Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

“In 1985 Willie Nelson insisted on making the farm crisis a national conversation.”

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

art by Amelia Bates


How do you prep for an interview with Willie Nelson?You read autobiography after autobiography and find yourself watching Grand Ole Opry when you should be reading one more autobiography.  You hold a meeting on whether it would be unprofessional to say “yes” to an offered joint or rude to say “no.” (You settle on “no” in order to avoid an interview full of questions like “Aren’t trees weird, Willie?”) You watch old interviews like a football coach reviewing rival teams’ tapes. You haggle with publicists and have a car packed and ready to meet his bus at their go-ahead. You review scribbled notes and polished questions.It’s hard to think of many celebrities as well-loved as Willie. “In a time when America is more divided than ever, Nelson could be the one thing that everybody agrees on,” wrote Patrick Doyle in a 2014 Rolling Stone profile.  When I told my rancher dad about my plans for an interview, he told me to ask Willie to play at his funeral. When I pointed out that dad will likely outlive ol’ Willie, he was silent for a while and then muttered, “Might have to work on that.”If you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a story where I track down an American icon and squeeze life’s secrets, folksy wisdom, and a ditty or two from him. I did, however, get my interview. After months of buildup, I got Willie on the other end of the phone line for 20 minutes.

It was difficult to connect the wary, but kind, voice on the phone to the Willie Nelson of my youth. In my small Montana town, Willie was a living Western movie. We’d beg our parents for quarters in dusty bars to play songs like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboyw.”  It was just a little funny and a little sad when some of us babies went off to become doctors and lawyers and such.

Similar to the love and mysticism we heap on Willie, we romanticize the hell out of agriculture, too. This isn’t to say they each haven’t earned their mythical reputations: Willie smoked pot on the roof of the White House and created an incredible body of music. Meanwhile, farmers are connected to nature and life and death in ways most of us can barely fathom from inside a cubicle.

But that romanticism only scratches at the surface of U.S. agriculture. In this series, I want to open a dialogue with the mid-size farmers who have largely been left out of the food conversation. If we continue to ignore them, our polarized ag economy will eventually force them to scale up — or off the land entirely.

I was knee-high when I went to a wheat farm auction in Eastern Montana with my farmer grandparents; I remember thinking it was going to be fun and feeling confused by the heavy mood brought on by neighbors buying up their old neighbors’ machinery.

No American farmer over the age of 40 will forget the low prices, high debt, and droughts that shook rural America in the ’80s. “In the 1930s, everyone in America suffered — urban people, the rich banker, the poor farmer. Everybody lost massively. Everybody was living close to survival. And it meant for kind of a national unity,”former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R) told PBS.  “With the farm crisis in the ’80s, basically it was only the farmer. And this meant the farmer was alone in an island of difficulty. And that is really something that eats at the soul sometimes deeper than being part of a more general phenomenon.”

But Willie insisted on making the farm crisis a national conversation. In 1985, Nelson recognized the dire state of American agriculture, and launched Farm Aid.  What was supposed to be a one-off event turned into an annual concert and a nonprofit that’s pumped millions into farm disaster relief, grants for local food groups, ag policy lobbying, factory farm resistance, and more.

To many of us in the middle of the country, Willie wasn’t just the soundtrack to farm auctions — he was out there trying to make the rest of America care.

I asked Willie how a nation bounces back from something like the sorrow of the 1980s. “That’s a tough question,” he replied. A lot of farmers didn’t want to go back after the ugliness of the ‘80s, Willie said. But “the folks who stayed in there and toughed it out, even though they may have lost their farm, they still kept their character and their good name. They had to overcome it. A lot of them have gone back into the farming business.”

Willie, similarly, has seen his share of rough times, and survived with his name intact. The red-headed stranger landed in the mud not long after his farming friends. In the early ’90s, Willie was hit with a multimillion dollar tax debt. He had mistakenly relied on a manager to pay the bills, and he followed that debt up with some bad business decisions. Then, as his estates were being auctioned off, Willie lost his oldest son.

Every cowboy knows that if a horse bucks you off, you’d better get back on. For all of the media accounts that said Willie was disgraced and done, he kept on singing, churning out albums, and releasing autobiographies. Willie dusted off his jeans and stuck a boot in the stirrup. And the fans filled the stadiums to see him.

But meanwhile, the U.S. continued to lose farms. And while the food movement has had real success with galvanizing eaters and reconnecting Americans to what’s on the local, free-range, organic plate, it remains to be seen whether we can truly care about and understand the people and places behind the food.

When I asked Willie who his favorite food writers are, he responded, “I was raised up with farmers and I have a lot of friends who were and are farmers. I think that’s where you go to get advice about what’s going on out there: You go ask a farmer.”

After three decades of farm advocacy work, how do things look to Willie? “There is a lot of organic farming going on these days and it’s helped out the small family farmer. The farm-to-table markets are doing well,” he said. “People have learned to buy locally and sustainably, and it’s turning into a better situation than it was, but it’s not perfect. There are still a lot of farmers out there in trouble.”

Willie has seen some successes in his other passion: legalizing marijuana. “They’ve already found out that it don’t kill you and it don’t make you go crazy and berserk, running around biting yourself,” he said. And now that the business types have seen the money in it, according to Willie, it’s only going to spread.

I asked Willie if he thinks U.S. agriculture as a whole could have a Willie-like rebound and he laughed at the comparison. “Well, that would be wonderful if they did,” he said. “It’d be another miracle.”

This fall, Farm Aid will celebrate its 30th anniversary. “Helping put out the word is about all we can do,” Willie said, adding that the musicians are just “trying to bring people’s attention to an old problem.”

But Willie has always managed to do more than just bring our attention to the problem of vanishing farms. He has also kept that image, however romantic and outdated, of the cowboy on America’s mind.

Willie and his preferred genre are the distillation of old longing we attach to red dirt roads. “Country music is born when the country becomes a nostalgic ideal,” music anthropoligist Aaron Fox explained in a Radiolab segment. The crying steel guitars and vocalizations,  Fox said, conjure up memories of migration and feelings of regret.

I listened to a lot of Willie’s music while writing this piece. When his recording of the old classic Red-Headed Stranger came on, my boyfriend turned to me and asked, “Where is Blue Rock, Montana?”

It’s not a real place, I told him, “but it sure sounds nice, doesn’t it?”

So, how do you end an interview with Willie Nelson? I didn’t ask him if he would play at my father’s funeral (glad you’re still kicking, dad!). Instead, I told him a joke. “What’s the difference between beer nuts and deer nuts?” I asked. “Beer nuts are $1.49 and deer nuts are always under a buck.”

Willie gave a good, long, raspy laugh and whatever hurried tension was there dissolved. Who can blame him? It is a pretty good joke, and he’s only human, after all.

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Micah Nelson Grateful Dead Dave’s Pick 2015 Artist-in-Residence

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015


photo:  Theo Jemison

Dave’s Picks 2015 Artist-in-Residence Micah Nelson gives us a little insight into his unconventional upbring (yes, the one and only Willie is his dad) and into how he juggles his time between painting, animating, and playing in not one, not two, but three bands(!) in this edition of All In The Family. Find out what the multi-talented and very busy artist is up to here.

A multi-hyphenate and a member of the well-respected Nelson tribe, give us a little background on your upbringing and your earliest exposure to art/music/creativity…

I’ve been doing creative things for as long as I can remember. I never stopped creating stuff and eventually my creations were paying my rent. It’s great! I hope to continue this lifestyle as long as possible. It’s amazing that you can actually be rewarded for doing what you love. I don’t take it for granted for a second.

In terms of the visual world, you are an illustrator, a painter — a live painter – and an animator. You’re also a part of 3 bands – the psych-punk-orchestra Insects vs. Robots, neo-psych-folk-rock band Pårticle Kid, and POTR, a collaborative project with your brother Lukas Nelson. How do you find the time?

I was very scattered around for a while, experimenting, playing in a million bands, saying yes to everything. Eventually I began to feel thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. The only choice was to focus on the things that really mattered to me and not take on more projects than I could count on one hand. That step was life-changing in a great way, but even now I pretty frequently am up all night working on various things, sleeping at odd hours. That’s ok. Life is really all one long day depending on where you are in the multiverse right..?..your birthday!

If you had to pick just one…

Probably The Empire Strikes Back… yeah, definitely. No question.

How do each of these art forms appeal to you? Do you find they work hand-in-hand?

They are very symbiotic. I rarely have an idea for a song without seeing a video or album concept or animation behind it. If I am painting something I usually hear music in my head to accompany it or vice versa. The aural and visual inform each other. I seem to understand music the most in visual, or even tactile terms. It’s what makes the most sense to me. I’d love to learn to read and write music better though. I suspect I have a mild case of synesthesia, I’m not sure… maybe not so mild. I am grateful for the life-saving ability to make tangible sense of it all through my art and music. I remember getting very frustrated as a kid when I couldn’t express what was in my head, when it wouldn’t come out on the page the way I saw it in my mind. I think this whole sanity thing is just an endurance test. If you keep trying it eventually gets easier, or you at least get better at making it seem easier.


Any formal training in music or art?

Up until I went to art college for a few years, I mostly just either figured things out trial and error style or learned from elder artists or musicians I was lucky to be surrounded with growing up. Nothing really formal. I’m very grateful to have had some fine art education later on though; I gained a lot from the experience. I am a firm believer in knowing the rules well before effectively breaking them. I think it’s important to be open to learning new things constantly. I could never learn it all. The more I learn, the more humbled I am by my lack of knowledge. I know nothing.

Is it more challenging to create commissioned works? What makes it interesting?

I guess it really depends on the piece and the work involved. Sometimes having a specific request for something can be easier than pulling something out of the air, y’know, making something from nothing… but really it’s all very interesting and inspiring. Depends on how you choose to look at it. I’m so fortunate to even have problems like these. Once, a few years ago, I was asked to carve a liking of a grieving woman’s son into a marble headstone… on paper that might sound like a bit of a morbid gig, but it was a profoundly humbling experience and it taught me so much. I had never carved anything into marble before, let alone something as important as the portrait of someone’s deceased son, so I knew I had to focus. There’s no undo button with marble. I could not fuck this up. I put everything into it and am actually very, very proud of the piece… It has become a shrine for the mother and she still writes to me all the time that seeing it brings her inner peace every day. Thank you for that experience, Mary!

I am a super grateful person to make art and music for a living! That’s all I can say at the end of the day.

Let’s get into your connection with the Grateful Dead…

When I was 13, I roadied for my uncle Dahr’s band ‘Titty Bingo’ at my father’s 4th of July picnic which was in Austin that year. Both Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Dead headlined that year. I was right there on side stage breathing it all in the whole time. There was no filter, no screen to look through except my own mind. I can still smell the rain approaching. The Dead jammed for what seemed like hours. Mickey had his massive wall of drums. I remember distinctly Phil’s warm smile when he shook my hand. All the Heads and hippies and rednecks dancing in the mud. An epic musical journey unfolded that seemed to be laughing at time itself, or maybe laughing with it. The overall vibe somehow felt so familiar, almost nostalgic. Everyone was there, riding it. It definitely influenced me.

How does their iconic imagery appeal to you?

I’ve always felt that we are just passing through, that we don’t own this place or this skin, or anything really. You never see a hearse with a luggage rack, someone once said. I appreciate how the imagery of the Dead often presents a profound reverence and respect for death while simultaneously celebrating life. A light-hearted lesson in the temporality of everything. I dig that.

Given that the Dead do have a very specific aesthetic, what were some of the challenges (and rewards!) of creating the artwork for the 2015 Dave’s Picks series?

I love the cultural mythology of the Dead. My artwork tends to be very layered and multidimensional, and often pretty obscure so I appreciate the symbology of the whole Dead legacy. The history is epic and vast, like Lord of the Rings or something. I also like to use muted Earth tones in my work a lot, sometimes coffee or tea stains, etc, but this project demanded bright bold colors, which is something I’m not quite used to. Still, I’m loving the challenge. I like for my comfort zones to be tested and stretched. It keeps it real and fresh.

What else is on your agenda for 2015?

I am currently making a record with Neil Young and will be collaborating with my friend, the great Gary Burden, on the album art as well! What an honor to call these folks my good friends and be a part of their life stories. We have been having a super great time hanging out and working with Neil – what an inspiring force to be around. I have nothing but respect for Neil. He also happens to be one of the funniest people alive and has basically adopted me and my brother and POTR as his band. What a trip! I’ve also been writing a new album with Insects vs Robots. We plan to record sometime this spring as well as well as play some shows at SXSW in Austin and possibly some shows opening for the band Tinariwen sometime this summer.If we get time, it would be great to make a music video too – we’ve got a million ideas and talented superfriends, but haven’t quite found the time to make it happen yet. I also plan to tour a bit with my father more this year playing in the family band. We did get to do one show with him a couple weeks ago while he was in town, which was wicked fun. I have been working on several a/v projects with my friend David Wexler aka ‘Strangeloop’ (Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu) and the whole Teaching Machine crew which I look forward to sharing with everyone. I’d like to find some time to make another Particle Kid record this year too, hopefully finish a record I started last year with Christy Smith and also finish the Lily Meola record that I’m producing. And then take a power nap.

Check out more of Micah’s work at
Check out his band Insects VS Robots here.
Check out Particle Kid here.
See more of Micah’s art here.

