Matchbox Twenty's Thomas Teams With Nelson

Willie Nelson could be next in line for a comeback of Carlos Santana-like proportions - at least if Rob Thomas has more smooth moves up his sleeve.

Three tunes written by Matchbox Twenty's lead singer are set to appear on the Red-Headed Stranger's forthcoming album.

"Willie Nelson, to me, is a god," said Thomas, checking in by phone last week from Los Angeles.

He said he has turned down numerous offers and "a lot of money" to team up with other artists in the aftermath of Santana's chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning hit "Smooth," which Thomas co-wrote and sang. However, he jumped at the chance to work with Nelson. "We wrote some stuff together, but the three songs that he put on the record were just three of mine," said Thomas, adding that Kid Rock and longtime Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin also have made contributions to Nelson's work-in-progress, tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

For now, Thomas is on the road again with Matchbox Twenty - "my day job," as he put it. The pop-rock quintet from Orlando, Fla., performs Monday at Gund Arena, with Everclear and Lifehouse opening.

Concert-goers can expect an earful as well as an eyeful from Thomas, guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. "We have some lighting rigs that we know for a fact no one else is using," said Thomas, 29. "We're a band that will spend a week just getting all the guitar tones right, to make them sound as close to the records live as we can."

The band's latest album, "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty," has sold 3 million copies, spurred by the hits "If You're Gone" and "Bent." The latter tune was the group's first No. 1 single.

Matchbox Twenty and producer Matt Serletic brought in horns to add soulful punch to "Black & White People" and strings to heighten the drama on the album-closing ballad "You Won't Be Mine," which Thomas identified as his favorite track.

"There were lots of sounds that we wanted to touch on that we hadn't heard in a long time," he said. "We would have big listening parties once a week and play everything from old Wilson Pickett records to Don Henley and Supertramp records. We were trying to get guitar tones, keyboard sounds and the big '80s drums that you just don't hear in pop music anymore."

Thomas & Co. had a tough act to follow. "Yourself or Someone like You," Matchbox Twenty's 1996 debut album, sold 10 million copies.

"You're not just going to sell 10 million records out of the box every time," Thomas said. "We're not responsible for selling 10 million records. We're responsible for making the best record we can.

"Once you put it out into the world, there are so many factors that go into it, from the record company to radio to the right management. It's so out of your control that you're no more responsible for the failure of a record than you are for the success of a record."

Besides, Thomas said that winning the respect of a legendary rocker like Santana means more to him than multiplatinum sales or glowing reviews.

"When a musician like Santana gives you the thumbs-up, that's the kind of accolade you start looking for, especially once you've had a certain type of success," he said. "You start wondering what success means. When musicians you admire start telling you, 'Hey, that's pretty good,' it means something."

Thomas and Santana have been talking about writing together again, although they have no delusions about coming up with another "Smooth."

"I'd love to sit down with Carlos and write something," Thomas said, "but we want to do it quietly, without trying to make anyone think that we're trying to repeat 'Smooth.' We both know that's not going to happen."

Even more remote is the possibility that Matchbox Twenty's main man will cough up a song for 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys.

"They have teams of writers, pretty much the same 10 guys that write all those songs," said Thomas. "When they came around and said 'Let's write a hit,' I said 'No, thanks.' You try to do things that make you happy, as opposed to things that are going to make you more money or bring you more press. I always try to take the happy route."

- John Soeder