Willie Nelson will host two Farm Aid restrospectives on TNN. The Nashvill Network will highlight the 1996 Farm Aid concert in Columbia, SC.
Willie Nelson will be a guest on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, during his second innaugeral week as host of the show. He will be the musical performance, but will also sit down and talk with Stephen. Also on the Sept. 16 show Kevin Spacey; Carol Burnett with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City.
Colbert’s entire second week schedule here:
by: Chris Heath
photos: Pari Dukovic
Marijuana’s state-by-state march toward full legalization would never have happened without Willie Nelson. He’s 82 now, and he’s spent nearly half his life as America’s most famous stoner. But this fall he’ll be making the leap from aficionado to entrepreneur. What Paul Newman did for tomato sauce, what Francis Coppola did for Cabernet, Willie Nelson is hoping to do for weed.
“I’ve bought a lot of pot in my life,” Willie Nelson tells me, “and now I’m selling it back.”
Willie Nelson has this kind of answer—stock, pithy—for all kinds of questions, and he’s been using them for decades. Bring up his brief abortive stint at college studying business administration? Invariably he’ll soon say, “I majored in dominoes.” Mention the massive sum he owed the IRS in the early ’90s—somewhere between $17 million and $32 million—and you’ll get the one about how it isn’t so much “if you say it real fast.”
As time passes, the world offers up new questions, and so sometimes new answers are required. Once he reached the age when people began asking about retirement, Nelson would reply that he doesn’t do anything but play music and golf: “I wouldn’t know what to quit.” And now that one of America’s stoner icons is going into the pot business and planning to launch his own proprietary brand called Willie’s Reserve, this bought-a-lot-of-pot-in-my-life line is already on instant replay and you can confidently expect to hear Nelson use it for the next few years, anytime the subject is raised in his vicinity. In fact when we first meet, on the tour bus where he likes to do interviews and live much of his life, less than ninety seconds pass before he
There’s a lot of shade and space behind answers like these. They leave people feeling like they’ve had a funny and intimate encounter with someone who, as Willie Nelson does, knows how to deliver them—with an amiable mischievous half-smile and a wizened wink in his eye, as though the words have just popped into his head. Answers that charm and entertain but also leave his real thoughts unbothered, his real life unruffled.
Willie Nelson has plenty of real thoughts, and he has lived a life as real and unreal as they come for eighty-two years and counting. Those stories are a little harder to shake loose, but he will share some of them, too. And when it comes to Willie Nelson, it’s worth holding out for the good stuff.
Maybe all of us are engaged in a lifelong fight to find our better natures. But some of us, perhaps the luckiest ones, find a reliable shortcut. For Willie Nelson, that shortcut has turned out to be pot. It works for him, and he needed it. His public image is a kind of Zen cowboy, a naturally chilled-out elder—Robin Williams used to have a bit in his act about how even Buddha was jealous of how mellow Willie Nelson was—but of course the truth is more complicated. “I can be a real asshole when I’m straight,” he tells me. “As Annie can probably adhere to.”
Annie is Nelson’s fourth wife—“my current wife,” as he has sometimes described her, though they have now been married for twenty-four years. She sits out of my sight, behind me, but periodically she contributes to the conversation. “He’s not an asshole sober,” she clarifies, coming to her husband’s defense. Briefly, at least. “Only when he’s drinking. Then he’s an asshole.”
Did you think you were an asshole at the time?
“Oh, I’ve always known that possibility, you know,” he says. “I saw a funny cartoon the other day. ‘How do you piss off a redhead?’ ‘Say something.’
And you felt like some anger came with your red hair?
“I could associate with the temper that goes with it.”
So are you still as angry as you used to be, but now that you smoke you’ve just learned how to not show it?
“Probably. I still get pissed off, and take a couple of hits and say, ‘Well, it ain’t that bad.…’ Delete and fast-forward: That’s my new motto.”
“It works,” Annie attests.
How long’s that been the motto?
“Oh, six months,” he says.
What kind of things can annoy you?
“Life itself, you know. If you start going over the way things are and you don’t get pissed off, you just haven’t studied the facts yet.” He laughs.
