Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Willie Nelson on Sunday Today with Willie Geist

Friday, February 19th, 2021

Willie Nelson interview “Country Music” (February 1976)

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021

Country Music Magazine
February 1976
by Patrick Carr

We begin with an ending of sorts. We are in Nashville on a drizzly night, packed into the Municipal Auditorium like so many high-rent sardines approaching the strung-out finale of the Disk Jockey Convenion 1975.

Taken together tonight, we are perhaps the most professional audience any of these Columbia/Epic acts are likely to play for at least another year: all of us are Somebodies in the country music business, and we’are all hip to the score. The Columbia/Epic actes bounce on stage and do whatever thing they do, three numbers each, one after the other. Tammy Wynette, Mac Davis, Barbara Fairchild, David Houston… it’s very democratic but pretty soon it becomes obvious which artists are getting corporate nod right now because all you really have to do is watch the company personnel pay or not pay attention. Nevertheless, it’s a subtle affair.

But when Willie Nelson and his band of gypsies make their entrance backstage, looking for all the world like some flying wedge of curiously benign Hells Angels, subtlety goes by the board and it’s plain that this year’s Most Likely To Succeed slot has just been taken with a vengeanance: a great shaking of hands begins.

The impression is confirmed when Willie proceeds to get up onstage with his full band (all the other acts were backed by the Columbia band) and play a 40-minute set that, except for a qute seemly absence of illegal drugs and teenage nudity among the audience, might just have well be happening in Texas on the 4th of July. This is the ending of sorts, and what it means is that after telling the Nashville powers-that-be to get lost and leaving town just three short years ago, Willie Nelson has become the country music wave of the future and is now accepting Nashville’s praise and promotional efforts on his own terms.

There is a postscript, though. Three or four hours later — after another couple of hundred handshakes, after attending a very high-rent Columbia party to which his band was not invited, and after behaving like a perfect gentleman through it all — Willie gets himself down to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store and plays for two hours while most every other star in town is out at Opryland all gussied up to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry amid great pomp and ceremony of the By Invitation Only Kind.

It isn’t that Willie couldn’t have shown up at the Opry — with his current Columbia-backed status, that’s a silly notion — and it isn’t that he’s trying a reverse-chic move like one of Nashville’s several dozen I’m-so-hip-isn’t-this-earthy tipes might attemps. It’s just that his old friend and musical hero Ernest was gracious enough to invite him, and that Ernest Tubb’s Record Store is still the best place in town to get down and play straight honky tonk music for the friends and neighbors.

Apart from being a rebel against Nashville’s creative restrictions, a culture hero, a real sweetheart, a person blessed with a highly sophisticated sense of humor, and the man who first made it possible for hippies and rednecks to co-exist under the protection of his music — all of which he is — Willie Nelson has always been one other thing. He has always been a wrtier and singer of the classic country honky tonk song, which is to say that he has always had a very precise, lonely, realistic understanding of the hard ways of this vale of tears in which we all live and suffer form time to time. This is the juke box Willie.

Historicallly, this music came out of more or less, his whol career up to today (which seems somewhat more optimistic when you consider the conclusions of the Red Headed Stranger album). It’s the kind of stuff — like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t It Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Pretty Paper,” “Touch Me” and all those other perfectly songs — that really say it to you when you’re down and getting kicked. Willie wrote most of it in Nashville when he was a highly-reputed songwriter trying to be a singing star, simultaneously going through the usual business of divorce, marriage, divorce, marriage and consequent craziness (or is that vice versa?) and running with the likes of Faron Young, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis and other distinguished crazy people.

A segment of my Willie Nelson interview:

Willie (laughing): “I think a lot of people got to thinking that everybody had to do the same thing Hank Williams did, even die that way if necessary. And that got out of hand. I always used to think George Jones got drunk because Hank Williams did, like he really thought that was what he was uspposed to do.”

Me: “You ever do that?”

Willie: “‘Course I did. That’s the reason I know it’s done.”

Me: “You still do it?”

Willie: “I still get drunk, but I’m not really mimicking anybody now. I have my own drunken style.”

These days, see, Willie won’t talk about the personal agonies of those Nashville years without humor, but it’s all there in the songs which made him one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, and it came to a head during the years — his last year in Nashville — that gave rise to his Phases and Stages album. That year was a turning point, and it is chronicled in Phases and Stages. The album is an excruciatingly universal account of the way one man and one woman deal with their divorce (”That was the year I had four or five cars totalled out and the house burned down,” says Willie), but it ends with a very significant song called “Pick Up the Tempo.” It goes like so:

People are sayin’ that time will take
care of people like me
And that I’m livin’ too fast, and
they say I can’t last for much longer
But little they see that their
thoughts of me is my savior
And little they know that the beat
ought to go just a little faster,
So pick up the tempo just a little,
and take it on home….

For a man hitting the crucial age of forty, those are important lines. They speak of an affirmation of life and a determination to triumph over its emotional problems, and they represent Willie’s decison to leave Nashville, move back home to Texas, and finally realize his potential which is, in fact, exactly what he did. “I knew I only had a few years left to do what I was gong to do, and I had to make a move,” says Willie. “I wasn’t going down there to quit. I was going down there with a purpose.” the purpose, quite simply, was first to make himself a national recording star, and then to use that power base to make damn sure that people like him could be free to make their own music their own way without having to starve in the process.

Remember, Willie has a history in this department. It was he who first chaperoned Charley Pride into the country music concept scene, bringing him on stage in Louisiana — actually kissing him right there in the spotlights – and risking God only knows what kind of backlash in the process. The risk, once taken, paid off: Charley was accepted because Willie was behind him. Similarly, Willie, used his high prestige and general likeability in country music artist circles to ease Leon Russell into the Nashville scene by surrounding him with Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Jeanne Pruett and a whole galaxy of main-line performers when he was cutting the sequel to his “Hank Wilson” album.

Willie can get away with heresy because more than any other artist occupying the often-queasy ground between because more than any other artist occupying the often queasy ground between country and something else, his country credentials are in order — more to the point — he has never betrayed his roots.

So Willie arrived in Austin (where he was already a star), formed his present band around himself and his old compadre drummer Paul English (of “Me and Paul” fame), began booking his own dates and managing himself, set up that first media-shocking Picnic at Dripping Springs, connected with the local power elite in the person of Darrell Royal (coach of the University of Texas football team and a very influential citizen), and quickly assumed the role of main Godfather in the Austin scheme of things. That, incidentally, is some gig: you don’t know what a loyal crowd is until you’ve been to Austin and watched a whole clubful of liberated young things worship the ground good ol’ Willie walks on to quite embarrasing excess.

Along the way — just before that first Picnic, in fact — Ritchie Albright of the Waylors suggested that he get in touch with Neil Reshen, a New york manager and fixit person who at the time was looking to consolidate his country music holdings. Reshin already had Waylon as a client, and Willie followed suit. This action signified the arrive with the neccessary teeth for the coutlaw allliance Willie had been pondering for years, and it became a classic Beauty and the Beast operation that continues to this day.

An example of the dynamics of that Beauty and the Beast relationship:

Willie on Neil Reshen: “He’s probably the most hated and the most effective manager that I know of. He enjoys going up to those big corporations and going over their figures. He’s so sadistic, he loves to do it.”

And once again, Willie: “At least you know where you’re at with Neil. Nowhere.”

And again: “Anyone who can learn to like Neil can like anyone. It’s a challenge to like Neil.”

“Willie, how are you doing on that?”

“I’m coming along, I’m coming alone. I can stay around him a little while now.”

Althought the mere mention of Neil Reshen’s name has been known to send secretaries to the bathroom and turn grown executives into violent monsters (”He’s another of those guys I don’t understand how he lived so long with somebody really hurting him,” says Willie), you have to admit that while Willie and Waylon (”It’s like having a maddog on a leash,” says Waylon) may have been able to get out of Nashville’s grasp without him. It’s only through this man’s unspeakably vicious yet effective manner of dong business, that the outlaw bid for independent power on country music has avoided bankruptcy and actually shown a profit.

So, with the active assistance of New York Neil, Willie has established the power base he was after. It is now possible for Willie to record with Waylon or Kris or Leon (he’s planning a whole Willie/Waylon joint album), and what’s more, with the formation of Lone Star Records, he can get people like Jimmy Day, Johnny Darrell, Floyd Tillman, Billy C., Bucky Meadows, his sister Bobbie and other Texas worthies into the recording studio and, since Columbia Records pays for promotion and distribution under a joint Columbia/Lone Star deal, actually get the finished product before the public. Like Willie says, “We’re all togethe

hr, and we have the same idea about what we wnat to do, which is to do our thing our own way. I’m trying to get these guys to do for themselves what they’ve been bitching about people not doing for them.”

Willie’s long affair with the business of honky tonk music represents one considerable side of his character which may be traceable to the fact that he and his sister Bobbi (”it’s alwyas been me and her”) were raised without parents. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson divorced when Willie was a baby and Bobbi was there, and so for the first six eyars of his life Wilile was with his grandparents. For the next tne year, he was raised by his grandmoter alone, grandfather having passed away. That of coruse is a vast oversimplification, but the roots of his two divorces and highly creative loneliness must lie buried somewhere in there, just as the roots of his present, almost uncanny serenity must be located in the emotional steps he took to overcome his personal problems. Whatever, it is an absolute fact that the presnet-day Willie Nelson is most definitely not an individual still in conflict with himself.

In a sense, Willie Nelson now is in some sort of still-perceptive, still creative cruise-gear, moving through a world of incredibly high pressure with almost perfect equilibrium. You can hear this feeling on the Red Headed Stranger album (a concept suggested and assisted by his wife Connie, with whom he does in fact seem quite happy) and you can see it when, dead center in the eye of one of this nation’s strangest cultural hurricanes, he drifts through the absolute mayhem of his Picnic and somehow manages to be a rock-like source of calm and competence for (literally) thousands of the most outrageously uncalm, incompetent hustlers, freaks and assorted weirdos ever assembled under one patch of Texas sky.

It also shows when, in the middle of yet another night of pushing his ragged band through a set of half-tragic, half-boogie music and watching with a smile as his audience stumbles and whoops its way towards unconsciousness, it comes down to just him and his Spanish-style, gut-string amplified Martin, and for a while the most carefully emotional, beautifully balanced little collection of mood notes in the world go soaring through the rancid air.

This is the musical legacy of Django Reinhardt, Grady Martin and the other psychological gypsy guitar pickers from whom Willie developed his style; it is also the mark of a man who has really seen it all and can still look it straight in the eye.

Atlanta, Georgia: Willie is on a First Class trip. Laid out in the back of the limousine behind his big spade shades, he is relaxing into the ways of being a star with records on the charts. There’ll be no more no-money dives to play, and for a while there won’t even be any songwriting unless the fancy takes him. Willie explains that he’s not one of those poeple who get headaches when they’re not writing, and since his next two albums — a Gospel album and an album of Lefty Frizzel songs — are already in the can, all he really has to do is keep on showing up for Willie Nelson concerts.

There are also some interesting projects in the wind, and they might even get done. there’s the issue of a Red Headed Stranger movie, for instance (”If I had the money and any idea about how to do it, I’d be somewhere doin’ it right now”,) and the almost equally interesting notion of Willie, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush getting together to do a couple of original Cherokee Cowboy dates.

Tonight Willie’s nose will be back on the grindstone as once again he takes the stage with his gypsies and plays for the sticky young drunks and dopers of Atlanta. Tonight, once again, he’ll be up there doing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Eileen Goodnight” with whoever wants to join in (this time it’s Tracy Nelson and Linda Ronstadt and Mylon LeFevre), and tonight there’ll be another endless hillbilly amnesia session up in the hotel room.

Tomorrow there’ll be another bloody mary morning when Paul, bless him, has paid the bills and checked us all out and onto the road again. But now, just for a while, Willie is thinking about his Gospel album and remembering that he was asked to quit teaching in Sunday School when they found out that Little Willie played the local Texas beer joints at night.

“Were you a good preacher, Willie?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “I really was.”

“Are you a religious man?”

“Yes,” he says, “Probably more than I ever was. Y’know?”

Somehow, when you really get serious about Willie Nelson, the answer is not at all surprising.

Willie Nelson Interview (CBS) (January 2015)

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

Willie Nelson Interview (Spinner, January 2008)

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

Willie Nelson is 74 years old and has absolutely no plans of slowing down. Lucky for us.‘Moment of Forever, ‘ a collection of songs that mirror his life: There’s a little bit of humor, a lot of love and a sound that stands the test of time.

I hear you’re talking to us in between golf games right now. What’s your handicap?

My driver and my putter! [laughs]

The music icon and all-around national treasure somehow found time between touring, his philanthropic endeavors and his golf game to record

Spinner caught up with the Redheaded Stranger to talk about his new project and his surprisingly simple explanation for his prevalence in modern music. And, of course, we couldn’t help but let the conversation drift back to his notoriously wilder days.

And you actually bought a golf course!

I’m across the street from it right now. It’s a little nine-hole golf course called Pedernales Country Club. We have a lot of fun over there.

So you’re a golf course owner, singer, songwriter, actor, philanthropist and father of ten. Is there anything you’ve yet to accomplish that’s on your to-do list?

I don’t like to think too far ahead. I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot done and have a lot of success. I don’t want to be greedy. And when I’m happiest is when I’m out here playing music and staying out of trouble! [laughs] In the early days, we’d be out on the road and go out and play our concert, and then go back to the hotel and party till daylight. And then when it came time to leave, you couldn’t find anybody! [laughs] So I decided somewhere along the way that it’s better to leave town right after the show. And since we’ve started doing that, I’ve noticed that the marriages are actually staying together. [laughs]

You have certainly changed your ways; people may not realize that you’re actually somewhat of a health nut these days.

Well, I have started running. What I was trying to do was do at least as much good in the daytime as I was destroying in the nighttime. [laughs] But it got to the point where I was losing ground. I had to start trying to stay alive or I was going to die. So I’ve had to give up the smoking and drinking. And when I quit that and started running, I got a lot healthier.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?

There probably aren’t any. [laughs] But if you think of all the people who don’t like me, just think of all the millions who’ve never heard of me!

I can’t imagine there are “millions” who haven’t heard of you. You’re Willie Nelson! You probably get recognized several times a day. Does your fame ever overwhelm you?

Honestly, no. I love it. I thrive on it. I enjoy people. And when I first started out watching Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on the movie screen every Saturday, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to ride my horse, shoot my gun, sing my songs and be like Gene and Roy. And that’s what I’m doing, and I couldn’t be happier. And I’m making enough money to pay the bills and support my family, so I have no complaints.

Speaking of your family, your youngest sons Micah and Lukas are featured on your new album in the opening track, ‘Over You Again.’ And they’re actually musicians themselves, right?

They have a band called 40 Points and have toured with me over the last couple of years, but they’re back in school now. They’re just two really talented kids. I’m proud of them.

You also worked with Kenny Chesney on this CD. He acts as both duet partner on ‘Worry B Gone’ and as co-producer of the album. What did he bring to the table that was different from your past producers?

First of all, he’s a good musician and has a good ear in the studio. And his name certainly didn’t hurt at all, either! [laughs] He’s a big star, and after hanging out with him for a while you can see why. He’s got a lot of talent.

In addition to Chesney, are there any other artists these days who you think have a real shot at longevity?

There are a lot of guys who seem to have staying power … Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt. Those guys are going to be out there working for a long time. They’ve got talent.

As someone who’s certainly achieved it, what do you think is the secret to longtime success in the music industry?

I think you’ve just gotta keep living! Just look at Johnny Cash or Waylon [Jennings]. They kept going until they died. Ray Price is still doing great, and he’s 82 years old. We just celebrated his birthday over in Tyler, Texas. He and I and Merle [Haggard] are all touring again this year. So I think staying busy is important.

You’ve collaborated with so many different artists, from Waylon and Merle to Julio Iglesias to Dave Matthews. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet but would like to?

Can you sing? [laughs]

You don’t want to hear me sing, at least not sober.

[laughs] Darn, then I’ll have to find somebody else.

How about all the different artists who’ve covered your songs. Is there one that stands out to you?

You’ve got to go back to ‘Crazy,’ Patsy Cline. How could you top that one? Also, Ray Price with ‘Night Life,’ Roy Orbison, ‘Pretty Paper’; Billy Walker, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’; Faron Young, ‘Hello Walls.’ Those performances … there’s just no way to beat ’em.I just heard a Hank Williams classic, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ That’s a piece of literature. I don’t wish I’d written it, but I am glad somebody did!

If you could change anything about the country music business, what would you change?

I would like to see more airplay for all artists, no matter what age. I think there’s a lot of money being spent toward the young guys, but a lot of the older guys are the ones who blazed the trail for those young guys. Plus, the old guys have kept those record companies in business for all these years. So I think there’s a certain amount of respect due. I’m not complaining … we’ve made some good records and have sold a lot. I’m talking mainly for the other artists coming along. They’ll have a better chance if they stay traditional and don’t try to get too far out one way or another. Like Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Ray Price … they’ve stayed traditional, and they’re gonna be around for forever.

You tend to be pretty vocal about your political beliefs. So, what do you think is the most important issue in the ’08 presidential election?

Stop the war. Stop the bleeding. That’s the first thing. Then the economy — we have all kind of problems, but the number-one priority is to stop this war. Once that happens, all the trillions of dollars that we’re spending over there can be spent here on our people, our poor people, for health insurance and all the things that evidently we don’t have the money to work with because it’s all over there fighting wars. And if it’s not that war, it’s another war. It’s just this series of one war after another.

Are you supporting any particular candidate?

