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Willie Nelson 

Friday, September 12; Pageant

Now 70, Willie Nelson has officially graduated from lovable rogue to venerated elder statesman. He's so entrenched an American icon that when producers of the televised fundraiser held after the September 11 attacks needed a comforting presence to give voice to "America The Beautiful," Nelson was chosen to close the show.

With myriad awards and membership in several halls of fame securing his legacy, and his well-publicized problems with the IRS ten years behind him, he nevertheless continues to tour at a pace that would exhaust most musicians half his age. (Nelson has said that since all he does is play music and golf, there's really nothing he could give up upon retiring.)

But for a man who presents himself so simply, Nelson's persona incorporates a mass of contradictions. Embraced by Nashville as a writer of hit songs for others, his own performing career was moribund until he broke with the country music establishment, simultaneously going back to the music's roots and finding a new audience that mixed young dopers with beer-swilling rednecks.

Despite writing many hit songs and country evergreens, Nelson's biggest selling album remains Stardust, which features his singularly spare interpretations of Tin Pan Alley standards. And though beloved by the big-buckle, pickup-driving Texans who voted without hesitation for George W. Bush, he's also a notorious pot smoker and liberal populist who's taken the cause of beleaguered family farmers as his own and has endorsed Democratic long shot Dennis Kucinich for President in 2004.

It's not surprising that the similarly iconoclastic Miles Davis was a Nelson fan because, pop icon status notwithstanding, Willie is first and foremost a timeless and supremely versatile musician. Throughout a vast catalog spanning a dozen genres of American music, he's proven himself to be an economical yet emotive guitarist and a singer whose laconic, behind-the-beat phrasing, melancholic tone and use of space recall the great American pop vocal traditions that also spawned Bing, Billie and Frank. Though tickets are pricey for his Pageant show -- the performance benefits the Saint Louis University Liver Center -- the chance to see Nelson up close seems worthwhile indeed.

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