So, overall, you’re proposing that one should study the facts, get pissed off, and then smoke and get un-pissed off?
“Yeah. Delete and fast-forward, start over again. Admit that you’re an asshole and move on.”
You’ve said that you’re naturally a little too revved up, and that pot brings you back closer to normal.
He nods. “I have compared myself to the motorboat where the fuel for the motorboat is a little too hot for the motor, where you have to add a little oil in it. I figure that’s my oil, you know. It’s what I have to do to, you know, to make it easier.”
And what happens to the motorboat without the oil?
“Burns out,” says Annie.
“Yeah. It wears out. And he does dumb and dumber things.”
“The motorboat stays a redhead,” says Annie.
Do you ever drink at all now?
“Very rarely. If you got a drink, I’ll take a drink. But no, I don’t like me drinking.”
Why do you think it had that effect on you?
“I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of Indian blood in me, and something true is that Indians can’t do alcohol. So I start out knowing that. My drummer, Paul, we’ve been together for a long time, and back in my drinking days whenever I’d get too drunk and out of order, he’d roll up a joint and hand it and I’d take a couple hits and pass out. So he knew how to handle me.”
He’s said that you always wanted to drive cars when you were drunk.
Nelson’s eyes light up. “Yeah. And see how fast they would go.”
That’s really not a good idea.
“Thank you.” He laughs. “No, you’re right.”
You crashed a few?
Someone once said—and I think it was you—that it was maybe a hundred.
“Couple. I don’t know. Quite a few.”
Never got hurt?
“Never got killed. Lucky. Never killed nobody. Lucky. Very, very lucky.”
Why do you think you had the impulse to do that?
“I don’t know. I was always a kind of go-fast guy, you know.”
And what are you now?
“I still am a go-fast guy, but I know that and I try to guard against my instincts a little better.”
Does it still come out behind the wheel?
“Well, I have a pickup truck—” he begins.
“Don’t get in it,” Annie interjects.
“—and I’ve got a ranch down there with a bunch of roads on it and a lot of cedar trees and it’s…” He grins. “I have to take you for a ride in my truck sometime.”
“Don’t do it,” Annie advises. “It’s a bad idea.”
Do people get scared?
He looks gleeful at the thought. “Hopefully. That’s the whole point of it. You take people out and scare the shit out of ‘em. It’s just fun, you know.” He laughs again.
You’ve got an interesting sense of fun.
“Yeah. You see why I smoke a lot. I’ve got to calm that out.”
When it comes to explaining how Nelson is, he’ll often go all the way back to the small Texas town, Abbott, in which he was raised after he and his elder sister, Bobbie, were left by their warring parents to live with their grandparents. It’s fair to say that he grew up in a way few people still do.
“You know, all we did in Abbott,” he explains, “was fuck, fight, and throw rocks.”
“That was all we had to do in Abbott,” he says.
What would you throw them at?
“Tin cans. Or at each other, you know. We used to have BB-gun fights—we’d put on leather jackets and shoot each other with BB guns. We were kind of bored. We used to go fight bumblebees on Sunday, go home with our eyes swollen shut for being stung. That’s young and stupid, but fun.”
So: fuck, fight, throw rocks…and fight bees. And right from the start, the young Willie Nelson would also smoke. As the Second World War fomented in Europe, he was already experimenting. “Anything you could roll up,” he recalls, “I would try to smoke it. I don’t know why.” As a kid, he cast the net of the potentially tokable indiscriminately wide. One early mistake was the bark of cedar trees.
“It’s a little harsh,” he concedes now. “It tastes exactly like it sounds. It’s too harsh. And after a couple of drags of it you say, ‘Maybe not.’ ”
So he tried grapevine.
“Not as harsh as the cedar bark,” he considers, “but it was harsh.”
And then there was the one inadvisable occasion when he tried to smoke some herbal laxatives known as black draughts.
“Bad,” he remembers. “Terrible. Not as harsh, but still no good.” A momentary grin. “I was regular for a day or two.”