I liked Dennis Kucinich, but he dropped out. I like Obama and Hillary, so I’ll wait to see which one of those folks come out on top. But they’ve both changed their positions on the war, I think, in the last several months. Dennis never did have to change his position, because he was always against it. But as for who I’ll support, I don’t really know yet.

Was it your stance on the war that drove you to start the Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute?

I wanted to connect all people who are thinking about peace on Earth. When I was growing up, that was the theme that every Sunday morning, they yelled at us. [laughs] “Peace on Earth!” And then it looks like that somewhere along the way, people forgot that message. Now it’s war on Earth. So I want to connect all the people who think like I do, that there should be and hopefully will be peace on Earth.

If we were to ask you to write Willie’s Theme, a rule you live your daily life by, what would it say?

A couple of funny ones come to mind. My ex-wife Martha used to say, “Don’t worry about a thing, because there ain’t nothin’ that’s gonna be all right.” [laughs] And my father-in-law when I was married to Connie used to say, “Take my advice and do what you want to.” I thought that was funny.

I think the lyrics to your new song ‘Always Now’ are a good rule to live by.

I think you’re right. That’s an absolute truth.

Willie Nelson: The Rolling Stone Interview, by Kinky Friedman (3/7/91)

Monday, January 18th, 2021

It’s Not Supposed to be This Way
On the bus and behind the $16 million eight ball with Willie Nelson.
by Kinky Friedman
Rolling Stone Magazine
March 7, 1991

Willie Nelson, the cover boy for the National Inquirer? The story contends that Willie owes the IRS $16 million, that it has confiscated everything but the T-shirt off his back and that Willie is a despondent, broken man, who according to “friends,” has been thinking of taking his own life.

It’s a rainy January night in Austin, Texas, and Willie’s bus is parked near the set of Another Pair of Aces, a movie he’s starring in with Kris Kristofferson and Rip Torn. I climb aboard the bus, the Enquirer story still on my mind, and find Willie dressed in a flashy sport jacket, slacks, shiny new boots and big, black cowboy hat.

“I hope these are from wardrobe,” I say. Willie smiles, and nods.

“As you’ve probably noticed,” Willie says, “I’m homeless and penniless and now residing with Little Joe and his family in Temple, Texas. I’ve been callin’ around lookin’ for one of those suicide machines. I’ll go on national tv, hook myself up to that machine and tell everyone I have ’til seven o’clock to get $16 million. If I don’t get it, I’m pulling the plug. Just like that guy, Oral Roberts did. And he’s still around.”

“What’s it like to owe this money?” I ask.

“I started out thinking if I ever got $50,000 in debt, I’d be a pretty successful cowboy,” says Willie. “considering how far in debt I am now, I’m really cuttin’ a big hog in the ass.”

Willie wants it known that he is not a tax dodger. Since 1983 he has paid over $8 million in taxes, and his records are up-to-date and current. The problem, according to Willie, was listening to bad advice about a tax-shelter scheme. Willie, who has dedicated so much of his time and efforts to helping others, does not really want to accept Willie Aid. He suggests that if people want to help, they buy his forthcoming album. The IRS Tapes, which consists of unreleased material confiscated form his recording studio before it was locked up by the IRS. Willie has met with the IRS, and the people there seem to like the idea, too. This month Willie plans to go on the road again.

There is in Willie a spirit of calm, upbeat determination, in a situation many would regard as hopeless, tragic or impossible. He is a timeless spiritual hustler, Willie Nelson is chalking his cue.

‘According to the National Inquirer, I say, ‘you’re gonna have a hell of a time singing your way back from a debt that large.” Willie’s eyes shine.

“Watch me,” he says.

Both of us laugh. My thoughts wander back to an earlier time, five months and $16 million ago. . .

IT’S A BLOODY MARY MORNING, 4:45 a.m. I’m loitering in the parking lot of a convenience store on the outskirts of Tedious, Texas, watching a large Hispanic male projectile vomiting on the only pay phone in the place. Not an auspicious beginning. at five o’clock. I’m supposed to call Doug Holloway, my contact man. the mission: to travel across America on the bus with willie Nelson and attempt to ****, **** or cajole a hip, quirky profile that shows a side of the star to American has ever seen with the naked eye.

I make the call.

By dawn’s surly light I’m aboard Willie’s beautiful touring bus, the only other two occupants being Willie’s driver, Gates “Gator” Moore, and Ben Dorsey, who at sixty-five is said to be the world’s oldest roadie, having worked for every major country star in the firmament, including a long stint as John Wayne’s valet. I mention that being Willie’s valet must be easier since the only accouterments he employs are a pair of tennis shoes and a bandanna that has been carbon-dated and found to be slightly older than the shroud of Turin. Dorsey does not respond. The bus lurches onto the highway.

We stop to pick up Willie’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, keyboard player for the band. She is a charming and gracious lady, and she likes men who smoke cigars on buses. Bobbie has known Willie longer than anyone on the planet. “He was my little brother,” she says. “Now he’s my big brother.”

I think about my own relationship with Willie. He and I have been friends for along time, and one of the secrets of our enduring friendship is that we’ve usually stayed the hell away from each other. I do not want to trick the prey, but I do want to catch him. The situation is somewhat uncomfortable and reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s description of a fox hunt: ‘The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.”

We pick up the man who was once Bobbie Nelson’s little brother in Abbott, Texas, the place where he was born and now lives with his new love, Annie, their two infant children and their two Mexican nannies, whose only word of English appears to be Weellie! I do not bring up Willie’s problems with the IRS, but Willie does. It seems Willie owes the IRS more millions than there are cross ties on the railroad or stars in the sky. Sister Bobbie is very concerned. “I don’t know what people with minds of machinery will do,” she says. “Willie’s worked so long an hard for this, and now he could lose everything.”

Willie himself does not say much about this possibility. The case is current, and he’s counter suing. There is a lot of money involved: Willie plays over 200 dates a year and earns roughly $50,000 per gig.

As the bus roars toward Texarkana on the way to Detroit, we talk about the situation. Willie, relaxed and philosophical, is not the kind of man who would be likely to jump out the window of his bus.

‘You’re a gypsy, Willie,” I say. “And a gypsy’s definition of a millionaire is not a man who has a million dollars, but a man who’s spent a million dollars.’

Willie laughs as we sit at the little table on the bus. His eyes look into me with all the even-mindedness of a mahatma.

“It’s like this,” Willie says. “I have the ability to make money. I have the ability to owe money. I have the ability to spend money. And I’m proud of it. I’m the perfect American.”

I ask Willie about the woman who’s garnered some press lately in the tabloids with a rather unusual story. She claims that on January 4, 1985, in the Biloxi, Mississippi, Hilton, she and Willie had sexual intercourse for nine consecutive hours and that he consummated the act with a backward somersault with the woman still attached. She’s now suing Willie for $50 million for breach of promise in refusing to marry her. At Willie’s Fourth of July picnic in Austin he told me that this was the only true story ever written about him. Now he seems to hedge a bit.

“I’m not saying it didn’t happen,’ he says. “It might’ve happened. but you would’ve thought I’d remember at least the first four or five hours.”

“What will you do,” I ask him, “if the case actually comes to court?”

Willie thinks for a moment, then smiles. “My ex-wife Shirley said she’d be glad to testify on my behalf,” he says.

The bus moves like a patient brush stroke across the sepia Arkansas twilight. inside, as peaceful as a sill-life painting, Willie sits across the little table, the conversation moving into the murky casino of world politics.

‘You’ve got to look for the good in everything,” says willie. ‘Iraq took the heat off Rosanne Barr and Neil bush.”

Willie has no great empathy for Neil bush, but he does feel something for Roseanne Barr. “I can sympathize with anyone who has to sing that song,’ he says.

Willie belongs to that small, close-knit fraternity — consisting primarily of Robert Goulet, Pia Zadora, Roseanne Barr and himself – – that has botched the singing of “The star-Spangled banner.” At the 1980 Democratic Convention, Willie accidentally blew the chorus, leaving out the entire portion beginning with “And the rocket’s red glare…” and ending the song quite a bit earlier than expected. Democrats, putting the best fact on it, maintained that Willie had deliberately deleted the violence form the song, the ‘bombs bursting in air,” et cetera. Republicans, not being so charitable, contended that Willie was bombed himself at the time. today Willie merely says: “The teleprompter wasn’t rolling at the same speed that I was.”

Around midnight a storm comes up, and we see lightning lashing the Nashville skyline almost as if God is smiting the philistines who never understood Willie Nelson. In the song ‘me and Paul,” Willie acknowledges that “Nashville was the roughest,” but tonight he seems to hold little rancor for the town that once drove him to lie down in the middle of snowy Broadway and wait for a truck to run him over.

“As they go,” I say, “that was a fairly ballsy suicide attempt.”

“At three o’clock in the morning in Nashville,” says Willie, “there’s not much traffic.”

As we roar through music city, it’s bright lights and dark shadows do not appear to evoke any bitter memories in Willie. Ben Dorsey, the world’s oldest roadie, has joined the conversation which now has turned to bandannas, john Wayne and the Trilateral commission. Willie is a believer in bandannas an the trilateral Commission, but he isn’t so sure about John Wayne.

“I’m a Gene Autry/Roy Rogers guy,” Willie says. “John Wayne couldn’t sing, and his horse was never smart.”

This kind of loose talk irks Dorsey, who, of course, was the Duke’s valet for many years before he worked for Willie. Dorsey staunchly defends Wayne and releases a new narrative about beautiful women, freight elevators, seven passenger roadsters and Tijuana, at the end of which Willie concedes to Dorsey that Wayne was indeed a great American.

I inquire if it’s true, as Nashville’s famous Captain Midnight asserts, that Willie stole the idea of wearing the bandanna from Midnight and John Wayne. Willie contends that the bandanna and tennis shoes are not an affectation – they are the outfit he wore as a child, predating Wayne’s or Midnight’s use of the bandanna. Dorsey takes out a John Wayne book and authenticates that the Duke wore a bandanna in a movie in 1928, five years before Willie was born. The conversation has become metaphysical. “Do you ever think of being old?” I ask.

“I was old before it was fashionable,” Willie says.

We stop at a truck stop on the other side of Nashville to pick up guitar genius Grady Martin. Everyone gets off the bus to eat except Willie, who usually stays on, subsisting almost entirely on fried-egg sandwiches to go and bee pollen. In the early hours of the morning, during the long haul to Detroit, willie speaks forth on one of his favorite causes: the American farmer.

“Russia’s giving its land back to its farmers,” Willie says, “and here we’re taking it away.” the Russians, apparently, have asked Willie to speak to the Russian farmers about trusting their governments, something the Russian people haven’t given serious thought to in over seventy years. “I don’t know how i can tell the Russians to trust their government,” he says, ‘when I don’t even trust my own.”

I try a few units of bee pollen myself. The conversation has somehow come back to the trilateral commission, which, Willie believes, controls the world. The notion is often a favorite of old right wingers, but looking at willie, one can’t help but see that the man has a far closer spiritual kinship to Che Guevara than to Robert Bork. As I move toward my book, Willie is contending that there are men more powerful than George Bush who are calling the shots. Willie’s driver, Gator, shouts back from the front of the bus: “Anybody who can get his old lady’s picture on a dollar bill is powerful enough for me.”

That night i have a vague, troubling dream of Barbara Bush having intercourse with George Washington and at the end, performing a backward somersault. I write it off to the bee pollen.

When I wake up it is morning, and we’re in Detroit. Everyone’s already checked into the hotel except Willie and myself. I pour some coffee and peek around the curtains to find that the bus is parked right next to a green lawn with a canopy and many nice, respectable-looking suburban couples having brunch. Willie pulls the curtain back ever so slightly and peers out at the scene like a storybook princess in a tower. He can never be one of these people, I realize; his gypsy lifestyle, his incredible celebrity, his standard wardrobe, all mitigate against it. But if he’s a prisoner, I figure I may as well interrogate.

“How many songs have you written” I ask him.

“About a thousand,” Willie says.

“How many kids do you have?”

“About a thousand.”

How many wives have you had?

“Four.”

“How many albums have you made?”

“Over a hundred.”

“How many cars have you wrecked?’

“Over a hundred.”

“Ever been really brokenhearted?”

“I’ve had a trail of broken hearts,” he says, “At the Hank Williams level.”

“Doesn’t part of you dream of being one of those people out there?” I ask a bit rhetorically. “Of having a little house with a white picket fence and polishing your car under an airport flight path?”

Willie doesn’t answer the question directly. Maybe there is no direct answer. “I had to stop thinking that I had a home,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to move to the next big town without slashing your wrists.”

“At least it must be comforting,” I say, “to realize that your ex-wives and ex-girlfriends have to listen to your music in elevators and dentist waiting rooms.”

Willie laughs, “The one nice thing about all my marriages,” he says, “is that every time I start a new relationship, all my old lines are good again.”

“What effect does marijuana have on you?”

“It makes the questions further apart,” he says, “but my answers are still wise and heavy.’

i see that Willie is again toying, rather poignantly it seems, with the curtain at the window. “If you couldn’t sing or write or play the guitar,” I ask, “What do you think you would have been?”

Willie steals another shy glance at the nice people eating their mushroom quiches. “A lawyer slash pimp,” he says.

“I’m not sure that we really need the slash,” I say.

The show at the Michigan State Fair that night is so vibrant, spirited and full of energy one might not believe every member in the seven-piece band, except Mickey Raphael and bee Spears, is over fifty. Maybe they’re all on bee pollen. The large crowd, seemingly as diverse as America itself, is warm and enthusiastic toward Willie — almost as if he were a personal friend. There are surprisingly large numbers of blind people, adults and children in wheelchairs and one ambulance with the back doors open and a frail old lady lying inside. the next day I’m having a drink in the hotel bar with Larry trader, Willie’s old pal and promoter and the man who once helped my former band the Texas Jewboys, escape a redneck lynch mob in Nacogdoches, Texas. I mention to Trader about the wheelchairs, the blind people, the lady in the ambulance.

“I ain’t saying he’s a doctor,” Trader says. “I’m sayin’ he’s a healer through music.”

On the road to New York and Vermont, in Colombo-like fashion, I ask penetrating questions and occasionally get fairly wiggy answers that I write down in my special investigator’s notebook. At the Holiday Inn pool in Syracuse, New York, I ask Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica player, how it feels to be the only person of the Jewish persuasion in Willie’s outfit.

“Fine,” says Raphael, “but playing harp with willie, manipulating the media and controlling world banking is really wearing me out.”

Backstage, I talk to Paul English, Willie’s drummer, after the show at the New York State Fair. i ask him what he thinks of the woman who claims she had a “nine-hour nonstop loveathon with the redheaded stranger.” “Well,” says English, “at least she got her $50 million worth.”

Willie’s daughter Lana also has a comment about the rather unusual, not to say sordid, affair. “If Mama were alive right now,” says Lana, ‘I know she’d be wondering what ever happened to her other eight and a half hours.”

On the large patio of a Vermont luxury hotel with a vaguely mental-hospital ambiance, Jody Payne, Willie’s guitar player, is telling me how he first met Willie. It was 1962, and Willie had sat in for a few songs at the west Fort Tavern, in Detroit, where Payne was working. Willie sang “Half a Man,’ and the brilliance of the song completely blew Payne away. Then the owner of the bar came over to Payne and said: ‘Don’t let him sing anymore. He’s the worst singer I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Willie was playing bass for Ray Price at the time. “It took Ray almost six months to realize Willie couldn’t play bass,” says Payne. “It took us about five minutes.”

After the show at the Champlain valley fair, in Vermont, the bus appears to be surrounded by farmers, Hell’s Angels and American Indians. Willie is taking a break before going out to sign autographs when he suddenly realizes that he is sitting at the table with his longtime manager Mark Rothbaum and Mickey Raphael. Seeing the creative opportunities of the moment, Willie works on a spontaneous improvisation on his song “Why Do I Have to Choose?” He opens his palms in a somewhat Christ-like manner toward Rothbaum and Raphael. Willie sings: “Why Do I Have Two Jews?”

When Willie goes outside again to meet his fans, I take the chance to wander around the backstage area at the fairgrounds. L.G., a Hell’s Angel in good standing, is coordinating events with various members of the crew. Gator is organizing routes with the drivers of the three other buses in the entourage, one of which belongs to Shelby Lynne, a young female singer who’s opening for Willie and who ha one of the most undercaffeinated voices I’ve ever heard this side of Janis Joplin. Poodie, who first met Willie on the gangplank of Noah’s ark, is overseeing the removal of tons of equipment from the stage. Wille’s family is packing up to go back on the road. They’re a ragged, eccentric, efficient crew, who look for all the word like a band of gypsies who’ve broken into a Rolex distributorship.

As the fairgrounds empty, i am left with afterimages. I remember walking far into the crowd as Willie sang “Georgia on My Mind,” evoking the spirits of Hoagy Carmichael’s and Richard Manuel. I remember every person in the back of the huge fairgrounds seemingly listening to every word and every note. “Angle Flying Too Close to the Ground.” the metal spokes of the wheelchairs.

The pulsating neon spokes of the giant Ferris wheel in the nearby field, a world away. childhood is close by, but you can’t quite touch it. “Blue Eyes Crying’ in the Rain.” Sister Bobbie playing “Down yonder” in a style that seems to bravely flutter like a balloon escaping to some beautiful place between a little country church and an old New Orleans whorehouse. “Just another scene from the world of broken dreams/The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”

I remember walking along the back of the fairgrounds listening to Willie sing, standing in the throng, thinking the thoughts of a lifetime. ‘You Were Always on My Mind.” Willie’s voice is not what is traditionally considered a good voice, but it is a great voice and one that is capable of making you cry and comforting you at the same time. It does both to me. I feel a palpable sense of history passing, ephemeral as the dopplered voices on a midway ride, and yet, I know something will stay.

earlier, backstage, willie looked out at the crowd. “That’s where the real show is,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of those people are not with their true first choice.” Willie smiled. Then he added, almost to himself: “That’s why they play the jukebox.”