Willie Nelson, on Guitar (Frets Magazine, Dec. 1984)

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Frets Magazine
December 1984
by Jim Halo

Willie Nelson is a man of surprises. “Improbable” is the mildest word that describes the course of his career from sideman to superstar, a career marked by so many odd twists, turns and bumps that the story would be hard to pass off a convincing fiction. It isn’t out of character, then, that as an instrumentalist he plays a type of guitar that country bandleaders aren’t supposed to play, uses a technique usually reserved for another type of guitar altogether, and first chose to do so for one of the least likely reasons.

In place of the obligatory pear-monogrammed steel-string, Shotgun Wilie packs a Martin short-scale N-20 classical guitar, one of perhaps only 277 ever built. In country circles, let alone the string music world at large, Martin classicals are about as common as Porsche limosines. And while manicured fingers are considered de rigeur for the playing of classical guitars, Willie uses a flatpick — which accounts for one of his intrument’s trademarks. In the soundboard, a ragged gash extends from near the lower quadrant of the soundhole rosette down almost to the treble end of the bridge saddle. Classical guitars traditionally do not have pickguards. Wille’s instrument, after 15 years of flatpicking, provides an object lesson in while steel-string guitars usually do.

Even if the famous auxiliary soundhole, surrounded by pick-abraded bare wood, with skeletal brace ends and edges peeking through, never had formed on Willie’s N-20, there would have been no question of the guitar’s identity. Besides its battle scars, the soundboard bears the autographs of such artists as Roger Miller and Johnny Bush, along with other graffiti left — at the owner’s invitation — during Willie’s days as a Nashville songwriter who couldn’t quite go over the top as a performer.

Why did Willie Nelson start using a classical guitar in the first place? Test your musical intuition by choosing one of the following: Willie switched to a classical guitar because he wanted to (a) favor a weak left hand by changing to the lower tension of nylon strings; (b) inject an element of mariachi music into his Texas-based country stylings; (c) get a guitar that was strikingly different from those of his performing peers; (d) sound like France’s Gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso, Django Reinhardt.

The correct answer is (d).

Any similarities between the style of Nelson and the style of Reinhardt are purely intentional. “I wanted to look for a guitar that I could use to find that tone that Django was getting,” Willie says, referring to the sound of Django’s unusual Selmer-Maccaferri steel-string acoustics. “The guitar that I am using now is the closest that I could find to that.”

Most guitarists would figure that Willie was drawn to a nylon-string instrument because of it’s comparatively easygoing action. But he says that in fact, the opposite is true.

“The action is really a lot slower than what you’d get on a regular Fender electric or something, which I used to play all the time,” he explains. “I played a lot of Fenders and a lot of Gibsons — all electrics. I really didn’t play the acoustic guitar on stage then, for the simple reason that the fingering was more difficult. But finally I sort of settled for the harder action to get the tone I wanted.”


As a performer, Willie also settled for harder action to get the kind of results he wanted. For years he channelled royalties from a successful songwriting career into a money-losing band, so that he could play his music the way he wanted with his “family” of loyal sidemen. He went against the Nashville grain in the early ’70s, switching to a non-country label, recording in New York, and moving his base of operations to Texas. That earned him the label “outlaw,” but it helped launch a new wave in country music that eventually overflowed into the rock and pop markets and carried Willie Nelson to megastar status. At present, his roll call of recording credits includes no less eight gold albums, six platinum albums, one double platinum album, and one triple platinum album.

Ironically — or perhaps, characteristically — the triple platinum album isn’t country at all. It is Stardust, Willie’s 1978 tribute to the standards (like “Stardust,” “Blue Skies,” “September Song,” and “All of Me”) that he heard and loved as a boy in the 1940s.

Born in the teeth of the Depression in April 1933, Willie grew up in Abbott, Texas, south of Fort Worth. His mother left home when eh was six months old, and he was raised by his grandparents. His grandfather, a blacksmith, gave Willie his first guitar lesson at age six. Willie’s grandmother, who wrote gospel songs, also played guitar. “I started out with a thumbpick,” Willie recalls, “Because that was what my grandparents used, so I was taught that way. But later on I began to hear players like Eldon Shamblin [of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys], and they used a straight pick. So I changed because that music was more what I wanted to play. When I was a kid I used to play the mandolin — fool with it a lot, and the banjo, and everything that had strings o it. I usually could get some sort of sound out of them. But I never really tried to get good on anything other than a guitar.”

His older sister, Bobbie (now the pianist in Willie’s band), was taking piano lessons, so the sheet music she brought home supplemented the songs he heard on the radio — World War II pop hits like “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Through radio he also drank in Grand Ole Opry country music, western swing, and jazz. As he grew bigger, Willie earned $3 a day picking cotton with black field hands. What made the work bearable for him was the blues and work songs they sang.

At age 10 Willie made his professional debut, playing in a Bohemian polka band for $8 a night. He began working in a small group with Bobbie on piano, their father on fiddle, Bobbie’s husband on bass, and the local football coach on trumpet. Gradually he evolved a guitar style influenced by such players as Johnny Smith, Hank Garland, George Barnes, Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt. “I liked those rhythms that Django’s band laid down, too,” says Willie, “the stuff his brother Joseph played on rhythm guitar.” Perennially electric, he also was drown to the music of flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya. “The Spanish flavor was something I always enjoyed anyway,” he says, “So Montoya was one of my favorites from the beginning.”

After high school he served a short stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, then spent the ’50s working as a door-to-door salesman (variously selling vacuum cleaners, Bibles, and encyclopedias), a plumber’s helper, a used-car salesman, a janitor, a Sunday School teacher, and a disc jockey, all the while playing in bars and honky tonks. And writing music. One of his first successful songs was “Family Bible.” He sold the rights to it for $50, so he could buy groceries for his family. In 1959 he wrote his classic “Light Life,” which would eventually be recorded by more than 70 different artists and sell over 30 million copies. But two years later he sold the rights to it for $150, which he used to buy a second-hand Buick. He used the Buick to move to Nashville.

Willie’s work won quick recognition in Music City. Songwriter Hank Cochran heard Willie one night in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the bar that served as the unofficial artists’ club room for the neighboring Grand Ole Opry, and signed him to a publishing contract. Singer Ray Price, who with Cochran was a part-owner in the publishing company, also was impressed. He made “Night Life’ his theme song, and hired its author as a bass player.

Soon vocalist Patsy Cline had a huge hit with Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Faron Young had another with Willie’s “Hello Walls.” Liberty signed Willie to a recording contract, and he scored his first Top Ten country hit in 1962 with the single “Touch Me.” He became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, and the following year he signed with RCA. But though he recorded more than a dozen albums for RCA between 1965 and 1971, Willie didn’t enjoy the kind of usccess that other artists were having with his material.

One reason was his phrasing. Intrigued by crooner Frank Sinatra’s knack for singing off, or against, the beat, Willie had adopted the technique in his own music. (That kind of phrasing often turns up in Willie’s guitar solos). But his producers saw Willie’s use of rhythmical license as a liability, not an asset — and often remixed his studio tapes to get his voice back on the beat.

The results weren’t impressive, commercially; and artistically they were frustrating for Willie. His substantial songwriting income allowed him to hold his road band together, however, and they kept the faith in live performances. “The music I played on a bandstand was better than the music I played in the studio,” he once told Al Reinert of New York Times Magazine. “For one thing, I’d be using my own band, and we’d have a better feel for it — be more relaxed. We’d have an audience to play for, and it was just a whole lot more fun.”

In 1969, in the middle of his second divorce, Willie’s Nashville house burned down. His guitar was one of the few things eh was able to save from the flames. While Willie’s home was being rebuilt, he moved back to Texas — and stayed. He made the relocation official in 1972. Meanwhile, Willie and his band began hitting the Southwest tour circuit again; and with the expiration of his RCA contract, he left the Nashville studios behind as well. In 1971 he signed with Atlantic, which was venturing into the country market. It was a good move for both parties.

Given a free hand, Wilie took his own band to New York to record Shotgun Willie. Finished in less than to days, the LP brought their “outlaw” sound out into the open. Within six months, sales of Shotgun Willie had surpassed the sales of all his Nashville albums combined.

From there, the successes began to snowball. Phases And Stages, completed in 1974 as Atlantic wound down its country operations, sold 400,000 copies. Meanwhile, the Nashville songwriting fraternity saluted his earlier contributions to country music by inducting him into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973.

Willie formed his own record company, signed a distribution agreement with Columbia, and in 1975 released Red-Headed Stranger. From that came the single, “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain,” which gave him his first Top Ten country hit in 13 years and won him his first Grammy Awared. (It also documented a rare reversion to fingerstyle playing on the guitar solo. “I didn’t use a pick on that one,” Willie says. “Sometimes I use my thumb by itself, to get a softer sound. On ‘Blues yese,’ that was strictly thumb and fingers.”)

Red-Headed Stranger was certified gold in March 1976, and before the month was otu Willie shared in the plaudits as RCA’s The Outlaws — a compilation featuring the music of Willie, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser — also earned gold record status. Honors and hit records came almost predictably thereafter. Among his laurels to date are eight Country Music Association awards, including Best Album (twice), Best Single (twice), Best Vocal Duo (with Waylon Jennings in 1976, with Merle Haggard in 1983, and with Julio Iglesias in 1984), and Entertainer of the Year — a title conferred on him in 1979 by both the CMA and the Academy of Country Music.

Willie no longer has to worry about breaking even outside the studio. This summer, Willie Nelson & Family was No. 14 in Billboard Magazine’s list of top-grossing concert appearances (a roster on which the much-hyped Victory Tour by the Jacksons sewed up 6 of the top 12 spots). Willie also is listed as one of the top ten money-earners on the Las Vegas shworoom circuit (along with his old diol, Frank Sinatra).

But despite all the justifiable to-do about his gilt-edged performing status, Willie still prefers to think of himself first and foremost as a picker.

“What I always liked to do was be the guitar player,” he says. “Somewhere along the say, I started being the singer. I’m not sure how that happened. I think one night the front man didn’t show up, and I wound up fronting the band and doing the singing. And I don’t know if that was really the best day of my life! I really do like to be just the guitar player, sometimes. It’s very enjoyable when the only responsibility you have is playing the guitar.

Fret Magazine. When you are playing lead, what’s gong on in your mind? Are you thinking of right chord changes or melodic patterns on the fretboard, or modes related to the key of the tune, or positions you like to work from?

Willie Nelson. Not consciously. I think probably if somebody put a computer on me, they’d find I use a lot of things the same way. But consciously — I just play off the top of my head. On the songs that I do a lot, I guess I’m subconsciously aware of the chord structures and I just play whatever notes I hear that fall within those. I really don’t think about all that. I guess I’m playing from somewhere else.

Fret: Do you work out solos ahead of time? Often, when you’re fronting your band, your solos will restate the melody. But in some situations — on the Angel Eyes album, for example — you’ll take what sounds like a more spontaneous lead break.

WN: It’s all how I feel at the moment. I really am not confined to playing anything the same way. I don’t have any arrangements that I try to follow, other than the basic things that are always there in a tune — the stuff that you can’t get around. Whenever anyone in the band takes choruses, they just play what they want to play.

Fret: Back on 1976, when you were interviewed by our sister magazine Guitar Player, you said that in doing solos you didn’t get into a lot of minor scales, because you felt you were major-chord oriented. How that youre’ playing things closer to mainstream jazz, is that still true?

WN: I think so. I love minor chords, and I have written some songs with minors in them. But basically, the songs that I listened to and learned in the beginning were major-chord songs.

Fret: Is that when you developed yoru feeling for standares like “Stardust”? Would it be fair to say that your growing up with that kind of material helped you learn how to put together well-crafted melodies?

WN: I think it very well could have. I was always exposed to those songs through the radio and through music that came into the house — sheet music, and so forth. I love good melodies, so I’m sure that had a lot of influence on me.

Fret. Through albums like Stardust and Angel Eyes, you’ve probably influenced a lot of younger musicians yourself, giving them their first exposure to standards and jazz. Do you have any other styles of music up your sleeve — material you might record in the future?

WN: There are some of the older styles I still ahven’t done, like Stephen Foster songs and old Songs of the Pioneers things — the real cowboy songs like “Leaning On The Old Top Rail” and “Empty Cot In The Bunkhouse Tonight.” All of those classics are still tehre to do.

Fret: Often you’re functioning as a rhythm player. In your opinion, what goes into really playing rhythm as well as it can be played?

WN: I think you ahve to know the chord forms. I think guys like Paul Buskirk and Homer Haynes are two of my favorites because of their styles. [Ed note: Mandolinist Paul Buskirk and guitarist Henry “Homer” Haynes (half of the team of Homer & Jethro) had strong elements of swing in their music.] It’s 4/4 rhythm and it’s done without drums. Or it can be done with drums; but I really liket he sound of the kind of rhythm section where you just hvae an upright bass and the rhythm guitar.

Fret: Does a rhythm guitarist need a special sensitivity to where the lead player is going?

WN: Yes, I think that’s an innate thing that most good rhythm guitarists know, becasue most rhythm guitar players are also leadguitar players, to a certain degree. So you just have t have a feel of when to play and when not to play, or hwo loud to play.

Fret: When you’re chording, do you ever use your thumb to fret notes?

WN: Yeah, a lot of times. I do that especially in open-chord rhythms. For instance, on a first position D chord I’ll use the thumb on the low E string to play an F#.

