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Willie Nelson Is Tirelessly Touring at 91. ‘The Border’ Shows He’s Just As Vital in the Studio

The country legend sings about escaping grief and the mysteries of the road on his latest album, and adds an epic story-song about immigration to his catalog

The fact that Willie Nelson is still touring at 91 is often celebrated as a feat of superhuman endurance — he just delivered an exceptional set at Stagecoach Festival and is on the road all summer with Bob Dylan. But Nelson’s recording output in his golden years is just as impressive. In the last 10 years alone, he’s released 16 different studio albums that, among other conceits, ruminated on mortality and lost relationships, paid homage to the songs of Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin, and reinvented his own material as bluegrass rave-ups.

Nelson has never been shy about challenging his listeners with subtle social messages too — from gay marriage rights to the power of the ballot box — and it’s no coincidence that he titled his latest album The Border during a time when all eyes are on the invisible line separating the U.S. from Mexico.

The title track to the album (his 152nd if you’re counting) is actually a cover of Rodney Crowell and Allen Shamblin’s 2019 song about a border guard consumed by his thankless work and the desperation he witnesses. “From the shacks and the shanties, come the hungry and poor/Some to drown at the crossing, some to suffer no more,” he sings in a lament. It’s one of the Red Headed Stranger’s most moving and cinematic latter-day recordings, a story-song in which the toll and complexity of the immigration issue stings you in the face as hard as desert sand. (The album’s cover photo is of Big Bend National Park, right on the border between Texas and Mexico).

Produced by Nelson’s longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon, the album includes four new Nelson/Cannon co-writes. “Once Upon a Yesterday” jumps back to Willie’s childhood days when “time was standing still”; “What If I’m Out of My Mind” lets him question his sanity, one of his favorite lyrical tropes; and “Kiss Me When You’re Through” allows a lover to break his heart again and again, as long as they seal it with a smooch. But it’s “How Much Does It Cost” that stands apart, with its opening query — “How much does it cost to be free?” — and Willie reflecting on the curse of being a songwriter who is “always trying to make it all rhyme.”

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At 91, Nelson has weathered many a recent loss. His best friend and drummer Paul English died in 2020, and his sister Bobbie Nelson passed two years later, followed this February by the death of singing buddy Toby Keith. Willie returns to the idea of grief and the uncertainty of what’s in store in the track “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway,” another Crowell song that gives The Border its heart and Nelson one more opportunity to sing about the mystery of the road.

“To shake my world of grieving/I guess I’ll go on until it’s gone,” he croons, staring unflinchingly at the highway that lies ahead. He vows to travel it — much like his career —on his own terms: “And in the end, I’ll do it my way.”

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