As we slowly pull out of the fairgrounds, the curtain is open a bit and Willie is looking out the window of the bus. Standing behind him, I catch the face of a young girl who suddenly sees him. Her face reflects first disbelief, then a sort of gentle reverence, then the absolute innocence of wonder. Bobbie Nelson’s little brother smiles at the girl. the scenery changes. I go back to my notebook, and I realize that there are some things Willie Nelson has that the IRS can never take away.

Willie Nelson interview (Slate, Dec. 2020)

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

www.Slate.com
by: Jonathan L. Fischer

Read article here.

As part of Slate’s project on the80 most influential Americans over 80, we spoke to some members of the list to reflect on aging, work, and life in their ninth decade and beyond. Willie Nelson, 87, is an iconic singer-songwriter and one of the originators of outlaw country music. His latest album, First Rose of Spring, is his 70th; his 71st, the Frank Sinatra tribute That’s Life, will be released in February. Slate spoke with Nelson by phone last week. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jonathan L. Fischer: A lot of your songs that I love have the feeling of being sung by an old soul. Your outlaw country years, even before then—it sounded like it’d been done by someone who’d lived a lot. When you were younger, what did you think about being old? And now that you’re older, what do you understand about being young?ADVERTISEMENT

Willie Nelson: Well, when I was young, I was pretty dumb. And now that I’m older, I’m pretty fucking dumb. I don’t know everything, and I think I do. So there’s the problem.

I didn’t ever think I’d get this old. [Laughs] I always thought I was lucky to make it past 21.

It seems that, when there’s not a pandemic, you’re touring a lot. What’s it been like to be unable to play in person to a live audience this year?

Well, it’s been crazy. It’s the longest time off the road that I can think of, we’ve ever had to go through before. We’ve always been able to play to some audience somewhere.

Are you worried about live music and live venues?

I know it’ll come back. It may be a while, it may be next year sometime. But this will pass and we’ll get back to our normal thing.

I’ve been listening to your upcoming Sinatra tribute album, which really underlines the way he sang—that incredible phrasing—is in a lot of ways similar to the way a country singer tells a story.

That was one of the things I loved about Frank, his phrasing. He never done it twice the same way. I love that. … My biggest regret is we played a show together, I don’t know where it was, Vegas or somewhere, and he asked me to hang out with him a while that night, and I couldn’t. I had someplace to go and get on the bus. But that was one of my biggest regrets, that I didn’t get to hang out with Frank. Because I love him. He always has been my favorite singer.

Are you still doing martial arts?

I still do it as much as I ever did. One thing it gives you is a little confidence, that you don’t have to worry a lot because you’re capable of handling any situation that comes up. Having no fear is a pretty good thing. I still try to do a little workout every day just to pay for the day. That’s what I call it: You have to do something to pay for the day. So I’ll get up and do a little walking or jogging or whatever, just enough to keep the heart going.

Having you been able to do much writing lately?

I have written a lot since we’ve been laying around doing nothing. All I have time to do is think. So I’ll write something. Who knows if it’s any good but at least I’m getting it off my chest.

I wanted to ask about Charley Pride, who just died. 

I would like to say that Charley Pride was a great friend of mine. I love him, still love him. I enjoyed playing music with him, hanging out with him. We had more fun than we were supposed to. I love Charley Pride.

Marijuana had a really good Election Day—it seems like it’s an issue that’s really passed its tipping point with more states legalizing. How do you feel about that, given your contribution to that movement?

Well, I think it’s great. It is a good medicine and I’m glad that it’s being accepted around the country, and I’ll be glad when every state in the union legalizes it, because I think it will be healthy for everybody.

You still record a lot—you do at least an album every year. What makes you want to keep up that pace?

Well, I could do two a year.

And sometimes you do.

Sometimes I do, or three. I could do an album a day if I needed to. We’re putting together a new album that we’ve been in [the studio] doing the last few months. It’s a family album with me and all the kids and everybody singing on it, and it’ll be coming out one of these days. I just enjoy being there and recording.

Is there anything you would want to tell your younger self now?

Well, I don’t know that anything I would say now is anything that I would’ve listened to back then. I was still too stubborn to listen to anything or anybody, and I’ve had a lot of bruises because of it. And I’ve lived through it. But I don’t know that if I went back I’d change anything.

Can’t argue with how it turned out.

Yeah, I like the way it is now, except for the fact that we can’t play. I like the way I feel now, I’m pretty healthy. I have no complaints about that. I feel fortunate enough to play music.

Willie Nelson, Guitar Player, (Interview, Frets Magazine December 1984)

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

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.

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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.

Willie Nelson in Easyriders, (December 1979)

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

Bikers and Texas — An Interview With Willie Nelson
Easyriders
December 1979
by Tex

When I got the call from our wandering photographer, Billy Tinney, I was skeptical.  He was in Las Vegas and ran down some off-the-wall story about bumping into Willie Nelson and mentioning this rag.  Willie actually knew of Easyriders and volunteered to pose in front of his Texas flag for a cover.  He also volunteered to do this interview — blew Billy away.  But Billy’s been known to get a little blurred aound the edges after a fifth of ta-kill-ya or so, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention, at first figuring he’d been talked into a scam by some silk-suited cokespoon and had slipped over into fantasyland.

But damned if it all wasn’t true, and the next thing I knew I was sitting next to the Cub, or resident photog, in a propeller driven crate flying to Lake Tahoe to interview Willie.  The Cub quickly drank himself into a stupor and was thus able to take the plane’s constant shuddering and rattling in stride.  I spent the time trying to go over the questions I wanted to ask Willie; but it’s hard to write when yur white-knuckled fists are locked to the armrests and you’re begging the stewardess for a parachute.

Eventually, we found ourselves wandering the posh casino of Harrah’s Hotel, where WIllie was playing.  Our grubby jeans and stained T-shirts looked out of place among the high rollers, but the pit bosses knew we were big shots when the Cub dropped three whole bucks plaing the nickel slots.  We had to operate on Willie’s schedule the entire time we were there, which meant things never got started before 2 a.m., when the second show ended.  Every morning would find me and the Cub clinging to our barstools, drinking our breakfast, adding additional stains to our T-shirts, and wondering if we could get thorugh another day on a diet of booze, toot, and no sleep.

The interview took place in Willie’s packed dressing room between shows.  It was a glitter, star-speckled party atmosphere at first — Jane fonda loved the Easyriders T-shirt the Cub laid on her.  But I had to pull him over into a corner and talk him out of asking her to strip for an Ol’ lady Contest photo.  WIllie was gracious as always, and after excusing himself from the party, he gave us his undivided attention.

When I spoke to him, Willie had just finished one movie and was about to begin another.  His records continue to sell millions, he had just completed a Christmas album, and he still found time to maintain a personal appearance schedule that would kill most entertainers.  The story of Willie’s career and success is too familiar to need retelling here, so the talk turned to motorcycles — the only thing I know shit about — and proceeding from that subject.

Easy Rider:  You used to ride a motorcycle, right?

Willie Nelson:  Yeah, I’ve owned a bunch of bikes — everything from Harleys to Hondas.

ER:  Did you start riding early, when you were a kid?

WN:  No, I started later on in life, after I was grown.  I’d always wanted one, even as a kid.  But I could never afford one then.  I was grown before I had any money.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to ride much anymore.

ER:  When Paul Newman or Steve McQueen want to ride their motorcycles or drive their race cars, they have to face the opposition of entertainment executives who are uptight about the risks.  Like them, you’re valuable property — if you wanted to ride, would you face the same thing?

WN:  Not with executives.  I’d face it from my family, though.

ER:  You’ve been called an outlaw and the name has stuck — both to you and to an entire movement in country music.  The same term, as you know, has been applied to a segment of motorcylce riders — the sort of hardcore Harley riders we write for and about in Easyriders.  Do you think there’s any parallel to be drawn between the two?

WN:  Definitely.  I think that all bike riders are like pickers in the sense that they’re both sorta looked down on by the community.

ER:  Why is that?

WN:  Well, a musician has always been a second class citizen.  I say always, actually, not so much now, but a long time that was true.  He couldn’t  get credit, he couldn’t anything.  He had no visible means of support, no regular job.  A lot of bikers aren’t nine-to-fivers, so they and musicians are are treated the same — they’re called loafers, troublemakers, everything.

ER:  Is that why both groups to one degree or another, feel alienated form society?

WN:  Well, I think there’s a freedom that certain people insist on having  –like the cowboys, that type of person.  Bikers have that same kind of image.  Pickers have that image.  A lot of people feel that way and want that freedom, but these people actually go after it — they try to live a free life.

A guy who has an eight hour job where he punches a clock five days a week is generally a little envious of somebody who rides around on a motorcycle having fun.  The same goes for the guy who rides around on a bus with a bunch of musicians playing music.  You know, it’s something the clock-puncher would like to do.

ER:  So there’s a mixture of envy in society’s disapproval?

WN:  I think so.  The average person has mixed emotions about us.

ER:  Easyriders has a substantial readership in prisons.  You seem to be as popular with guys in the joint as you are with the public.  Have you ever done any prison shows?

WN:  Yeah, I’ve done a few shows in different prisons around the country.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done one.  I think the last time I played was down in Texas, at Sugarland.  I plan to do them as long as I can fit them into my schedule — I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now, so it’s not easy.  But I do a few benefits each year for causes I’m in favor of.

ER:  At your July Fourth Picnic this year we met some Bandidos who are fans of yours.  Do you have personal friends in motorcycle clubs or are they primarily just fans?

WN:  I have friends in a lot of bike clubs.

ER:  The audience you played to in Austin was young and hip.  The poeple who came to see you here are somewhat older and obviously more affluent, but you do essentially the same show for both groups.  What explains the fact that you cut across so many social and economic levels and are so popular with such a broad spectrum of people?

WN:  I believe that people are people – period.  They may dress differently and do everything they can to look different, be different, or act different, but as far as music is concerned they’re all the same.  Good music is appreciated by most people, regardless of how they look or how old they are or how much money they have.  If you produce a sound that’s pleasing to the ear, it doesn’t matter how long the hair is.  Whether it’s over the ear or not, the same ear is there to appreciate the sound.  Also, we play all kinds of music in our show.  We haven’t done anything — just play a lot of different kinds of music.  And by doing that you attract a wide a wide variety of people, all different ages and form all walks of life.

ER:  You come form a religious background, a Baptist upbringing.  What role, if any, did that play in accounting for your popularity?

WN:  It had a lot to do with my learning people — learning what people want to hear and how to get their attention and what they respond to.  You see, when you go to church every Sunday for most of the early years of you rifle, you learn how the preacher gets the congregation’s attention and how he holds it.  A preacher is a professional speaker, an entertainer, really.  He’s not usually regarded that way, but it’s true nonetheless.  He has to be a showman to sell is product.

ER:  So you’re saying that the religious influences played more of a part in your ability to project a performer than in the nature of the songs you write?

WN:  I think you could say that.  I owe a lot to those preachers I watched do their act all those years.

ER:  So there’s a touch of evangelism in the manner in which you relate to an audience.

WN:  Or maybe there’s a touch of show business in evangelism — or at least salesmanship, which is also show business.  It all involves selling your product not matter what you’re trying to sell or get across to the people.  If it’s religion, you’ve got to be good.  Billy Graham is a great salesman.  He used to be a door-to-door salesman.

ER:  As you did, too — right?

WN:  That’s right.  When you go from house to house and knock and you don’t know who’s behind that door, you learn a lot.  Do that for a long period of time, and you learn a helluva lot.

ER:  Were you good at it?

WN:  Yeah, I was good at it.

ER:  Would you agree that ther’s a religious thread running through the songs you write — a tradional morality?

WN:  Well, I don’t write immoral songs, so I must write moral songs — at least songs that I think have a moral.  In my mind I write songs that mean something to me, songs I hope will say waht I want to say.  Being apositive thinker, I’m not going to write anything negative.  So a lot of the things I write have what you might call a semi-religous effect on some people.

I believe that none of my songs present life as being hopeless.  There’s humor — wholesome stuff — in my mind when I write them.  Even if the song is on a tragic subject, I try to say something about the lighter side of it.

ER:  Do you think there’s a ‘lighter side’ to songs like “Hello Walls,” and “Bloody Mary Morning,” and “Half a Man’?

WN:  Well, yeah.  Like in "Hello Walls,"  — when you put it in the blues rhythm, then you take it away form being too depressing and you add a little jump beat.  That’s what the blues is — depressing lyrics with a driving beat.  The negativity is countered with a positive drive and the feel behind it.  So people cry in their beer and listen to the blues but still don’t despair.

ER:  To what extent would you say drugs, including alcohol, have played a role in your life?

ER:  I think drugs are medicines.  In the Bible it says, "Physician, heal thyself."  In other words, a person knwos what’s wrong wtih him and sometimes he knows what it’s gong to take to relieve that condition temporarily, until he can work it out.  It’s the same thing a doctor is going to do for him.  A doctor is going to charge him for an office visit to do the same thing.  If the patient knows what to do himself and is sure he knows, then he should do it himself.  For most people drugs serve as a kind of self-medication.

ER:  Does being from Texas mean something special for your music and your popularity?  Is there something unique about being from Texas?

WN:  Evidentally there is today — it hasn’t always been that way.  We Texans are boastful and we brag a lot, so over the years we’ve gotten a reputation for being big mouths, bragging about this state we claim has everything in the world — which it does, you know.  But for a long time they didn’t believe us.  I think now they say, “Those sonsabitcheswereright after all — Texans are okay.”

ER:  About Austin itself — recently you said that you really never thought there was anything special about the music scene there.

WN:  Again, people are people.  I think a lot of good people gathered in Austin and I got a chance to go down and play some music for them.  A lot of good people are gathered in every town I’ve ever been in.  In fact, I think you can pick a town and throw a dart at a map and we can get an auditorium who will enjoy good music, if we can get them out of the house.  In Austin, having a college there and having access to all those young people and all that peak energy made everything possible.  It just happened to all come together there.  That’s where I happened to find the audience.

ER:  Would you mark the 1972 Dripping Springs Picnic as where everything started to happen?

WN:  I think that picnic was probably the first big indication that there were a lot of young people who were into rock and roll but who were also able to enjoy another type of music as well.  People love an underdog, and the Picnic has always been an underdog.  There’s always been a lot of reasons why there should not be a Picnic or couldn’t be this time, and so forth.   So each time we had it, it was like, “Well, I’ll be damned; we did it again.”

ER:  One of the reasons your music hits home to so many people is he way you articulate difficulties and disappointments everyone has known.  That experience comes form those lean years you spent before you were so successful and well-recognized.  Do you ever worry that success will make you complacent and cause you to lose that connection with your audience?

WN:  Absolutely.  It’s dangerous because it can happen to anybody in my position.  And it would be easy, once you get a little bit of money, to quit work.  But in order to stay ahead in the record business, in order to keep selling records, you need to keep putting on these shows and doing those one-nighters and working across the country and letting people know that you’re still on the scene and still working and still enjoying having having a big crowd come out and hear you. People will go where they know they’re appreciated.  And it works form the musicians’ end, too.  I think there’s something built into most musicians and pickers — you know, it’s their egos or they’re hams or something.  They enjoy an audience.  They get off seeing other people enjoy what they do — and that’s what keeps us all on the road.

ER:  How much are you on the road these days?

WN:  I don’t know exaclty.  We’re wroking more now than we ever were.  I don’t know how long that is going to go on, but right now we’re doing over 200 days a year on the road.

ER:  In a magazine article you were described as always carrying yoruself “with a kind of fierce innocence.”

WN:  I think it’s probalby a fierce “So What?”

ER:  Is that “So what” attitude responsible for yoru down-to-earth quality?  You seem very genuine, very real, to people, and that has to mean a lot to them.

WN:  Yeah, but I might be riding a trend, you know.  I might realize it’s a big audience out there with a bunch of longhairs in it and I might just be taking advantage of that opportunity.

ER:  You’re saying that you might have suckered a lot of people into believing in Willie Nelson.  You might have run a scam on them, but even if it’s fake, a lot of people are responding.

WN:  Well, if I did anything, let’s just say I crashed a party.

ER:  You’ve achieved so much success that it’s as if you don’t have any worlds left to conquer.  beyond records and movies, is there anything that you haven’t been able to do that you still want to achieve?

WN:  Oh, something will come up — I really don’t know what, but it will come up. I’m not bored at all with waht I’m doing.  Things are happening every day — I have to do double-takes all the time at what’s going on in my life.  But the future is always interesting.  It’s like riding  motorcycle — you always want to see what’s over the next hill.

ER:  Thank you, Willie.

WN:  Thank you.

Willie Nelson knows

Sunday, November 8th, 2020
photo: Janis Tillerson

www.newyorker.com
by: Amanda Petrusich

“Well, you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say,” Willie Nelson sings on “Shotgun Willie,” the opening track from his LP of the same name, from 1973. Nelson, who turned eighty-seven in April, has released seventy full-length records since his début, in 1962, and doesn’t seem anywhere close to running out of material.

In September, he published “Me and Sister Bobbie,” a memoir co-written with his older sister and longtime piano player, Bobbie Nelson. Through alternating chapters, the Nelsons tell the story of how they were brought up by their grandparents in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, and the decades of triumphs and devastations (romantic, professional, familial) that they helped each other through.