Soon he graduated to cigarettes, at first ones he’d scavenge off the floor. An improvement. “I said, ‘Well, this is better than cedar bark,’ ” he remembers.
Improbably, Nelson believes that he tried pot for the first time when he was 11 or 12, though he didn’t realize it until much later on. “I was with a cousin of mine, he was about 15. He had asthma and the doctors gave him a cigarette to smoke. An asthma cigarette. And he offered me a puff off it, and I didn’t particularly care for it so I handed it back to him. But years later, when I smoked my first what-I-knew-was-marijuana, I said, ‘Wait a minute—I’ve had this before.’ And it took me right back to my cousin with the asthma cigarette.”
That seems like weird medicine for asthma—I ask whether it worked for his cousin.
“Yeah,” he replies, as though the notion that a joint would be the best medical treatment for asthma were the least unlikely part of the story. “Oh yeah.”
When Willie Nelson first started touring he used to stay in hotels, but many years ago he realized that he preferred life here on the bus. Now, even when the bus is parked outside a hotel for the night and everyone else goes in, he stays on board. He has slept on this bus, and on its four predecessors, maybe six months of the year for the past thirty or forty years. “Got everything I need,” he says. “Shower, stove, an icebox, a computer, radio, TV. It’s been my home for a long time.”
He likes being on the bus and he likes being on the move. “Every place gets old after a while,” he explains. “I have a nice home in Maui, and even that…you know, I get a little anxious to go away after a while. I just like to travel. That’s what I do. I just enjoy moving. It’s really hard for me to stay somewhere—I have to get up and go somewhere.” He also has a home near Austin, and he even owns a house in Abbott, but he is usually to be found somewhere else. “I’ve got a lot of Gypsy blood in me, I think,” he says.
He’s not much fonder of lingering in his own past. When I ruffle one too many uncomfortable memories, he halts me. “Nothing to be gained by bringing up all that horseshit again.” He gestures to a copy of his latest ghosted autobiography, It’s a Long Story, which was published earlier this year. “Have you read the book?” he asks.
Of course, I say. (And not just that. The collected Willie Nelson library is quite large—even setting aside the unofficial books, there’s also an earlier autobiography, three books of reminiscences and advice and jokes, his ghosted Western novel, and his monograph about the benefits of biodiesel.)
He smiles. “I’ll get around to it one day.”
You haven’t read it?
“It’s too big,” he says. “Too long. At some point somewhere in the past I remember most of it. But to me it’s a funny story.”
What do you mean?
“You know, the fact that I’m still here talking to you about it and you give a damn. I’m 82 years old. Lot of people my age are in a home somewhere. So I’m very fortunate, and why I don’t know, but I don’t question it. I figure this is the way it’s supposed to be, and I just enjoy it.”
The first time Nelson tried pot as an adult, in the mid-’60s, he was unmoved. He was playing in a band in Fort Worth and the fiddle player offered him a hit. “I didn’t like it,” he remembers. “Didn’t care for it. Of course, I was smoking cigarettes, one after the other. I didn’t even get anything—like, puff and puff and nothing and nothing.” He’d tell people that pot gave him a headache.
Eventually, as the world knows, he came round. When I ask him what he eventually felt that he hadn’t felt before, he deflects. “I have trouble remembering yesterday,” he says. (This endlessly adaptable brush-off has been his charming go-to non-answer for years.) I ask whether he doesn’t even foggily remember.
“I wasn’t enjoying smoking cigarettes,” he says. “It’s really that simple. I was getting nothing from a cigarette except pneumonia and cancer. And at least from a hit off a joint I got a little brief high off of it.” And at this point he chooses to digress, in a way that is both revealing and uncharacteristically immodest. “I have a huge tolerance for pot. I can probably smoke with anybody anywhere. Me and Snoop Dogg had a smoke-off in Amsterdam and he crawled away.”
Ah, yes. The legendary First Willie-Snoop Amsterdam Smoke-off. I have listened to a history of this encounter as described by the loser. Snoop Dogg explained how he brought along a blunt only to discover that Nelson already had a joint, a vape pen, and a pipe up and running, and that Nelson simply rotated among all four.