Fret: You generally use Fender medium flatpicks on your nylon-string guitar, instead of fingerpicking it. How often do you change picks? Some steel-string players have told us they go through a half-dozen a night, because the picks get worn and start sounding scratchy. But it would seem that nylon strings would be easier on a flatpick.

WN: I guess a normal person probably would be able to make them last longer, but there’s one tune we do each night — “Bloody Mary Morning” — where I’ll go through a pick every time I play it.

Fret: You can hear the difference? The pick starts to sound rough?

WN: No — I just break it.

Fret: Do you play with the point of the pick, or do you turn it and use the rounded corner for a mellower sound, as some players do?

WN: I try to keep it on the point, but in the course of “Bloody Mary Morning” I play every side of it. I think! I use up a couple of picks a night, because “Bloody Mary Morning” will take care of one, and “Whiskey River” will eat up another, so I’ll go through at least two picks, maybe three, every show.

Fret: You used to use ball-end La Bella nylon strings. Are you still staying that that brand?

WN: As far as I know, I am. The strings are automatically changed on my guitar every few days by a guy in our crew, and I’n not sure if he is still using La Bellas or not. I can’t tell any difference.

Fret: Are the strings changed on a regular schedule, or does the frequency just depend on how often you are performing?

WN: I think probably every three or four days he’ll change the strings. And we keep another guitar handy, with the strings on it already stretched, so that we kind of rotate them. When you put new nylon strings on a guitar, you’re always retuning them as they stretch out. That happened to me a lot of times on stage. Boy, it was hard, especially under those hot lights. Finally, we got real brilliant here and figured out that if you stretch them a few days before you put them on, you wouldn’t have to do that. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it years before, but better late than never!

Fret: Are there certain strings you’re more likely to break than others? Some players find that the G string is the first to go, for example.

WN: I very rarely break strings. In fact, I don’t remember the last string I broke. The picks go before the strings do, because the nylon strings are more flexible.

Fret: The nylon strings are one of the things that set your sound apart; but the way you amplify your guitar has a lot to do with that, too, doesn’t it?

WN: I think so. It’s a Baldwin amp with a Martin classical guitar — which is kind of a bastard situation. I’ve tried other combinations, and I don’t get the same sound that I do with this one, which was really accidental.

Fret: Didn’t the pickup itself come from a Baldwin guitar that got broken?

WN: Yeah, I had it taken out of the Baldwin and put in this one years ago, by Shot Jackson’s place in Nashville [Ed note: In the late ’60s, after Baldwin acquired Gretsch and began marketing a line of guitar amplifiers, the company briefly offered a classical guitar model with a ceramic piezo-electric pick up, and a companion amplifier designed for a “natural” tone response.] I’ve never changed it. I’ve tried to keep everything exactly the same, and the amplifier is still the same one. They don’t make Baldwins any more, you know. Each time I come across a used Baldwin amp, I try to buy it so I can use the parts for replacements on this one. I’ve got a couple of them.

Fret: Youv’e had a lot of work done on your guitar to keep it in service through all yoru years of touring. Who handles the repairs?

WN: A guy named Newman, in Austin [Newman Guitars, 200 Academy, Austin, Texas]. He has a guitar shop in the Opera House in Austin, and he’s been fixing my guitar for years.

Fret: Does your road crew take special precautions with the guitar and amp, since those are really one-of-a-kind items?

WN: They have nice sturdy cases for both. Steel cases. They take real good care of them.

Fret: Do you carry any other acoustic guitars on the road with you, or keep some at home that you just use for recording?

WN: I have a couple of guitars around the house, and sometimes I have one on the bus just to fool around with, but my stage guitar is my main guitar. The others are a variety of things — just whatever is available. It varies from one day to the next, really.

Fret: How many days a year are you on the road?

WN: I think probably somewhere between 200 and 250. That’s this year. It’s been like that practically every year, and each year I say, “Next year I’m going to slow down.’ But I still like doing it. I just enjoy playing music a lot.

Washington Post Podcast with Willie Nelson

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Welcome to our second Washington Post Pop-Up Pop Podcast in which we discuss the great Willie Nelson and his legacy as a songwriter, a spiritual leader and a very funny dude.

The discussion centers around an interview with Nelson that took place aboard his tour bus in Las Vegas earlier this month. You can read the profile that came from that interview right here and you can listen to our podcast below.

Mickey Raphael Interview

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

photo:  Jack Spencer

by:  Dan Taylor

The band’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, joined up while still in his early 20s. Now he’s 63, and still on tour with Willie Nelson and Family, which returns Feb. 2 to play the Wells Fargo Center for the 10th time since 1989.

A Texas native who now lives in Nashville and works steadily as a recording session musician when not touring with Nelson, Raphael is a harmonica master with a long list of credits. Raphael took a few minutes recently to talk by phone about Willie, the road, harmonicas and music.

Q: Exactly how long have you been with the Willie Nelson band?

A: I started in ’73, so I’ve been with ’em more than 41 years.

Q: But you’ve done a lot of other work, too?

A: Well, I do recording sessions, so I play on other people’s records. When you play an instrument, you have to play in all genres. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be limited to where I would just play with Willie. My vocabulary is a lot wider, but Willie is my first love, so to speak.

Q: How hard is it to shift gears and play with somebody else who’s very different from Willie?

A: Well, that’s kinda what I do. I try to be good at fitting in with other genres and working with other kinds of music. I played with Motley Crue, and that’s not something I do every day. They wanted a particular sound that I did and they used it on “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

Q: How did your collaboration with Elton John come about?

A: I think he had heard me play on “Stardust,” and he wanted that particular sound. People hear me play with Willie, and they want to adapt that sound to their music.

Q: Harmonica is often stereotyped as a blues instrument, but obviously you’re doing a lot more than that.

A: I never was a blues player. That’s the least amount of work that I get. There are some great players out there, like Charlie Musselwhite.

Q: Charlie lives in Sonoma County.

A: Yeah, I see him when I come out there.

Q: When you play harmonica, how do you balance blending in as accompaniment and then taking your solo moments?

A: A lot of it’s spontaneous. It depends on who you’re playing with. The deal is, you don’t play all the time with the harmonica. It’s another voice, so you wouldn’t be talking all the time, when somebody else is talking. You have to pick and choose your spots to play, and that’s 60 percent of it, right there – knowing when to play and when not to play, which is just as important as knowing what notes to play.

Q: You make that sound simple and logical, but it probably takes a lifetime of experience.

A: It really does. It takes a lifetime time of playing too much — well, hopefully not a lifetime. Once you get that level of confidence, you don’t need to show off. Very early on, people hipped me to the fact that less is more.

Q: Who were those people?

A: Well, Willie always said less is more. I spent a little time with Miles Davis, and he would say the same thing. He said, “What’s important is the space between the notes.”

Q: Are there other people who influenced you along the way?

A: I’ve been able to play a little bit with Paul Simon, and he’s been very influential. Wynton Marsalis was one of the biggest influences. I didn’t have a jazz background, but we did a couple of projects with him and Willie that were Ray Charles songs and some blues numbers. Playing with Marsalis’ band was exciting.

Q: Are there songs you look forward to playing at every show? You mentioned “Stardust.”

A: I do a solo on “Georgia” with Willie. That’s fun.

Q: Are there new things you want to try that you haven’t done so far?

A: I’m producing a boxed set of Highwaymen songs for Sony. It’s the audio for a live show that was filmed in 1990. The Highwaymen are Willie, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. I remixed the music for the DVD and three CDs. It sounds so good with today’s technology.

Q: Anything else?

A: I’ve been writing and recording with (early rock and roll guitarist) Duane Eddy. We’re working on a soundtrack sort of feel. We don’t have a movie for it yet. It comes from our imaginations.

Q: How much time do you spend on the road with Willie and his band?

A: We did 99 cities last year, which is pretty light for us. We used to average about 130. We’re slowing down a little bit. This is only a 10-day trip this time around.

Q: What’s your outlook for the future?

A: We just wish Willie the best of health. He’s pretty healthy. He’s 81 and still going strong. He is very mellow. I wish I could have that kind of attitude about life.

Willie Nelson and Dan Rather

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014



Dan Rather, Willie Nelson, Andy Langer
photo:  Gary Miller
by:  Andy Langer

Shortly after the midterm elections, Willie Nelson confessed with characteristic humor that he was disappointed by the results.

“I’ve got a new song called ‘Y’all Got the Ball,’ ” he said, referring to the Republican takeover of the United States Senate.

Whether the song actually exists, Mr. Nelson won’t say. But he is working at a pace that belies his 81 years: Last week, he released  “December Day”, an album of duets with his sister Bobbie. It follows “Band of Brothers”,  which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart in June. An album of duets with Merle Haggard is planned for release early next year.

Mr. Nelson’s longtime friend Dan Rather, 83, also isn’t slowing down. The journalist anchors two programs for AXS television — “Dan Rather Presents,” an investigative program, and “The Big Interview,” featuring celebrities. Last month, he interviewed Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard together for a new program, “Inside Arlyn,” that Mr. Nelson is hosting.

Still in the pilot stage, without an announced network or airdate, the program pairs Mr. Nelson with legends and newcomers for live performances recorded at Austin’s Arlyn Studios. Mr. Haggard was the guest for the first pilot episode, and the young Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr. played with Mr. Nelson for the second.

Immediately following Mr. Rather’s interviews for “Inside Arlyn,” Mr. Rather and Mr. Nelson talked about music, politics and longevity.

QUESTION:    You both got your starts in Texas radio.

RATHER:    I didn’t know until recently that Willie was a disc jockey in Houston the same time I worked at KTRH. We were the “50,000-watt voice of the golden Gulf Coast. Tall tower, full power. We break in when news breaks out.” Where were you?

NELSON:    KRCT in Pasadena. We played country music. I also got to promote the shows I was working in the clubs. I had a good thing going.

RATHER:    I have fond memories of KTRH. We had a live program at noon, “Hillbilly Bandwagon” with Babe Fritsch. We’re talking in the mid-fifties. That’s where I met Elvis Presley. He was still truck driving some between shows when he came in for an interview. He was scruffy. I had a feeling he’d been up all night driving. He apologized and said indeed he had, but whether that’s true or not, I’ll never know.

Q:    Dan, I’ve heard you talk about the role of music as solace and company when you’re reporting. I suspect you’ve listened to Willie in some faraway, dangerous places.

RATHER:    Absolutely. I don’t want to be sophomoric about this, but I always felt a strong bond because he was the voice of the Texas I knew. I knew Willie’s music before “Red Headed Stranger.” “Hello Walls” was always one of my all-time favorites. But the first time I heard his version of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” I literally pulled the car off the road someplace in Alabama. I’d heard others sing the song, but Willie cut somewhere really deep within me. I remember thinking that if Willie doesn’t record another song the rest of his life, that song will still resonate through the ages.

Q:    Willie, people must tell you those kinds of stories all day.

NELSON:    And I can listen to ’em all day.

Q: But what’s that mean to you as a songwriter? You sit with pen and paper and later people have these deep, meaningful experiences.

NELSON:    It’s easy for me to understand how someone can be a fan of someone. I have similar experiences with Hank Williams or Floyd Tillman. I was telling a friend the other day that people pay a lot of money to come to hear me or somebody sing and there’s an energy exchange that takes place out there that you can’t put a price on.

Q:    Dan, you’ve got two shows. Willie, you tour nonstop. Is passion the key to longevity?

NELSON:    Definitely. But also anybody that sings for two hours has to be in pretty good physical condition. You’re using your lungs — one of your largest muscles in your body. It’s a good workout. I ride my bike a little, but the real workout is the show.

RATHER:    I do think passion is a key to longevity. Another is gratitude. God, thank you for giving me something I love to do and for letting me still do it. There’s nothing like feeling you’re out front of a big breaking story.

Q:    Are we at the point where politics are simply too divisive to get anything done?

RATHER:    The short answer is yes. And it’s something I worry about. And I’m not a worrier by nature. I’m an optimist by nature and experience. But none of us ask often enough, “What’s good for the country?” In elected politics they too often ask, “What’s good for me in the next race or for the party?” I’m a child of World War II, and I remember the time everybody pulled together.

NELSON:    We have to start rebuilding our infrastructure, our highways and roads, and employ all those unemployed people building our country back. That’s where the money should go.

Q:    There’s a Ratherism along the lines of, “The Michigan race is tighter than a Willie Nelson headband.” How tight is a Willie Nelson headband?

NELSON:    Pretty tight indeed.


Willie Nelson Interview: Country Music Magazine (March 1992)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014


Country Music
March/April 1992
by Michael Bane

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” the unseen Nashville Network announcer says in his perfectly modulated radio voice, “America’s favorite outlaw… Willie Nelson!”

And Willie Nelson strides to center stage, as he has a million times before — and as he probably will a million times more — oblivious to the incongruity of the words “favorite” and “outlaw” being strung together in his introduction; oblivious o the cameras and lights and dancers and producers and directors and general mayhem that accompanies any television production; oblivious as always to the storm o f controversy that has once again descended on his long-haired head.

Craggy and timeworn, he is as he has always been — unlikely golfer, long distance runner, famous songwriter, semi-fugitive from justice and, of course, the Lord High Zen Master of the Road.

“Howdy, folks,” he says in his perfect Willie Nelson voice.  Next he will say, “Good to see you,” and damned if he doesn’t mean it.