Nelson has published memoirs before (his first, “Willie: An Autobiography,” was released in 1988, and his most recent, “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” came out in 2015), but “Me and Sister Bobbie” feels especially tender and intimate. While music became a lifeline for Willie, Bobbie, who is now eighty-nine, suffered deeply for her art. In the nineteen-fifties, she briefly lost custody of her three sons, after her in-laws successfully argued that she spent too much time playing music with her brother. “Women were made to be homemakers. Women weren’t meant to make music,” she writes. “This sharp-tongued lawyer called me the kind of woman whose only means of earning a living was playing piano in honky-tonks. He referred to me as a harlot. I broke down in tears.”

Although Nelson is now one of the most beloved and iconic figures in American music—the bandanna, the braids, the ever-present haze of marijuana smoke—he didn’t find real success until he was in his late thirties. “I’d been struggling like the dickens to make some money at the music game and failed miserably,” he writes.

Part of what makes Nelson’s music so resonant across generations is his deep and visceral connection to failure—he understands, on a cellular level, what it feels like to lose a partner, your house, all your money, those big dreams. Before he moved to Nashville, in 1960, he worked as a radio d.j., pumped gas, did heavy stitching at a saddle factory, worked at a grain elevator, and had a brief gig as a laborer for a carpet-removal service.

He eventually discovered that he had an uncanny aptitude for hocking encyclopedias door to door. “Folks I was selling to were living in bare-bones apartments. Many were scraping by with hardly any food in the fridge. Then here comes this slick-talking Willie saying that, for only the daily price of a pack of Camels, the whole world of knowledge would open to them,” he writes. Nelson felt too guilty about the entire enterprise and quit.

(He still jokingly refers to himself as a better con man than musician.) Once he arrived in Nashville, things didn’t click into place overnight. One snowy evening, he recalled, he lay down in the middle of the street, “half hoping a car would ride over me.” None did. “I had to get up off my ass and, like everyone else in this cold world, keep on trying to figure out how to make a living.” Nelson and I spoke on the phone in mid-October. In conversation, he laughs often and loudly. It is a sweet and welcome sound.

In “Me and Sister Bobbie,” you write that you were “born restless. Born curious. Born ready to run.” Has it been challenging for you to be grounded these past few months?

It’s been a real challenge. I’ve never really run into anything like this before—but neither has anyone else! We’ll have to sweat it out, I guess. I’m here in Texas now.

You’ve done a few virtual broadcasts since quarantine started. As someone with a couple million live shows under your belt, how have those felt?

Well, it works all right. [Laughs] But it’s not the same thing, you know? I miss the audience. And I know the audience misses the music—whether it’s me or someone else up there, the audience has come a long way and paid a lot of money to come in and clap their hands for somebody. There’s a great energy exchange that we just can’t have right now. I can remember the last show that we did, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. That was back in early March—that’s the last time we got to play music. We had eighty thousand people there. I’ll never forget that show.

In your new book, you and your older sister, Bobbie, share the story of your life together in alternating chapters—we get her version of events, and then your version of events. Toward the end of the book, you write, “Having Bobbie in the band changed the course of my music in more ways than most people understand.” How else did she influence your art?

Well, in every way possible, I’m sure. Because she could read and write music from the time that she was a little girl. She’s an incredible musician. It’s impossible not to learn something when you’re four years old, and you’re sitting there on the piano stool by her.

She was the one who first suggested that you record standards for your album “Stardust,” from 1978, which, incidentally, remained on the country chart for a full decade.

We’d been playing those songs all our lives, so it wasn’t like they were strangers. I love the songs “Stardust” and “Moonlight in Vermont”—those are some of my all-time favorite songs. To be able to play them with my sister and my family—well, that was just the best.

Another idea that comes up a lot in the book is Texas itself. At times, it almost feels as if there’s some kind of invisible line that keeps tugging you both back there.

It goes all the way back to where I was born. Bobbie and I were born in Abbott, Texas, which is a really small town of three or four hundred people. Used to say the population never changes, because every time a baby’s born a man leaves town. So, anyway, I grew up in that town, and—excuse my language, but our motto down there was all we know how to do is fight, fuck, and throw rocks. [Laughs] It was fun. We fought bumblebees, each other—it didn’t matter. We just had a good time wrestling and boxing and growing up, like kids do.

You describe the Abbott United Methodist Church as the site of some of your earliest musical memories. I’m curious what you recall about the hymns that you sang there, and how performing that music made you feel?

Well, the church is still there, and me and Sister Bobbie are still a huge part of it. We bought that church a few years ago. It actually launched us. The preacher up there is a real good friend. He’s doing a good job—with this pandemic and everything, it’s hard to get a crowd together, but people still love to go to that church.

For the most part, it seems that you didn’t really see your proclivity for mischief and your religious faith to be at odds. But were there ever moments where you did feel that tension acutely?

You know, it’s funny. I have mixed emotions about it. The way I’ve made my money was playing in honky-tonks. One good example is the Night Owl, in West Texas, north of Waco about thirty miles. It’s close to Abbott, six miles from Abbott. I grew up playing music there. I picked cotton up until I was ten or twelve years old, so to be able to make some money playing music in a beer joint—I felt pretty lucky. And the funny part of it was the people that I was singing to on Saturday nights—I was also singing to a lot of them on Sunday morning, at church. Abbott has a Methodist church, across the street is a Baptist church, across the street is a Church of Christ, down the road a little bit is the Catholic church. So we have churches all over the place—it’s impossible to live in Abbott and not go to one of those churches.

There’s a line in the book where Bobbie writes that, as a child, you were never afraid of anything. Is that true?

Well, it is true—you name it, I’ve been in trouble for it. I’ve never learned to be afraid. I’m still not afraid. I’m afraid of fear. Who was it that said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?

F.D.R.?

Yes, I think you’re right.

That’s a strong philosophy to live by.

I got into martial arts when I was kid, and I’ve been in it all of my life. There ain’t nobody trying to run over me or nothing! [Laughs] It wouldn’t be smart. I get along with everybody because I don’t have any fears. I don’t care how big you are—I can probably kick your ass! [Laughs]

I believe it, Willie! I’d put my money on you every time.

I’ve got several black belts, but I’ve also got a fifth degree in Korean mixed martial arts. A fifth degree is about as high as you can get.

When did you start practicing martial arts?

When I was a kid. Remember funny books, comic books? Charles Atlas was in there with body building, judo, and jiu jitsu. I learned all those things when I was a kid. It was something to do, and it was healthy for me. It kept my body working and busy. I got into all kinds of sports: football, baseball, basketball, you name it. I’m much better at martial arts than I am at golfing.

Some of your earliest songs were about heartbreak. You were pretty young when you realized that love and sex are some of the powerful forces in the world. A major theme in the book for both you and Bobbie is the intoxication of romance—how devastating it can be to lose someone, and the way in which those experiences sometimes drive us to do stupid and reckless things. How did it feel to relive some of those moments?

Well, mixed emotions there, too. Some of it I enjoyed going back through, and a lot of it I didn’t ever care to get back to. I had a lot of heartaches and bad memories. So, you know, it was a little of everything.

You say of your first guitar, “I knew by holding it against my chest it was hearing my heart. It became a part of me.” I wonder, does music feel like the most instinctive way to express your feelings? Is it easier to play through some of that stuff than to express it out loud?

Oh, I don’t know. The first guitar I owned, my grandfather bought it from a Sears, Roebuck catalogue. It was a Stella guitar, and I think it cost four or five dollars. I’ve had all kinds of instruments. I love Trigger, the guitar I have now, because I can get a sound out of it that I like. I’m a huge Django Reinhardt fan, and I get a tone out Trigger that’s similar—it’s similar to what I like about Django.

And that’s why you’ve held onto her for all these years? Oh, I suppose I’ve just made Trigger female, like a ship—

Well, Trigger in my mind is Roy Rogers’s horse named Trigger. So I guess it’s a male.

Have you always loved horses?

I think today I’ve got about seventy-five. I’m around horses a lot, and I’ve learned there is a truth to the old term “havin’ horse sense.” Those old cowboys knew what they were talking about, ’cause horses are smart—they’re smarter than we are. When I get on a horse, it’s just a little step up in the world.

In the book, you write, “Inspiration isn’t something under my control.” I have to admit, as someone who occasionally struggles with writer’s block, I found that idea hugely comforting! “Hello Walls,” one of your earliest commercial hits, was born of this moment of boredom and inefficiency. Fallow periods like that are sometimes necessary for creativity, but, man, it can be really hard to endure them. Did you ever have moments or points in your career where you worried that inspiration would never come again?

No. I wrote a song one time—I don’t know if I ever finished it or not. It started out with “I don’t want to write another song, but you can’t tell that to my mind. / It just keeps throwing out words, and I’ve got to make ’em rhyme.” And that’s just the way I feel about things. It’s like breathing to me.

Your second big hit after you moved to Nashville was “Crazy,” which was very famously recorded by Patsy Cline. You write that her husband woke her up at one in the morning to play it for her, and you thought, “I didn’t see that as a good way to get a lady to hear a song.” When that song took off, did you feel as if you could finally exhale? As if you had “made it,” whatever that might mean?

Patsy Cline’s record of “Crazy” was a No. 1 all-time jukebox song. So, as far as money was concerned, I made a little money there, and I made some money off of “Hello Walls.” Faron Young, who recorded “Hello Walls,” tried to get me to stay in town, in Nashville, and just write songs for him and let him go tour. And, you know, that wasn’t me. I had to get out there and tour myself.

On your most recent album, “First Rose of Spring,” you cover “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” which was a single for Johnny Paycheck, in 1977. I know you briefly replaced Johnny on bass in Ray Price’s band. What do you remember about him?

He was a good buddy, a good friend of mine. When he was playing bass for Ray Price, his name was Johnny Young. And he quit Ray’s band. At that time, I was writing songs for Pamper Music, which was Ray Price’s publishing company in Nashville. Ray called me and said, “Uh, can you play bass?” And I said, “Hell, can’t everybody?” I’d never played bass in my life. So I went out on the road with Ray Price and played bass for a year out there. It was funny because I would open the show, and I’d do about thirty minutes. I’d get up there and sing Hank Williams songs. I didn’t have anything of my own I could do except “Hello Walls.” I was singing Hank Williams songs, and telling Little Jimmy Dickens jokes. All through my show, somebody was always sayin’, “Where’s Ray? Where’s Ray?”

Are there any musicians from that era who you still keep up with?

Well, all of them I was in touch with, but a lot of them have passed on. I’ve lost a lot of my good friends. I won’t start naming ’em, because I could go on for an hour of people who’ve died in the last few years. But I still have friends who I talk to. I still talk to Bobby Bare occasionally. He’s a great artist, a good friend of mine—he was always there. He helped me a lot when I was out there struggling. I have the radio station now, the Roadhouse, where I can play and listen to songs that I really like. I get to program it the way I want to—I get to hear Ray Price and Hank Williams, all them old guys. Waylon, and John, and Kris. The artists that I love to hear—I’ve got a way to listen to ’em now. And that’s . . . I love that.

You released a record a few years ago called “Last Man Standing.” At eighty-seven, do you have that feeling?

It was kind of a funny thing—I don’t want to be the last man standing. But, wait a minute—maybe I do! [Laughs]

You mentioned exercise earlier, and I know that switching from alcohol and cigarettes to marijuana midway through your life was hugely transformational for you. Any other secrets to your longevity?

Positive thinking. Do you remember a book by Norman Vincent Peale, “The Power of Positive Thinking”? It was one of the first books I got into. I believe that with all my heart: energy follows thought, so be careful what you’re thinking.

Throughout your career, you’ve been so masterly with other writers’ material. I’m curious about what makes you decide to add a song to your repertoire. Does it have to resonate for you emotionally? Do you prepare to cover a song in the same way an actor might prepare for a role, by trying to figure out what motivates or moves the central character?

It’s instinct, you know? Instinctively, I like the song, I like the words, I like the melody, and it’s fun to sing. I get a kick out of singing “Stardust” and “Crazy.” There’s something about ’em that’s all positive. So I hear something that I would love to sing, and I sing it. It’s not any more difficult than that. It’s just me doing what I wanna do.

You’ve talked in the past about Frank Sinatra being your favorite singer. I can certainly see how his particular vocal style—the way he sort of messes around with the beat—might have opened up possibilities for you. Are there other singers who did that, too?

Ray Price was a great, great singer. Hank Williams. Bob Wills. I learned from them. I grew up on their music. I started out singing Texas dance music, and then I moved into some other categories. As far as I know, I’ve gotten into most of the categories. [Laughs] I haven’t done a lot of classical music, but it’s still early!

Rightly or wrongly, I think most people still tend to think of you as chiefly a country-music artist. You’ve been involved, in one way or another, with the country community for more than sixty years now. How have you seen it change?

Well, there’s several different brands of country music now. You’ve got the new guys that are coming along, and then us old guys. A lot of the stuff they do is good. And the old stuff that we’ve been doing—it’s always been good. So I see some good in everything that’s going on. Nashville has got it. Of course, with the pandemic, we can’t go play nowhere. It makes it really hard for all of us. Honestly, I listen to the stations that play the old standards. I’m sure there’s some young talent out there that’s coming along, and one day they’ll be considered the new old standards, like Ray Price and Frank Sinatra. But, right now, they’re paying their dues.

The idea of paying one’s dues seems particularly crucial in country music.

I was lucky enough to be able to play in honky-tonks, because I grew up at ’em. I could play what they wanted to hear and what I wanted to play. I was part of the Grand Ole Opry, but one of the rules—back then, I don’t know about now—was that you had to play the Opry at least twenty-six weeks out of the year if you wanted to say that you were a Grand Ole Opry star. My problem was I’d be playing Thursday and Friday—I’d be down in Texas, making some money in the honky-tonks—and then I’d have to get back to Nashville by Saturday night in order to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. It was a great and prestigious job, but the money wasn’t there. I had to have some money to take care of my family. I eventually left Nashville, moved back to Texas, and ever since then I’ve been making a pretty good living.

I’d say so! I wonder if there is an album in your discography that you feel the most proud of—as a creative achievement, independent of how it may have performed commercially?

When I recorded for RCA, and Chet Atkins was my producer, we did a whole lot of songs. I heard one the other day. What was the name of it? I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a song that I had written fifty years ago and forgotten about. And, when I heard it again, I went, “Aw, hell, that wasn’t a bad song.” Every now and then, I’ll hear one like that on the radio, and I’ll be, like, “Man, I forgot about that one—I should do that again!”

In your career, how have you found a way to balance your creative ambitions with your commercial ambitions?

Well, with the Chet Atkins stuff that I did, musically, it was great—RCA had the best musicians in the world. Some of it was strings, horns, a lot of it was guitar. Chet Atkins was a great producer. He knew how to call together all the great musicians. But the problem was me trying to do my songs live with the bands that I was recording with. I had twenty pieces in the studio, but when I go out to play I’ve only got four or five. So it had to change—I had to play the music that I could play with my band.

Was it hard to stay so consistently true to your own vision for your work?

It was, a bit. But I believe that my knowledge of music, especially country music and the music that I grew up singing and writing and playing—my knowledge might be a little superior to anybody else’s, because they don’t know me, you know? The “Stardust” album—a lot of people thought that would never sell. “Those songs have been around forever. Nobody wants to hear them again.” They didn’t realize how wrong they were.

It must have felt good, in that moment, to be so right.

Yeah. [Laughs] Fooled ya!

You’ve been really supportive of various progressive causes in the course of your career: the environment, the decriminalization of marijuana, small family farms.

We’ve been doing Farm Aid for thirty-five years. We did a virtual Farm Aid this year. It did pretty good—we raised over a million dollars for the small family farmers out there. When a small family farmer goes to a bank to borrow money for next year’s crop, a lot of the bankers won’t give him the money unless he agrees to put a lot of fertilizer and pesticides on the crop, so they’re guaranteed to get their money back. They don’t realize that they’re ruining the damn soil. A lot of the small family farmers fought ’em, and stayed true, and raised food that they could eat and their families could eat.

One of the big things we’ve been promoting now is farm-to-market—rather than your breakfast coming from fifteen hundred miles away, find you a farmer out here somewhere, or go to the farmer’s market and get your groceries there. You’ll be helping a lot of people. I know how hard it is to make a living farming. But I know how gratifying it is, too—to plant seeds, and watch ’em grow.

Speaking of which, it seems as if the two main narrative threads of your life are music and family.

A lot of music and a lot of talent in the family, all the way back to Sister Bobbie. Lukas and Micah, my kids with Annie, are great musicians—Lukas is in Nashville now recording an album, and Micah’s got his band out in L.A., and they’re playing regularly. So they’re doing well. They have talent. My daughter Paula is a d.j. now on Roadhouse—she sings and plays a lot.

One of the things that really struck me in the passages about your grandmother, Mama Nelson, was how nonjudgmental and supportive she was, even when you and Bobbie were playing venues she didn’t approve of. She let you grow, let you learn, let you make mistakes on your own. That’s a tough thing to do as a parent.

Yeah, and she was a grandparent. My parents divorced when I was six months old or something, so I really never did know that life. I grew up with my grandparents. My grandfather was a blacksmith, and when I was just a kid I used to help him, shoeing horses or whatever. And then, when he died, my grandmother went to work in a school lunchroom there in Abbott, making eighteen dollars a week. She was a great grandparent, and she helped us so much.

One of everyone’s all-time favorite Willie Nelson stories is about how you smoked a joint on the roof of the White House with Jimmy Carter’s son.

