Willie Nelson has an agricultural face.

Intensely weathered, the area around his sparkling eyes looks like sun-cracked soil. The beatific smile is a calm pond framed by the thick crop of graying beard and pulled-back ponytail that falls halfway down his back.

Raised "around farming and farm people ... cotton and corn" in the little central Texas town of Abbott, the 54-year-old country music legend came to town recently sporting an "Abbott Fighting Tigers" cap, and he still maintains one of his four homes there.

He also knows the struggle of the American farmer first hand: In 1985, Nelson lost $800,000 on cattle feed. "I got out of the cattle feeding business real quick," he said.

Unlike most farmers, of course, he had another career or two to fall back on -- and plenty of friends in high places. Today he's hosting his 14th annual Fourth of July Picnic at Carl's Corner, Tex., 60 miles south of Dallas. Merle Haggard, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bruce Hornsby, Kris Kristofferson (who'll fly in right after his appearance at the Welcome Home concert in Washington this afternoon) and 75,000 of Willie's closest pals are expected to attend. It's a honky-tonk Woodstock, repeated year after year.

A couple of weeks ago, though, Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp were in Washington on another populist mission, hoping to prick congressional consciences about various farm-related bills -- most notably the Harkin-Gephardt Family Farm Act -- that have been going essentially nowhere since 1985. Back then the Plight of the American Family Farmer was a favorite cover story, and Nelson and Mellencamp and Neil Young put together the first Farm Aid concert to focus worldwide attention on the problem. With Farm Aid III scheduled for Lincoln, Neb., in September (Farm Aid II took place a year ago in Texas), it was time to refresh some memories.

So Nelson mingled with the power brokers on the Hill, chowing down with House Speaker Jim Wright and a select few members of Congress in the speaker's private dining room, seeming quite at ease in his black T-shirt and Wrangler jeans (a few years back, Nelson was voted one of the Five Worst Dressed Men in America).

"I was here two years ago and between now and then not a whole lot has happened," he said, speaking softly butfirmly. "Everyone says this is the way the government works -- slow -- but I think other crises we've had have caused the government to work faster. Why do we have to stretch it out on this one? Out there in the countryside, the people can't understand it ...

"Articles I've read in the last few months say things are better, the farm crisis is over. When you can say that and at the same time 14,000 full-time farmers in my state alone went out of business last year, there's a smoke screen going on."

Farm Aid I raised some $10 million, but Farm Aid II -- the first of the "compassion concerts" to attempt a sequel -- was beset by insurance, exposure and location problems, and barely topped the $1 million mark. At this rate, Farm Aid III might be headed for a federal bailout, but Nelson's confident that won't be the case.

Last year, he says, he discounted the allure of the Liberty Weekend in New York -- even Willie and his 79 costars couldn't compete with 500 Elvis impersonators. Farm Aid II was on cable, while the Liberty gala was on prime-time network TV. "I have to take responsibility," Nelson says. "We could have waited and had it later, but I was having a Fourth of July picnic in Austin anyway so I thought why not combine them?"

This time he's hoping for more network coverage. The lineup won't be as big: "We'll have a smaller number of acts on the show, and they'll work longer," Nelson says. Already committed: Mellencamp, Young, Bruce Hornsby and Bon Jovi, who also played at Farm Aid I, but were not then the huge draw they are now.

Fire and Rain Long before Bon Jovi was any kind of draw, Willie Nelson knew about the thin line between fame and obscurity. He may be in the spotlight now, but a dozen years ago, he was contemplating early retirement. Today's picnic will overflow with sweaty humanity; the first few drew barely enough people to fill a stage.

Nelson first made his mark in the '60s as a writer of soulful songs that have become country perennials: "Night Life," "Family Bible," "Hello Walls," "Crazy," "Ain't It Funny (How Time Slips Away)," "The Party's Over." After moving to Nashville at the beginning of that decade, he landed a spot in Ray Price's band (as a bassist). But while he continued to write hits, to record (22 albums for RCA and Atlantic) and to tour, Nelson simply never made much of a dent until his Nashville home burned down and he moved back to Texas, and to Austin, a town bubbling with musical possibility.

In Nashville, Nelson was accepted as a writer, but the conservative powers there didn't know what to make of his unorthodox singing and the simplicity of his arrangements. His vocals, which have been described as "clear as a bell but sharp as a knife," had a sleepy blues inflection and tended to lag behind the beat (Nelson once said he just sang until he ran out of breath). They're so familiar now it's hard to believe the Nashville establishment once tried to convince him he couldn't sing.

