Sunday, June 27, 2010
By Dotson Rader
‘Since I was a kid, music was what I wanted to do,” Willie Nelson says. “I thought I could make it by my own talents. That’s what I wanted to prove.”
It is a hot, sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, and Willie sits at a table in his tour bus, the Honey-suckle Rose IV. Fitted out like a two-bedroom yacht on wheels, the vehicle is powered by biodiesel from his own alternative-fuel company, Biowillie.
“When I was about 12,” he says, “I had my first paying gig—$8 to play rhythm guitar in a polka band. Pretty soon, I ended up playing in all the bars within driving distance of Abbott, Tex.”
Abbott is the rural town in east–central Texas where Willie grew up dirt-poor during the Depression. By 6, he was writing songs and playing the guitar. Now 77, he’s still at it, touring on his fancy bus 200 days a year, playing to sold-out clubs and stadiums. This month, he and wife Annie, 50, will travel to Austin, Tex., for the annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic. The picnic is his Woodstock, with a hillbilly twang.
“I started it in 1973 to bring together different kinds of people, and that’s still what we do,” Willie says. It’s gotten bigger over the years, attracting rock bands, folk singers, rappers, and country stars who perform before as many as 20,000 music lovers of all ages, beliefs, and races. The event, just like the man himself, is a uniquely, magnificently American phenomenon. “It’s people drinking beer, smoking pot, and finding out that they have things in common and don’t really hate each other,” Willie says. “Music gives people a chance to enjoy something together.”
He sits with his elbows on the table, mellow and relaxed. He smiles a lot, and his deeply lined face is dominated by serene brown eyes. “A lot of country music is sad,” he notes softly. “I think most art comes out of poverty and hard times. It applies to music. Three chords and the truth—that’s what a country song is. There is a lot of heartache in the world.”
Willie has known his share of it. Three failed marriages, a son who committed suicide, troubles with the IRS, drug busts. “Anybody can be unhappy,” he says. “We can all be hurt. You don’t have to be poor to need something or somebody. Rednecks, hippies, misfits—we’re all the same. Gay or straight? So what? It doesn’t matter to me. We have to be concerned about other people, regardless.”
He is famously dedicated to helping others, giving away his own time and money, raising millions of dollars for small farmers and victims of natural disasters, war, and AIDS. Among his efforts are Farm Aid and the Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute. He is known as a soft touch. “I don’t like seeing anybody treated unfairly,” he says. “It sticks in my craw. I hold on to the values from my childhood.”
His was a tough and unpromising childhood. “I was 6 months old and my sister Bobbie was 3 years old when my parents divorced and gave us to my grandparents,” he recalls. (Bobbie, 79, his only sibling, plays piano in his band.) “I have no anger about my parents. They did us a favor. My grandparents were very reliable Christian people who gave us a good raising.”
At 2, Willie began going into the hot, unforgiving cotton fields with his grandmother. “I was too young to pick, so I’d ride on her sack,” he says. “She’d pull me on it, picking cotton, filling it up, making me a soft bed to ride on. The sack would start out empty, and before the morning was out, there would be 60, 70 pounds of cotton in it. Then, still just a little bitty kid, I got old enough to pull my own sack. As I got older, the sacks got bigger.”
When he was 6, his granddad died, and the family’s financial situation worsened. His grandmother took a job for $18 a week as a cook at the school cafeteria. “I worked there, too, carrying out the garbage to pay for me and Bobbie’s lunches.” Still, he recalls, “It wasn’t humiliating. Nobody else had anything to speak of in Abbott. I don’t remember ever going hungry.”
Willie was a good student and athlete, a popular kid, but he felt the pull of music and the tug of faraway places. “I saw Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies every weekend,” he says. “They were my heroes. Riding my horse, shooting my gun, singing my songs, playing my guitar—that’s what I wanted to do.”
Following high school graduation, Willie joined the Air Force. The Korean War was on, and he was broke. “I joined because I knew that for four years, I wouldn’t starve to death,” he explains. “A lot of people joined up for that reason. I don’t think things have changed much in the world since.”
Willie served nine months before receiving a medical discharge due to back injuries. At 19, he married Martha Matthews, a beautiful 16-year-old. “I was always a sucker for long-black-haired women,” he admits. They quarreled, brawled, drank heavily, and had two daughters, Lana and Susie, and a son, Billy. Willie tried college but left after a year. He kept writing songs and playing music and also worked as a radio DJ, a door-to-door salesman, and a plumber. After 10 contentious years, his marriage collapsed.
In 1960, Willie went to Nashville and experienced his first big success—as a songwriter. He wrote “Crazy,” “Pretty Paper,” “Hello Walls,” and hundreds more, becoming one of America’s best composers of popular song. Overall, he has recorded over 300 albums that have sold more than 50 million copies and performed with the full range of the nation’s musical talent, from Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, and Merle Haggard to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dyla-n, Dolly Parton, Norah Jones, and Snoop Dogg. His newest CD, Country Music, is hauntingly beautiful.
Willie married singer Shirley Collie in 1963, but the next year he began an affair with Connie Koepke, who was just two years out of high school. He and Collie divorced, and he wed Koepke in 1971. Their 16-year marriage produced daughters Amy and Paula and brought him and his family back to his home state. “I really felt like I needed to be in Texas,” he says, “playing to the people that were and still are my base.”
His fourth wife, Annie D’Angelo, entered his life as the make-up artist on the set of the 1986 film Stagecoach, co-starring Johnny Cash. (Willie has made 31 movies, few of them memorable.) He and Annie wed in 1991. Their marriage works, because, “well, I now understand a lot more than I did,” Willie says. “I’m not easy to live with. I’m pretty temperamental, you know. I’ve been used to doing things my own way for so long that I’m not interested in any suggestions. There was friction with my other wives. But it seems like Annie and I did okay with each other. It takes a special person to live with me.
“I’ve got great wives, great kids, great grandkids,” he boasts. “Both my sons, Micah and Lukas, are doing well.” (Jacob Micah, 20, and Lukas Autry, 21, are his children with Annie.) “Micah’s at college and has a band, The Reflectables. Lukas has a band, too, The Promise of Real.” Willie chuckles at those names. “Lukas has opened for Bob Dylan and B.B. King, so he’s doing really well. He’s also opened for me a few times, and he will again.”
Beyond aging, the reason Willie offers for his being easier to live with is his cutting down on liquor while increasing his intake of cannabis. He is an outspoken proponent of marijuana and strongly opposes hard drugs like meth and cocaine.
“Legalize weed,” he declares. “It’s 50% of what’s causing the problems along the border with the drug cartels. A lot of people who sell it want to keep it illegal because that’s where the money is. The cartels are now in hundreds of our cities, growing and selling weed. Legalize it, and it would stop all that immediately.
“There are many bands that are not here anymore because of the drugs and alcohol,” he adds. “I know a lot of singers who have ruined their careers drinking and drugging.”
Willie and his family have also suffered through the devastating consequences of drug addiction. His son Billy hanged himself on Christmas Day, 1991, at 33. He had been in and out of rehab for substance abuse, and his death was the worst event of Willie’s life. I ask about Billy.
“Death is not the ending of anything,” Willie says quietly. “I believe all of us are only energy that becomes matter. When the matter goes away, the energy still exists. You can’t destroy it.It never dies. It manifests itself somewhere else.” He pauses. “We are never alone. Even by ourselves, we are not alone. Death is just a door opening to somewhere else. Someday we’ll know what that door opens to.”
Willie smiles at me, looking impossibly tranquil, even beatific. “I believe that,” he affirms. “I really do.”