[Laughs] Those were good times, back then. Jimmy Carter and I were good friends. We’d jog together when I’d come to Washington. I’d play a show in Atlanta or Plains, Georgia, and him and his wife, Rosalynn, would come out and sing the gospel songs with me. He’s a great man, and I love him a lot. He’s still around, still doing good things.

This year has been so tough—people are out of work, trying to figure out what comes next, trying to stay safe and healthy in the midst of a pandemic. I’m curious how you think about the musician’s role in a moment like this.

Well, people love to hear music. And we, as musicians, love to play music. So we do it however we can—if it’s virtual, O.K. Whenever we can get back together personally and play the shows, that will be the best, you know. Everybody remembers going to live shows. We certainly don’t want them to stop. The good book says this, too, shall pass. And it will.

Read article here.

Willie Nelson: The Playboy Interview (November 2002)

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

The Playboy Interview:  Willie Nelson
November 2002
by David Sheff

Willie Nelson — looking exactly as we have come to expect him, with waist-long hair tied in braids, red bandanna,  jeans and sneakers — is in Honeysuckle Rose III, his tour bus, before a sold-out concert at Harrah’s Casino near Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  Nelson spends more time on the bus than he does at his 700-acre ranch near Austin, where he has a golf course and a recording studio.  He’s no homebody. After all, he’s the guy who wrote, ‘I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

The bus, outfitted with satellite TV and DVD, a 30-speaker stereo and a satellite-modem computer, is parked in the shadow of Harrah’s.  It’s smokey inside, the result of a cigar-size joint smoldering in an ashtray, another expected feature of Nelson’s traveling living room.  (Nelson is a famous dope smoker and proponent of legalized marijuana, who even rolled a big joint on the White House roof when he was a guest of President Jimmy Carter.)As comedian Robin Williams cracked during his recent tour, “When he looks at Willie, even Buddah’s going, ‘That guy’s mellow.’”

Carter isn’t the only president to have hosted Nelson.  Though Willie proudly inhales, his fans include President Clinton and both George Bushes.  In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Nelson.  His enormously broad audience is visible when he leaves the bus to duck into a back entrance to Harrah’s.  When he walks onstage, there’s deafening boot stomping and hooting. Nelson’s music crosses most genres and has near mystical appeal to all sorts of people, typified by tonight’s crowd:  20-year-olds in ripped clothes with pierced body parts, boozed-up cowboys, white-haired retirees, aging hippies, wild-haired Hell’s Angels and buzz-cut-and-goateed entertainment executives up from Hollywood.  “Anyone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is dead or may as well be,” according to Kris Kristofferson, a friend and frequent collaborator.

Born in 1933, Nelson grew up poor in Abbott, Texas, where he was raised in a family of musicians, including his grandparents and his piano-playing sister Bobbie (still a band member).  His window on the world was the crystal radio on which he first heard Jimmie Rodgers, Benny Goodman and gospel music.  “It was a hard life,” he says, “But we had music.”  After picking up the guitar at six, he accompanied Bobbie at church recitals and began writing poems and songs by the time he was seven years old.

As a teenager, he performed in Texas dancehalls and bars, covering songs by his heroes Hank Williams, ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizell.  Before he recorded his own songs, he began selling his compositions — for $10.00 and $25.00 – to music publishers and musicians.  His first hit was Crazy, recorded by Patsy Cline.  Next came hit songs for Ray Price (Night Life) and Faron Young (Hello Walls).  Other singers had hits with his songs, including The Party’s Over, Funny How Time Slips Away, Good Hearted Woman and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.

In the early Sixties, when he moved to Nashville, Nelson performed with such country stars as Mel Tillis and Roger Miller; and while playing bars and clubs most nights of the year, Nelson broke into the country top ten with Willingly and Touch Me.  In 1975 he released Red Headed Stranger, a masterful concept album that established him as a first-rate country artist.  The remainder of the century was Nelson’s with such hits as Georgia on My Mind, Whiskey River, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow UP to Be Cowboys, I Gotta Get Drunk and, of course, On the Road Again.

In 1978, Nelson released a record with 10 of his favorite songs, standards line Moonlight in Vermont, Someone to Watch Over Me and On the Sunny Side of the Street.  The record, Stardust, remained on the album charts for more than a decade, Nelson had become a symbol of and hero to – as he proudly put it — “cowboys, lowlifes rednecks, hippies, bikers — hell, all sorts of misfits like me.”

Nelson’s life has been as bittersweet as a country song.  He has been married four times.  In 1990, the government sued him for tax evasion (the final bill:  $16.7 million).  Nelson blamed his tax woes on some bad investment advice, but the IRS seized much of his property and sold it.  To help pay the bill, Nelson released a mail-order album titled Who’ll Buy My Memories?:  the IRS Tapes.  He suffered personal tragedy in 1991, when one of his seven children, Billy committed suicide.  But Nelson’s family — blood and extended (including may of his band members) — remains close-knot.  Willie’s sister Bobbie plays in his band, and two of his daughters and a granddaughter run his website (www.willienelson.com), where his fans congregate and DCs and other merchandise are sold.  Nelson was once well known for his heavy drinking as well as his marijuana use.  “I’ve toned down,” he says, “but toning down ain’t the same thing as quitting.”  His friends say he is healthier than ever running, playing golf and practicing martial arts and yoga.

In addition to his music, Nelson has established himself as a champion for the family farmer with his annual Farm Aid concerts.  With his friends Neil Young and John Mellencamp and other performers, nelson has raised millions of dollars for the cause.  Meanwhile, nelson has also found time to write for and act in films, including The Electric Horseman (with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda), Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson) and Wag the Dog (with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman).  This year he turned author, too, releasing the Facts of Life and Other Dirty jokes, which became a best-seller.

When we decided to sit Nelson down for an interview, we sent contributing editor David Sheff, whos last interview in these pages was with billionaire Larry Ellison.  Here’s Sheff’s report:  “Nelson is unique in the canon of American celebrities because he has crossed so many boundaries.  When I said as much to him, he wrinkled up his I’ve-seen-it-all eyes and smiled, ‘I’ve fooled lots of folk, haven’t I?’  Then he let out a laugh — one of many that punctuated the interviews.

“Much of the interview was conducted on the Honeysuckle Rose at a small dining table set with a bottle of Old Whiskey River, a family-size box of Zig-zag rolling papers and filled ashtrays.  The mood was generally light, but at moments Nelson became thoughtful and somber.  They didn’t last long, however, with a twinkle in his eyes, there would follow some wisecrack and another fit of laughter.

“Indeed, when we first sat down for the interview, Nelson rubbed his hands together, ‘Most times I can’t tell interviewers the good jokes — only the G-rated ones,’ he told me.  He grinned, ‘But this is PLAYBOY.  It’s going to be fun.’  It was an opening if I ever heard one.

PLAYBOY:  Well?  Do you have a joke you would like to tell us?

NELSON:  OK.  A lady went to a drugstore and asked if they had Viagra.  The guy behind the counter, the pharmacist said, “Yeah,” and she asks, ‘Have you tried it?”  He said he had and so she asked, “Can you get it over the counter?”  He thought about it awhile and then said, “I think I could if I took two.”  [laughter]

NELSON:  There’s one more thing about Viagra.

PLAYBOY:  What’s that?

NELSON:  They say it can make a lawyer taller.  [laughter]

PLAYBOY:  Where does all this joking come from?

NELSON:  Jokes help pass the time on the road and they help get though life.  You’ve got to laugh.  I always loved a good joke.”

PLAYBOY:  If you’re always laughing and joking, why are so many of the songs you’ve written sad?

NELSON:  Those are the three-in-the morning songs.  That’s when you may feel so much like a joke.  Also, as a songwriter I’m challenged by sad songs.  They’re harder to write.

PLAYBOY:  What makes them harder?

NELSON:  I don’t know, but I can knock off a happy ditty pretty easily.  Something real — something meaningful and deeper — is harder.  You may not be feeling all that happy when a song comes in the middle of the night.  You may not be feeling so good because you had too much to drink or stayed out too late.  So the feeling might be there, but crafting it into a song is the challenger.

And, of course, sometimes you’re fooling around on the guitar and suddenly you just played a pierce of a new song and it wakes you up.  You think, What was that?  I just wrote a song. Of course, when you can’t remember it [laugh].  All those lost songs.  So the sad song may come from sad experiences, but not necessarily.  You draw on your past — the stories that you’ve heard, your friends’ lives.  If I write a song about breaking up with my girlfriend, it doesn’t mean I’m breaking up with my girlfriend.    It means I thought it would make a good song.

PLAYBOY:  But to write or sing the blues don’t you have to have lived them?

NELSON:  If they’re real, yeah.  But at the same time I wrote songs about love affairs when I was five and six years old and I hadn’t had any.  I just listened to other songs and realized I could write ones, too.  I had no idea what i was talking about even though I thought I did.  But the truth is that you couldn’t sing songs and make them believable if you hadn’t experienced the blues.  If they come across as real maybe it’s because they are real.  It doesn’t mean I’m depressed when I’m writing, though I have been there.  It’s not like I started writing songs as a way to express how sad I was.  I wrote poems before I could pay the guitar, and after I learned a few chords and put melodies to the poems.  I knew I could make a rhyme and write songs, so I never really made the decision to start doing it.  I just did it.  I thought everybody could do it.  I make records when I have enough songs to go into the studio.  then I go out and play — play the songs every night.

PLAYBOY:  You’re smoking a joint as we talk.  Do you believe pot is harmless?

NELSON:  Too much of anything is no good.  Too much alcohol, too much sugar.  I think pot is a lot less harmful than alcohol for most people.  What happens to people on pot?  They get mellow.  People who are drinking can get dangerous, but not people on pot.  People I know have quit every drug and even drinking, but they may still smoke a little pot to take the edge off.  That doesn’t bother me.  I don’t drink as much as I used to.  I dont’ get drunk anymore.  If you take a couple of sips, there aint’ nothing wrong with that.

PLAYBOY:  Does marijuana affect your memory?

NELSON:  What was the question?  [laughs]  I don’t know if it does.  I remember an awful lot about an awful long life, and I don’t know if I would want to remember any more.  [laughs]

PLAYBOY:  Do you think that there’s any chance the pot laws will be changed?

NELSON:  They may be, someday. There is some momentum at least in terms of medical marijuana.  I love that they don’t want people who are dying to smoke pot because — why?  It will kill them?  People smoke marijuana and their brains don’t fall out.  It’s not a big deal and most people know that.  I have cut down [He smokes and laughs.]  I am healthier now than I have ever been.  I run almost every day, and if the weather’s good, I play golf.

PLAYBOY:  Do you ever worry that you romanticize pot and drinking?

NELSON:  I hope I don’t.  There’s a whole thing about romanticizing the lifestyle and I agree that it can be dangerous.  Many of my heroes when I was a kid were alcoholics, which I think is a bad thing.  What are you learning?  Somewhere along the way you think if I’m going to be like Hank Williams I got to get drunk like Hank Williams.  I sure tried it and I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore.  George Jones drank.  Bob Wills.  A lot of them.  I’m not blaming Hand or anyone.  I would have drunk anyway.  Most young people do at some point.  But I admired the people who pulled themselves out.  They are the real heroes. I admire the ones who survived and got sober.  It ain’t romantic to be a drunk.  Which leads to a joke Roger Miller told me about the guy kicking tires at a used car lot. The salesman came up and asked, “You thinking about buying a car?”  The guy said, “No, I’m gonna buy a car.  I was thinking about pussy.”  That’s in my book.

PLAYBOY:  Why did you write the book?

NELSON:  Just something I always wanted to do and there was a lot of interest.  thought it would be the best to do like a daily diary or journal. Whenever I got up in the morning I tried to remember where I was or guess where i was last night and write about all that and throw in a  joke every now and then. Whatever I thought about at the moment.

PLAYBOY:  Do you keep journals?

NELSON:  Never keep them, but if I did that’s what they would sound like.

PLAYBOY:  Was it similar to writing songs?

NELSON:  Completely different, a lot easier.  Songs have to have a form to rhyme, to follow a theme, but when I write this other stuff I can go all different directions.  When you run out of something smart to say it’s nice to be able to tell a joke, which is why I told all these stupid jokes in the book.

PLAYBOY:  Is it a struggle each time you write a song?

NELSON:  It gets easier over time.  You get better at it like anything else.  You get pretty good at it and instinctively know what you have to do. One of the hardest things is keeping it within limits.  It can’t be 20 minutes long — has to be two or three minutes.  That’s the challenge.

PLAYBOY:  When you play your songs, do they bring you back to the time you wrote them?

NELSON:  Depends on whether I want to go there or not.  Sometimes it’s not that pleasant to make all those trips; sometimes you don’t want to feel it.  But sometimes you do — the songs take you there.

PLAYBOY:  Do you know how people will like any given song?  Can you predict which songs will become hits?  Do you have a sense if a song has the potential in become a classic — an On the Road Again or Crazy?

NELSON: I wish I did, but you never know.  A lot of the songs I have written –  99 percent or more — have never been heard by anyone.  I think they are good songs, as good as any.  I have written more than 1,000 songs, most of them never recorded.  The timing wasn’t right or whatever.  The songs that became the hits don’t tell the whole story.  Most songs disappear without a trace.  You never know how people will take to them, what will strike a chord.  If you did, you’d always do it.  You’d record only hits.  No one can do that.

PLAYBOY:  Do you like to listen to your voice?

NELSON:  Sometimes.  I hear me a lot, so I can get sick of it.  I listen in a different way than most folks probably do.  I am critical, listening for when I’m on key and in tune and when I’m sounding like a hyena or something.  Other than that, I just do it and don’t ask too many questions.  It works best that way.  I’m just glad people like it when they do.  I am blessed they do.  I don’t have an act.  I’m like this all the time.  I’m just me. I’m lucky if I can remember the words  If I can, that’s really all I have to do on any given day.

PLAYBOY:  In your book you recount the night when you forgot the words to Crazy.

NELSON:  [laughs]  Yeah, I did.  Never had before.  the audience always likes it when I mess up.  They think I was ripped.  I wasn’t.  Just forgot.

PLAYBOY:  Your biggest hit song was On the Road Again.  What inspired it?

NELSON:  I was asked to write a song for the movie Honeysuckle Rose by the producer, Sydney Pollock.  I asked, “What do you want the song to say?”  Sydney said, ‘Something about being on the road again.”  So I said, “How about this:  ‘On the road again, on the road again, I just can’t wait to get on the road again.  The life I love is making music with my friends and I can’t wait to be on the road again.’  How’s that?”  He said, “Something like that, sure.”  He wasn’t that impressed.

PLAYBOY:  Honeysuckle Rose was one of the few major movies you’ve done.  How have you chosen them?

NELSON:  You can trap me with a guitar or a horse.  Write a story about those and I’ll jump it.  I’m doubtful about anything else.  Wait.  I have a little joke.  Did you hear about the duck that went into the bar and said, “You got any grapes?”  And the bartender says, “No.”  So the duck leaves, and then comes back the next day and says, “You got any grapes?”  The bartender said, “No.”  So the duck left, then came back the next day and said, “You got any grapes?”  The bartender said, “No.  I don’t have any grapes.  I didn’t have any yesterday, and I didn’t have any the day before.  And I won’t have none tomorrow.  If you ask me again, I’m going to nail your feet to the bar.”  The duck comes back the next day, and says, “You got any nails?”  The bartender says, “No.”  And the duck says, “Well, you got any grapes?”

Sorry.  What did you want to know again?

PLAYBOY:  Some musicians complain that they’re pigeonholed in one musical genre.  You record and sing everything.  How have you gotten away with this?

NELSON:  Fooled an awful lot of people an awful lot of the time.  [laughs].  I’m lucky, I know it.  I just play music I like.  Many people can’t do that.  People are always worrying about if I am country, rock and roll, blues or whatever.  They don’t know where to put the new Willie Nelson CD in the record stores.  When I came out with Milk Cow Blues, working with people like B.B. King, Dr. John and Susan Tedeschi, they were worried that it shouldn’t go in the Willie Nelson bin in country music because it didn’t fit.  It was blues, but what about the rest of the Willie Nelson records?  Where do you put Stardust?  That ain’t country or blues.  Where the hell does my new record, The Great Divide, go?  It’s one of the reasons I like the Internet.  People can listen in and see what they think and are more likely to try new things.  A kid into rock and roll ain’t going to go hanging out in the country section of a record store, but maybe he would like a song filled away over there.  gospel, reggae, classical — whatever.  It’s why a collaborate with everyone from B.B. to Merle Haggard to Sheryl Crow.  On the new record, I’m doing songs by Bernie Taupin and Matt Serletic and Lee Ann Womack sings with me.  So do Bonnie Raitt, Brian McKnight, the Jordanaires and Kid Rock.  It’s a hell of a good time.  But it’ll drive you crazy if you want to classify it.

PLAYBOY:  After all your collaborations, is there anyone left you haven’t worked with that you would like to?

NELSON:  I would like to sing with Barbra Streisand and I haven’t done that.  Maybe if I say it enough times it will happen.

PLAYBOY:  What inspired the collaboration with Paul Simon?

NELSON:  I’d cut Graceland with Paul.  I love that song.  I know that some people think it’s strange when they hear me playing with something with Paul Simon, but I don’t make those distinctions. To me, we’re all musicians.  What’s the difference between a rock musician and a country musician?  I can relate to reggae musicians or classical musicians.  We’re all just playing music.  I’ve done it with just about everybody.  Bob Wills, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Julio Iglesias.

PLAYBOY:  Including rapper Lil Black, who made a wild version of On the Road Again.

NELSON:  It just happened that we were all in the same place in Texas and they asked me to do a rap on On the Road Again with them.  It was fun.  I’m always interested in something new.