You’ve probably been reading a lot of news about Willie recently, and none of it has been good news.  Depending on which tabloid you happen to be reading at the time, Willie Nelson is broke, destitute, desperate and probably living in some cardboard box under an Intestate overpass.  He does, in truth, owe the internal Revenue Service around, o, say $16.7 million.  (“Say it real quick,” Willie confides, “and it don’t sound so bad.”)  The federales auctioned off his property to pay the debt, although, other than a few souvenir-hunters, there weren’t a lot of takers.  It just wouldn’t you know, be right, somehow, profiting from Willie’s Nelson’s distress.


I have caught up with Willie Nelson, whom I have known for the better part of two decades, to ask him two simple qustions I already know the answer to.  Both are pretty obvious.  The last time Willie and I talked, it was in a ritzy club in New York City.  Willie and Burt Reynolds, actresses Carol Lynley and Candice Bergen and me.  It’s sure as heck, I say, not the bad old days.

“No,” Willie laughs, “thank God, it’s not.”

Question One, then, is how did the bad old days come back with such a vengeance?

Question Two dates back to the first time we met, not surprisingly in another older and substantially more decrepit tour bus parked outside a gig in Charlotte, North Carolina, and where a younger Willie Nelson told a much younger me, win or lose, that this — the bus, the road, the gig — was his life, and he never wanted it to change.

Question Two, then is has it change?

Let’s let Willie answer in hs own words.

To Question One:

“Ah, Michael,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.  “You know how it is.”

And to Question Two:
“Look around you, Michasel,” he says, his arms encompassing the Honeysuckle Rose II tour bus, his manager Mark Rothbaum doing business in the back, Kris Kristofferson exchanging “remember when” stories with assorted Family members, all the flotsam and jetsam of a life of the road.  “Do you see anything different?”

That’s a fair question, but it’s not what you can see that gets you.  What happened to Willie Nelson was, as Robert Draper in his exhaustively chronicled financial story in Texas Month, said, not “a story of greed that backfired. It’s instead a story of generosity to a major fault.”

In a story that’s suitable for the lyrics of a country song, the single most successful act in the history of country music made it all, than gave it all way — unfortunately, before he had paid any of the taxes due.  In the scrambling to salvage his life and lifestyle, Willie Nelson has been forced to make decisions that make the bad old days look like a church picnic.  So far, he hasn’t had to race back into another burning house to rescue his legendary guitar, but it’s been close.

Might as well blame it on the road.

Here’s one of my favorite images of Willie on the road.  We’re out somewhere, Louisiana, I think, ten years or so ago.  Outlaw music is riding high, but Willie hasn’t yet reached the stature of saint –at least, not nationally.

The show’s been over for a while, and the road manager comes onto the bus. 

“Well,” he says, “guess it’s time to get the money.”

Everybody laughs, and the road manager goes over to his briefcase, hauls out a battered Colt 45 automatic and racks a round into the chamber, clicking the safety on.  this is, for most of the history of country music, business as usual.  Pick up the gate money from the show promoter or the club owner, stuff the cash in a briefcase and walk it back to the bus, or whichever beat-up car or truck was carrying the freight.  The hardware, of course, was for that long, dark walk back to the bus, but it didn’t hurt for your average sleazypromoter to understand that this was serious business.

Other money came from song royalties and record company advances — no one ever expected the record company to sell enough records to pay off the advance — but it seemed like magic money, to be spent just about as quickly as a person could.   For people like Willie Nelson, the money got bigger.  Unimaginably bigger.  Once the Outlaw Train began rolling, around 1976, there was no stopping it.

Everybody, though, did start casting around for a conductor.

For Willie and Waylon Jennings, the conducter came in the form of a hot-shot New York music business wiz named Neil Reshen, who signed on as manager to both Willie and Waylon.  Reshen brought a shock of negotiating to small town Nashville.

“Why are they afraid of him?” Waylon told me when I was working on the Outlaws book back in the 1970’s.  “Cause he knows where all the bodies are buried, man!  I tell him, ‘You’re my old mean, dog.  I got you on a chain over there, and every once in a while I’m gonna pull it and you just bite.”

Unfortunately, the chain proved to be a speck too long, allowing the “ole mean dog” to bite the hand that held it.

“I can’t be sure the taxes are paid and records kept and also write songs and play music,” Willie says. “At some point you have to trust somebody.  And that’s always dangerous.”

Wilie broke with Reshen in 1978 and sued him two years later.  Onc particularly bitter point of contention being that, according to Willie, one of his manager’s prime dutie was filing Willie’s retruns and taking care of the taxes, something Reshen disputes.

Even more controversy swirled around the famous Fourth of July Picnics.  Willie has been concerned with Reshen’s handling of the events, and there were serious questions of where the money went.  Willie claimed that was something he’d like to know.  So did the IRS.

Willie’s troubles continued to escalate.  All his financial records for the 1975 through 1978 — the Outlaw Years — had been destroyed, and the IRS is aking $2 million for those years, according to Draper.  Willie and new manager Mark Rothbam went to one of the top accounting firms in the world, Price-Waterhouse, for financial hlep and advice.

What followed there, as evidenced bya 1990 lawsuit by Willie against Price Waterhouse, was nothing short of falling out of the frying pan and into the fire.  A serious of disastrous tax-deferred investments left Willie in worse tax shape than ever.  In 1984, the IRS began getting serious, demanding taxes due from the mid-1970’s, and tax notices began snow-balling.

And now we’re in Nashville where “America’s favorite outlaw” and Kris Kristofferson, in jeans and ragged T-shirts, are on the set of a television show performing to the vast chasm of the Operyhouse.

“They wanted us to wear tuxedos,” Kristofferson says later.  “Ha ha.”  Somethings, I suppose, never change.

Willie sings his barroom anthem, “Whiskey River,” and Kristofferson sings, “Me and Bobby McGee.”  Also, when he gets to the refrain of “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” he pauses.  “Just ask Willie,” he adds.  The crowd gives an appreciative laugh.

We are on the bus later, and we are laughing.  Kristofferson is telling Kris stories, Rothbaum is doing business and the whole bus has the atmosphere of an old club.  Earlier, I’d grabbed Rothbaum and asked how things were really going.

“Willie’s Willie,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

I grab Willie and tow him to the back of the bus.  We sit on the edge of the bed.  Willie with his hands clasped and his uncanny ability to tune out the entire rest of the world.

“How do you survive in all this crap?” I ask.

“I maybe even thrive in all this crap,” he says.

“Has it been pretty hard on you?”

“Not on me, Michael.  A lot of people worry about me, and it’s been hard on them.  I haven’t noticed any major changes in my life… You know, the road is really the only safe haven.  Once I get stopped in one place too long, I get in all kinds of trouble.”

“You told me once that it was hard to write when things were going too good…”

“Well, that’s true…” [laughter]

“Where are you living, anyway?”

“Well, I’ve still got a house in Austin and a house in Abbott, my home town.  I move around a bunch on my days off.  ‘Course, there’s not many of those this year.”

We talk about running, about doing Farm Aid in Russia, about Who’ll Buy My Memories:  The IRS Tapes.

“Somebody asked my bass player, Bee Spears, if I was in trouble.  Bee says, “Well, if he owed them $1 million, he’d be in trouble.  but he owes them $17 million, so they’re in trouble!”

“You still give away everything you get?”

“I try to.  It’s hard to carry all that shit.”

In the front of the bus, Kristofferson has everybody on the floor laughing, and, pretty soon, we join them.  Stories are the currency of the road, maybe what we’ve bought and paid for.  I can’t help thinking of another Kristofferson song, one I’d heard when I was just starting out on the road.  ‘Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams, which the spent like they were going out of style..”  I thought “The Pilgrim” was the most romantic song I’d ever heard.  Having it, losing it, still knowing that, “The going up was worth the coming down…”

Hell, maybe it still is the most romantic song I’ve ever heard.

— Michael Bane
    Country Music (March/April 1992)

Willie Nelson, “Band of Brothers”

Monday, October 6th, 2014

by:  Jan Crawford.

Music legend Willie Nelson has everyone, young and old, liberal and conservative, singing along.  At 81 years old, Nelson is doing something unheard of: remaining relevant, reports

He still spends about half the year on the road, and now he’s promoting his newest album, Band of Brothers, which recently hit number one on the country charts.

Critics say it’s some of his best, most reflective work in years.

He’s an American original and has a sound like no other — yet his songs tell stories we’ve all felt.

He said he thinks part of his craft, is that people feel like they can relate to his music.

“And I think that’s probably the reason I was put here; to write songs and come out here and sing ‘em and play ‘em for people,” Nelson said. “And people can hear ‘em and relate to what I’m talkin’ about.”

It’s the music that keeps driving him.

“The energy that we get from playin’ and the feedback that we get from people listenin’ to it,” Nelson said. “That’s all good stuff.”

His body of work is extraordinary: 21 number one hits and more than 100 albums — his latest, reached the top of the country charts in June.

He lives life on his terms — with music that somehow puts in words what we wish we could say.

There are songs of heartbreak, like the classic, “Angels Flying too Close to the Ground.”

He has the image of an outlaw, but friends say he is uncommonly kind.

Nelson started on a traditional path in Nashville, but feeling boxed in he went back to his native Texas.

Along the way, the good life became a hard life.

He struggled with drugs, alcohol and marriage.

Songwriting was an escape, but with performing came consequences. When he’s writing his songs, he said it’s like reliving moments in his own life.

“And when you sing ‘em every night, I think that’s why a bunch of us got into drugs and alcohol and things so heavy is because when you go out there at night and relive all that B.S. that put you in that place and you have to relive it every — sometimes people can’t handle it,” Nelson said. “And it’s too tough.”

Nelson said cigarettes were too hard on his lungs and drinking made him a little crazy.

So to take the edge off, he turned to pot.

How much does he smoke?

“Oh, I don’t know, as much as I want to,” Nelson said. “A lotta people couldn’t smoke as much as I do. I think I have a pretty good tolerance for it. And it’s a good medicine for me. It’s a good stress reliever.”

He’s been arrested at least four times for marijuana and is an outspoken advocate for legalization.

“I never thought during my lifetime that it would, because it was so hardcore against it in so many places,” Nelson said. “But then it looks like I was wrong.”

The future looks good for pot, he said, and in the meantime, he plans to keep making music.

Nelson said he doesn’t have anything to prove unless it’s “don’t stop.”

“You know, don’t look back,” he added. “They might be gainin’ on you.”

Nelson said he’s thinking about cutting back on some of his touring, but he’s not going to stop writing and making music.

His next album will be released in December.

Willie Nelson and Maureen Dowd

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

photo:  James Minchin
by:  Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON — WHEN Willie Nelson invites you to get high with him on his bus, you go.

The man is the patron saint of pot, after all, and I’m the poster girl for bad pot trips.

It seemed like a match made in hash heaven.

When Nelson sang at the 9:30 club in D.C. one recent night, I ventured onto the Honeysuckle Rose, as his tour bus and home-away-from-home is called.

I was feeling pretty shy about meeting him. The 81-year-old Redheaded Stranger is an icon, one of America’s top songwriters and, as Rolling Stone said, “a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” The Smithsonian wants his guitar, “Trigger.”

I needed a marijuana Miyagi, and who better than Nelson, who has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and a first-degree black belt in helping Norml push for pot legalization?

Willie Nelson, a music icon, also happens to be the patron saint of pot and, at 81, a font of knowledge on the subject. Credit James Minchin/Sony Music Entertainment

“Maybe she’ll read the label now!” he said, laughing, adding that I was welcome to get high on his bus “anytime.”

So that’s how I found myself, before Nelson’s show here, sitting opposite him in a booth on the bus as he drank black coffee out of a pottery cup, beneath a bulletin board filled with family photos.

His eyes were brass-colored, to use Loretta Lynn’s description. His long pigtails were graying. His green T-shirt bore the logo of his son’s band, Promise of the Real.

So, Sensei, if I ever decide to give legal pot a whirl again, what do I need to know?

“The same thing that happened to you happened to me one or two times when I was not aware of how much strength was in whatever I was eating,” Nelson said, in his honeyed voice. “One time, I ate a bunch of cookies that, I knew they were laced but I didn’t worry about it. I just wanted to see what it would do, and I overdid it, naturally, and I was laying there, and it felt like the flesh was falling off my bones.

“Honestly, I don’t do edibles,” he continued. “I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way, because I don’t enjoy the high that the body gets. Although I realize there’s a lot of other people who have to have it that way, like the children that they’re bringing to Colorado right now for medical treatments. Those kids can’t smoke. So for those people, God bless ’em, we’re for it.”

Eager not to seem like a complete idiot, I burbled that, despite the assumption of many that I gobbled the whole candy bar, I had only taken a small bite off the end, and then when nothing seemed to be happening, another nibble.

Nelson humored me as I also pointed out that the labels last winter did not feature the information that would have saved me from my night of dread.

Now, however, Colorado and Washington State have passed emergency rules to get better labeling and portion control on edibles, whose highs kick in more slowly and can be more intense than when the drug is smoked. Activists are also pushing to make sure there are stamps or shapes to distinguish pot snacks — which had, heretofore, been designed to mimic regular snacks — so that children don’t mistakenly ingest them.

Its whimsical first billboard in Denver shows a bandjaxed redhead in a hotel room — which is far too neat to be mine — with the warning: “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation. With edibles, start low and go slow.”

I asked Nelson about Jerry Brown’s contention that a nation of potheads would threaten American superiority.

“I never listened to him that much,” he said, sweetly.

