photographed by Danny Clinch / interview by Alex Scordelis
“Willie would like to see you on his bus now.”
For a country music fan, those words are the equivalent of inviting a Trekkie to spend time with Captain Kirk on the starship Enterprise. In terms of famous vehicles, Willie Nelson’s bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, is up there with the Pequod from Moby-Dick and the Batmobile. When the “Red Headed Stranger” just can’t wait to get on the road again, this is his trusty ride.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in West Hollywood, and Nelson’s mythical tour bus is parked on Melrose Avenue. Nelson, 81, is relaxing onboard, waiting to perform at John Varvatos’ 11th Annual Stuart House Benefit, which raises funds for a program that serves sexually abused children.
Varvatos boards the bus with me. Nattily dressed in a Sgt. Pepper-style military jacket, the Detroit menswear designer, a beacon of old-school rock cool, is visibly giddy at the prospect of spending time with Nelson. Last year, Varvatos appointed the country legend and his sons, Lukas, 25, and Micah, 24, to be the faces of his brand’s Fall/Winter 2013 campaign. At today’s benefit, Nelson’s sons will join their old man onstage to burn through a set of Willie’s timeless hits.
As expected, a haze of pot smoke lingers on the luxury liner. Nelson beckons us over to his breakfast nook. A cartoonishly huge Cheech-and-Chong-sized joint rests, unlit, an arm’s length away. Nelson flashes an impish smile, stretching the crinkles and crannies in a face that deserves to be chiseled on Mount Rushmore.
A celebrity-studded audience, which includes Amy Adams, Courtney Love, Gene Simmons and Jessica Simpson, has packed the venue, waiting for Nelson’s performance. But on the Honeysuckle Rose he seems blissfully unfazed by the hullabaloo outside. Maybe it is because he is in his element. Or maybe it is what he is smoking.
AS: Willie, you’re renowned for having a joke for every occasion. What’s the last good zinger you heard?
WN: Lemme think… You know what they call a guitar player without a girlfriend? Homeless.
AS: That’s a good one. John, you’re from Detroit, and Willie, you’re from Abbott, Texas, but you two seem to share a similar rebel sensibility. Why do you think you clicked when you worked together?
JV: We each have a pride in our roots, in where we started. If you lose track of that, you lose track of where you’re going with your life.
AS: There are city blocks in Detroit that are bigger than Abbott, Texas.
WN: There are a lot of things in Detroit that are bigger than Abbott.
AS: Last year, Willie, you and your sons shot a video for Varvatos at the Salisbury House museum in Des Moines, Iowa. What was your experience doing the ad campaign?
WN: Well, the boys were there. We got to dress up. John’s clothes look great, and we had fun doing it. We have fun every time me and the boys get together anyway, but if you get to dress up, that’s even more fun.
AS: Willie, you’re performing with your sons, Lukas and Micah, today. Why is it important for you to keep music a family affair?
WN: I have to keep an eye on ‘em. It’s just a lot of fun to play music with my sons, and they’re really good, which makes it even better.
AS: Willie, who did you look up to in terms of style when you were a kid?
WN: I was a huge Gene Autry and Roy Rogers fan. I liked their sequins and embroidered shirts.
JV: The Nudie suits — I’m sure you were into those.
WN: Oh yeah, loved the Nudie clothes. They were cool.
AS: John, music is the cornerstone of Varvatos — why is it important to you to incorporate icons like Willie Nelson in your work?
JV: It wasn’t something I consciously tried to do. It happened organically. And it’s blossomed into something that’s become synonymous with the brand. If I thought about it too hard, I think I’d ruin it. Just this morning, Bob Ezrin [Alice Cooper's producer] was introducing me to a big record producer, and he said, “John’s more of a music guy; fashion’s his part-time thing.” I took that as a huge compliment.
AS: Why’d you pick Willie?
JV: With Willie, you can’t put him in a box. When you think about all the music that he’s played, he’s one of the few artists in music history that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. I don’t think too hard about conveying a particular message with who we pick for our campaigns. It’s about working with icons. Willie’s music is transcendent. When you go to Willie’s shows, it’s a very broad demographic in the audience. There aren’t many artists who are able to cross generations like that.
AS: Speaking of icons, Trigger, Willie’s guitar, is an icon in its own right. Do you have an article of clothing that has as much wear and tear as Trigger does?
WN:[long pause] No. [laughs]
JV: I have a simple black motorcycle jacket that I’ve had since I was in high school. I saved every penny from delivering newspapers to buy it. It fits me a bit slimmer now than it did back in the day, which is cool. It’s the one piece where, if there was a fire, it’s the one article of clothing I’d want to save. But it doesn’t have as many stories in it as Trigger does. How old is Trigger?
WN: He’s 50 years old now.
JV: So yeah, he’s not as old as Trigger, but I have a lot of good memories with that jacket. The jacket is beat up and crusty now. But like Trigger has that hole in the middle — that changes the whole tone, right?
WN:, Yeah. Each time Trigger’s hole gets a little bigger, the tone changes.
AS: How much thought do you put into what you wear onstage?
WN: None. I just need a clean T-shirt.
JV: Annie [Nelson's wife] wants him to think about it.
Annie Nelson: [from the back of the bus] But that’s what people look for in Willie! They like that he doesn’t care.
AS: John, what can the average guy learn from Willie’s sense of style?
JV: Be yourself. Be comfortable. Follow your own path. It’s what he’s done with his music and with his style. Don’t try to be anybody else. It’s about style and not fashion. You can wear a black T-shirt and blue jeans, but it’s about how you carry yourself and your aura.
AS: Willie, I play guitar, and I’d be foolish not to ask: what’s the best advice you could give to a guitar picker?
AN: Get a real job.
WN: Ha! That’s funny. There’s a line in a song I just recorded: “Our mothers don’t know what we’re doing and why we stay up all night long / I told mine I was a drug dealer and she said, ‘Thank God you’re not writing songs.’”
AS: And John, what advice would you give to someone starting out in fashion?
JV: Be a sponge. Listen to people when you have the opportunity to learn.
AS: Thanks for your time, it’s been a…
WN: Wait, I was gonna tell you another joke.
AS: Please. Go for it.
WN: In a house of ill repute, there was a couple on the second floor gettin’ it on. They got too close to the window, and they fell out and onto the ground. But they just kept on going at it. Then a drunk walks up and knocks on the brothel door and says, “Ma’am, your sign fell down.”
JV: I think you just got the perfect ending to this interview.