Country music icon Willie Nelson celebrates his 80th birthday Tuesday, but he's just as vital to the country format as ever. Willie is even featured on Kenny Chesney's Life on a Rock album, hitting stores this week, on the song "Coconut Tree." That track talks about the virtues of leaving all your troubles behind while lounging on the island, and Kenny actually lived that song out over the holiday season last year with Willie himself.
"I went to Hawaii and sat around a poker table with Willie for a couple of days. And trust me, we climbed our own "Coconut Tree," Kenny says with a laugh alluding to Willie's well-documented love of marijuana. "It was a lot of fun."
Kenny adds that it's an honor to reunite with Willie for this album saying, "I think I've done more duets with Willie than anybody in the business, I think. He sang on my Christmas record years ago. I think this makes the fourth or fifth one. Something like that."
Willie welcomed another country star, Darius Rucker, into his Hawaiian home back in 2000. Darius was actually down there visiting his vegetarian, actor friend Woody Harrelson, and the lack of meat at Woody's house was really getting to Darius. After about eight days, Darius jumped at the chance to head over to Willie's house with Woody for a little golf and red meat.
Once Willie found out he'd been staying with Woody for about eight days, Willie told Darius, "You need some meat, don't ya?"
Darius says, "It was great. His wife was in the kitchen cooking hamburgers and hot dogs. I spent a couple of days playing golf with Willie and Kris Kristofferson. That's still one of the great memories of my life."
Even those stars who don't hang out with Willie that often can tell you he is vital to country music as we know it today. Tim McGraw, whose favorite Willie song is "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," tells ABC News Radio, "I think the great thing about country music is the unique stylists that we've had over the years. The guys who have really blazed a trail of individuality, and nobody's done that like Willie Nelson has."
Noting Willie's early success as a songwriter, Tim goes on to marvel at his run of unique run of hits in the '70s and '80s covering everything from duets with Julio Iglesias and Ray Charles to his classic standards album, Stardust.
Tim compares Willie to another musical icon with longevity, Bruce Springsteen, saying, "I don't think in any genre of music has there been anybody quite like Willie Nelson, and I think he's one of those guys that will go down, right up there with Springsteen, as one of those guys who's just part of the fabric of America and the fabric of what makes this country great."
For Kip Moore, Willie is right up there with his other musical hero, Bob Seger, when it comes to conveying sincerity in a vocal performance.
"Whether it's all B.S., I don't know," Kip says, "but there's something about their voices that captivate me more than anybody's as far as drawing me in and believing every single word and holding on to every single word they're saying."
Trace Adkins explains that Willie would have been lionized by country fans even if he'd never gone beyond writing country classics like "Crazy."
Trace tells ABC News Radio, "He has written some classic, classic songs. I think that's the biggest thing about Willie. He's the whole package. He's not just an artist. He's not just a singer, not just a guitar player. He's a songwriter. He's the whole package. He's just so unique that he's just Willie."
Willie even played a big role in the vocal development of Little Big Town's Kimberly Schlapman, who sang a Willie song during her very early days of performing back home in Georgia.
She tells ABC News Radio, "When I was about 13 years old, I started singing publicly a lot, and I would buy those accompaniment tapes to sing with, and my first one I bought was 'Always on My Mind,' and I sang that at fairs."
A host of stars have posted videos and messages at HappyBirthdayWillie.org wishing Willie a happy birthday including fellow Farm Aid founders Neil Young, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp. Stephen Colbert, Sting and Bonnie Raitt also contributed birthday wishes for Willie on the site.
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