He showed me his pot vaporizer, noting: “Everybody’s got to kill their own snakes, as they say. I found out that pot is the best thing for me because I needed something to slow me down a little bit.” He was such a mean drunk, he said, that if he’d kept drinking heavily, “there’s no telling how many people I would have killed by now.”

I asked him about the time he was staying in the Carter White House — on bond from a pot bust — and took a joint up to the roof.

“It happened a long time ago,” he said, adding slyly, “I’m sure it happened.”

Did he also indulge in the Lincoln Bedroom?

“In what?” he replied, mischievously. “I wouldn’t do anything Lincoln wouldn’t have done.”

Given all the horrors in the world now, I said, maybe President Obama needs to chill out by reuniting the Choom Gang.

“I would think,” Nelson said, laughing, “he would sneak off somewhere.”

Willie Nelson, bigger than ever, comes to Raleigh for Farm Aid

Friday, September 12th, 2014

photo: David McClister

When artists do phone interviews, they’re typically scheduled at set times. But that just ain’t how Willie Nelson rolls. The procedure involves placing a call to his representatives, who then try to track Nelson down and get him on the phone when he’s got the time and inclination to talk.

It took a few calls, but we spoke to Nelson recently from some far-off location on his never-ending tour, which comes to Raleigh Saturday as part of the big Farm Aid shindig. The man turned 81 years old in April, and he’s bigger than ever – back at No. 1 on the country charts for the first time since the mid-1980s with his latest album, “Band of Brothers” (Legacy Records). And he’s still out there singing and playing with his trusty and well-worn guitar Trigger (one of the most distinctive-sounding instruments in all of popular music).

Once we got Willie on the line, here’s how it went:

Q: What memories stand out from the 29 years’ worth of Farm Aid concerts that you’ve played?

A: I guess the first one stands out because it seemed like a thing where it was time for it to happen, and a lot of people agreed. Out on the road, farmers still come to me to talk. Or they text, email, send letters. It’s still the same old thing after 30 years, the same problems. We need a farm bill that will take care of the small family farmer. Now it’s just the big corporations that get help, which seems to be accepted by everybody except me and the farmers and people concerned with where food comes from. I want organic food, and I want it for my kids and grandkids, too.

Q: The “Band of Brothers” title track has a chorus that says, “You can’t tell me what to do.” Who on earth tries to tell you what to do?

A: (laughing) Oh, I don’t think anybody seriously tries, at least not anymore. I probably need someone to tell me on occasion. But I don’t listen anyway, so it would be futile. Just as well nobody tries. I already know what I wanna do.

Q: You co-wrote nine of 14 songs on “Band of Brothers,” the most you’ve written on an album since the mid-1990s. What inspired this latest writing binge?

A: Buddy Cannon and I write well together, and that’s unusual – for me to write well with someone else. The last time was Hank Cochran 50 years ago. Buddy and I think along the same lines, and he’s a great musician and producer. We’ve had a lot of good luck together and we’re still writing a lot of songs. Got another album that’s supposed to come out later this year.

Q: The new album’s “I Thought I Left You,” which likens a former lover to measles and whooping cough, is pretty hilarious. How true-to-life is that one?

A: Pretty true. I think everybody who’s been through marriage, or more than one marriage, can relate to any of that stuff.

Q: Is it ever a burden being Willie, someone everybody thinks they know because of your music?

A: I think it’s what I started out to accomplish from the very first time I played guitar and a girl liked it. “Hell,” I thought, “this is what I wanna do.” It’s easy for me to play and sing and write, and I think it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Q: What do you think you’d have wound up doing if not for music?

A: Oh, I’d probably be a bank robber. Just kiddin’. I went to law school to be a lawyer, but I majored in dominoes. I think I was a better domino player than I would’ve been a lawyer.

Q: There was a need for lawyers when some of your entourage got arrested for marijuana possession in Duplin County in 2010.

A: That was a little bit of trouble. Nothing too serious. Through the years, things like that have happened quite a bit to me. But I’m a little bit more out there and more open about it than most people, I suppose.

Q: Patsy Cline made your career (and hers) when she covered “Crazy.” Did you two ever actually meet?

A: Oh yeah, her and I were great friends. We met in Nashville. I brought some songs from Texas that I’d written and one of them was “Crazy.” I was talking to Charlie Dick, her husband, and played that one. “That’s a great song and I’d love for her to do it,” he said. “Let’s go play it for her right now.” It was after 12 midnight and I didn’t want to go wake her up, but he made me do it. She loved it and recorded it the next week.

Q: So if anything ever happened to Trigger, what would you do?

A: After I finished killing somebody, whoever was responsible, I’d probably be in prison for a few years. Although most people would think I’d be justified, so I might get off. But Trigger’s doing good. Gets a little beat up now and then, and I have to have him fixed up. But he’s still barking pretty good.

Read more here:



The lost interviews: Budrock Prewitt’s interview with Willie Nelson about Poodie Locke (circa 1980)

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014


“This was done in my living room in Dallas in 1980. It was me and a few Willie Vinyl Albums and a cassette machine.  Crude but funny.”

Buddy “Budrock” Prewitt
Willie Nelson & Family
Lighting Director aka “The Illuminator”

Only a biker knows why a dog sticks his head out the car window.

I feel bad that Budrock “The Illuminator” is still off the road, home in Texas, healing from an injury last June.  It’s gotta be killing him.   But, he continues to heal, slowly, and I know he appreciates all the good wishes folks send him.

Thanks to Buddy for sharing this ‘interview’ he had about Poodie Locke, with someone who knew him well,  Willie Nelson.






All Roads Lead to Willie, (Rolling Stone Magazine, August 28, 2014)

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014


by Patrick Doyle

He is one of America’s greatest songwriters,
a hero from Texas to San Francisco,
a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.
But does anyone really know Willie Nelson?

On a winding stretch of road 30 miles west of Austin, a couple of miles down from a hamburger shack and an auto-repair shop, there’s an iron gate with the image of a cowboy silhouette. Type in a key code and ride up a steep, muddy incline surrounded by oaks, cedars and patchy grass. After a left turn at a barn, you will enter a ghost town: a white, wood-frame church, a jailhouse, a bank, a dance hall, a water tower and a saloon.

Willie Nelson built Luck, Texas, on a corner of his 700-acre Hill Country property for his 1986 cowboy film Red Headed Stranger. Nelson wanted the movie to come out a decade earlier, at the same time as his classic album of the same name, but then Robert Redford, who was supposed to star in it, dropped out and Hollywood lost interest. Nelson, who had dreamed of owning an Old West town since he was a young Roy Rogers fan, pushed forward, despite the fact that he owed the government millions in taxes. He raised money with the help of investor friends. He cast his family and band in the movie, and enlisted University of Texas architecture students to build Luck. The movie originally called for the town to burn down, but Nelson had the ending changed.

“Oh, we never were going to tear it down,” Nelson says in a low, husky twang as he drives a ’94 Chevy through Luck on a clear, blue winter morning, before letting out a heavy cough. “We wanted to get all the movie money we could and then get them out of town.

Today, Luck is one of the last standing Western film sets in the country, though “standing” may be an overstatement: The planking has fallen off a barn that houses a John Deere tractor, the imitation rock has almost completely peeled off the bank, and the post office has almost collapsed entirely. When the town’s architect returned recently, he thought it needed to be bulldozed.

The ranch and surrounding area are known to locals as Willie World. Nelson also owns Pedernales Cut-N-Putt, a nine-hole course you can see from his house. Next to that is a recording studio, and condos for friends, family and longtime crew members. Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse, a burger joint full of old Nelson posters and stage props, opened by his late stage manager Poodie Locke, is down the road on Highway 71; Nelson has been known to drop by for a surprise set. Drive to downtown Austin, and you’ll find the new Willie Nelson statue on Willie Nelson Boulevard.

With his youngest kids, Lukas and Micah, grown up and out of the house, Nelson spends his rare nontouring days driving around, listening to his Sirius XM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, sometimes going off-roading and carving out paths. “I’ve thought I was going to die a few times with him in the truck,” says his daughter Paula. “He’s like a kid, doing the whole cowboys-and-Indians thing. It’s his playground.”

Today, Nelson is wearing a black hoodie, sunglasses and dirty New Balance sneakers, his semibraided hair tumbling out of a black baseball cap that says ZEKE’S SOCIAL CLUB. He steers his Chevy through the property with sharp, jagged turns, occasionally lighting up a burned-out joint in a cup holder. At one point, he stops the truck and singles out a stable: “I have a sick horse in there – we tried to isolate him from the herd a little bit,” he says. “This is just old, rough country. A lot of room to drive around, a lot of privacy. I like Texas.”

We pull up next to a rickety building in the center of town with a sign reading WORLD HEADQUARTERS LUCK, TEXAS. The musty wooden interior is packed with dominoes and poker and pool tables; Nelson frequently hosts Texas Hold ‘Em games with a group of local musicians and businessmen. The walls are covered with novelty signs (OLD MUSICIANS NEVER DIE – THEY JUST DECOMPOSE; FOR A GOOD TIME CALL MATILDA: SHE GIVES DISCOUNTS). There’s a WILLIE NELSON FOR PRESIDENT 2008 sign, posters advertising his famous Fourth of July picnics, which he’s mostly hosted in Texas every year since 1973. Behind the bar are fan paintings and photos of Nelson with old friends – the late moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, Doug Sahm, singer-author Kinky Friedman – and a live shot of Johnny Cash. “He used to call me for jokes in the middle of the night – ‘What’s the latest?'” Nelson says.

He fires up his coffee maker, then reaches into a 1950s-style Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox packed with loose green pot and pulls out a tightly wrapped, torpedo­shaped joint. He takes a slow hit, holding it in as he looks at a mounted cow’s skull near the fireplace. Next, he produces a vaporizer pen. “Do you ever smoke these?” he asks. “It’s just pot – no smoke, no heat. You can smoke ‘em on the plane!”

Nelson has been arrested at least four times on marijuana offenses. In Waco, Texas, in 1994, police found him asleep in his Mercedes on the side of the road, a joint on him, after a late poker game. In Louisiana in 2006, en route to Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ funeral, Nelson’s bus was pulled over and police seized 1.5 pounds of weed and two ounces of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Four years later, he was driving back from Thanksgiving in California when the border patrol arrested him in Sierra Blanca, Texas. (“He feels great – he said he lost six ounces!” joked his harmonica player Mickey Raphael at the time.) “They mostly want autographs now,” Nelson says of the law. “They don’t really bother me anymore for the weed, because you can bust me now and I’ll pay my fine or go to jail, get out and burn one on the way home. They know they’re not stopping me.

“Weed is good for you,” he says. “Jesus said one time that it’s not what you put in your mouth, it’s what comes out of your mouth. I saw the other day that [medical] weed is legal in Israel – there’s an old-folks home there, and all these old men were walking around with bongs and shit. Fuck! They got it figured out before we did!”

Abruptly, he changes the subject. “Wanna ride around a bit?”

Nelson turned 81 in April. He can be forgetful – in concert, he sometimes needs to look over at Raphael, a veteran of his band for more than 30 years, to see if they’ve played “Georgia on My Mind” or some other song yet (“But I think that’s the dope more than anything,” says Raphael). His hearing is shot, and he no longer signs as many autographs as he used to. But he still practices tae kwon do and sleeps on the Honeysuckle Rose, his 40-foot-long biodiesel-fueled tour bus, while the rest of the band check into hotels. At one point on the ranch, when he stops to show off his favorite paint horse, Billy Boy, he easily hoists himself up to the second­highest fence rung, balancing about four feet off the ground.

Willie spends about 150 days a year on the road – two weeks on, two weeks off – playing many of his 20 Number One country hits, plus the church and gospel songs of his youth and favorites by heroes like Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell. Nelson is one of the last living links to the days when country pioneers like Hank Williams played barn dances and ruled the radio. He’s an innovator who brought different strains of music, from gypsy jazz to hippie concept albums, to Nashville. He has sold more than 40 million albums and has put out 16 in the past decade alone, projects ranging from the Western swing of his youth to reggae and pop standards. His new album, Band of Brothers, which contains some of his most reflective songs in decades, is his first Number One album on the country charts in 28 years. It often sounds like a tour diary: “I’ve Got a Lot of Traveling to Do” is about turning to weed and the road to escape turmoil at home, and the soulful “I Thought I Left You” is about scanning a guest list for a former lover’s name (“Why, in heaven’s name, can’t you just get lost?” he sings). “There’s a little truth in all of them,” he says.

Unlike fellow giants like Williams, Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton, who have plenty of obvious imitators, no one sounds like Nelson. He’s an uncanny vocal phraser: “The three masters of rubato in our age are Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson,” said the late producer Jerry Wexler. “The art of gliding over the meter and extending it until you think they’re going to miss the next actual musical demarcation – but they always arrive there, at bar one. It’s some kind of musical miracle.”

In a time when America is more divided than ever, Nelson could be the one thing that everybody agrees on. “The Hells Angels love him, and so do grandmothers,” says Raphael. But in private, he can seem introverted and given to long silences. He will often describe his life in brief, purely factual terms, saying things like, “Oh, why does a guy write? I don’t know. You get an idea, and you sit down, and you write it.” Over the course of 30 interviews with his friends, family and band members, a lot of the same words come up – generous, charismatic, loyal and, as Keith Richards has said, “a bit of a mystery.” “He’s really good at throwing out a one-liner that will get you off of what you’re talking about,” says Shooter Jennings, who has known Nelson since he was a kid tagging along on the Highwaymen tours with his father, Waylon. “You’re like, ‘Fuck, Willie, answer the question!’ There’s a lot of exterior there. That’s why you’ll never quite fully get that picture.”

