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Television Review

An Inside, if Not Insightful, Look at a Legend


"American Masters" starts its 17th season tonight with a love letter to that undisputed master of country music, Willie Nelson.

More entertaining and endearing than illuminating, "Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving" is most moving when producer-director Steven Cantor focuses on the kinship between Nelson and his older sister and bandmate, pianist Bobbie Nelson, and with the members of his close-knit band, fittingly called Family.

In one scene, Bobbie brushes her 69-year-old baby bro's gray and auburn tresses as he relaxes, eyes half-closed, in the tour bus in which they spend so much of their lives.

Longtime friend and collaborator Waylon Jennings, who died shortly after taping his interview, makes some of the funniest, and most incisive, comments about Nelson. Regarding his singular vocal phrasing, Jennings says: "I always told him, 'You start in yesterday and wind up tomorrow.' "

Cantor traces the oft-told story of Nelson's journey from his cotton-picking youth in Abbott, Texas, living with his grandparents after his parents divorced, through his rocky apprenticeship as a square peg trying to squeeze himself into the round holes of Nashville's country music scene in the 1960s.

It takes us on through the superstardom Nelson attained as one of the Texas outlaws who breathed new life into country in the '70s with their rough-and-rowdy outsiders' ways and more intensely personal brand of songwriting.

Nelson has been in the public arena for so long that revelations about his life, at this point, are few. Those that crop up here tend to slip out, as when Nelson confides to admirer Dave Matthews that his career-making song "Crazy" begins with a hook he copped from an old Floyd Tillman song.

The spotlight falls on the various loves of his life: golf, horses, martial arts, the American family farm, sister Bobbie, his seven children and above all, his music.

More of Willie Nelson, the man, instead of so much of Willie, the country music icon, might have come through with input from any of his three ex-wives on how life unfolded while married to a man who seems to live for touring and recording. He briefly enumerates the evils of alcohol that prompted him to stop drinking, but the show never addresses his stance on cannabis, for which he has run afoul of authorities on occasion.

There's reference to the strong jazz current that runs through his compositions, but nothing from Nelson or anyone else about how or why a kid from a Podunk town in Texas developed so sophisticated a style of composition and singing. And his infamous battle with the IRS that wound up costing him $17 million is dispensed with as little more than an inconvenience.

The pace is too leisurely, especially in the final half hour, and at times it all feels a tad insular watching the lives of so many people--musicians, road crew, relatives and friends--revolving almost completely around the wants and needs of Willie.

Yet he's such a benign presence, and so staggeringly gifted a songwriter, singer and guitarist, the overriding impression is that there are a lot worse things these folks could devote themselves to than the well-being of the Red Headed Stranger.

"Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving" airs at 9 tonight on "American Masters" on KCET.

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