Pop culture is shit. Most of the time at least. It is only at its best when it shakes up the consciousness of its audience in such a way that is possibly disturbing, when it challenges us to disobey the repressive forces always in control, and helps us acknowledge the human spirit. Classic pop culture has often promoted the idea of being an outlaw in a society or system that is largely illegitimate. There are countless underground figures that incite us with their art, but few mainstream heroes provide the same type of stimulus. Is Willie Nelson one of these anomalies?
An Outlaw Comes to “Town”
Recently, I had the bizarre, and uniquely American, experience of singing happy birthday to Willie as he stood only a few feet away from me. It was two days after his eightieth. What made it so strange was that it was alongside dozens of overzealous senior citizens reaching out for his hand and screaming his name.
The backdrop for this event was the ending of a concert in Central Florida that took place within what’s been described as a “master-planned, age-restricted retirement community”. The community seems to be designed as a sort of black hole for mom and dad or grandpa and grandma to disappear into, and live a peaceful, if occasionally bacchanalian, lifestyle. The outside world is never too relevant here because, goddamit, we deserve a break at some point, don’t we?
My dad lives in this community. He and I are at a point in our lives, due to medical circumstances hardly uncommon but terribly sad nonetheless, where we are trying our best to come to terms with one another. I was grateful for the opportunity to bring my dad to the Willie Nelson show and enjoy an hour and a half of so-called outlaw country, together. We’re not your typical fans but that is the genius of Willie Nelson and his crossover appeal.
This Disney World-for-seniors that hosted Willie was built by an aggressive developer who, in a form of culturally vacuous (not to mention, environmentally destructive) alchemy, turned farmland into a never-ending series of homes, recreation centers and “town squares”. The inhabitants live under controls and regulations, and the developer does not allow them to veer from the program. Conservative talk radio is perpetually beamed through speakers in public spaces and Republican superstars always seem to stop here in the course of their electioneering.
This is the kind of place where many older Americans feel they should live out the rest of their days. There is almost this compulsion to escape the real world in which their children live. In many ways, this is what Florida represents to people around the country. Yet amidst this scene, Willie and his crew pulled into town. It was perhaps a few years too late to raise hell, but he came on stage with enough energy to occasionally get some old folks up and dancing, in celebration of a life lived in defiance—a life that essentially challenges the idea of the detached and atomized community and individual.
The Struggle and the Hope
Willie Nelson is a rarity in today’s world. He is the outlaw that has somehow survived and continues to defy the stereotypes of our society. That night, he stood on stage with his guitar and played dozens of tunes for around an hour and a half. And he played them well. Yes, he smokes a lot of marijuana, and has for decades, but he is incredibly focused and a perfectionist when it comes to performing. Smoking pot is how many people deal with the pain or dullness of their lives, but despite the relative harmlessness and pervasiveness of marijuana use, too many Americans are marked as outlaws because of it. This is no secret but we too often forget the seriousness of the penalties imposed for a drug that millions of average Americans use for recreational purposes and joke about publicly (including Barack Obama himself.)
Most of Willie’s collaborators over the years are/were fiercely independent and non-conformist themselves. Some of these include his older sister Bobbie Nelson (who at 81 still performs regularly and treated the audience to a brilliant piano solo the night I attended), Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Tracy Nelson, Ray Charles, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Willie’s children, several of whom are excellent and original musicians themselves. Among his influences are many figures who challenged the status quo, and he has pointed out that he was blessed with a connection to Cherokee traditions, Mexican musicians, and the soul of the South, at a time when many ethnic and exotic traditions were being suppressed.
Furthermore, Willie Nelson is never really quiet about his views. He always speaks his mind and spreads messages of love and hope through his music. Most recently, he organized a benefit for the people of West and Abbot, Texas for the damages they suffered from the explosion in late April. He said of the tragedy, “It’s one of those things you don’t get over. But you will get through it.” This is the sort of advice you’d expect from a man with 80 years of pain, suffering, recovery and triumph under his belt. Willie has been able to combine his soft-spoken and simply-sung manner with the sincerity of a determined activist, reminding us how we are straying from the most important things in our lives: family, loyalty, a connection to the earth and its bounty, and the need to keep going in the face of adversity. This sort of activism is supposed to be rejected by senior citizens. They are supposed to opt for the easy life, the golden years, devoid of unnecessary drama. But for many of them, this is not an option or is increasingly unrealistic. They cannot afford the middle class dream, spiritually or materially. So they struggle on until their time comes.
Willie himself has led a life of struggle, abandoned by his parents at an early age, and compelled to work incessantly to achieve success, only to lose it soon after. He never made it easy on himself. He refused to “clean up” his act. Indeed, he was to challenge the idea that music could ever really be a business, and especially not one that could control its brightest and best talents. Kinky Friedman reminds us in the intro of a book written by Willie and Family last year, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, that Willie and Waylon Jennings and all their friends would tell the corporate executives to go fuck themselves, they were going to Texas. We are all lucky that they did abandon Nashville and the corporate-controlled country scene, because they would continue to produce all kinds of beautiful sounds and do it without much of a thought for boundaries and classifications.
