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Faces of the week (Friday, 15 July, 2005)


Our regular look at some of the faces which have made the news this week. Above are WILLIE NELSON(main picture), with JACK NICKLAUS, DUCHESS OF CORNWALL, SIR IAN BLAIR and BERNIE EBBERS.

WILLIE NELSON

Veteran performer Willie Nelson has this week achieved two things rare in a man of his age: the release of a new reggae album completely different from his many country offerings, and the courting of fresh controversy with his blatant espousal of marijuana use.

If there is a spare edifice at Mount Rushmore, it is surely reserved for Willie Nelson. Like the faces of the revered former presidents, his famous rugged features seem to have borne witness to a long episode of American history.

In fact, he's been around so long, they probably have. In an industry where the word "legend" is bandied around willy-nilly, Willie Nelson remains the real deal.

But the Red Headed Stranger has left his record company red-faced this week with his latest album, Countryman. Not only has he departed from his usual country sound for the off-beat twangs of reggae, but on the CD cover, he's put what is clearly a large marijuana leaf.

'Cosmic cowboy'

Nelson himself is a known long-time user of this particular "herb", but Universal Music executives have moved swiftly to turn the offending leaf into a more universally acceptable palm tree, for those albums on sale in Wal-mart stores.

Wal-mart is one of America's biggest distributors of country music, but also one of the most sensitive about lyrics and packaging.

The cover of Countryman with its offending leaf
"They're covering all bases," explains Nelson, who can clearly take such marketing controversies on his weathered chin. He may have slept at the White House, and may be a close friend of Jimmy Carter, but Nelson has been a self-professed outlaw of the musical establishment for many years.

His rebellion dates back to 1979 when, feeling unloved, and un-marketed, by his record company, he turned his back on Nashville to start his own "outlaw country" movement, along with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.

Back in his native Texas, Nelson created a more progressive sound that attracted a huge audience from different directions, what one observer called "rednecks and hippies coming together in a new cosmic cowboy culture". Willie's star was born again.

The musician also famously found God, but was later found himself, by the nation's tax men, who presented him with a bill for his newfound success to the tune of nearly $17m.

Creative force still on the road

Since then, his personal idiosyncrasies and musical wanderings have only added to his popularity. His trademark headband and long braid lend him a Native American mystique, but his appeal to mainstream audiences can be measured by his many cameo appearances on American TV shows like The Simpsons and Nash Bridges.

Moreover, his happiness to go out on a cross-genre creative limb has produced some unquestionably important moments in America's musical canon, and the name Willie Nelson still adds credibility to any musical line-up.

From his original country roots, Nelson's career has encompassed rock, gospel, folk, blues, dozens of albums and duets with artists from Jerry Lee Lewis to Keith Richards.

Elvis, just one of the artists to cover Nelson's work
He's had hits with other peoples' work, like Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and Georgia on my Mind, and had his own work borrowed - classics like Crazy by Patsy Cline and Always On My Mind by Elvis Presley.

Now aged 72, his creative force shows no sign of slowing. In the last year alone, he's performed at the Super Bowl, been on tour with Bob Dylan and headlined at the Farm Aid musical festival, in aid of the organisation he founded with John Mellencamp and Neil Young a decade ago.

He has spent a huge proportion of the last 30 years on the road, with his tour bus, Honeysuckle Rose III, replacing the previous two that were driven in to the ground. He's been an actor, an author, an activist. He's even launched his own internet service.

And now Nelson, like Johnny Cash before him, has been drawn to the music of the laid-back island that spawned Bob Marley. He first dreamed up the album 10 years ago, but back then no record executives had any faith in the project.

Reviews of Countryman have been decidedly mixed. One US critic has deemed it "throwaway/novelty stuff", while another praised "a bold idea and nothing more". All tend to agree, though, with one critic's view of Nelson, that "his stuff goes so far afield, but his audience goes along with anything he does".

Certainly, no one can dismiss Willie Nelson's creative curiosity. His old acoustic guitar, Trigger, may be battered, and the titian mane faded in the half-century since he first took to the stage, but his voice remains strong, his braid uncut.

Controversy notwithstanding, his grizzled national treasure status will remain assured. The sculptors at Rushmore had better get carving.


JACK NICKLAUS

Jack Nicklaus has hung up his clubs on a phenomenal career. The most successful ever golfer teed off at St Andrews with his old friend and rival, Tom Watson. Nicklaus attracted emotional crowds as he made his way round the ancient course, and fellow golfers queued to pay homage to their golfing god. Meanwhile, the Golden Bear himself hadn't quite given up the growl, asking at his honorary dinner, "What gets me in next year?"

 

DUCHESS OF CORNWALL

The Duchess of Cornwall confessed to being a fan of comedy Little Britain, during a visit to the real-life Llanddewi-Brefi, home of Dafydd, "the only gay in the village". Accompanying Prince Charles on a tour of Wales, Camilla admitted, however, that she had no idea how to pronounce the name of this celebrated community. The royal couple drank cups of tea and nibbled on cheese but, alas, Dafydd failed to make an appearance.

SIR IAN BLAIR

Ultimately, Sir Ian Blair is the man who has to find those who masterminded the London bomb attacks. Since assuming control of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian has staked his credibility on making the force more inclusive. That goal has additional urgency in the wake of the London attacks, and speaking at a mosque on Friday, Sir Ian told worshippers: "We've only got 300 Muslim police officers in London - that's not good enough. I need your mothers, fathers, sons and daughters."

 
BERNIE EBBERS

Former Worldcom boss Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in jail for his part in the scandal that brought down the firm, the biggest bankruptcy in US corporate history. Formerly a basketball coach and milkman, Ebbers became the darling of Wall Street when Worldcom shares reached an all-time high in 1998, and President Clinton called him "the symbol of 21st Century America". Ebbers will begin serving his sentence in Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Compiled by BBC News Profiles Unit's Caroline Frost