“You never get to know him like you should, but you know there’s more there than what you’re seeing,” says Loretta Lynn. “I know there’s more there because of how he writes. He can’t fool me!”

“He’s a hard man to know,” Johnny Cash wrote in 1997. “He keeps his inner thoughts for himself and his songs. He just doesn’t talk much at all, in fact. When he does, what he says is usually very perceptive and precise.?.?.?.?He has a beautiful sense of irony and a true appreciation for the absurd. I really like him.”

‘Say hi, Will,” says his wife, Annie, turning her iPhone toward him. Inside their home, she’s FaceTiming with some relatives in Italy. “How ya doin’?” Nelson says with a wave. They ask how his shoulder is feeling after a recent surgery. “Much better, thank you!”

Nelson has been recovering from a torn rotator cuff. “I couldn’t play golf, and I could barely play guitar,” he says. His friend George Clooney recommended a German treatment called Regenokine. “The doctor took some blood out and recharged it and made it with, like, 150 percent more healing power, then he stuck it back in there,” he says. “It really works. I’m in great shape.”

Nelson met Annie, 54, when she was working as a makeup artist on the set of his 1986 made-for-TV movie Stagecoach; she would become his fourth wife and longest marriage by far. “She’s been with me through thick and thin – you can’t ask for anything more than that!” he says.

Friends credit her with keeping Nelson healthy (they bike and swim at their second home in Maui, and he’s cutting back on bacon). She also helped reduce his payroll. “There were a lot of people sponging off him, even though he didn’t look at it that way,” says Johnny Bush, Nelson’s close friend and the writer of “Whiskey River.” “They lived in the condos and at the world headquarters; there were trailers all over the place. And, of course, Willie wasn’t going to tell them to leave.”

Located up the hill, past a second gate, is Willie and Annie’s Texas home, a modest, rustic log cabin modeled after turn-of-the-century smokehouses. The kitchen overlooks a giant barnlike living room, with tall ceilings and cedar beams. On a grand piano next to several guitars, there’s a family portrait from the Nineties of the couple with Lukas and Micah, who frequently play music on tour with their dad. (“I’ve been hearing my licks come back better than they went out,” says Nelson.) Next to a Hank Williams bobblehead is a minireplica of Nelson’s Austin statue, a figure with a big grin, pigtails and hefty arms, clutching Trigger, his trademark acoustic. “What can you say?” Nelson says. “The sculptor may have exaggerated some points, but I’d say it’s how I’d like to look.”

He offers to show me his second­degree tae kwon do belt, and takes me into his bedroom, which has a plastic dresser full of socks and colorful Hawaiian shirts that he wears in Maui. “He’s working on a third black belt, but he’s kind of cheating,” Annie says. He laughs. “I cheated on these!” he says. “If you want my honest opinion, I think it’s kind of political. Every [martial arts] school wants theirs to be the best. I’d do the same thing if I could get someone with a name to come in.”

We walk across the driveway to what Nelson calls Django’s, a small log cabin where he spends most of his time. A baseball bat sits by the door; Al-Jazeera plays with the volume off on the flatscreen, while a liberal talk-radio show blares in the back of the room. There are shelves of books – books about the history of the Middle East, a book of sketches by Julian Schnabel and a Django Reinhardt songbook. Reinhardt has long been Nelson’s favorite guitarist; he has been taking lessons lately, learning some of the jazz great’s techniques from a teacher in Maui.

“Wanna see the arsenal?” Nelson says with a grin, using a loose piece of wood to pry open a wooden cabinet. “I couldn’t get in here if I needed to,” he says. He picks up a knife engraved with his face, an old sawed-off shotgun and a double-barreled rifle inscribed with the lyrics to “Red Headed Stranger” (a gift from Connie, his third wife), then takes out a .22-caliber rifle with a scope. “This one’s pretty cool,” he says, curiously peering down the barrel for several seconds. He has trouble fitting it back in the cabinet, so he forces it in, repeatedly banging it against the wood, with the barrel nearly touching his face, as I look on uneasily.

He settles into the couch, which is cluttered with free weights, some old black-and-white promo photos waiting to be signed and a Bible (“It puts some positive thoughts in your head when you might be thinking negative,” he says). On the coffee table, there is a chessboard obscured under a CIA baseball cap, rolling papers, a grinder and an ashtray full of joints. “Might as well do some puffin’,” he says.

As a kid growing up in Abbott, Texas, a hundred miles from here, Nelson would go down to the town’s general store and play dominoes, the only kid in a group of fully grown farmers. “The older guys loved him,” says his sister Bobbie, 83, who has toured with Nelson full time for the past four decades. “He’d hang out with the old guys and the young ones. People always just migrated toward him, the same way they do now.”

But at home, he didn’t have it easy. His parents, Ira and Myrle Nelson, got married when they were 16 and 15, respectively; Bobbie came a year after that, followed two years later by Willie. Six months after his birth, his parents split and his mother left for the West Coast, eventually settling in Washington. “Myrle was smart, flashy, full of energy?.?.?.?a dancer and a card dealer,” Willie once wrote. “My mother could never have stuck it out as the wife of a Fort Worth mechanic on weekends.” (“Willie is very much like our mother,” says Bobbie.)

Ira left the kids with his parents, Will, a blacksmith, and Nancy, who picked cotton and gave singing and music-theory lessons at their house in exchange for food and secondhand clothes. By the time they were each six, Bobbie was playing piano and Willie was learning chords to spirituals like “The Great Speckled Bird” from his grandfather. Willie was already showing signs of talent; his first-grade teacher made a visit to their house after he aced a poetry assignment. “She said, ‘You know, this is really unusual, his ability to write poems,'” says Bobbie.

That same year, the family was shaken again when Willie’s grandfather died of pneumonia after suffering an allergic reaction to a medication. There was talk of splitting up the kids between their parents, or putting them up for adoption until their grandmother gained custody. In his 1988 autobiography, Nelson wrote, “I hadn’t even had time to grieve for the loss of a mother and daddy, much less my grandfather. Our separation from Mother and Daddy seemed worse than a death because they were still out there in the world.”

Willie spent his nights listening to his family’s Philco radio – especially Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, discovering the fiddle-steeped country of Hank Snow, Roy Acuff’s quavering heartbreak ballads and the wild, electric, jazz-flavored honky-tonk of Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours. Willie also sat with his sister as she learned the complex pop songs of the time. “I’d be trying to figure out what the hell was going on in ‘Stardust’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont,'” he says. “All those great songs have fantastic chord changes in them.”

By the time he was nine, Willie and Bobbie were performing at open-air summer church revivals. At one revival, Bobbie met an older guy named Bud Fletcher, who put together a Bob Wills-style band. They married when she was 16, and she and her brother joined the group. Willie ended up becoming the de facto bandleader, singing and playing lead guitar. He was 14 years old. “The girls loved him,” says Bobbie. “They were like a fan club of his that just was always there.”

After turning 18, Nelson spent nine months in the Air Force during the Korean War before being honorably discharged for a bad back. He considered a career in business, briefly attending Waco’s Baylor University (“I majored in dominoes”), before returning to the Texas honky-tonk circuit. At one gig, he met Martha Matthews, a pretty 16-year-old Cherokee brunette. They eloped three months later. The relationship produced three kids and “enough heartbreak to inspire most of the songs that got him elected to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame,” their daughter Susie Nelson wrote in her book, Heart Worn Memories.

The family spent the Fifties traveling the country, looking for work. In Eugene, Oregon, Nelson was a plumber’s assistant; in Fort Worth, Texas, he sold vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias door to door. He could be loose with the facts; he says he used the “negative approach” (opening line: “I’m not a salesman, and I can’t sell you anything, so don’t try to buy these books.?.?.?.?”). “You got your little story you tell, and you get your feet in the door and try to sell a set of books that costs more than their furniture,” Nelson says. “I took a little pride in the challenge of knocking on the door and being able to talk my way into the house.”

In San Antonio, he talked his way into a $40-a-week morning-disc-jockey job by saying he knew how to run the control board. That led to a position at Fort Worth’s KCNC in 1954, where he capitalized on his position by bringing his guitar to work and playing his music between records by Eddy Arnold, Kitty Wells and other stars. “I was promoting my shows on the radio,” he says, and then breaks into character: “‘I’ll be playing Gray’s Bar tonight in Fort Worth – y’all come over!’ It helped both areas, you know?”

(At that point, Nelson had not yet developed a taste for weed. Johnny Bush remembers: “We were all passing it around before a gig. Willie drove up, and I said, ‘Hey, you want some of this?’ And he said, ‘No. That shit gives me a headache.’ Can you believe that?”)

Nelson spent two years on the Houston nightclub circuit, where he managed to score a Top 10 country hit when the honky­tonk singer Claude Gray covered Nelson’s gospel song “Family Bible.” (Nelson famously sold it to Gray for $100.) Then in 1960, he drove his Buick to Nashville, home of the Opry and several newly opened record labels. “I thought I had some good songs,” he says, “and I knew Nashville was the store you went to sell them.” The 27-year-old Nelson moved his family into a trailer park and used his Texas-nightclub connections to get in the door at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a hangout for the city’s top musicians. He became a regular at the back room’s exclusive guitar jams, showing off songs like “Night Life,” “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” for pro songwriters including Harlan Howard, Roger Miller and Hank Cochran, who quickly helped him get hired at his publishing company, Pamper Music. At Pamper, Nelson would clock in weekday mornings and write songs like the offbeat ballad “Hello Walls,” which became a Number One country hit for Faron Young in the spring of 1961. Ray Price, who was one of the biggest stars in Nashville at the time and a co-owner of Pamper, recorded “Night Life” – Nelson’s diary of seedy bars and heartbreak – which became the title track of Price’s Number One country album. “I thought it was more of a blues song, but it turned out great,” Price said. Nelson also played bass in Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys. The two stayed close; when I spoke to Price two weeks before his death from pancreatic cancer, he said he and Nelson had spoken eight times that week. “We’re sort of like brothers,” Price said. “I lived with Hank Williams the last year of his life, and he was just like Willie. His secret was he could walk out onstage and just be himself, and that’s what it’s all about.”

As Nelson’s career heated up, so did tensions at home, thanks in part to his heavy drinking and infidelities. “Things started to fall apart for real the minute we hit Nashville,” his daughter Susie wrote. Once, after Nelson came home and passed out, Martha tied him with jump-ropes and beat him with a broom, then left with the kids for several days. Another time, she charged at him with a butcher knife. “The next day he was gone again,” Susie wrote. “That’s Dad’s way. When things get too hot, he just disappears. He doesn’t like confrontations.” In 1963, Nelson married singer Shirley Collie, whom he began dating while still married to Martha. “A minor detail he forgot to take care of,” Bush says, laughing.

Nelson’s biggest break came one night at Tootsie’s when he played a demo of “Crazy” for Charlie Dick, the husband of Patsy Cline, the Opry’s biggest star at the time. Dick insisted they drive home and wake up Cline, where Nelson sang it to her live in her living room. She cut it one week later. “I’d sang the song a million times, but never like that,” says Nelson one night on his bus through a haze of smoke, breaking into the rise-and-fall melody. It would become a Top 10 pop hit, earning Nelson six figures that year. “That’s a pop song. There’s nothing country about it – unless Patsy Cline sings it.” (It would be one of Cline’s last hits; she died in a plane crash in Tennessee in 1963.)

“When I went to Nashville, all the serious songwriters idolized Willie,” says Kris Kristofferson. “He played guitar like Segovia and phrased absolutely unlike anybody, like a jazz singer, just like he does today. He wasn’t well-known outside of that, but he was the hero of all the serious people.”

Nelson became a full-time Opry member in 1964, performing the required 26 nights per year. “He was stylish,” says Loretta Lynn. “He was working in suits. His hair was cut every little bit, he had brass eyes, and his hair was the same color. He was really handsome!”

But by the end of 1968, Nelson was in a professional rut. He had released a dozen records on RCA, cranked out with session players and strings, but he’d yet to have a major hit as a performer. He suspected the label was just keeping him under contract to give his best songs to bigger names. “At that point, you wouldn’t have put your money on Willie,” says Friedman. “Nashville got the idea that he was offbeat.”

On the night before Christmas Eve 1969, he was at a party when he received an alarming call: His house was on fire. (By this time, he had discovered pot; he ran inside to rescue two pounds of weed.) He took it as a sign to move back to Texas, where Bobbie was raising a family and playing her brother’s songs at nightclubs. He moved into an abandoned country club in Bandera, between San Antonio and Austin, the latter of which had grown into a progressive town with 35,000 college kids. Nelson formed his Family Band, a mix of young longhaired rockers – including bassist Bee Spears and harmonica player Raphael – and older players like Bobbie on piano and drummer Paul English, a former pimp and gang leader who dressed liked the devil in all black with a cape and a goatee. Nelson had known English since his days in Fort Worth in 1956. “If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” English says. “I was running girls and playing music at the same time.”

