Nelson hangs onto his buses till they're over a million miles, still wears a black T-shirt and that red, white and blue guitar strap. His children grew up on the bus and now they play in his band from time to time.
So, to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, the outlaw thing's been overdone. All he wanted to do was play his own music the way he chose. In Nashville, that idea was sacrilegious. And while Nelson was something of a known quantity in town — he had written hits and was a member of the Grand Ole Opry — conventional wisdom said he was never going to amount to much if he insisted on singing his own songs in a manner that didn't fit Music City's countrypolitan ways.
"You ever heard the song me and Waylon did back in the old days called 'Write Your Own Songs?'" Nelson says with a laugh. "I still do that one occasionally. I get a kick out of doing it because it takes you back to the days when me and Waylon were fighting the outlaw wars here in Nashville and losing. I enjoyed those times. I even enjoyed being the outlaw and the outcast. I thought, 'All right, that's great. I must be doing something right.' You remember the old saying, 'You keep on doing it wrong till you like it that way?'"
Two things happened in the early 1970s to give Nelson the advantage in those wars — his decision to leave Nashville and relocate to Austin, Texas, and the release of "Outlaws." The album, a collection of odds and ends from Nelson, Jennings and others, was the first country album to go platinum and was accidentally timed perfectly to take advantage of an obsession with Southern culture in the U.S. during the Age of Burt Reynolds.
Quickly, Nelson was not only a well-known singer with a group of suddenly popular friends, but he was an actor on film and television. His influence spread quickly. Friend Kris Kristofferson invited Nelson down to Mexico to the set of Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" where he introduced him to Bob Dylan. Nelson played a song for a group of new friends.
"And Bob Dylan was so knocked out that he made him keep playing," Kristofferson remembered during a visit to the bus late last year. "I think you played there all day by yourself. ... Dylan was just amazed. It made me respect Dylan, too. But (Nelson) has always been a songwriter's hero. Because he's a great songwriter. Because he's absolutely unlike anybody else and because he's the funniest human being on the planet. And very much like God."
Except maybe when he's telling dirty jokes. Nelson and Vince Gill have plenty in common, but it's their love of off-color quips that cemented their friendship.
Gill says Nelson remains relevant in the 21st century for a simple reason. He continues to show people the way.
"He's the most unique singer I've ever heard," Gill said, "and that to me is the whole point: For you to flip the radio on and know exactly who that is. That's what you dream of."
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.