There was a particularly tough period back in the early 90s, when Willie was splashed all over the front pages of news tabloids after he found himself in trouble with the IRS. A deal was arranged: Willie was off the hook in exchange for the proceeds of an album fittingly titled “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll buy my memories.” The album didn’t sell nearly enough to satisfy the government, but Willie was saved, and his stuff recovered only after loyal friends, family and fans set about on that mission.
Just Breathe…and Resist
Loyalty is a common theme for Willie, as is renewal. He has children from several marriages and reportedly maintains close relations with all of them. One was lost along the way though. His first son Billy reportedly took his own life in late 1991, at a time of uncertainty in Willie’s career. The birth of his two youngest children in that same period surely must have contributed to a spirit of hope and renewal. These two boys, Lukas and Micah, as well as his daughters Lana, Susie, Paula Carlene, and Amy Lee, occasionally travel and perform with their dad. Willie told the New York Times last year, “Honestly, right now, playing onstage with my kids is the biggest thrill I can get.” The excitement translates well to the audience, as the 2012 release of Heroes demonstrates. Lukas and Micah join their dad in some excellent original tunes and covers, including Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” and Tom Waits “Come On Up to the House”. The former, written by Eddie Vedder, captures well the nature of Willie’s style and approach to living: “Practiced are my sins/Never gonna let me win, uh-huh/Under everything just another human being, uh-huh/Yeah, I don’t want to hurt/There’s so much in this world to make me bleed.”
His 80th birthday received plenty of attention, and of course the media reports mentioned the pot, the outlaw affiliations, the IRS troubles and more bad-boy details. These are necessary elements of the Willie Nelson narrative. Yet, a requirement of storytellers like Willie and his friends who made up The Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), is to remain close to the struggle. This is a rare and often unbelievable characteristic for successful artists, but Willie Nelson has certainly maintained a connection to the downtrodden, and offers them his time, his hand and his guitar. [While Willie supported Dennis Kucinich and Gary Johnson in their bids, he ultimately, and in my opinion unfortunately, expressed support for Obama in both elections, despite a terrible record on two issues closest to Willie’s heart, the criminalization of marijuana, and the undelivered support of family farmers and outright embrace of Monsanto.]
The powerful national conscience, Howard Zinn, reached so many with his loyal storytelling. Willie Nelson credits him as a major influence and selected a quote by the radical historian for the book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. In the quote, Zinn refers to civil disobedience and discusses how people are too obedient in our society, “while the jails are full of petty thieves… the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” Actually, this seems to be a universal problem. Yet, there has always been a powerful current of rebellious thinkers in our society, urging us to reject the line that we are helpless or that we should simply retreat into our own consumption-based existences. Some do it for decades.
Pete Seeger is still going strong at 94 years of age, which he celebrated early this May. Unfortunately, voices like Seeger’s and Nelson’s, poetic geniuses like Alice Walker and prolific academics like Noam Chomsky, are up against a system of control not unlike that of the retirement community. This is why it is in our best hope to raise up our fists and organize, inspired by the spirit of these rebels with causes that we make our own. We must appreciate the notion of struggle in our own lives, but never accept it or become complacent, alas that’s what the crooked and greedy feed off.
A Dignified Walk Into the Sunset
There’s a sad verse in the classic country song “Desperados waiting for a train”, covered by The Highwaymen and sung by Johnny Cash. It’s about an old man admired by the protagonist, despite a total lack of honor bestowed upon him by society. It goes “One day I looked up and he’s pushin’ eighty/He’s got brown tobacco stains all down his chin/Well to me he was a hero of this country/So why’s he all dressed up like them old men/Drinkin’ beer and playin’ Moon and Forty-two.” I thought about this song a lot (The Highwaymen perform it beautifully) while taking a closer look at the outlaw elder that Willie is to me and so many others. I’m glad that he didn’t lose prominence as an artist and lose the honor of our society because he, like all of us, deserves to have his life celebrated. . Dignified endings are usually hard to come by in this life and this is often the case for celebrities.
The last three songs performed by Willie and Family that evening in Central Florida were about death. The most recent of these (and most playful) was “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”, where Willie embraces the idea that his spirit will endure in the form of a beautifully twisted joint that burns its way into the ether, leaving his friends high off the legend one last time. However, the music that Willie has created should endure for decades and more. We are not all that special but I would like to think we all live on in a peaceful spirit, despite the strife and pain on earth.
Willie could have stopped making music and touring. He could have let the bullshit that comes with fame discourage his gentle nature and patience as a performer. He could have lost the ability to commiserate and his genuine public persona could have disintegrated over time. But it hasn’t. What Willie Nelson’s triumphs and troubles reveal is that he has remained true to what always drove his creative impulses, i.e. pain, suffering, and the determination to get beyond these moments in our lives. This is clearly one of the reasons why his work has endured and is so cherished.
My dad and I drove home from the show that night feeling closer than we’d been in awhile. I’d like to think that what made us bond was the rebellious nature that timeless art can provoke. On the other hand, maybe he realized that it’s nice to just breath and listen to a wise old man tell you that no matter where you have been or where you’re going, you’ve been blessed in more ways than you remember. Chilling out makes us remember…and smile.
So here is to Willie Nelson, his eighty years, and his hard-fought battles; to the folks who got him through them. And here’s to the stories of the countless millions who go unsung and untold, yet who resemble those iconic figures in the classic songs sung by Willie and his associates.
Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.