The country-folk directions of Bob Dylan, the Band and the Grateful Dead had influenced the jacked-up honky-tonk sounds of Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm and Asleep at the Wheel. Nelson was ready to take it a step further. He asked the band to change its image – “I bought jeans and a cowboy hat,” says Bobbie – while he grew his hair out and switched over to Trigger, the nylon-string acoustic he bought sight unseen for $750 from a Nashville guitar dealer. He started embracing his swing and jazz roots, trading solos with Raphael’s harp and Bobbie’s gospel-steeped piano. “We were just playing the same music we’d played since forever,” says Bobbie. “It was just a different audience.”

The band started filling up hippie clubs like Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters. They also played shows on what Raphael calls Texas’ “blood-and-bucket” circuit, which weren’t as welcoming. “I’d wait in my car until Paul got there, or the rest of the guys got there,” says Raphael. “I was a Jewish kid with an Afro – they didn’t know what the fuck I was. They thought I was Hispanic.”

Spears, a shaggy 19-year-old at the time, had it the worst. “When Bee would walk to the bathroom in some of these joints during intermissions, the rednecks would stick their legs out and try to trip him,” remembers English. “I always walked with one of them to the bathroom.”

The hippie and redneck worlds famously converged at 1972’s Dripping Springs Reunion, country music’s Woodstock moment. The bill combined new acts such as Walker, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson with vets like Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubb. Drawing only 18,000 people over three days, it was a financial disaster, but Nelson used the same location the next year to stage the similar Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. It drew 40,000, establishing him as the pre-eminent leader of a new, slightly dangerous music scene. “Backstage it was pot, whiskey, pills and some cocaine,” Jennings said. “The audience was as twisted as we were: all day and all night drinking hot beer.”

“The French have a good word: laissez faire,” says Jimmy Buffett, who played his first of many picnics in 1974. “Anything went. There was nothing like those first ones. There were a lot of hot-looking college girls – I always liked that crowd better than the bikers.”

In the early Seventies, Jerry Wexler signed Nelson to Atlantic, finally allowing Nelson to use his own band in the studio rather than Nashville session players. It kicked off an incredible run, including 1974’s Phases and Stages, a concept record covering both the male and female sides of a failed marriage. Nelson had recently divorced his second wife, Shirley, after she had opened a hospital bill for a child Nelson had conceived with his future wife, Connie. (“I was going through a lot of shit,” Nelson says.)

In 1975, he recorded a set of songs centered on the old murder ballad “Red Headed Stranger,” the story of a preacher on the run after killing his wife and her lover. Between the album’s spare, subtle instrumentation – much of the disc is just Nelson and Bobbie playing – and the Old West-style portrait on the cover, it felt like Nelson was stepping into the boots of a John Ford character. Nelson knew that it would be a hard sell to his new label, Columbia, so his manager brought Jennings into a meeting; when one exec said the album sounded like a demo and suggested sweetening it with some Nashville strings, Jennings called him a “tone-deaf, tin-eared son of a bitch.” The label relented, and Red Headed Stranger went double platinum.

Suddenly, Nelson and his friends ruled the radio with songs like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and his Jennings duet “Good Hearted Woman,” from 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws. On some level, Nelson knew that he was playing a part. “All of a sudden, we were outlaws,” says Nelson. “I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. And I tried not to disappoint ‘em!”

“I remember in Corpus Christi one night when everybody in the band had eaten some mushrooms,” says Raphael, describing a gig in the mid-Seventies. “I said, ‘I can’t wait till Willie gets here – there will be some semblance of normalcy.’ And he shows up, and he’d taken some acid, tripping his ass off. And he says, ‘I hope you guys can hold it together.'”

“Everyone carried guns, everybody did drugs, everybody drank,” says Gator Moore, Nelson’s longtime bus driver. Some of the wildest parties happened during Nelson’s residencies at Vegas’ Golden Nugget. “We’d stay up for days,” says English. “Willie’s generosity with paying all the hotel bills led to some drinking excesses with the crew.” Moore says, “At one point, somebody figured out we were spending $80,000 a year on beer” – about a third of a million dollars today.

The hiring process for crew members was loose. After the band met the Hells Angels during a highway traffic jam in the late Seventies, Nelson brought on the motorcycle club to promote some California gigs; some bikers got full-time work out of it. “He just got used to seeing my face,” says L.G., a longtime Hells Angel who has been Nelson’s security guard since 1978. “One day, he told Paul [English] to give me a raise. Paul said, ‘Well, he doesn’t work for us.’ Willie said, ‘Give him one anyway!’ And that’s how I got hired.”

Raphael and other band members developed serious cocaine habits. “We were all playing too fast, too much,” Raphael says. “Willie would play something, and we’d all answer him.” The musical chaos prompted Nelson to institute a rare rule on the road: “You’re wired, you’re fired.” (“Crank was known as the loophole,” says bus driver Moore, who once drove 96 straight hours on the drug in the Eighties. “That was OK.”)

English calls Nelson the “calm center” of the madness during this time, but even he could lose his cool: “In Dallas, he had taken some THC or PCP or something, and he quit playing in the middle of the show and threw his guitar at Poodie,” English says. “I had to sit at the foot of his bed all night to make sure he didn’t get up and go on a tear.”

What was perhaps Nelson’s most famous outlaw moment came in 1980. After being arrested for weed possession at a Bahamas airport, he flew straight to D.C., staying in the Lincoln Bedroom at the invitation of a friend, President Jimmy Carter. “There I was?.?.?.?on bond, deported from the Bahamas,” he later wrote. “A few hours later, I was on the White House roof smoking dope.” (Today Nelson is more cagey about the incident: “Oh, that might be true,” he says. “I forget.”)

By the mid-Eighties, Nelson had scored 20 country hits, won five Grammys and starred in six films. He was pulling in more than $14 million a year from touring, and traveling on a seven-seat private Learjet called AirWillie. In 1985, he teamed up with Jennings, Cash and Kristofferson for the critically acclaimed Highwayman album, which the foursome followed up with an arena tour.

Cash and Kristofferson grumbled on the road that Nelson got to play one more song than the other bandmates – a reflection of the fact that Nelson’s career had overshadowed his old peers. (Cash hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in almost a decade, Kristofferson hadn’t recovered from his flop Heaven’s Gate, and Jennings had been in serious debt, playing the state-fair circuit.) Jennings and Nelson always had a brotherly but competitive relationship. “I think Waylon was jealous of Willie,” says Haggard. Jennings took a shot at Nelson with his 1975 song “Bob Wills Is Still the King” and suspected that Nelson treated him unfairly when it came to money. (“I’ve had to start my life over several times because of him,” Jennings wrote in 1996.) At one point in the Nineties, Jennings was playing with just a backing track and ripping into Nelson onstage. “He dissed him pretty bad,” says Shooter, “saying Willie had these guys working for him who were shysters.” Shooter says he went to go see Nelson backstage at a show shortly before his father’s death. “He asked me, ‘How’s he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s hanging in there.’ And he said, ‘Well, tell him to come out and do some shows with me. I’ll write him a bad check.'”

On November 9th, 1990, federal agents descended on Nelson’s Texas properties, unloading boxes of master tapes, touring equipment, gold and platinum records, and clothes. “They came in and took every damn thing in that place that wasn’t nailed down,” says Bush. IRS agents served Nelson with a $16.7 million tax debt.

Nelson had seen it coming; two weeks earlier, he had his daughter Lana send Trigger to Maui. The trouble had begun 10 years before, when the IRS demanded $2 million in back taxes for Nelson’s haphazardly managed mid-Seventies earnings; investigators were especially suspicious of the low profits reported from his Fourth of July picnics.

Despite all his success, Nelson had dug himself into a hole in the Eighties by investing in First Western tax shelters, saying he was following the advice of his Price Waterhouse accountants. “I remember on his bus he told me they were going to borrow $6 million to go into cattle futures,” says Bush. “I said, ‘Willie, you scare the shit out of me when you talk like that.’ He said, ‘It’s just money.'” Nelson and his financial manager ended up losing $2 million. In 1988, he was served a notice of deficiency for unpaid taxes from 1980 to 1982 for more than $5 million. Nelson’s lawyer negotiated a payment plan, but Nelson missed the deadline. “He probably didn’t have $30,000,” Lana told Texas Monthly, estimating her dad kept only 10 percent of his annual income, giving the rest away. “People just hung on him,” says Haggard.

Almost everyone close to Nelson has a story of his generosity. When English lost his first wife, Nelson invited the drummer to Mexico to hang out with Dylan. Late in Price’s career, Nelson called Price on his birthday: “Willie said, ‘We’re waiting on you,'” Price recalled. “I flew in, and we cut a whole album. That’s the kind of cat he is.”

Nelson’s properties and possessions were auctioned off. The University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal bought the golf course and studio, and a lawyer for the American Agriculture Movement bought the ranch as a thank-you for Nelson’s efforts with Farm Aid. “They bought the ranch and saved it for me, gave it back to me,” Nelson says. “I got a lot of friends.”

Nelson launched a $45 million lawsuit against Price Waterhouse, which was settled out of court. He sold his entire Willie Nelson Music publishing company for only $2.3 million and cut a deal with the IRS to raise money through touring. Part of the deal was the album Who’ll Buy My Memories? (The I.R.S. Tapes), a collection pulled from the 35 years’ worth of seized master tapes and sold for $19.95 via infomercial. (It didn’t sell a fraction of what it needed to – in part because Nelson wore the wrong phone-order number on his T-shirt during a broadcast.) “It was funny, you know,” Nelson says on his bus. “We were afraid they were gonna come take the door receipts for taxes, so I quit playing for a while until we made the deal. I came out with enough to pay off the IRS, and I got even with those guys. But it was a long 16 years.”

The IRS scandal hasn’t stopped Nelson from handing out financial advice to his friends: “I had blown hundreds of thousands of dollars in Vegas,” says Friedman of a recent conversation. “And Willie told me, ‘What I think you ought to do is mortgage your house, sell everything you have and play the slots. It’s what you like to do. It’s what you want to do.’ That was his advice.”

In the midst of Nelson’s tax problems, true tragedy struck. His 33-year-old son, Billy, had struggled to find his place in the world, becoming a heavy drinker, with four DUI arrests. Willie had given him jobs on his property, in the studio and on film projects. “Willie felt real bad about the fact that when Billy was growing up, he wasn’t there at all,” says Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. “He tried to make it up to Billy in so many ways, and it was not going to help.” Billy was found on Christmas Day 1991, after hanging himself in his Tennessee home. “I was around then, and he never mentioned it,” says Haggard. “You will never see that side of him.” The photos on the pinup board behind Nelson’s booth on his bus constantly change, but one stays the same: Billy, in his twenties, smiling on a horse.

Six days after Billy’s death, Nelson was onstage with his band at his newly leased theater in Branson, Missouri – the Ozark tourist trap that was also home to the floundering careers of Cash, Haggard and Roger Miller in the early Nineties. Nelson and his band cut their salaries in half and played two shows a day, five days a week, with autograph sessions after every show. “He was a prisoner,” says Benson. Adds English, “The crowds were very old, and they would bus them in. We saw one guy go to sleep in the front row.”

Nelson recorded some of his rawest music around this time. He sounds shattered on 1996’s acoustic Spirit, exploring loss and faith, accompanied by little more than sister Bobbie’s piano. “We were going through a period in our lives where we wanted to feel the spirit,” says Bobbie. “When we play, it’s a little bit like going in for Communion and praying.”

Many things haven’t changed about Nelson’s touring operation since the Seventies. At 81, English still handles payroll and bills for the traveling group of 19; like the old days, he still deals heavily in cash. English had a stroke in 2010, but he was back on the road almost immediately, even if he played only three songs a night. “It’s hard to give up, it really is,” he says, sitting in his office in the back of the band’s bus. Tonight, at Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest dance hall, near San Antonio, English will grin through “Me & Paul,” Nelson’s story of their wild past, playing a snare drum with several $100 bills spilling out of the pockets of his Western shirt. The band is getting paid $75,000. “That’s pretty good for this run,” he says.

Paul’s brother Billy English, who has played percussion in the band since the mid-Eighties, says he generally only sees Nelson onstage. “He doesn’t like confrontation, so we don’t bother him with stuff that happens out here, whether it’s financial or nothing like that,” says Billy. “But he still is very generous to us. He pays us very well. As much as he could possibly afford to, maybe more.”

Nelson’s band has lost some key members in the past five years, people who can’t be easily replaced. Bee Spears died after collapsing outside his home at age 62 in 2011; guitarist Jody Payne, Nelson’s grizzled sideman of 35 years, died in an Alabama hospital of heart problems. “Those guys had mental telepathy perfected,” Nelson says. “I’d play a note or two, and they’d be right there. It takes a little bit longer with the new guys, but sister Bobbie is right there all the time.”

Parts of Nelson’s set list haven’t changed for 40 years. He always opens with “Whiskey River,” then goes into a medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away”/”Crazy”/”Night Life,” just as he did on Live at the Texas Opry House in 1974. But he still finds ways to be creative. “Every night is a gamble, like walking a high wire without a net,” he says one night in New York. He recently pulled out Reinhardt’s “Vous et Moi” when he missed a note and lost his place. “It completely fell apart,” says Nelson. Other times, he’ll play “stump the band”: “I’ll start something and start something else,” he says with a grin on his bus in New York. “But usually, it’s me doing the fuckup and they’re trying to catch up.”

Off the road, Nelson splits his time between Texas and Maui, which he calls his “hospital zone.” In Hawaii, after swimming and playing golf all day, he’ll head to his clubhouse (also called Django’s). Neighbors including Kristofferson, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson stop by for chess, poker and dominoes. “He’s definitely the number-one dominoes player,” says Wilson, who says the only time he’s ever seen Nelson mad was when he asked him, repeatedly, why the spare dominoes go on the right side of the table. (“Because that’s the goddamn rule!” Nelson screamed.)