In 1970, with his second marriage crumbling and his songwriting blocked -- his last two Nashville songs were "Sad Songs and Waltzes Aren't Selling This Year" and "What Can They Do to Me Now" -- Nelson made the papers by rushing back into his still-burning house on Christmas Eve to save his guitar (and a pound of Colombian gold). Then, more tired and disillusioned than angry, he packed it in.

"I literally picked up, left and went back to Texas," he recalls. "Before {the fire} happened I had thought well, maybe I'm going about this the wrong way, maybe I'm spinning my wheels, maybe I should go back home and not try to travel in such a great circle. Maybe I should just work Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, places where I was known and where I could draw good crowds, where I could make a living.

Back in Texas, he says, "I had just about decided to semiretire and relax, work whatever days I needed to work to pay the bills. The first couple of years I was back there, me and my band practically lived off my songwriter's royalties. Then all of sudden we changed labels {to Columbia} and I had a new album called 'Red Headed Stranger.' And then 'Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain' came into the picture and we did our first picnic and all of sudden I wasn't in retirement anymore."

It was in 1975 that Nelson and his third wife Connie came up with the concept for "Red Headed Stranger," which was actually Nelson's fourth concept album (after "Yesterday's Wine," "Shotgun Willie" and "Phases and Stages"). This time he combined his own songs with some older standards into a loosely cohesive morality play set in the Old West. Ironically, it wasn't one of Nelson's originals but the Fred Rose chestnut, "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," that became a huge crossover hit. Both the single and the album went to No. 1 on the pop charts, a rarity for any country artist. That kind of sudden success, Nelson concedes, was never on his mind.

"I was a little surprised," he says. "I was 40 years old, I'd had a good career as a writer and a fairly good career as a singer, so if I didn't sell any more records, I couldn't complain too much. Then all of sudden I saw a new interest, a new audience for what I was doing and felt maybe it's not time to quit. Maybe there was an audience out there that I didn't know about.

"And in truth there was."

Wanted: The In-Laws In the early '70s, Austin was home to a vigorous and eclectic music scene, supportive of renegades like Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings and instantly sympathetic to Nelson's break from formulaic Nashville country. Still, Nelson's tonsorial evolution -- he'd once been partial to crew cuts -- probably helped as much as anything when it came to building an audience relationship.

"None of them paid all that much attention to me until I started growing my hair and beard and punched a hole in my ear and put in an earring," he laughs. "All of a sudden here was this crazy old man, a wild-looking hippie up there singing country music. That had a lot to do with it, I think."

In 1976, Nelson, Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser teamed up on an album titled "Wanted: The Outlaws." Though it was a terrible album, it was great myth-making, casting the cowboy/desperado/country singer as the latest form of American antihero. "The Outlaws" not only became the first-ever platinum country album, but kicked off a whole "Outlaw" movement, an ideological and esthetic rebuff to all that was sterile in the recording studios of Nashville and Bakersfield, Calif. (a k a Nashville West).

Eleven years later, it's a little hard to think of Nelson -- a man who owns the 1,700-seat Austin Opera House and a private country club (with a recording studio in the clubhouse and pars he sets himself), sponsors a celebrity golf tournament in Oklahoma, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, flies around in a private Lear jet and earns more money than he knows what to do with -- as any kind of outlaw. But Nelson has no regrets about the name.

"I'm sort of proud of that," he says. "I was proud of the fact that we fought the system in Nashville ... and that we won. I know Waylon sometimes says 'I wish they would quit calling us Outlaws,' but he really don't. Kris is the same way. Those guys like the idea that we don't exactly follow the rules all the time.

"I think when what we were doing became 'commercial,' the 'Outlaws' became the 'In-Laws,' " he laughs. "Once people outside the establishment get accepted, all of a sudden they're inside the establishment, whether they really want to be or not. Now there's young outlaws out there trying to kick us out so they can come in ... " He mentions Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. "I wish 'em luck."

Still, if Nelson's settled into a comfortable, somewhat conservative niche, he's also enjoying the "kick in the butt" provided by neotraditionalists like George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and Randy Travis. And he's done his own missionary work for the past, recording albums with a number of country stars who've been pretty much abandoned by country's current marketeers.

"I'm not sure it's as much a pay-back as a tribute to guys like Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and George Jones -- all these guys that are established country music legends and have been over the years," Nelson explains. "These are all guys who were heroes of mine and I get a big kick out of singing with them. There was a time when I probably never thought I'd meet them, much less be able to do a record with them."

It's also true that Willie Nelson's never met somebody he doesn't want to duet with. "I don't think I've ever said no," he laughs. "I enjoy singing with people."

Off the Road Again? Nelson has a whole second career in film, though his latest -- "Red Headed Stranger" -- hasn't been particularly visible. The movie -- a tale of love, lust, murder, revenge and redemption in which Nelson plays the Rev. Julian Shay (it was finished long before the PTL scandal broke) -- opened in Texas in February and has been scuttling around towns in the South and Southwest ever since, a fate not unlike that of earlier Nelson films such as "Songwriter" and "Barbarosa."

