haggard, on a new song. “I just talked to him,” he explains. “He wrote a song and wanted me to write a verse. He wrote it about me, something like I’m the only one crazier than he is.”

Since his early days, Willie has long ploughed a unique path, guided by a spirit of nonconformity. “I’ve always been hard-headed,” he says. “My grandmother raised me, and she said, ‘Hugh (his middle name), remember a hard head always makes a sore ass.’ She was right. I just wrote a song, ‘Band of Brothers,’ that I haven’t recorded yet. The lyrics go, ‘We’re a band of brothers and sisters on a mission to break all the rules, because I know you love me because I love you too, but you can’t tell me what to do.’ “

This independent perspective didn’t often sit well with record label honchos attempting to mainstream his sound. “For many years in a row, they would say, ‘You’ve got to do it this way,’ ” he recalls. “Of course, I knew you didn’t have to do it that way. So I left town (Nashville) and tried to prove you didn’t have to do it that way. And to a great extent I’ve proved you can do it any way you want to.”

During the course of his extraordinary career, Willie has composed more than 2,500 songs and has released close to 300 albums, winning numerous Grammys and American and Country Music awards along the way.

Often invited to be a guest artist on albums, he this year joined Paul Anka to sing “Crazy” on “Duets” and sang with Kenny Chesney on his “Life on a Rock” CD.

Asked about any prospective collaborations, he mentions a 2013 recording with Barbara Streisand.

“Through the years people have asked me, ‘Is there anybody you’ve ever wanted to do a duet with and never have,’ and I’ve said, ‘Yes, Barbara Streisand.’ She heard about it, and she had a song for her and I to sing. So she went in and sang her part, and I went in later and sang my part, and it sounded great. But it’s her project, if she wants it ever to come out or not.”

Before coming to Maui for a brief break, Willie had been busy promoting new holiday movie, “Angels Sing,” starring Harry Connick Jr. and Connie Britton. Based on Turk Pipkin’s novel, “When Angels Sing,” it features Willie acting and singing in a supporting role, along with fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett.

The day after our interview, he was scheduled to chat about the film on former conservative politician Mike Huckabee’s Fox News talk show. “He likes the movie,” Willie says, chuckling. “He sort of hates me, but he likes the movie.”

Then there’s a new book in the works. After publishing “The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From The Road,” Willie is preparing a memoir, set for 2015.

“I haven’t written a word yet,” he says. “This writer, David Ritz, is supposed to connect with me and hang out. I’m going to ask him to write a chapter so I know which direction he’s going. He’s done books on B.B. King and Ray Charles. One of the first songs in there will be this new one, ‘Band of Brothers.’ “

Looking toward 2014, Willie has a few more recording projects brewing. “I’ve got an album going that I’ve got about five or six songs, which Buddy Cannon is producing,” he says. “Then I want to go in the studio with my band and do an album of some of the new stuff I’ve written.”

Plus there’s another project planned with his sons. “I want to do an album with Lukas and Micah, maybe an album of Kris Kristofferson songs,” he adds.