I ask Nelson whether this is true.
“As stupid as it sounds, it’s probably true. We had a lot of fun.”
Do you normally quadruple up like that?
“Oh, I don’t have any set of rules that I follow when I’m smoking. If you have one, I’ll take a hit.”
Is four types at once your maximum?
He looks at me as though for just a moment he thinks I might be bearing a surprise that could enrich his life. “Have you got another one?” he asks. Sadly, I can only disappoint. “I’ll try any of them,” he says. “Whatever way you can smoke it or take it, I’m for it.”
As this story suggests, it turns out that Nelson is still fairly flexible when it comes to his pot consumption. I had read that he had taken up vaping some years ago and had given up smoking to save his lungs. “I smoke a joint whenever I don’t care if the smoke is out there,” he explains, “but if there’s people and I don’t want to offend, I’ll take a vaporizer.”
“And he eats candy or has oil at night for sleeping,” Annie clarifies.
If Nelson doesn’t smoke or get his high somehow, at night there are consequences.
“I start having bad dreams,” he says. (He once described the price of abstention like this: “You remember why you started smoking, to stop them crazy fucking dreams. Those crazy dreams that you never really get used to.”)
I ask him what he dreams about, but Annie answers first.
“Intruders, usually,” she says.
“A lot of fighting,” he elaborates. “Screaming and fighting. I wake up in the middle of the night, scaring the shit out of her.”
“It’s dangerous to sleep with him when he hasn’t smoked,” she says.
I ask him whether he has any dreams at all when he does smoke.
“No,” he answers. “No.”
“Yeah, you do,” says Annie.
“I don’t have any negative dreams,” he clarifies.
“Right,” says Annie. “He’s usually playing music. He plays music, he plays his guitar. Otherwise he’s kicking out and lashing out.” And she demonstrates how her husband lies on his back, fingering guitar parts with his hands, playing silent music from somewhere deep within him that no one will ever hear.
Nelson first found success as a songwriter, with songs like “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and, most famously, the one recorded by Patsy Cline, “Crazy.” (Legend has it that he wrote these three in one single week in 1959.) Those were just the tip of the iceberg, just three of the dozens of clever, elegant songs he wrote back then, dark lilting country poems suffused with misery and heartache. “I wrote some of the saddest songs in the world,” he once said, and it was not an empty claim.
At first he seems to dodge when I mention this. “Well, you know, the old love ballads, first of all people like them, and they seem to be commercial.”
But all those songs, I persist, they were pretty heavy in what they described.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “I was going through all those marriages and divorces.”
So, I ask, they came directly from what you were feeling?
“Sure.” This reminds him of something. “I won’t mention names, but there was one guy who recorded, his manager would tell him horrible things about his wife so that he would feel bad and write another heartbreaker. I thought that was pretty cruel.”
Willie didn’t need the extra help. But in time he began to think that songs like these created a vortex, a spiral of sorrow from which it was difficult to escape.
“Sometimes I think that’s why a lot of those singers out there drink so much,” he says. “Because after you go out and sing those same old motherfucking songs every night, it puts them in that bad mood. And a lot of them, they’re not a good enough actor to go in there and come out without being affected. So they drink a lot. And that’s the beginning of the end, when you start having to drink to go do what you do. I think those old sad songs have a lot to do with it. It makes you want to cry, and then you want to drink, and then you want more sad songs—the one thing calls for the other.”
He still sings some of his old ones, of course. “I’m not that highly emotional about anything,” he says, “and so I feel like I can deliver the song—the lyric—without getting too involved.” He has been singing those three songs I mentioned the same way for over forty years, as a medley, usually quite early in the set. He says that he’ll play a couple of new songs at a show like tonight’s. (This evening he will sing outdoors in Bend, Oregon, though until he steps out of the bus, he could be anywhere.) “Other than that I’ll just kind of coast through the show,” he says. It’s pretty much the same most nights: Among old Hank Williams covers, gospel songs, and a Django Reinhardt instrumental, there’ll be those three songs from the ‘50s, something with a fuck-you lyric that chugs along from when he grew his hair and became part of the outlaw country movement in the early ‘70s (“Me and Paul,” a travelogue that, among other things, details an early near-drug-bust in Laredo), one of the old-time covers that sent his career to new heights in the late ‘70s (“Georgia on My Mind”), hits from the pop heyday that followed (“Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”), and maybe the recent pot anthem “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” to accompany the new “It’s All Going to Pot.” Aside from those couple of new songs, very little has changed in the past thirty years, and he sees no reason that it should. “If they show up,” he argues, “you’re doing it right.”
So in some ways a Willie Nelson show is one of the most predictable pieces of mainstream musical theater imaginable. And yet, at the same time, it is also deeply strange. Nelson’s vocal phrasing has always been unusual for country music, sliding over the beat, rushing to and from it in capricious ways, and that tendency has only become more pronounced as time has passed. And his guitar playing is, at times, even more extraordinary—skittering and juddering and lurching, little runs of notes that accelerate, then slow down, like a man speaking a language no one else knows, pacing himself by an erratic metronome. In short bursts, the sound he makes is as close to some kind of Japanese avant-garde art-metal as it is to middle-of-the-road country music. He seems pleased and amused when I touch on this subject, as though it’s something he takes private pleasure in. “I like to surprise myself on the guitar,” he says.
It’s quite a performance. Often, by the way he plays and the way he sings, he can make a song sound as though it’s teetering on the brink of collapse—only, of course, that’s part of the larger trick, because then you realize that he has created a situation where he is the only person in the world who can, and will, save it.
One Willie Nelson weed story is more famous than all the others, though some key details about it have always remained unclear. It took place during Jimmy Carter’s administration.
Famously, you smoked on the roof of the White House.
“I heard that somewhere,” he replies.
You’re always coy about it. Why?
“Well, I don’t know,” he says. “I’m trying to find out who that was with me up there. I keep asking people. Wasn’t me and you, was it?”
Nelson has told this story in his autobiographies and cagily acknowledged it in endless TV interviews. In his 1988 autobiography he describes being up there “with a beer in one hand and a fat Austin Torpedo in the other,” enjoying a view you can get from nowhere else of how Washington’s principal streets fan out from the White House. In the 2015 version he describes “a friend of mine who happened to be a White House insider” coming to his bedroom door at the end of the night and offering him a private tour, which took them to the roof:
To top things off, my friend pulled out a joint.
“Think it’s time to burn one, Willie, if you don’t object.”
“Think it’s cool?”
“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be offering.”
Nelson has always declined to identify his accomplice in mischief. But I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in Nelson’s life, and having picked off little clues from all that’s been written and said over the years, I feel like I might have a pretty good idea. And what Nelson has just said to me seems like an open invitation to chance it.
I kind of reckon I know who it was.
“Oh, you know who it was?” He says this in what seems like a gently mocking whisper.
Wasn’t it Jimmy Carter’s middle son, Chip?
And then there’s a pause, not too long, but long enough that I feel pretty sure he wasn’t expecting this name. And long enough that I know the name is right. But then—and maybe there’s just a quarter of a second of delete/fast-forward, and a decision is made that there’s no longer any point in getting too hung up about this—he rolls amiably on with the conversation.
“Looked a lot like,” he says. “Could have been, yeah.”
Why have you always been shy about saying?
“Well, it ain’t something you want to brag about, you know.”
When you were up there, did you think this is a big deal, this is kind of naughty, or…?
“Oh, not at the time. It seemed like the thing to do. We were there, and there it was, and uh…why not, you know? And they have a great view from the roof.”
But it must have been a good story to tell people.
“Well, I don’t really go around bragging about that. It happened, and it’s something that I don’t deny, you know, but I don’t bring it up all the time.”
“But it wasn’t you who said it to begin with,” Annie points out. (These events predate Annie, but she clearly knows the inside story.)
“No, it wasn’t me who leaked it,” says Willie.
“It was probably Chip,” says Annie.
“You know, he probably told somewhere, laughing about it,” says Willie.
Did you mind that people knew?
“No, I don’t mind it, no. At all.”
