THE RACE IS ON. IN THE LEAD GOLF cart is an exuberant Willie Nelson, zipping at whiplash speed across his lush 700-acre preserve near Austin, Tex. Hellbent on beating his cronies to the first tee of his personal 18-hole golf course, Nelson, 60, nearly flips the cart as he rushes headlong to victory. The ride is one of dips and bumps—much like Nelson's life lately.

Just 2½ years ago, the IRS was poised to seize nearly everything he had. His estate here, another 44-acre spread at Dripping Springs, 22 other properties in four states, even his instruments were bound for the auction block. Then, on Christmas Day 1991, Billy Nelson, Willie's 33-year-old son from his first marriage, hanged himself at his home in a Nashville suburb. Even for a man who had known his share of hard times before, it was a time for something close to despair.

With a little help from a lot of his friends, however, Nelson is back on his feel. He has made his peace with the IRS, learned to live with the loss of his son and restarted his stalled recording career. Across the Borderline, Nelson's—believe it or not—110th album, has been rumbling up the country and pop charts since its release in March.

Produced by studio wiz Don Was, Nelson's comeback album is chock full of cross-cultural surprises, including vocal and musical contributions from Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Sinéad O'Connor and Bob Dylan. Showcasing Nelson's mesmerizing vocals, the album has captivated critics and Nelson's collaborators alike. "He strips away the garbage," Was says, "and gets to raw emotion."

Not that Nelson is accustomed to baring his soul: When a reporter brings up the death of his son, Willie lets it be known that the subject is off-limits. He reportedly was devastated by the suicide. And friends say Billy's death may have prompted Nelson and fourth wife Anne-Marie (a makeup artist he met on the set of his 1986 CBS movie, Stagecoach) to steer sons Lukas, 4, and Micah, 3, away from the limelight. When she angrily shoos a photographer away from the boys, Nelson blames "this crazy lifestyle," adding, "I want to keep them out of this business if I can."

In fact, the boys lead a somewhat cloistered existence, shuttled by their mother between a nearby Montessori school and the family's hilltop home with a spectacular view of the ranch below. Eager to put in as much parenting time as he can, Nelson rouses himself to breakfast with them before they head off in the morning.

It was a consortium of friends who made it possible for the Nelsons to hang on to their Dripping Springs spread. Since 1991, Nelson has leased his recording studio and golf course complex from a benefactor who bought it from the government for an estimated $575,000. "The support was fantastic," he says. "It takes something like this to find out how many friends you have."

Nelson's fateful battle with the IRS began in 1984 when they disallowed his real-estate tax shelters, including several cattle ranches, leaving him owing—before 1990 negotiations halved the debt—$32 million in taxes, interest and penalties. (He is suing his former accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, for $45 million for allegedly offering poor advice.) He was shocked, he says, to find himself paying $5,000 a day in interest on the debt but eventually learned to laugh at the absurdity. Says Nelson: "Here was this guitar player from Abbott, Tex., who started out making $8 a day. How did he get $32 million into these guys? Somebody missed a stitch."

Bent on getting himself out of hock, Nelson hit the road, playing as many as 23 cities in nine countries in one month last year. Nelson had paid off $3.6 million by last February, when the IRS agreed to reduce his debt to a flat $9 million, with no further interest or penalties.

With his tax burdens eased, the singer is eager to climb back into his Honeysuckle Rose II tour bus June 10 for a concert swing through California. Fans may be as awed by the king of the country music outlaws as his recent collaborators were. "Everyone was extremely deferential," remembers Was. "I have never seen Bob Dylan so humble." But Nelson laughs off such idol worship. "Just call me Pop Icon," he says with a grin.

STEVE DOUGHERTY
ANNE MAIER in Pedernales

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier.