by Teresa Taylor Von-Frederick
When he’s not performing on the road to sell-out crowds, there are only two places you might look for Willie Nelson — and hope to find him. One is in the Colorado mountains, resting and recuperating from hard travel, in the romantic three-story Swiss chalet he owns there; the other is a 775 acre ranch outside Austin, Texas, where I visited him recently.
Here, Willie is surrounded by the rivers, hills and the down-home country folk of his childhood, very close to the place where his ma and pa, along with his grandparents, raised him. It’s where he feels most at home in the world, consequently, where he’s most himself No wonder friends like Kris Kristofferson and his longtime producer, Chips Moman, enjoy visiting the ranch, sometimes for weeks at a time.
“There’s another house, too,” Willie tells me. He loves houses, perhaps because he travels so much. “It’s less than a block from the place where I was born. In fact, we’re restoring it — an old house on the edge of town.”
A gentle light shimmers in his eyes as Nelson remembers his grandfather. “He died when I was six years old. He was a blacksmith near Abbott, Texas. It was my grandfather who bought me my first Stella guitar when I was five. I learned how to play dominoes and guitar early — that was what we used to do.”
Born Willie Hugh Nelson on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Willie has one sibling, an older sister, Bobbie Lee. “Bobbie and I started out together. Then she got married, had children, and now we’re back playing music again. She plays piano in the band.” He recalls tenderly those “good ol’ days” when he was trying to make a living in the rough-and-tumble clubs around Fort Worth, Texas, first with Bobbie and later by himself. Times were pretty hard then, and he credits his five children and his current wife, Connie Jean Koepke (whom he met in 1968 at a show in Cut ‘n Shoot, Texas), with sticking by him and encouraging his dream of someday making music that people would want to hear.
But his grandparents, Willie says, were his true, and earliest, inspiration. They themselves learned music through mail-order courses, and, when he was very young, they deeply involved grandchild Willie in church and gospel music. They also gave him a lsting feeling for the church itself.
We hike up into the hills were a church stands on one of his acres. (It appeared as a post-Civil War set in his film Red Headed Stranger.) Lana, his oldest daughter, who’s 33, comes with us. Willie grabs the tattered hemp rope hanging from the belfry, and we hear the sound of bells clattering. “Whenever we can, my children and grandchildren (he has seven) have church up here. It’s a nice feelin’, havin’ your own church on your own property. I try to instill sound values in my children as much as possible. None of them are interested in becoming entertainers. My son — we call him Wild Bill, although sometimes he’s Mild Bill — goes through changes, but he’s gettin’ better. He’s thirty years old, lives in Tennessee with his wife and children, and just started farmin’ his own land.”
“That’s one thing Daddy instilled in us,” Lana interjects. “His spirituality and love and God and human nature. Daddy always taught us to have good relationships with people.”
Lana, the first child born to Willie and his first wife, Martha Matthews, speaks of her parents with great feeling. “Daddy was seventeen and my mama was sixteen when they met; she was a car hop serving food at a restaurant. Daddy is still very close to her, but they were so young! I was four years old when my daddy wrote a song called Family Bible. He sold it for fifty dollars to pay for rent and food, and I cried and cried because I thought he just gave it away. He grabbed me by the hand on the front porch and said, ‘Look out there, honey. One of these days I’m gonna buy you that land as far as you can see.’ I knew my daddy would be a star.”
Lana has directed and produced Willie’s music videos, including the very first country-and-western video, Poncho and Lefty, which was nominated for an American Video Award. Today, she still works with her father. “I know his values and what kind of story he likes to tell. I also inherited his sense of humor.”
Besides Lana and Billy, Willie has another child, Susie, from his first marriage. He and Connie, who have been married for 17 years, also have two daughters, Paula Carlene and Amy Lee. Connie has stayed by his side through all of his struggles and, finally, his success. “Willie and I try to spend as much quiet time as possible away from everything,” Connie says. “We like to go to the movies. Willie likes to ride horses, and I like to ski. I spend a lot of time in California with our daughters when he’s off performing.”
Willie leans into a char and relaxes by the fireplace. “Yeah, I enjoy my horses and playing golf,” he concedes., “but I love my music just as much. Honestly, I have all these guys who are my heroes. … But when I was struggling, it didn’t matter if there was only one person in the audience. That was enough for me to get inspired. I’m still starstruck.”
A while ago, in Illinois, with some of his heroes — Neil Young, Merle Haggard, John Couger Mellencamp — Willie put together a musical cast that included B. B. King, Bob Dylan, Glenn Campbell, Carole King, Billy Joel, George Jones — a stupendous concert to raise money for America’s financially stricken farmers. Farm Aid became a cultural and historic high point of the ’80s. Since that first concert Willie helped to sponsor, 14 million dollars have been raised in this nation for farm relief.
“I was brought up on a farm and know a lot about agricultural and farming,” he reveals. “It’s darn hard work; I couldn’t do it. But it keeps families together on the farm. A lot of them who are suffering now don’t have money for their children or for medical emergencies. There’s hope out there, though. All kinds of folks are helping us all across the country, Jody Fischer, my assistant works loyally on behalf of Farm Aid. That’s what life is all about; helping each other, if we can.”
Willie identifies strongly with the poor. Graciously and proudly, he welcomes those who are troubled in his Texas home — built in a rustic, Ponderosa style reminiscent of a land baron’s mansion of the 1980s. The interior sports a Western motif complete with shelves of Indian arrowheads and a buffalo skin draped over a beam. His simple futon bed lies on the floor in front of a huge fireplace. Willie hops onto it, assuming his favorite yoga position.
“This is the best form of meditation for me,” he explains.” “Sometimes a song or an idea will come, and I just write it. I enjoy meditating when I jog and play golf, too. I’d rather be workin’ than not. And we can cut ten sides of a record here in one day. It’s been a real help, havin’ the recording studio on my property.”
Memories of his difficult early years appear in his conversation. It was nearly 30 years ago, in 1961, that he made the trek to Nashville in a second hand car. His struggle in the musical world had already gone on for more than a decade; he had attempted to become a party-time hog farmer… and failed at it. “I was the worst hog farmer you ever saw,” Willie says, laughing. But by 1985 he was able to release four albums within a single year: Funny How Time Slips Away (with Faron Young); Highwayman (with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings); Half Nelson, Brand New Heart (with Hank Snow) and Me and Paul (written for and about his friend Paul English) In 1986, The Promiseland was Willie’s strongest LP in years. And no sentimentalist can ever forget Willie’s Crazy, recorded by Patsy Cline. (His newest album, Island in the Sun was released earlier this year.)
Of all contemporary songwriters, he has most effectively observed and interpreted the life around him. “The master of sadness, the poet of honky-tonks,” he has been called. His songs elucidate his highest priorities: love, God, prayer, staying close to his kin.
Lana testifies to that. “I produced a family album that included all of the significant events in my daddy’s life and some of his song lyrics and family photo. I gave it to him for his forty-seventh birthday. Boy, was he happy! He grinned from here to Nashville.”
In the kitchen, Willie messes around with his restaurant-size stove. “You bet I can cook,” he replies, in answer to my question. “I love to make all kinds of gravies. And I can eat bacon and eggs any time of the day or night.” He grabs a soda from the fridge, sit down, takes off his tennis shoes and puts on a pair of cowboy boots. “How would you like to go up and see my horses now?” he asks.
We walk out the back door that gives him his favorite view of two lakes that come together and travel yet another third of a mile up to his barn. His two horses, Scout, a large palomino, and Dancer, a sorrell horse with a blazed forehead, timidly run for cover in the barn when we approach. But as soon as Willie brings out some feed, Scout comes over. Willie lumps in the hay and sits there feeding Scout, as if he were sitting next to his best friend. “I rid every day when I’m home,” he tells me. “I have a lot more horses on the property, but they’re all off somewhere now.”
The sun begins to set, the landscape shaded by tall plains grass, mesquite and scrub oak trees. I feel as peaceful and calm as Willie, a man who like to take life one day at a time when he’s home. His friend and colleague, Chips Moman, has joined us for the evening. “I’d do anything for that man and so would a lot of other people,” Chips says. “There seems to be nothing he can’t do to please everyone. And he thrives on the excitement of the road. He’s performed with the best: Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt. He’s now with CBS Records. We’re a long way form 1964 when he first signed with Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. But he became fed up with the politics of becoming a star there. He moved to Texas and He’s een there ever since.”
We climb into his black truck, and he invites us back to visit some more with his family. After strong coffee and with nighttime creeping up, I take my leave reluctantly. He thanks me generously for coming down to visit, and I drive off down the wonderful, winding dirt road that’s as serene as the Texas sunset, as serene as Willie Nelson himself.
I love that they celebrate Willie Nelson’s birthdays all over the world. The big stars go on Youtube and send him a message; music lovers and fans gather in small bars across the country to sing his music. I love those fans.
by Aaron Thackery
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. But if you do, make sure they learn how to play plenty of Willie Nelson songs on a beat-up old guitar. That’s what a whole posse of denim-clad musicians did at Globe Hall on Friday, April 29, where the Texas song smith’s birthday was celebrated in style. All photos by Aaron Thackeray.
See more photos of folks having fun at the Globe:
April 29 ·
“I can’t let the day go by, or the weekend start, without wishing my friend Willie Nelson a heartfelt happy birthday. May he have a health and happy year ahead full of continued creativity.
I first met Willie through his music but have had the good fortune over the years to interview him many times. There are so many wonderful things you can say about him as a person and an artist. Yet what always sticks with me is that he seems to embody the best traditions and impulses of our great land and her people.
He is kind and authentic. His words speak to the human struggles and joys that battle within all of us. And you can tell by the air with which he carries himself that he has seen so much through the eyes of a poet.
May Willie’s tour bus keep racking up the miles as he brings his music to his fans across America, and around the world. In a time of such tumult and complexity his work is a potent reminder that a seemingly simple tune with evocative lyrics can be both beautiful and profound.”
“Happy Birthday to the man himself….Willie turns a young 83 so everyone wish him a very Happy Birthday!!!!”
— Willie Nelson and Friends Museum and General Store
hearing this record, its hard not to realize that music is actually all around us all the time; one only needs to stop and listen
Young described his latest project on social media:
We made a live record and every creature on the planet seemed to show up. Suddenly all the living things of Earth were in the audience going crazy. Then they took over the stage, letting their wild sounds mingle with the Vanilla Singers perfect corporate harmony. Earth’s creatures let loose, there were Bee breakdowns, Bird breakdowns and yes, even Wall Street breakdowns, jamming with me and Promise of the Real! The show was non stop bliss for 98 minutes, no breaks. EARTH does not fit on iTunes. It breaks all their rules (and couldn’t all really be heard that way anyway) No one who was there will ever forget the love, wonder and beautiful madness of EARTH. I know I won’t. Neil
EARTH consists of recordings from Young’s tour last year with the band Promise Of The Real for his preceding album, The Monsanto Years. AlterNet described Young’s 36th studio album, as a “concept-based criticism” of Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company, and also a condemnation of other multinational agriculture giants like Syngenta, Dow, Dupont and Bayer that have also, like Monsanto, “garnered control of global seed production.”
Promise Of The Real guitarist Lukas Nelson lauded the new LP. “I just listened to our new record EARTH with Neil Young … One of the single greatest audio experiences I’ve ever had,” he wrote on Instagram.
The world premiere of EARTH will be hosted by the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles on May 6. And, according to anannouncement about the event, it’s sure to be spectacular:
Against the backdrop of the Museum’s blossoming outdoor Nature Gardens, musician and icon Neil Young will present the first public playback of his upcoming release, EARTH, in its entirety in Pono high definition fidelity audio, before its June 17 release. The album features “After the Gold Rush,” “Vampire Blues,” and an explosive 29-minute version of “Love & Only Love,” and includes some unexpected accompaniment—the sounds of many different kinds of wildlife.
The Grammy Award-winning artist and environmental crusader said in a press release that EARTH “flows as a collection of 13 songs from throughout my life, songs I have written about living here on our planet together. Our animal kingdom is well represented in the audience as well, and the animals, insects, birds, and mammals actually take over the performances of the songs at times.”
Young also told Rolling Stone last year that EARTH is “like nothing that I’ve done. It’s more like a giant radio show.”
“It has no stops,” he continued. “The songs are too long for iTunes, thank God, so they won’t be on iTunes. I’m making it available in the formats that can handle it … Imagine it’s a live show where the audience is full of every living thing on Earth. And also they overtake the music once in a while and play the instruments. It’s not conventional, but it is based on live performance.”
On Tuesday, Young kicked off his 2016 world tour with Promise Of The Real in New Braunfels, Texas with guest star and legendary rocker Willie Nelson.
The tour then stopped by Nashville, Texas’s Ascend Amphitheater yesterday. The concert received rave reviews from local publication, The Tennesseean:
At 70 years old, the rock icon hasn’t lost a step. His voice is still in fine form, and the audience sang along reverently to every word of classics like “Heart of Gold” and “Long May You Run.” After an opening set from singer-songwriter Steve Earle (whose debut album “Guitar Town” turned 30 this year) and half a dozen of his own solo songs, Young brought out his backing band Promise of the Real: Five rootsy rockers including Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah Nelson—and played another 90 minutes.
“Happy Birthday to my friend Willie Nelson. We’ve been friends for a long time.”
— Leona Williams
On October 25, 2009, Willie Nelson released, “American Classic” album, on Blue Note Records.
- The Nearness of You
- Fly Me to the Moon
- Come Rain or Come Shine
- If I Had You (with Diana Krall)
- Ain’t Misbehaving
- I Miss You So
- Because of You
- Baby, It’s Cold Outside (with Norah Jones)
- Angel Eyes
- On the Street Where You Live
- Since I Fell For You
- You Were Always on My Mind