Did you worry it would embarrass the president at the time?
“Oh, I think he knew me and he knew Chip so, you know, there wasn’t much we could do to embarrass him.”
And so there it is: one minor mystery from the Carter administration solved. A few afternoons later, I telephone James Earl “Chip” Carter III, now 65 years old, at his home in Decatur, Georgia. He answers the phone and listens as I explain: that I have been talking to Nelson for this article about that famous night on the White House roof, and that Nelson did not volunteer his name, but when he realized I had worked it out, he had talked to me about it.
At first Carter seems to, very briefly, laugh.
“Well,” he says, “he told me not to ever tell anybody.”
I tell Carter that I believe the cat is now out of the bag.
“Okay,” he says evenly.
Then I continue, inquiring whether I can ask him some more about what happened.
“No,” he says. “No, you can’t. Thank you.”
And that is when James Earl Carter III hangs up.
For someone with Nelson’s experience, and for someone who is planning to launch his own brand of pot, you might think that he would have the very specific tastes and preferences of a connoisseur, but if this is the case, he is not keen to share.
“There’s only two kinds,” he tells me. “It’s like sex—it’s all good, but some’s better.”
And with pot, what differentiates the good and the better?
“Well, you’ll know it when you smoke it, and you might not know it until you do. A good hit off a good joint and you know you don’t have to smoke the whole thing. A good joint’ll last me all day.”
You haven’t settled on particular favorites you like?
“Oh, wherever I am there are favorites. You know, you got your Maui Wowie, you got your Humboldt County in California, and you got the purple, you know, uh, in Florida…lot of different places that have their own brand that’s from the area. The growers and the farmers around can tell you what grows best in their area.”
I know a lot of people who avoid some of the modern stuff that’s just too strong for them.
“Really?” says Willie, his attention perking up. “I’m looking for that.”
You’ve never found any too strong?
“No,” he says.
“No, that’s not true,” Annie tells him. “You found a couple of those really strong ones…”
“I found some of it that was really, really strong,” he disagrees. “But too strong? No.”
“His resistance is better than yours,” Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, who’s been listening in on our conversation, points out.
“That’s the difference,” says Willie. “I’ve been smoking cedar bark.”
“I’d beg to have the shit he throws away,” says Raphael.
Is there any stoned that’s too stoned?
“Too stoned?” Nelson repeats. “I don’t know. I don’t know what too stoned is.”
“Well,” says Annie, “that time I found you in the back when my brother brought that purple African something and you were laying on the floor with your feet on the bed.” She laughs. “And you said, ‘I’m too high.’ ”
He nods in acknowledgment. “However, I think if I had to I could have got up, washed my face, and went and do a two-hour show.”
“You did,” she points out.
“By the time I get through ‘Whiskey River,’ two or three songs, I’m okay.”
So when you think of the prime Willie’s Reserve brand, are you able to describe what qualities you want it to have?
“No,” he says. “You’ll know it when you smoke it.”
“You want the shit that killed Elvis, is what you said,” prompts Raphael.
Willie grins, glad to have been reminded. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
How hard have you looked?
“Well, how hard can you look, you know?” Willie says, smiling, as though there are things in life he has cared about more than this, but not too many.
It is hard to work out just how involved Nelson is in Willie’s Reserve. When I first ask him what he wants the company to be, he just says “successful.” And other than mentioning that he wants to make sure that what they sell is “the best quality,” that’s about it. “I don’t know who first came up with that idea,” he says vaguely. “Annie may have come up with the title, Willie’s Reserve. I don’t know exactly where that came from.”
In an attempt to learn more, I speak with two people from the company, the CEO, Andrew Davison, and a vice president, Elizabeth Hogan. Davison explains that the first business meeting took place with Willie and Annie around the kitchen table at their ranch just outside Austin in March 2014, and presents the basic Willie’s Reserve pitch: “For fifty years he’s been such an icon in this space that [for] everybody taking part in the artistic development of this plant over the last thirty, forty years, it’s kind of their bucket list to get product to Willie. And so Willie’s experienced the best cornucopia that has been grown over the decades and, you know, he really developed a legendary stash. And he’s developed a point of view about how he feels about the category and how he feels about the product and how he feels about consumers. So it’s taking that and distilling that vision and those values, translating that into the marketplace.”