PLAYBOY:  Do you like rap?

NELSON:  I like some  of it, don’t like some.

PLAYBOY:  Some people criticize rap and hip-hop for violent and misogynistic lyrics.

NELSON:  I don’t like that shit and don’t necessarily want to encourage it.  But I understand it’s the way people are speaking.  Rather than worry about trying to put an end to Eminem or some other rapper, Lil Black or Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg, whatever or whoever, politicians should think about why they’re rapping.  If they are growing up in a violent ghetto, do people expect them to sing about flowers and — whatever the hell?  It’s a lot easier to try to censor some kid swearing about the poverty on the street in whatever it is than to sop the poverty on the street.  Solving problems in harder.

PLAYBOY:  Yet you try.  What brought you to the issue of the family farms and the founding of your charity, Farm Aid?

NELSON:  I started Farm Aid in 1985.  I worked on farms and ranches growing up, but I didn’t know there were any problems.  Neil Young and I were just talking.  After all those concerts, you’d think the farm situation might be better.

PLAYBOY:  It’s not?

NELSON:  It’s not.  It’s getting worse.  I always knew about farming — grew up on them.  Knew it was hard and knew that farmers didn’t always make ends meet.  Later I saw the Life Aid concert, Bob Geldof’ benefit held the same day in England and the U.S.  The money was for the famine in Ethiopia.  Everybody played — Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Madonna.  I was in a motel somewhere and was watching when Bob Dylan came out and played.  He said, “It would be nice if some of this money that’s going out all over the world could stay here at home.

Our family farmers are in trouble.”  I started checking around and learned more.  I discovered that it was a serious problem.  I was working in Springfield for the state fair and ran into the governor, who came by for a bowl of chili.  We were talking about the farm problems and he told me more.  We started talking about a concert.  The first Farm Aid show was in Champaign, Illinois.  I thought we’d do a show, raise some money and it would be solved.  I called up Neil Young and John Mellencamp and thought we would take care of the problem.  Unfortunately, things don’t work like that.  We once had 8 million family farm since the Fifties, and now we’re down to less than 2 million and we’re still losing them — losing 500 a week.

PLAYBOY:  Why are small farmers better?

NELSON:  The huge companies are destroying the environment.  We’ve seen what happens when you aren’t careful.  Look at the mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease.  Small farmers have to take better care of their land, have fewer animals grazing.  We also need to stop producing genetically engineered food, another fiasco introduced by agri-business.  They only care about volume, not health, and never mind taste.  I want a tomato that tastes like a tomato, not one that tastes like a piece of — I don’t know — cardboard.

PLAYBOY:  How would you help the farmers?

NELSON:  Farmers should get fair prices.

PLAYBOY:  Does that mean subsidies?  Why should farmers be given special federal subsidies and special help from the likes of you?

NELSON:  They don’t really want subsidies.  They want enough money to make a living without subsidies.  They want enough money for their product and don’t want giveaways or welfare, but they can’t compete with the corporations subsidized by the government.  America was founded as a place for everyone, where everyone has an opportunity.  Do we want it to be a  place only fit for the rich?  I don’t.  It’s worth fighting for and that’s the American way, too. After September 11, everyone forgot what it is we’re trying to protect.  It’s understandable that we want to be safe, but let’s not lose the America we love. After the terrorist attack we’re not supposed to criticize America.  It’s viewed as unpatriotic.  But true patriotism is wanting America to be the best place it can be.

PLAYBOY:  How did September 11 change your life.

NELSON:  Like everyone.  I watched it an at first thought it was a movie they were promoting.  I hear that kids saw that over and over again and didn’t understand that it was a single attack — they thought that it kept happening every time they showed it on TV.  I didn’t like the way the news media exploited it.  No wonder we’re toughened to things like that.  We see it and don’t  know it’s real because we are bombarded with images.  Every time you see it, it starts looking more unreal.  How long are we going to exploit it?  When are we going to let it become what it was?  Are we going to learn lessons from it or keep making the same mistakes?

PLAYBOY:  What lessons?

NELSON:  Are we going to look at poverty, disproportionate wealth and the horrors in the world or ignore them?  The poorest places are the ones where terrorism breeds.  If someone wants to kill me bad enough to kill himself at the same time, there has to be a reason.  People jump all over you if you ask the question, but if someone in America murdered 10 people or 3000, the first thing we would ask is Why?

Nothing can justify the attack, but there might have been something we could do to prevent an attack in the future.  I’m not talking about giving in or negotiating with terrorists, I’m talking about looking at the complaints of people in the world who hate us.  Is it because our troops are over there?  Are we afraid to say that?  Anything else?  Our policies regarding Israel?  I’m not saying we should stop doing anything they don’t like just because  they don’t like it, but we should understand why and try to acknowledge that people in other parts of the world have rights, too. That they matter. What arrogance to say it doesn’t matter what they think.  It’s not un-American to ask these questions.  It’s un-American not to ask them.  America really stands for human rights and freedom.  Let’s apply it everywhere.

PLAYBOY:  What led to your  performance at the benefit for September 11 victims at which you sang America the Beautiful?

NELSON:  Just got a call and they asked.  Of course I would do it.  Everybody at the show felt helpless and wanted to do something.  We are still frustrated.  We may have gotten a whole lot of people, but not the ones who actually did it.  Where is Osama bin Laden?  How do you stop terrorism when your enemy is scattered in 80 countries?  At least they stopped pretending that we have won any wars.  For a while they were saying it:  We won the war, blew Afghanistan sky-high.  Big deal.  Blew up a lot of dirt. I can’t see that we have own any wars.  The information you get from the people in charge is frustrating; they lead you to believe that they don’t know any more than you know.  All the alerts — trying to scare the hell out of us — don’t seem much good.  I’m not sure what good there is to try to scare the death out of us — don’t seem much good.  I’m not sure what good there is to try to scare the death out of every man, woman and child in the country saying the bogeyman is coming.  If they know for sure, that’s one thing.  But the more times you hear them say, “Be alert,” the less alert you get.  You can only stay so alert.  When you say something and it doesn’t happen, you’ve lost the crowd.

PLAYBOY:  After the concert, some people were saying that the money wasn’t reaching the victims of the attacks.  What was your view?

NELSON:  I hope the people who deserved the money got it.  After Farm Aid, I know the types of problems you can have with a charity.  You get a lot of calls and letters asking for money.  Most are legitimate requests but some are not.  I’m sure with the millions we took in at all the shows, there were criminals trying to figure out how to get the money.  I can understand why you would want to take your time.  Maybe they took more time than anyone thought it should.

PLAYBOY:  In our interview with Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, he was particularly incensed about this issue.

NELSON:  Bill O’Reilly screams because it gets more people watching him.  I used to pull tricks like that when I was in radio.  I used to read letters from the one listener who was saying what a horrible disc jockey I was and how did I ever get into this business.  I’d get 20 more letters from listeners telling me how good I was.  I know what O’Reilly is up to.  He’s building his ratings.  He ain’t bullshitting anybody.  He would build ratings any way he could — by putting down whoever on the way.

PLAYBOY:  He maintained that celebrities who asked the public to give had a responsibility to make sure the money got to the intended recipients.

NELSON:  We did, and as far as I know it did.

PLAYBOY:  He also complained that celebrities wouldn’t discuss it on his show.

NELSON:  And help him with his ratings?  Why?  That’s one show I won’t be doing.

PLAYBOY:  Let’s talk some about your background.

NELSON:  I can’t remember.  You know, all that pot…. [laughing]

PLAYBOY:  What are you earliest memories of music?

NELSON:  I was raised in the cotton fields around Abbott, Texas.  There were African Americans and Mexican Americans and we listened to their music all the time.  I also heard gospel music, Hank Williams and whatever else was on the radio — country or jazz or blues.  There was music in my family, too, since my grandparents, who raised me, played.  They took music courses by mail.  My older sister Bobbie played piano and I got a guitar when I was little.  She played and I’d play along.  Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.  The first song I ever sang was Amazing Grace.  Since early childhood, we played together in church, sang in school and went around to talent contests.  Still playing together.

PLAYBOY:  After the concert, some people were saying that the money wasn’t reaching the victims of the attacks.  What was your view?

NELSON:  I hope the people who deserved the money got it.  After Farm Aid, I know the types of problems you can have with a charity.  You get a lot of calls and letters asking for money.  Most are legitimate requests but some are not.  I’m sure with the millions we took in at all the shows, there were criminals trying to figure out how to get the money.  I can understand why you would want to take your time.  Maybe they took more time than anyone thought it should.

PLAYBOY:  In our interview with Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, he was particularly incensed about this issue.

NELSON:  Bill O’Reilly screams because it gets more people watching him.  I used to pull tricks like that when I was in radio.  I used to read letters from the one listener who was saying what a horrible disc jockey I was and how did I ever get into this business.  I’d get 20 more letters from listeners telling me how good I was.  I know what O’Reilly is up to.  He’s building his ratings.  He ain’t bullshitting anybody.  He would build ratings any way he could — by putting down whoever on the way.

PLAYBOY:  He maintained that celebrities who asked the public to give had a responsibility to make sure the money got to the intended recipients.

NELSON:  We did, and as far as I know it did.

PLAYBOY:  He also complained that celebrities wouldn’t discuss it on hs show.

NELSON:  And help him with his ratings?  Why?  That’s one show I won’t be doing.

PLAYBOY:  Let’s talk some about your background.

NELSON:  I can’t remember.  You know, all that pot…. [laughing]

PLAYBOY:  What are you earliest memories of music?

NELSON:  I was raised in the cotton fields around Abbott, Texas.  There were African Americans and Mexican Americans and we listened to their music all the time.  I also heard gospel music, Hank Williams and whatever else was on the radio — country or jazz or blues.  There was music in my family, too, since my grandparents, who raised me, played.  They took music courses by mail.  My older sister Bobbie played piano and I got a guitar when I was little.  She played and I’d play along.  Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.  The first song I ever sang was Amazing Grace.  Since early childhood, we played together in church, sang in school and went around to talent contests.  Still playing together.

PLAYBOY:  When did you begin to write songs?

NELSON:  I wrote poems before I wrote songs and then I put them to music.  My first guitar had strings so far off the fretts that they made my fingers bleed, but I played all the time.

PLAYBOY:  When did you have your first professional gig?

NELSON:  I played around when I was pretty young, playing some of the roughest joints anywhere.  The best was the Bloody Bucket in West Texas when we carried pistols in our guitar cases.  I went from Texas to Tennessee, Nashville, to try to break into the business.  I was writing songs but it wasn’t until I went back to Texas that I found an audience for what I was doing.  Sold my first songs.  I got $50 for Family Bible and $100 for Night Life.  It was lie getting a million bucks.

PLAYBOY:  Who was coming to see your shows?

NELSON:  It changed over time.  The audience for country music was changing, expanding.  I had grown my hair and was playing just when the hippie redneck thing was a big deal in Texas.  The long-haired hippies over here liked country music by Hank Williams and Waylon and other people, and the old redneck cowboys liked the same thing.  I sort of put them together with Red Headed Stranger, which was the first big success I ever had.  Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was a single that did well, too.  The look I had until then was me trying to look like I was supposed to look:  putting on a suit and tie and short hair.  There was a show business look and I tried to do it, but I never felt comfortable.  It took a while for me to figure out exactly who I was.

PLAYBOY:  What inspired Stardust?

NELSON:  There were more pop songs being brought into country music and more strings and more arrangements.  It was just an idea.  I wanted to bring back Stardust, All of Me and those songs.  I played them in clubs and people liked them.  It didn’t matter that they weren’t so-called country music.  It’s just music and those are beautiful songs.

PLAYBOY:  Were you surprised by the success?

NELSON:  Of course.  All I ever wanted was to make a living playing music.  I did that pretty young.  I wanted to be like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, my heroes.  The rest is gravy.  Good gravy, I admit.

PLAYBOY:  Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?

NELSON:  In Phoenix one night in a club.  He was at an all-night cafe.  He’d been playing over in another club, and we started talking and found out that we were both from Texas.  We became good friends. I miss him, but he’ll aways be around.  we wrote Good Hearted Woman together.  What a great man, a good friend.

PLAYBOY:  When you play his songs do you miss him?

NELSON:  Sure.  It takes some time when your friend dies.  You want to hear a joke?

PLAYBOY:  Are jokes your way of dealing with emotion?

NELSON:  Maybe.  Hell, I deal with them.  I been dealing with them all my life.  Do you want to hear a joke, or not?

PLAYBOY:  Why not.

NELSON:  A man and a woman who had been married forever were having breakfast and the wife said, “Honey, do you remember our wedding night when we were sitting here 50 years ago?  Afterward, we were sitting at this same breakfast table without any clothes on.”  He said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Do you think we could do that again?  Sit here without clothes on?  “I guess so,” he said.  So they took off their clothes and she said, “Honey, my nipples are just as hot for you today as they were 50 years agao,” and he said, “I don’t doubt it, since one’s hanging in the oatmeal and the other’s in the coffee.”

PLAYBOY:  Is it tough to be reaching an age when you’re friends pass away?

NELSON:  You got another choice?  Sign me up.  You just keep breathing and that is all you can do.  And there’s a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about.  I mean to see the changes in the world — not only the bad ones, but also the good ones.  Look at the Internet.  Now we’re communicating with people around the world without having to go through a record company or publicity machine.  We’re sending songs out in digital form.  Amazing sit.

PLAYBOY:  Part of sending songs out on the Net has raised controversy about copyrights.  Are you concerned?

NELSON:  I think it’s all good.  I’m for the people and this is giving them a new way to listen to music.  It’s good for artists, too, especially artists just breaking out because it’s a way to get heard even if they haven’t been signed by a big label.  This doesn’t mean I don’t want to get paid for my work, but I do all right.  Things are shaking out and the internet may work like the radio or something so artists get their royalties.  I’m not worried.  I put samples of songs on the web all the time.  You ain’t gonna hear this stuff on the radio.  They’ll sort it all out — royalties, whether you’re gonna have to pay takes on the Internet, or not.

PLAYBOY:  Taxes must be a sore subject for you after your widely publicized IRS audit.

NELSON:  The Internal Revenue Service.

PLAYBOY:  Which in 1990 presented you with a bill for tens of million of dollars.

NELSON:  An impressive sum.  I got an official letter.  I owe what?  We knew it was coming, actually.  It was happening to other people who invested in the same things I invested in — these shelters we were sold on — and we were told to expect it.  They seized everything I had.  I was angry, of course.  Especially angry at the people who advised me and got me into the mess.

PLAYBOY:  Were you thumbing your note at the IRS by releasing The IRS Tapes?

NELSON:  I was just trying to test their sense o f humor.  I suppose I actually heard that they thought it was pretty funny.  The funniest part was that it was the best promotion of an album I ever had.  People heard about it every where.  The more people heard about my troubles, the more they came out to help.  I got phone calls and letters from people wanting to do everything you can think of.  At shows, people would try to give me money.  Friends bought my stuff so I could buy it back form them.

PLAYBOY:  What lessons did you learn from your IRS debacle?

NELSON:  A couple of things.  First, not to trust other people with things that are your responsibility.  I just didn’t want to know and I let people make decisions and nodded, thinking, I’m just playing music.  “You deal with this other shit.”  That was a mistake and I want to know what people are doing in my name and with my money or anything else.  Second, it made me think clearer about what I really want in my life, what I need.  You can caught up thinking you need a lot more than you do. Then it can be like a weight on you, keeping you down.  The IRS didn’t mean to do me a favor, but in a  way they did.  They helped me clean house.  I didn’t need all that stuff anyway.

PLAYBOY:  Stuff like?

NELSON:  Stuff like a jet.  That’s what can happen and then you have all this shit and think, Now I have to pay the bills.  I prefer the bus anyway.  Everybody thinks it was this hell in my life, but it wasn’t.  It was just something I had to get through.  There has been worse.

PLAYBOY:  Presumably the worst was when your son Billy passed away.

NELSON:  That was the worst.  Everything is insignificant when you have to face something like that.  Billy’s with us though.  That’s the way I feel about it.

PLAYBOY:  After four marriages, have you given any thought to a fifth?

NELSON:  My lifestyle isn’t conducive to marriage  It took four times because I guess I’m a slow learner.  Maybe they don’t like my sense of humor.  Still, every one I was married to was a wonderful woman.  My lifestyle’s a little hard.  I’m on the road so much.

PLAYBOY:  Did you miss anything because of all the miles you’ve logged?

NELSON:  Did I miss anything?  I’m sure I did.  But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same.  Wrong or right, it’s my life.  Sounds like a song, doesn’t it?

PLAYBOY:  When did you begin to write songs?

NELSON:  I wrote poems before I wrote songs and then I put them to music.  My first guitar had strings so far off the fretts that they made my fingers bleed, but I played all the time.

PLAYBOY:  When did you have your first professional gig?

NELSON:  I played around when I was pretty young, playing some of the roughest joints anywhere.  The best was the Bloody Bucket in West Texas when we carried pistols in our guitar cases.  I went from Texas to Tennessee, Nashville, to try to break into the business.  I was writing songs but it wasn’t until I went back to Texas that I found an audience for what I was doing.  Sold my first songs.  I got $50 for Family Bible and $100 for Night Life.  It was lie getting a million bucks.

PLAYBOY:  Who was coming to see your shows?

NELSON:  It changed over time.  The audience for country music was changing, expanding.  I had grown my hair and was playing just when the hippie redneck thing was a big deal in Texas.  The long-haired hippies over here liked country music by Hank Williams and Waylon and other people, and the old redneck cowboys liked the same thing.  I sort of put them together with Red Headed Stranger, which was the first big success I ever had.  Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was a single that did well, too.  The look I had until then was me trying to look like I was supposed to look:  putting on a suit and tie and short hair.  There was a show business look and I tried to do it, but I never felt comfortable.  It took a while for me to figure out exactly who I was.