“He kicks our ass,” says Harrelson. “He stays up all night partying and gambling. I mean, he’s got reserves behind reserves of energy. It’s just shocking. And he’s one of the funniest people alive.”

Once, after a compliment, Nelson asked Harrelson, “Where’s the box?” “What box?” Harrelson replied. “The box you just stood on to kiss my ass,” said Nelson. Harrelson regularly writes down his favorite Nelson one-liners: “If I hurt your feelings, I’m sorry. But if I made you mad, fuck you.” “One thing I hate is a sink full of dishes and no place to piss.” “If I can’t be your number one, then number two on you.”

“There’s some freakin’ nut cases that come by his house on the regular,” Harrelson says. “These are people I wouldn’t have over a second time. And he just treats them great, and he’ll give jobs to people who don’t have money – you know, ‘Sweep this up.’ He leads with his heart, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.”

The Texas flag is hanging above the stage, the red bandannas are laid out across the amps, ready for Nelson to throw them into the crowd, as the Honeysuckle Rose winds past a golf course at Harrah’s casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. L.G., who is now 68 years old with a gray ponytail, tells a brunette to move her sedan, double­parked in a reserved spot by the stage entrance, so that the bus can edge in. “Someone constantly wants to see him, somebody wants this, somebody wants that,” says L.G. “So we figured if he comes in an hour before the show, he doesn’t have to deal with all that.”

Two nights earlier, Bobbie had an alarming blood-pressure scare in Oklahoma City. They canceled the show, and she and Nelson went home to Austin, where she checked into a hospital; the rest of the touring crew went ahead to Iowa and waited to hear if the tour was canceled. “He called me to see if he could try and finish the tour,” Bobbie says. “I said, ‘Yes, I want to go, too.’ I thought that was exactly what we should do, is to go get on the bus. We could not miss playing for those people that were waiting to hear us.”

During the 850-mile drive from Austin, Nelson and his sister watched The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, but mostly rested. They arrive just in time for an ABC News interview about Band of Brothers, which just hit Number One. “It’s as good as it gets,” says Nelson, emerging from his bedroom, cleanshaven, hair braided and clutching a beige Stetson. “The other night in Arkansas was the best show we’ve ever done,” he says. Really, the best ever? “Well, short-term memory has its benefits,” he says with a smile.

We talk current events. He had read New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s recent piece about eating a cannabis candy bar and needing to lie down, terrified and motionless, for eight hours. “Maybe she’ll read the label now!” he says, laughing, adding she’s welcome to get high on the bus “anytime.” He’s also been closely following the story of the 60,000 Central American children who have crossed the Texas border in the past year and are now sleeping in holding cells. “The only thing we can do is take care of those kids, whatever it takes,” he says. “Take them in, give them some medical attention. I’m sure there are homes all over the country that would be glad to take one or two kids.”

In June, heavy winds ripped through Luck, destroying the bank and the post office and leaving the headquarters on the verge of collapse. “It got a bad hit. We’ll have to tear it down and build it back,” Nelson says matter-of-factly. “We’ll build it back stronger.”

Nelson is already looking ahead. He just finished another new album, December Day, cut with members of his touring band, including Spears before he passed away. “Would you like to hear it?” he asks. He opens up his MacBook and plays several solo acoustic songs, such as the stark Sixties ballad “Permanently Lonely.” “I think it’ll be the perfect thing to follow up Band of Brothers,” he says. Nelson says he isn’t planning on promoting it heavily on the road, though. “I’m cutting back a little bit,” he says. “I think after this tour, I’m working fewer dates. I’m just tired. I want to hang out with Woody and Owen more.”

Friends close to Nelson say he was deeply affected by the loss of Ray Price, who died at 87 in December. “He was my best friend,” says Nelson. He pauses for a moment as his brown eyes cloud up. “He was kind of everything in my career. All the way back to when I first started writing songs for him, playing bass for him, he just kind of took me in and raised me.”

Months earlier, sitting in his truck at his ranch, I asked Nelson how he manages these losses. “Oh, we’re all going to die,” he said. “Who was it, Seneca, the thinker, that said you should look at death and comedy with the same expression of countenance? You can’t be afraid of

can’t be afraid of living or dying. You live and you die, that’s just what happens, so you can’t be afraid of either.”

Nelson imagines a future when he plays only Texas – go to Fort Worth, come back, go to Houston, come back. “I don’t have any burning desires to do anything – that’s why it’s dangerous,” he said. “I have to keep booking myself or else I’ll just do nothing.”

He got a text from Annie. The bus was waiting down the hill. He needed to head to a local movie theater to make an appearance at a screening for a low-budget Austin holiday film in which he plays a Father Christmas-like figure.

“I just like to keep moving,” he said. “I could lie down and go to sleep and not go anywhere or do anything, real easy. I’m lazy. I have to make myself do it. But once I do, I’m happy.”

From The Archives Issue 1216: August 28, 2014.

Willie Nelson on the Cover of the Rolling Stone (August 2014)

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Rolling Stone

Willie Nelson, America’s most beloved outlaw, opens up about his craziest weed stories, the IRS, his pal George Clooney and the death of his close friend Ray Price in our new issue:

Willie Nelson Interview (

Monday, August 11th, 2014


He just released the acclaimed “Band of Brothers,” but already Nelson is looking ahead to future projects — and to the next night’s gig.

by:  Kurt Wolff

Talking to Willie Nelson is, on one hand, a straightforward experience. He speaks calmly and in small bites, with a gentle laugh and friendly smile always on hand to put you at ease. He’s quick with an answer but also patient, thoughtful and willing to go deep when it comes to speaking about his long life experience, the varied terrain of American music, and where the two have (frequently) intersected.

A Willie Nelson conversation can also go in any number of directions. When sat down with Nelson for a chat on his bus last month, the conversation started on topic with his latest album Band of Brothers. Soon, though, it moved into text messaging, concept albums, the enduring influence of the Grand Ole Opry, old friends of his like Billy Joe Shaver and Chet Atkins, and why he loves performing and touring so much (six decades down the road and “it’s still fun”). It’s a meandering path, but it’s a hell of a fun journey — and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Two key building blocks of Nelson’s long career came up repeatedly: songwriting and performing. The latter has always been at the heart of Nelson’s musical world. Even now performing is his chief occupation; he spends more nights on his tour bus than he does at his ranch in Texas.

As for songwriting, that’s what jump-started his commercial career, thanks to songs he wrote like “Crazy,” “Family Bible”  and “Night Life.” By his own estimation Nelson has written thousands, and this year he added even more to the roster. His latest album Band of Brothers, released this past June, includes nine newly written compositions that have no problem standing on their own as part of Nelson’s extensive catalog.

“It’s been a while since I wrote that much,” Nelson told We were speaking on his bus before a July 12 show with his band, the Family, at Ravinia, a lovely outdoor amphitheater just north of Chicago.

Curiously, Band of Brothers is the first Nelson album to focus on newly written material since his 1996 album Spirit. What took him so long?

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nelson said. “Roger Miller said it pretty good, he said, ‘Sometimes the well runs dry. And you’ve got to wait till you live a while to let it fill up again.’ And I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”

When pressed, Nelson admitted that it wasn’t just surge of personal inspiration that got him writing again. He had some outside motivation.

“The secret ingredient here is Buddy Cannon,” Nelson said. “He and I work well together. And it’s rare I find anyone I can really feel comfortable writing with. But he and I kinda hit a stride there and wrote some pretty good songs.”

Cannon is a veteran Nashville songwriter and producer best known for his work with Kenny Chesney (he’s produced the bulk of Chesney’s albums, including his upcoming collection The Big Revival). All nine of the Nelson-penned songs on Band of Brothers were cowritten with Cannon.

That, however, doesn’t mean Nelson and Cannon sat down in a room together to hash things out, as is typical among many Nashville songwriters. Instead, they wrote songs by passing ideas back and forth via text messages.

“It just happened to be the easiest way to do it,” Nelson said. “I’ll write a verse, he’ll write a verse. One of us will put a melody down. And he’s got all those great musicians there in Nashville and he can cut the track. And next thing you know we’ve got an album.”

Nelson said he’s never written that way before, but he emphasized that “it’s a lot easier. You’re free to think or say or write what you want to. And Buddy does the same thing. He’s got great instincts, and we seem to be fairly successful together.”

Band of Brothers isn’t the first time Cannon and Nelson have collaborated. “I had him do some producing for me on a couple albums I did,” including recent releases Moment of Forever, Heroes and Let’s Face the Music and Dance. “We just became good friends and started having a good time writing and making records.”

Collaborations are nothing new to Nelson, of course. He’s recorded countless duets and he was part of country supergroup the Highwaymen that included Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.  And of course he was often paired with Jennings during the 1970s, when both were branded ‘outlaws.’

“I met him in Phoenix,” Nelson remembers of his first encounter with Jennings. “He was playing a club down there, before he ever went to Nashville. We were both from Texas, so we had a lot to talk about—sit there and lie to each other. But then I saw his show and said, ‘You know, you ought to go to Nashville.’ And he told me, ‘Aw, I’m doing alright here.’ And I said, ‘How much you making here?’ And he said, ‘400 dollars a night.’ And I said, ‘Well s–t, stay here!’ But he didn’t listen to me.”

The 1970s were one of the most fertile periods in modern country music, with artists like Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Tompall Glaser and Bobby Bare taking country in new directions. Leading the pack were Jennings and Nelson. Nelson’s albums from this period, including Yesterday’s Wine, Phases and Stages, The Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust, are among his most enduring.

Nelson was still signed to RCA and working with producer Chet Atkins (“we got along great together”) when he released Yesterday’s Wine. What helped that album stand apart, in addition to the fact that it contained such knockout songs as “December Day” and “Me and Paul,” was that the material was bound under a larger conceptual idea, in this case about the cradle-to-grave journey of an ‘imperfect’ man.

“There was, as far as I know, not that many concept albums in country music back then,” Nelson said, when asked how Yesterday’s Wine was received. “So I knew I was pushing a heavy wagon uphill trying to get that stuff out. Which is true. Commercially I don’t think it did that great. But I felt from a music standpoint it was pretty good.”

The album that made him a household name, though, was The Red-Headed Stranger. Released in 1975, it was his first for new label, Columbia.

Luckily for Nelson, his new contract allowed him full creative control of the release, because, as Nelson said, when the Columbia executives first heard the music, they weren’t sure what to make of it.

“I remember they didn’t think it was finished. They thought it was a demo. And I laughed, ’cause I’d kind of anticipated what they were going to think.”

The album, however, turned into a smash. “It restored my faith in the music fans and the people, because I had an instinct that they would like that,” he said of the album’s spare production and engaging storytelling. “I’d like to be able to do another one like that.”

It also earned Nelson his first-ever No. 1 single for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Nelson said earning that chart-topping spot was a thrill but also something he took in stride. “If you’re exceptionally overconfident like me, you kind of accept it and expect it to happen,” he said of hitting No. 1. “And when it does you say, ‘See there? I told you!’”

Willie Nelson interview (AARP)

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Willie Nelson: What I Know Now

Willie Nelson, 81, country music singer-songwriter, actor and activist — exaggerating a little— “feels about 20.”
— David McClister


In this day of genetically modified food and growth hormones, the best solution is to shop at your local farmers market. Better still, find somewhere you can plant your own organic crops.

Two on the bus

Annie and I have been married since 1991 and found a way to make it work. Annie travels with me now. The longest I’ve been off the road is a month. That’s why I’ve been married four times! It’s too much to ask the wives to stay home while you’re running around the world.

Ties that bind

I value family most. My sister, Bobbie, has been on the road with me for 50 years; my daughters Amy and Lana travel with me. When me and my sons, Micah and Lukas, play together, that’s about as good as it gets.

 Unlikely duo

I wanted to do a duet with Barbra Streisand for 20 years, and she finally had a song written For us. I met her on the set of A Star Is Born. Once, between scenes, she sat on the floor of my bus, and I sang to her. Kris Kristofferson couldn’t understand why we got along so well, but I liked her!

Hat trick

I learned a lot from Leon Russell, who may be the best entertainer ever. He’s the first guy I saw throw his hat into the audience. That’s where I got the idea to do that. Ripped him off pretty good!

Move it or lose it

I don’t feel 81. I feel about 20. I’m exaggerating a little, but I just got my fifth-degree black belt in [the Korean martial art].

The power of positive thinking

When you think a negative thought, it releases poison in your system. Next thing you know, you wind up with cancer or other diseases. I try to live in the moment without regrets.

A toke a day keeps the doctor away

I’ll probably take a couple of hits before or after the show tonight. It relaxes me, and the medicinal form of pot can cure everything from stress to cancer. It’s a shame that it was thrown in with the other hard drugs. Now that the legalization has proven successful in Colorado and in Washington state, it’s just a matter of time before it’s legal everywhere. There’s a lot of money to be made from it, number one.

Keepin’ on

There’s a song on my new album, Band of Brothers, called “I’ve Got a Lot of Traveling to Do.” It’s true. For years I’ve said, “This might be my last tour.” But as long as I’m healthy and it’s fun and people show up, I’d like to keep doing it. It’s like the old saying, “Don’t slow down — they might be gaining on you.”

—Reported by Alanna Nash