In fact, there won’t be just one Willie’s Reserve Legendary Stash. Far from it. This is business. Davison says that according to their research, consumers want “high-quality flower,” concentrates, vape pens, and edibles, and so they “envision going to a market with a variety and a collection of smokable products as well as concentrate products.”
Nelson participated in a “tasting” of Willie’s Reserve in June, when he was brought ten different strains to smoke. Hogan says that Nelson sampled them over two days; she took notes on his comments and left him and Annie with a workbook to fill out thoughts as his research continued.
I ask what conclusions were drawn.
“Well, you know,” Hogan replies, “Willie Nelson likes pot.”
In truth, at least some of the key selections had already been made, and the impression she gives is that Nelson’s views are more to be used in the packaging and marketing than in determining specific pot choices. This seems wise, because when I catch up with Nelson after this tasting, he is characteristically breezy about the experience—“How bad a job can it be, testing the best weed in the world?”—but sidesteps any expectation that he should be considered an expert. “I think it all depends on the individual,” he says, “and I’ve been smoking weed a long time and I’ve got a great tolerance for it, so whatever I say about it won’t necessarily be the same thing that someone else would say, so I’m not really the best guy to ask about those things.”
Davison says they hope that the first Willie’s Reserve products will go on sale in Colorado and Washington “by late fall or end of year.” Merle Haggard, who recently recorded the top ten Django and Jimmie album with Nelson, is optimistic about its prospects: “I think he’s got a new brand that will probably be bigger than Sir Walter Raleigh.” Typically, it is Nelson who dodges every opportunity to oversell it. He makes clear that while he’s enthusiastic about Willie’s Reserve, what really excites him is the wider evolution of society’s attitude toward pot.
“I’m just glad to see all this happening,” he says. “Whether there’s a Willie Reserve or not, that’s not a big deal.”
When it comes to the benefits of the weed-lived life, Nelson’s point of view is that he is an unscientifically representative sample of one. “I’m kinda like the canary in the mine,” he says. “Here’s the old fart, 82, out there doing an hour-and-a-half, two-hour show, remembering all the goddamn words—you know, he don’t have a set list out or none of that shit out there. At least watch me and see what happens.” And so far the canary is thriving. Merle Haggard says that Nelson thinks they’re both alive because of these lifestyle choices: “The main thing is that we’re both healthy. That’s in contrast to what they say about people who indulge. He told me—and I don’t disagree with him—that had we not smoked pot during our life, then we would probably be dead from drinking whiskey or smoking Camels.”
When Willie Nelson first made records, he was clean-shaven and short-haired, and favored a suit and tie. He started growing his hair in the early 1970s, and for well over thirty years now he has been alternating between letting his long gray hair hang freely and wearing it in two braids. Recently some braids he cut off in the early 1980s were put up for auction, where it was explained that he had given them to Waylon Jennings at a sobriety party in 1983. Nelson says this isn’t quite true—he cut them off in Maui and gave them to his manager and “some way it got back to Waylon.” Either way, they were auctioned off as part of Jennings’s estate and sold for $37,000.
“It’s weird—very weird,” he comments, though you can tell by the way he says it that this doesn’t even come close to some of the weirdness he has known.
Still, it also made him realize that if everything goes wrong, at least he can feel safe knowing that the Willie Nelson emergency pension plan is close at hand, hanging down both sides of his ears.
As we talk, he fingers his right braid.
“I’ve got six months of groceries right here,” he announces.
And then he jiggles its twin, the braid that dangles down over his heart. That, he explains, is the best side. “Things grow better over here,” he says. And, come the need and come the day, he reckons it’d see him right in times of trouble, get him what he’d really want.
In 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded the hit album “Pancho & Lefty,” the cover of which shows the two country legends against a desert backdrop, Nelson smiling and Haggard working his characteristic stoic grimace. The best of friends.