PLAYBOY:  What inspired Stardust?

NELSON:  There were more pop songs being brought into country music and more strings and more arrangements.  It was just an idea.  I wanted to bring back Stardust, All of Me and those songs.  I played them in clubs and people liked them.  It didn’t matter that they weren’t so-called country music.  It’s just music and those are beautiful songs.

PLAYBOY:  Were you surprised by the success?

NESLON:  Of course.  All I ever wanted was to make a living playing music.  I did that pretty young.  I wanted to be like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, my heroes.  The rest is gravy.  Good gravy, I admit.

PLAYBOY:  Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?

NELSON:  In Phoenix one night in a club.  He was at an all-night cafe.  He’d been playing over in another club, and we started talking and found out that we were both from Texas.  We became good friends. I miss him, but he’ll always be around.  we wrote Good Hearted Woman together.  What a great man, a good friend.

PLAYBOY:  When you play his songs do you miss him?

NELSON:  Sure.  It takes some time when your friend dies.  You want to hear a joke?

PLAYBOY:  Are jokes your way of dealing with emotion?

NELSON:  Maybe.  Hell, I deal with them.  I been dealing with them all my life.  Do you want to hear a joke, or not?

PLAYBOY:  Why not?

NELSON:  A man and a woman who had been married forever were having breakfast and the wife said, “Honey, do you remember our wedding night when we were sitting here 50 years ago?  Afterward, we were sitting at this same breakfast table without any clothes on.”  He said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Do you think we could do that again?  Sit here without clothes on?  “I guess so,” he said.  So they took off their clothes and she said, “Honey, my nipples are just as hot for you today as they were 50 years ago,” and he said, “I don’t doubt it, since one’s hanging in the oatmeal and the other’s in the coffee.”

PLAYBOY:  Is it tough to be reaching an age when you’re friends pass away?

NELSON:  You got another choice?  Sign me up.  You just keep breathing and that is all you can do.  And there’s a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about.  I mean to see the changes in the world — not only the bad ones, but also the good ones.  Look at the Internet.  Now we’re communicating with people around the world without having to go through a record company or publicity machine.  We’re sending songs out in digital form.  Amazing shit.

PLAYBOY:  Part of sending songs out on the Net has raised controversy about copyrights.  Are you concerned?

NELSON:  I think it’s all good.  I’m for the people and this is giving them a new way to listen to music.  It’s good for artists, too, especially artists just breaking out because it’s a way to get heard even if they haven’t been signed by a big label.  This doesn’t mean I don’t want to get paid for my work, but I do all right.  Things are shaking out and the internet may work like the radio or something so artists get their royalties.  I’m not worried.  I put samples of songs on the web all the time.  You ain’t gonna hear this stuff on the radio.  They’ll sort it all out — royalties, whether you’re gonna have to pay takes on the Internet, or not.

PLAYBOY:  Taxes must be a sore subject for you after your widely publicized IRS audit.

NELSON:  The Internal Revenue Service.

PLAYBOY:  Which in 1990 presented you with a bill for tens of million of dollars.

NELSON:  An impressive sum.  I got an official letter.  I owe what?  We knew it was coming, actually.  It was happening to other people who invested in the same things I invested in — these shelters we were sold on — and we were told to expect it.  They seized everything I had.  I was angry, of course.  Especially angry at the people who advised me and got me into the mess.

PLAYBOY:  Were you thumbing your nose at the IRS by releasing The IRS Tapes?

NELSON:  I was just trying to test their sense of humor.  I suppose I actually heard that they thought it was pretty funny.  The funniest part was that it was the best promotion of an album I ever had.  People heard about it everywhere.  The more people heard about my troubles, the more they came out to help.  I got phone calls and letters from people wanting to do everything you can think of.  At shows, people would try to give me money.  Friends bought my stuff so I could buy it back from them.

PLAYBOY:  What lessons did you learn from your IRS debacle?

NELSON:  A couple of things.  First, not to trust other people with things that are your responsibility.   I just didn’t want to know and I let people make decisions and nodded, thinking, I’m just playing music.  “You deal with this other shit.”  That was a mistake and I want to know what people are doing in my name and with my money or anything else.  Second, it made me think clearer about what I really want in my life, what I need.  You can caught up thinking you need a lot more than you do. Then it can be like a weight on you, keeping you down.  The IRS didn’t mean to do me a favor, but in a  way they did.  They helped me clean house.  I didn’t need all that stuff anyway.

PLAYBOY:  Stuff like?

NELSON:  Stuff like a jet.  That’s what can happen and then you have all this shit and think, Now I have to pay the bills.  I prefer the bus anyway.  Everybody thinks it was this hell in my life, but it wasn’t.  It was just something I had to get through.  There has been worse.

PLAYBOY:  Presumably the worst was when your son Billy passed away.

NELSON:  That was the worst.  Everything is insignificant when you have to face something like that.  Billy’s with us though.  That’s the way I feel about it.

PLAYBOY:  After four marriages, have you given any thought to a fifth?

NELSON:  My lifestyle isn’t conducive to marriage.  It took four times because I guess I’m a slow learner.  Maybe they don’t like my sense of humor.  Still, every one I was married to was a wonderful woman.  My lifestyle’s a little hard.  I’m on the road so much.

PLAYBOY:  Did you miss anything because of all the miles you’ve logged?

NELSON:  Did I miss anything?  I’m sure I did.  But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same.  Wrong or right, it’s my life.  Sounds like a song, doesn’t it?

Willie Nelson interview in Entertainment Weekly, (September 18, 1998)

Friday, September 18th, 2020

photo:  Laura Farr

www.ew.com
by:  Jeff Gordinier

Willie Nelson reaches across the table and whispers four soft words: “It’s good for you.” His brown eyes are shining like sunlight on the Rio Grande. His voice is rustling like wind through a wheat field. And between those burlap knuckles of his, well, he’s got a joint as fat as a rope.

It all feels like Luke Skywalker taking the lightsaber from Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can’t say no.

So I don’t. I inhale. Deeply. Which probably isn’t the smartest journalistic strategy in the world, considering that my life’s experience with ganja consists primarily of a couple of pathetic coughing fits in college. The thing is, there’s something so gentle about Willie Nelson, so utterly blissful and reassuring, that climbing into his tour bus feels like stepping into the lost ashram of a Himalayan mystic. Just the sound of his laugh can lower your heart rate. Besides, it’s late in the afternoon, and Willie’s tiny office on the bus, the Honeysuckle Rose II, is already so banked with sweet herbal fog that a plane wouldn’t be cleared for landing. A puff or two won’t make any difference, right?

It’s a busy day, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Willie’s supposed to ride the highway up to Boulder, Colo., to play songs from his haunting new album, Teatro, for radio station KBCO and a packed house at the Fox Theatre. Plus, he’s just been named a Kennedy Center honoree, alongside entertainers like Bill Cosby and Shirley Temple Black, so people keep calling the bus to congratulate him.

If anyone deserves an official blessing from the United States government, why not Willie Nelson? He wrote national anthems like “Crazy” and “Night Life” and “On the Road Again.” He’s saved Nashville from its cheesiest impulses with albums like Red Headed Stranger and Spirit and Stardust. His voice is seared on the American landscape as indelibly as the voices of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. Besides, he’s done a guest spot on King of the Hill. “For me, Willie is what you’d imagine an elder would be like in native mythology,” says Daniel Lanois, Teatro’s producer. “Without saying too much, he projects an aura that just makes you feel good to be around.”

But there’s a fantastic irony here, too, when you think about a bunch of Beltway Babbitts squeezing into their tuxes and clinking their champagne flutes to the original Nashville outlaw, a man who’s wrangled with drug laws and the Internal Revenue Service, who’s crisscrossed miles of conservative highway with his beard and ponytails and beatific smile intact, who’s spent a large portion of his 65 years whispering four soft, subversive words to the stress-battered American people: It’s good for you.

“I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was 7,” Willie is saying, “because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer you’re going to hell. And by 7, I was gone.” Thus resigned to eternal damnation, Willie came up with the only spiritual approach that made sense: There’s nothing to hide, and nothing to get too upset about. “If you get up thinkin’ everything’s gonna be wonderful, you’re gonna find out somethin’ happened that wasn’t that wonderful,” he says. “And if you think everything’s gonna be terrible, then you’re gonna miss what was good. So there is a little bit of Zen in there: You shouldn’t be too elated at the good things, and you shouldn’t be too depressed at the bad things.” Not since Butch Cassidy has somebody so defiant been so laid-back about it.

You can ask Willie anything, good or bad, and he’ll respond with that sagebrush laugh and a flash of those muddy-river eyes. The night in 1970 when he dashed into the flaming eaves of a burning house to rescue a pile of pot? “A guitar and the pot,” he gently corrects me. The night when he walked out of a Nashville bar and stretched his bones in the middle of a busy road? “I was pretty drunk, but I do remember it,” he says. “It was one of those Russian roulette things, you know? You really didn’t give a damn, and yet you did. Just before the truck woulda hit me, I’d have said, ‘Why did I do that?’”

I ask whether it’s true that the first of Willie’s four wives tied him up and beat him purple as punishment for a drunken binge. Willie not only verifies the story, he muses over the method of bondage. “I think there were sheets stitched together, and then jump ropes to secure them,” he says. “Then she packed all of my clothes and left. So when I finally got out of the sheet, all my clothes were gone.”

The father of seven (and grandfather of seven more) waves toward a beautiful woman sitting toward the back of the bus. “This is Lana, my daughter,” he says. “Her mother was the one in that story you asked about.”

“I might’ve been 4 or 5,” says Lana, now 44. “She left us in the car waiting while she hit him with the broom. And she came runnin’ out and threw the broom on the porch and jumped in the car.”

And…how did you feel?

“Well, I hated to see Daddy get beat up with a broom!” she laughs whimsically. “But if my husband came home drunk, I might do the same thing.” “And,” Pop chimes in, “if he’d done it on more than one occasion.”

Willie gave up booze years ago—”To me, alcohol is not positive,” he says–but he’s been smoking weed since 1953, when a fiddle player in Fort Worth first passed him a joint. “It wasn’t a big deal back in the early days in Fort Worth,” Willie insists. “Most of the law enforcement agents were smokin’ pot. They’d bust other people, get the pot, and we’d sit around and smoke it. They realized it was a bad law, but they were makin’ the best of it.”

Texas troopers may be a bit more zealous these days, but whenever there’s a head-on collision between Willie and various statutes and ordinances, it seems like Willie’s the one who comes out unscathed. Four years ago he was arrested when police found him and a joint cuddling in the backseat of a Mercedes; pretty soon the charges were dropped. “There was no cause to give me any problems there that night, because I wasn’t botherin’ nobody,” Willie explains. “When it’s foggy and you’re tired, you pull over and go to sleep. You shouldn’t be harassed by the police department.” Eight years ago the IRS saddled him with a massive burden of back taxes—$32 million—but Willie struck a deal with the feds to whittle down the debt, paid off the rest, and moved on.

It’s been that way since Abbott, the lean Texas town where he baled hay and picked cotton as a kid. “We had no law in Abbott. There was nothing illegal,” he recalls as the Honeysuckle Rose II rolls through the strip malls and cheeseburger troughs of the New West. “I’ve kind of brought Abbott with me.”

In the front of the bus is a TV. CNN is blasting the news that Bill Clinton has bombed outposts in Sudan and Afghanistan—an event of weird significance for one of the stars of Wag the Dog. Willie asks if I want to watch a video. I suggest he might prefer to catch up with the military showdown instead. “The war’s about over, probably,” he laughs. “We’re gonna miss the whole f—in’ war, just goin’ to Boulder.”

Willie may come across as the un-Clinton—he’s inhaled, he’s fooled around, he doesn’t lie about it—but he’s actually quick to forgive Slick Willie his amorous misadventures. “I think any male on the planet will have sympathies for where he’s at,” he says. “Most of us can withstand everything but temptation. And a guy who’s bombarded as much as he is, as president? Most presidents are too old to worry about s— like that!” As for his own battles with temptation on the road, Willie and his crew long ago came up with an official policy: “We leave town early.”

Keeping on the move has always been a Willie trademark. Daniel Lanois is such a sonic perfectionist that it often takes him months to cut an album, but when the Grammy-winning producer of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball hunkered down in an old California movie theater to record Teatro, it took…four days. Which is not to say it feels tossed off: A spooky flamenco hayride of a record, Teatro proves that after 213 albums over the course of four decades, Willie Nelson is hitting another moment of creative fervor. “I’m so used to making records where one has to labor, it sort of caught me by surprise,” Lanois marvels. “Willie really trusts first takes.”

Eventually Willie and I do watch a movie, an upcoming made-for-CBS Western called Outlaw Justice. My critical faculties are fairly warped at this point, but I think Willie and Kris Kristofferson play old gunslingers who team up to avenge the death of a fellow desperado, played by Waylon Jennings.

After a few minutes Willie picks up the phone. “Hey, Waylon,” he says. “I just watched you die again in that movie.”

Maybe it’s the thin Colorado air, but by now the phrase mile-high has taken on a new meaning. Suddenly I have come to believe that Willie Nelson is a great American sage, that sculptors should carve his saintly visage into Mount Rushmore, that Outlaw Justice is a cinematic masterpiece, that…er…uh, dude, could you pass the potato chips?

Lukas Nelson Interview

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

www.Forbes. om
By: Steve Baltin

For Lukas Nelson, quarantine hasn’t been the worst thing. While the Grammy-winning Nelson (who took home an award for his work on the soundtrack to A Star Is Born) misses being on the road, something he has done his whole life with dad Willie Nelson, he got to spend a lot of quality family time.  “I had dinner with my mom and dad every night at 5:30,” he says of how he spent the first four and a half months of the pandemic.

He has also been incredibly prolific as he told me when we spoke recently to celebrate the announcement of his first Gibson Signature Guitar, inspired by the 1956 Les Paul Jr. Nelson has taken out playing with his dad, with Neil Young and on his own.

I spoke with Nelson about his passion for golf, the best musician/golfer hhe has played with, the guitar, Harry Potter and more.   

Steve Baltin: Last time I saw you was at the Village Studios when you performed with Robby Krieger of the Doors.

Lukas Nelson: I love Robby. Robby’s a golfer, he and I both golf so that’s kind of how we connected. Well, my brother and John Densmore have also been friends. So I’m friends with both of them. And after we did that gig at the Village we’ve done a few other things together. Lots of good stories about the Doors.Recommended For You

Baltin: I love Densmore, one of my favorite interviews, as is Alice Cooper. Have you ever golfed with Alice?

Nelson: Oh yeah, all the time. We golf all the time together when he’s in Maui and he’s in Maui a lot. His manager is Shep Gordon, who’s a good friend of mine. So yeah Alice and I played golf together quite a lot.

Willie Nelson interview, with Chet Filippo (Rolling Stone July 13, 1978)

