Willie Nelson sounds tired on the phone, with his soft voice a bit gravelly from a lifetime of nights onstage. Not that the performing bothers him. The man who wistfully sang about getting back on the road again still crosses the country happily in a tour bus.
“Ever since I’ve been playing music I’ve had fun doing it,” Mr. Nelson, 68, says from somewhere in Wisconsin. “That’s sort of been our main concern. We have to have fun doing it or we won’t keep doing it.”
With the kind of stamina that musicians half his age have trouble finding, Mr. Nelson maintains a schedule that includes several months of touring combined with several months off. He plans to spend most of the summer on the road.
Mr. Nelson pulls into Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Thursday, with John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. His sister, Bobbie Lee Nelson, has joined her famous brother on the tour.
He and Bobbie were raised by their grandparents in Abbott, Texas, during the Great Depression, and both were pushed toward music at a young age. Miss Nelson played piano and Mr. Nelson took up the guitar, writing his first songs at age 7.
Sixty years later, the two are still playing together. Mr. Nelson’s experienced touring band is rounded out by Paul English (drums), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Jody Payne (guitar), B. Spears (bass) and Billy English (other percussion).
In addition to his touring, Mr. Nelson released an album last month called “Rainbow Connection.” He covers an artist he’s wanted to pay homage to for years — Kermit the Frog.
“Well, my daughter Amy, many years ago, when she was 12 years old or so, wanted me to do the song, ‘Rainbow Connection,’” Mr. Nelson says. “And I didn’t do it then, and I kept putting it off.”
The long-awaited album for families offers a collection of standards with a few new tunes thrown in, featuring “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon,” “I’m My Own Grandpa” and “Ol’ Blue.” The effect on young audiences has been tremendous, he says.
“Everybody knows the ‘Rainbow Connection,’” Mr. Nelson says with a chuckle. “A lot of young people sing along with me when I start it off. Honestly, that wasn’t my era.”
His next musical outing is “The Great Divide,” another foray into the rock world with producer Matt Serletic and Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight and, yes, even Kid Rock. He also still performs each year at Farm Aid, the benefit show for farmers that he launched in 1985.
Mr. Nelson is even working on a foray into reggae, an idea that was pitched to him when he signed with Island Records several years ago. Although he’s nearly as busy as he was in his heyday, he says he has no plans to stop touring or recording.
“As long as I’m making music and playing it, I feel like I’m doing all right,” Mr. Nelson says. “And it doesn’t let me worry about what’s going on in country music.”
Mr. Nelson started playing in honky-tonk bars in the 1950s, after a short stint in the Air Force and a job as a country-music disc jockey. He moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the early 1960s to make a go as a songwriter, a move that proved quite successful.
Several of his songs became hits for the artists who recorded them, including Faron Young’s “Hello, Walls,” Billy Walker’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and, of course, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” regarded as one of the best country performances of all time.
As a solo artist, Mr. Nelson had some moderate hits in the 1960s, but his career failed to take off until he began combining rock influences with more traditional country and folk sounds.
Two critically acclaimed albums, 1973’s “Shotgun Willie” and 1974’s “Phases and Stages,” led to the popular concept album, “The Red Headed Stranger.” The tale of a preacher on the run after killing his wife’s lover, the bare-bones album (featuring only his guitar and voice and his sister’s piano) became an unexpected hit.
During the mid- and late 1970s, Mr. Nelson was at the forefront of the “outlaw country” movement, singing the hit duet “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” with Waylon Jennings and releasing an album of pop standards, “Stardust.” The album, which kept him on the country charts for years, featured “Georgia on My Mind,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Stardust.” Some film roles in the 1980s led to another huge hit, “On the Road Again.”
In the late 1980s, his popularity started to fade, and the Internal Revenue Service fined him for $16.7 million in back taxes. Mr. Nelson lost several houses, studios and farm property and recorded a double album to help pay off the rest of the debt.
Since 1993, the country legend has been debt free and returned to musical experimentation with a renewed vigor. “There is no country music today no soul out there that I can hear,” Mr. Nelson says. “There’s some people out there still playing country, but you can’t hear those guys on the radio.”
Not caring about radio hits, Mr. Nelson has been busy trying his hand at new things. He worked with Mose Allison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Sinead O’Connor on the rock album “Across the Borderline,” tried out new material on the flamenco-influenced “Teatro” and found his blues side on “Milk Cow Blues.”
WHAT: Willie Nelson and Friends
WHERE: Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, 1624 Trap Road, Vienna
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
TICKETS: $18 to $28