The title song, however, was written in 1972 by the late Townes Van Zandt, and explores the consequences of betrayal. When Nelson and Haggard pull into the York Fairgrounds this Friday as part of their Last of the Breed Tour, they will no doubt perform the song along with numerous other hits.
Country-rocker Steve Earle once called Van Zandt the greatest American songwriter ever, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt is rumored to have replied that he had met Dylan and his bodyguards, and that there was little chance Earle would ever get near his coffee table.
Despite his well-known sense of humor, Van Zandt wrote some of the most hopeless and haunting songs in the country and folk songbooks. He was an American poet of the first order. Thorny, witty and relentlessly self-destructive, he was one of those artists who achieves ultimate recognition through the work of others.
Van Zandt was one of the songwriters every country crooner wanted to be, and “Pancho and Lefty” is the song everyone sang, including Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton, Delbert McClinton and bluegrass supergroup Old & In the Way. Â
Nanci Griffith gave a teary version on national television shortly after Townes died of heart failure in 1994.Â Dylan has even performed it on several occasions, the ultimate nod. Nelson and Dylan played it together on their recent tours together.
But perhaps the most memorable version of the song is the one Nelson and Haggard took to the top of the country charts. While the rest of the album is filled with workmanlike (though never unpleasant) efforts, the duo’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” remains strong today.
The song is the ultimate Old West fable, professing the lessons of loyalty and betrayal, the inescapability of consequence and the twisted nature of notoriety.
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In 1983, Nelson and Haggard were near the zeniths of their popular careers, ensconced in middle age, though in fine voice, and rapidly approaching a time when they would seem anachronistic next to mainstream country artists. Together they sing “Pancho & Lefty” as if spinning a yarn from some lonely barstool: Pancho was a bandit boys/ His horse was fast as polished steel/ Wore his gun outside his pants/ For all the honest world to feel.
Pancho is finally killed, we are led to believe, by Mexican police with the assistance of a man called Lefty. Even if he didn’t pull the trigger, Lefty is somehow complicit in Pancho’s death.
Lefty escapes to Cleveland with money nobody can account for. There he grows old, forgotten and living in a cheap rooming house, while Pancho, whose dying words no one heard, is celebrated in song and verse: The poets tell how Pancho fell/ Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel/ The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold/ So the story ends we’re told.
The final verse implores the listener to say a few prayers for Pancho, but to save some for Lefty, too, because he “only did what he had to do.”
When Nelson and Haggard perform the song this week, some will be listening for the prophetic overtones of men growing old and passing their winter years with memories of triumph and regret. But unlike Lefty, the sacrifices of these two performers have yielded great results.
Haggard has always been candid about the twists and turns in his life: how he fought off temptation when offered the chance to escape from a California jail, having been in and out of correctional facilities for much of his youth. Haggard chose not to escape, vowing instead to turn his life around through music.
Nelson nearly gave up on music when he couldn’t fit in with Nashville’s “countrypolitan” scene of the early 1960s. He found refuge in Texas and the outlaw movement of the 1970s.Â Nelson’s more recent public stand regarding his marijuana use and a fiercely anticonservative streak through his work with Farm Aid have no doubt cost him a few fans in Middle America.
But despite their choices, or perhaps because of them, Haggard and Nelson will themselves be the subject of song for future generations of poets like Van Zandt.
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, at the York Fairgrounds, 334 Carlisle Ave., York. The concert opens the 2007 York Fair, which runs through Sept. 16. For more information, call 848-2596.
If you are ever in Nashville, be sure to visit the Willie Nelson General Store. If you can’t make it you can see their collections and buy souvenirs from their giftshop at:
“We would like to thank everyone who came out this summer to see Willie Nelson and Family along with Old Crow Medicine Show.
OCMS is a great combination of musical talent featuring Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua. Kevin Hayes, Morgan Jahnig, Chance McCoy and Cory Younts. Everyone had a musical blast together and we can’t wait for another paid summer vacation.
If you’re really looking for some good country music go see Old Crow Medicine Show. These guys are a lot of fun on stage and put on an fabulous concert. So until next time, Rock me Mama like a wagon wheel…”