"I followed the album almost to the letter," he says, "though every song in the album is not in the movie. Otherwise it would have been more like a musical video. We tried to strike a happy medium in there. They tell me they're waiting for the summer blockbusters and then it will hit the big cities in the fall."

When big-city fans do get to see the film, they'll no doubt see an uncanny resemblance between the Rev. Shay and Willie Nelson, who usually ends up playing himself whether it's in a singing role (as in "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Songwriter") or not (as in "Barbarosa," where he played "an outlaw who didn't sing"). "It's too easy to play myself," admits the reluctant leading man, who has been likened to Gabby Hayes after a month at Club Med.

In "Songwriter," Nelson played a character perhaps too much like himself. A rather sour look at the Nashville establishment, the film featured Nelson and Kristofferson and such caustic numbers as "Write Your Own Songs" and "Who'll Buy My Memories." Some called it "Willie's Revenge."

"I think there were an awful lot of {Nashville} executives who thought we were talking about them, and we probably were," says Nelson with a little smile. "Also the movie executives probably had the opinion we were talking about them as well, and decided to keep it down."

There will be more movies -- possibly including "Tougher Than Leather," yet another concept album from 1985. "Leather" was important not just as a concept, but as a forum for Nelson's songwriting -- something he's mostly been avoiding for the past decade, even as he's continued to grow as a stylist and interpreter. The album had nine new Nelson songs, a grand total that some of his older fans had despaired of ever seeing again.

"I went many, many years where I wrote a lot of songs -- about a thousand -- and I still haven't recorded them all," Nelson says. "After I got started traveling so much, and the records started selling, then my songwriting started dropping off considerably and I didn't have the time to do it like I did when I was back there starving and had no dates to play. Back then I had plenty of time to write songs.

"The challenge of writing for movies has kind of helped me," he says. But he also needs "to go back and spend some more time just writing songs and getting out of the touring business and back to what I was originally supposed to do."

Perhaps "Off the Road Again?"

Not right away.

Just as he sings in his trademark song, Nelson enjoys the road that he's been on almost constantly since he broke through in 1975. "It looked better then than it did in the mid-'50s and '60s," he points out. "I enjoy playing music and I enjoy traveling around. I fare much better when I'm moving from one town to another than I do when I sit in one spot for a long time. Billy Joe Shaver said 'movin' is the closest thing to being free,' and for me that holds true.

"After 90 days on the road, I may need a few days off to get my bearings, but I really enjoy people. I don't mind signing autographs or saying hello. It seems like in every town, it's like waking up in your home town. You walk off the bus and people say, 'Hi, Willie.' As long as you can get used to that, there's no problem. I can handle that all right."

He has to -- it seems like everybody says "Hi, Willie" these days. Nelson's guru/good guy image probably helps his universal popularity, but he also notes that country music itself has changed, that it no longer represents a boundary some folks won't cross.

"I've been surprised at the way it has grown and been accepted by a lot of the young people," he says. "For a long time it was mostly considered to be middle-aged guys' music and young people didn't necessarily dig what was going on. Then all of a sudden people like Gram Parsons and those guys come along, rock 'n' roll guys playing country music, and somewhere along the way it started blending together. Now we have some of the finest musicians in the world play country music and turn around and play jazz. They're all very versatile.

"If anything, that's the difference music has come to {between} the '40s and now -- there are people who can play it all and play it well."

Most of them, it must be said, probably work at it harder than Nelson and his crack band. There are so many elements to his music -- pop, swing, jazz, gospel and blues as well as country -- that a Nelson concert is a forever unfolding thing. "It's mostly accidental because we never rehearse," he confesses.

"We always come together from nine different places and jump up there and start 'Whiskey River' {his show opener for 12 years} and none of us really know how it's going to come out. Fortunately, if you've got a lot of good musicians, you can improvise and it will come out well, and that's basically what happens to all our songs every night. We do a lot of the same songs, but they're never the same ... And I like that. I think it would be hard for me to get tied down to an arrangement and have to do the same thing over and over."

This may apply to his life style, as well. Willie Nelson's one of the few people the cliche' "survivor" really applies to -- and that's exactly what he was in 1983, when a collapsed lung almost sent him into the past tense. After a long recuperation (and some thoughts on mortality that shaped the "Leather" album, particularly the song "Little Old Fashioned Karma"), he changed a few things about his routine -- sufficiently, if not totally.

"I'm still running and biking and doing everything I can," he says, a bit sheepishly, "to make up for what I did the night before."