Monday, July 13th, 2020
www.RollingStone.com by: Chet Filippo July 13, 1978 The saga of the king of Texas, from the night life to the good life The desk man at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Holiday Inn shook his head when I asked for Willie Nelson. “Got no Willie Nelsons today.” He turned away officiously and resumed cleaning his fingernails with a Holiday Inn matchbook. He was about as encouraging as my cab driver had been: “You goin’ to see Willie Nelson? Man, he was a no-show last week. They had to haul that Wet Willie in; he play instead. You see Willie Nelson, you tell him for me, ‘Man, you die fast in this town.’ I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: “See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs.” “Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so.” He started thumbing through registration forms: “Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain’t here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is . . . ” “Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.” Poodie, who is Willie’s road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night’s concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake’s duties are exactly. He’s a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: “What do you want done?” He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet – if, that is, Fast Eddie weren’t so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days. It wasn’t always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn’t even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie’s songs – Rusty Draper with “Night Life,” Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Patsy Cline with “Crazy,” Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Andy Williams with “Wake Me When It’s Over” and Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper,” to name a few – but Willie’s own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville’s establishment. Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville’s idea of what is and is not country music. He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of “my favorite ten songs.” His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums? But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake’s door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don’t mean a lot to him. Snake opened his door: “Damn, I didn’t know you were coming. I guess it’s okay if you didn’t bring too many women. C’mon, Eddie’s just down the hall.” Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. “Shit, Eddie,” said Snake. “Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We’re gonna sell 24 million.” Willie laughed softly, as he always does. I told him about the cabdriver: “And not only do you die fast, the driver said: ‘Shoot, I ain’t gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.’” Willie fell over laughing. “Why, hell yes,” he finally said. “Why buy old songs?” “What happened to your beard, Willie?” I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. “Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin’? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?” With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes. Eyes that don’t miss much. He is not the most talkative person around – lending credence to the theory that the best writers are watchers, not doers. Willie Hugh Nelson, a.k.a. Fast Eddie, is an intense watcher. I always get the feeling around him that he’s sizing me up: am I a potential song or just another disciple? He gets plenty of both. Disciples are many and fanatical now that he positively exudes spirituality. I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie’s music. He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie’s singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God’s word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists suggested that he make a choice. He chose music. “I had considered preaching,” he now laughed, “but preachers don’t make a lot and they have to work hard.” Still, he didn’t protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music’s only preacher. “I have met people,” I said, “who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally.” He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. “Maybe you’re exaggerating. I am religious, even though I don’t go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We’re taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes. So that’s not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time, we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we’re all images of him – in the beginning. He made us all in the beginning and since then we’ve been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we’ve lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin’ through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again.” He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. “But I know what you mean about fans,” he continued. “And I know what they’re doing. In their minds, they’re relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that. There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations are good for us to hear – how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems.” Willie has compressed a fair amount of history in what I think is his best work – his three “concept” or storytelling albums. The first, the early – Seventies Yesterday’s Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it. At the time, Willie’s house in Nashville had burned – there’s an oft-quoted story that he rushed back into the flames to save his guitar case, which contained an impressive quantity of marijuana – and he moved to Bandera, Texas. RCA called him on a Friday and said his contract called for him to be in Nashville on Monday to cut a new album. He had no new songs whatsoever, but flew into town, took an upper and stayed up writing songs nonstop. The result was a moving collection of songs that Willie describes as “before life and after life.” Phases and Stages, released by Altantic in 1974, was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man’s and woman’s points of view. Atlantic was phasing out its country line at the time and didn’t promote the album. Exit Phases and Stages. Willie moved on to CBS and hit gold with Red Headed Stranger, a deeply moving, very moral tale of sin and redemption. Columbia Records President Bruce Lundvall, along with other CBS executives, thought it underproduced and weird, but it, and the single off the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” broke the C&W crossover market wide open. (It also recently brought Willie a movie deal with Universal for a filmed version of Stranger and a movie based on Willie’s life.) After the success of Stranger, RCA brought out The Outlaws, a compendium of material by Willie and Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It sold a million copies right out of the chute, and Nashville, which was accustomed to patting itself on the back for selling 200,000 copies of a C&W album, found its system obsolete. Willie and Waylon, after being outcasts for years, were suddenly Nashville royalty. And Willie started telling CBS what he wanted done, rather than vice versa, which had been the Nashville way of doing business. But Willie’s success really goes back further, back to a dusty pasture in central Texas in the summer of ’72. When I met Willie Nelson then, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him. That picnic was a real oddity: a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun. The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk. The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons. I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades. I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson. I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it. We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while. He told me his history: born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30th, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents. As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day. At age ten, he started playing guitar with polka bands in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled. He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed. Did a stint in the air force. Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music. Dropped out. Sold Bibles door-to-door. Sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side. Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks. Disc jockeyed all around the country. Played every beer joint there was. Taught guitar lessons. Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars – Family Bible” – and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.” Traveled there in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there. Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract. Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished. “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set. “I’ll do all right.” Indeed he did. That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on. Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs. The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up. It was the watershed in the progressive country movement. Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell. Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence. Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.” From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses – too many gate-crashers – but he was established. Texas was his. That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of Fast Eddie to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time. When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two-lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out. I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway. But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate. I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me. Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key. He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off. I still don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career. Right place at the right time. Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong. His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people, and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life. “I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Mickey Raphael, told me. Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music. But, though it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it. Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman. “Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans. There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one’s lover. No wonder Nashville didn’t know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics: The flesh around your throat is pale Indented by my fingernails Please don’t scream, please don’t cry I just can’t let you say goodbye. Willie’s explanations of his songs sound almost too simple: “I’d been to bed and I got up about three or four o’clock in the morning and started readin’ the paper. There was a story where some guy killed his old lady and I thought, well, that would be a far-out thing to do.” He laughed. “To write this song where you’re killin’ this chick, so I started there. ‘I had not planned on seeing you’ was the start, and I brought it up to where she was really pissin’ him off, she was sayin’ bad things to him and so he was tryin’ to shut her up and started chokin’ her.” All very matter-of-fact. Did he consider alternate forms of murder? “Ah, well, chokin’ seemed to be the way to do it at the time.” Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: “Opportunity to Cry” is about suicide, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, “I’ve Got a Wonderful Future behind Me” means just what it says. Some of Willie’s best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages. “What Can You Do to Me Now?” and “Half a Man” resulted from incidents like the time Willie, the story goes, came home drunk and was sewed up in bed sheets and whipped by his wife. Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in “One Day at a Time”: I live one day at a time I dream one dream at a time Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow is blind And I live one day at a time. “I don’t know whether I’ve ever written any just hopeless songs,” he said. “Maybe I have, maybe I’m not thinking back far enough. I’m sure I have. Songs I’m writing now are less hopeless. I started thinking positive somewhere along the way. Started writing songs that, whether it sounded like it or not, had a happy ending. You might have to look for it. Even though the story I’m trying to tell in a song might not necessarily be a happy story to some people. Like ‘Walking’: ‘After carefully considering the whole situation, here I stand with my back to the wall/I found that walking is better than running away and crawling ain’t no good at all/If guilt is the question then truth is the answer/And I’ve been lying to thee all along/There ain’t nothing worth saving except one another/Before you wake up I’ll be gone’ – to me that’s a happy song. This person has resolved himself to the fact that this is the way things are and this is what ought to be done about it. Rather than sitting somewhere in a beer joint listening to the jukebox and crying. I used to do that too.” Is writing his form of therapy? “Yeah, it’s like taking a shit.” He laughed his soft laugh. “I guess a lotta people who can’t write songs, instead of writing songs they’ll get drunk and kick out a window. What I was doing was kinda recording what was happening to me at the time. I was going through a rough period when I wrote a lot of those songs, some traumatic experiences. I was going through a divorce, split-up, kids involved and everything. Fortunately now I don’t have those problems. But I went through thirty negative years. Wallowing in all kind of misery and pain and self-pity and guilt and all of that shit. But out of it came some good songs. And out of it came the knowledge that everybody wallows in that same old shit – guilt and self-pity – and I just happened to write about it. There’d be no way to write a sad song unless you had really been sad.” Fast Eddie got up from his Holiday Inn bed and put on his blue Nike jogging shoes. “Gonna go out and run three miles,” he said. “Wanta come along?” “I can’t do 300 yards,” I replied. He laughed. Three miles later, Willie and entourage boarded his Silver Eagle bus for the drive to the coliseum. Willie, reading The Voice of the Master by Gibran, assumed his usual seat, beneath the bus’ only poster, an illustration of Frank Fools Crow, the chief and medicine man of the Lakota Indian Nation. Underneath Crow is the Four Winds Prayer, which Crow once recited onstage at a Willie concert. The prayer, which is addressed to grandfather God, asks for mercy and help from the outsiders encroaching on his people’s land. Without even asking Willie, I know why that poster is there. He and Chief Fools Crow are both throwbacks, remnants of the American West, honest men who try to tell the truth and who believe in justice. I thought of a Willie Nelson song, “Slow Movin’ Outlaw,” that talked about that: The land where I traveled once fashioned with beauty, Now stands with scars on her face; And the wide open spaces are closing in quickly, From the weight of the whole human race; And it’s not that I blame them for claiming her beauty, I just wish they’d taken it slow; ‘Cause where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go? Symbolism with Willie is too tempting, I reminded myself, as the Silver Eagle threaded its way through Greensboro’s evening traffic. Still, I couldn’t avoid thinking of another song as we arrived at the coliseum and Willie plunged into a backstage crowd that was one – third Hell’s Angels, one-third young people and one-third middle-aged folks in leisure suits. All of them said the same thing: “Wil-lie! Wil-lie!” Some wanted autographs, some wanted to touch him, some just wanted to bask in his presence. The song I was thinking of was “The Troublemaker:” I could tell the moment that I saw him He was nothing but the troublemaking kind His hair was much too long And his motley group of friends Had nothing but rebellion on their minds He’s rejected the establishment completely And I know for sure he’s never held a job He just goes from town to town Stirring up the young ones Till they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob.2 The song’s about Jesus, in case you didn’t guess. The Hell’s Angels, working as volunteer security, parted a way for Willie and his band to pass through: Bobbie, his sister, who plays piano; guitarist Jody Payne, another ex-paratrooper; Chris Ethridge, who played bass with the Flying Burrito Brothers; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; and drummer Paul English, who’s been with Willie since 1954. English was once what used to be called “a police character” in Texas, and not too long ago the FBI is said to have tailed Willie Nelson and band for a year because they were after a notorious police character that English once knew and they thought he might show up on the tour. Leon Russell once wrote a song about English, called “You Look like the Devil.” He does, too, and he’s still the only country drummer to appear onstage all in black with a flowing black-and-red cape, goat’s-head rings and a five-inch-wide black leather belt embedded with silver dollars. Used to really freak out the country fans, but he’s as kind a man as you could hope to meet. He could be Keith Richard’s father. Although the 17,000-seat coliseum was not full, it was a splendid evening of music: Billy Joe Shaver opened, followed by Emmylou Harris and then Willie. The bulk of his set was material from Red Headed Stranger, and when he started “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in his powerful baritone, I heard actual gasps of awe from the front rows. Been a long time since I heard that. When Emmylou came out to join him for the encores, it turned into a gospel-camp meeting with their voices soaring in “Amazing Grace” and Willie pointing his right hand heavenward. One of Willie’s friends, for a joke, once showed up at a concert in a wheelchair in the front row. During “Amazing Grace” he began shouting, “I’m healed. I’m healed.” He dragged himself up out of the wheelchair and tottered a dozen steps before collapsing. There were “amens” from the folks around him. Another of Willie’s friends, a famous Houston attorney, once introduced one of Willie’s songs as evidence in a trial. He was representing a construction worker who had been maimed in an accident on the job. The lawyer recited Willie’s “Half a Man” and soon had the jury weeping: “If I only had one arm to hold you . . . ” Over the years I have known him, Willie Nelson has not been known as an extremely talkative interviewee. I am not the most garrulous person in the world, either, so a lot of our taped conversations amount to lengthy, very profound silences, punctuated by the wheeze of long tokes. One such exchange that seemed to take an hour: 1. Willie sang “Whiskey River.” 2. We both nodded affirmatively. No words needed. A toke. 3. Willie: “Went over to Peckinpah’s house.” 4. Me: “You talk to Dylan?” 5. Willie: “No. Dylan don’t talk a lot.” 6. Me: “I know.” 7. Willie: “He introduced himself to me and talked just a little bit. I saw him again the next night at a party over at Peckinpah’s house. He was a little shy, scared to death. They had him jumpin’ and runnin’on them horses down there and he ain’t no cowboy.” 8. Willie sang “Shotgun Willie.” 9. Me: “You write that?” 10. Willie: “Yeah.” 11. Me: “Good.” 12. Silence. 13. His daughter Paula Carlene came in. 14. Willie: “Go away. I’m busy.” 15. Paula: “Why can’t I stay?” 16. Willie: ‘Cause you’re a little ole girl.” 17. Paula: “Help me carry something.” 18. Willie: “I can’t. My legs are broke.” 19. A toke. 20. Silence. He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit. “Wasn’t Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?” I asked. Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. “Yeah, it was,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how it’ll do, but so far it’s outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it’d either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn’t really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album.” After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson? Are you still writing songs? “Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I’ll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me.” He chuckled. “I do have some new ones, ‘She’s Gone,’ ‘Is the Better Part Over,’ ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ I don’t think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don’t write as much depressive music now because I don’t feel that way anymore.” Do you feel any vindication now that you’ve succeeded when the Nashville establishment said for so long that you couldn’t be a singer? “I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don’t know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track.” During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong? “Not really. I never had any doubts about what I was trying to do, my songs or my music. I just felt it was good. I had some discouraging moments as far as record labels were concerned, and I thought about droppin’ out and quittin’ and never doin’ it again. In fact, I did quit several times. But it wasn’t because I didn’t think the music wasn’t good. I just thought it was the wrong time for me.” When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters? “Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other’s houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town. By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin’ wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I’ll never write again, never sing again, don’t wanta see nobody again, don’t call me. I stayed out in the country a year and didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed ’em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin’ up and hog prices kept goin’ down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs.” Do you think what happened is that the public finally caught up to what you were doing? “Yeah, I do. I’ve been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin’ up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don’t progress, they could very well pass me too. “But I wasn’t considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in ’em to be country. And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don’t know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story. And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn’t do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people’s ears to where you would listen to lyrics. The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance.” But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson. “Well, Kris has agreed with that. He’d been listenin’ to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I’d listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville.” I’ll bet, I said, that you had thought for years about doing an album like Stardust. Didn’t you listen to Sinatra and Crosby? “Sure I did. Radio was the only thing I had growin’ up. We didn’t have TV. So I stayed with a radio in my ear all the time I was home. I turned the dial constantly, so I’d hear pop, country, jazz, blues, so I was accustomed to all types of music. My sister read music and took piano lessons and bought sheet music so I could learn the songs that way.” Was growing up in Texas a big influence on your music? “I think there’s a big freedom in Texas that gives a person a right to move around and think and do what he wants to do. And I was taught this way: anybody from Texas could do whatever they fucking wanted to do. And that confidence, shit, if you got that going for you, you can do almost anything. I believe that has a lot to do with it.” Besides Texas, what were your biggest influences? I know you heard Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and you liked them. But what else? “Well, I used to work in the fields a lot, pick cotton alongside of niggers, and there would be a whole field full of niggers singing the blues. And I’d pick along and listen to that all day long. I loved to hear them sing.” (Author’s Note: If you find that offensive, you should be advised that Willie Nelson personally risked his career and reputation by starting the career of Charlie Pride, the only prominent black country singer, at a time when C&W fans were not favorably disposed toward black singers. Nelson personally escorted him through the South and occasionally kissed him on the cheek onstage. Doing that in Southern honky-tonks was a brave, brave move.) There is still argument in Nashville, I told Willie, over whether he beat the system or whether he made it work for him. What does he think? He answered seriously. “I think I made it work for me. There’s no secrets about it. I think I kinda let it work for me. I waited till the time was right. Fortunately, all those years of waiting, I had some songs that I’d written that I could live off of and that let me keep my band together and keep my show on the road. Or else I’da had to have folded long ago. Gone back to selling encyclopedias door-to-door.” He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter. “Willie,” I asked, “do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?” He thought about that one for a long time: “The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they’re gonna try to figure out how that’s done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they’re firing at that market. Those guys just didn’t know that audience was there. That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don’t get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin’ beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear.” Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia’s Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn’t particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board. He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he’s decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly. After one run-through of “I Gotta Get Drunk,” it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals. Willie tried to put him at ease: “You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn’t have the nerve to pitch it to you.” “Hell, Willie,” said Jones, “I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut ‘Crazy’ but I couldn’t find you.” Even after a couple more run-throughs, Jones was still having trouble harmonizing with Willie, and Sherrill called from the control room: “Okay, Willie’s stuff is good and we can overdub George later.” They moved on to “Half a Man,” and Jones was still having trouble. “How the hell does Waylon sing with you,” he asked. “I’m used to singin’ right on the note. I could do two lines during one of your pauses.” Willie laughed. Jones left for home, Sherrill left for his houseboat and Willie drove over to Municipal Auditorium and walked onstage to thunderous applause: his triumphant conquest of a city that had long spurned him.

Willie Nelson on ESPN Sports Nation (June 16, 2014)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020
Bristol, CT - June 16, 2014 - Digital Center 2 Plaza: Country singer Willie Nelson performs during an ESPN Newsmaker Luncheon (Photo by John Atashian / ESPN Images) Bristol, CT – June 16, 2014 – Digital Center 2 Plaza: Country singer Willie Nelson performs during an ESPN Newsmaker Luncheon (Photo by John Atashian / ESPN Images)

Welcome to SportsNation! On Monday, legendary musician Willie Nelson drops by to chat about his love of sports and his latest album “Band of Brothers” which hits stores Tuesday.

Nelson, 81, is in his sixth decade in the music industry that began when he started writing songs that included hits like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” “Band of Brothers” marks Nelson’s first album of mostly new, original content since 1996, whose single “Bring It On” can be heard here. Send your questions now and join Nelson Monday at 1:45 p.m. ET! Buzzmaster Willie will be here in a few minutes to take your questions!  Willie is here!
Lenny (San Diego)
You’ve had a long, legendary career, but is there still any spot on the globe that you haven’t played yet that you want to get to? Willie Nelson Well, I want to go back to Italy and play. For a lot of different reasons. I haven’t been there for a long time. I haven’t toured there much. I want to go back to Amsterdam too.
Tim (DC)
What is your songwriting process like? Are you able to write anywhere or do you need to have a certain surroundings?
Willie Nelson
I think a good songwriter should be able to write something about anything any time. Whether it’s any good or not, I don’t know. But if he’s a good writer, he should be able to come up with some rhymes.
Kevin (Boston)
what keeps you motivated to keep on touring and putting out albums?
Willie Nelson
I enjoy touring. I enjoy playing the music. As long as the fans keep showing up, we’ll keep doing it.
Daniel (Kansas)
Anyone in particular you would like to use your black belt skills on?
Willie Nelson
I’m making out a list!
willie wilbanks [via mobile]
What made you decide to do this new album? Are your kids on it as well?
Willie Nelson
I hadn’t had an album of a lot of original songs in a while. We got lucky writing and it just sort of happened.
Keith (Baltimore)
what do you think about the current state of country music? Anyone out there you enjoy listening to?
Willie Nelson
I am of the old school. I haven’t heard too many of the new guys. I’m sure there are some guys I should have heard about. Alison Krauss, Kacey Musgrave are great. Really some great talent out there. I hear Billy Jo is good on the new album.
Carly (Denver)
What do you do on those long bus rides when you’re on tour?
Willie Nelson
I sleep a lot.
Donna Wilbanks Tower [via mobile]
How do you keep that amazing voice? How do you keep going?
Willie Nelson
I use it, it helps, like the old commercial says, if you don’t use it, you lose it. It goes for anything.
Jason (Philly)
What was your friendship with Texas coach Darrell Royal like? Do you think we will see a relationship like that with a big-time head coach and a musician again?
Willie Nelson
Darrell was a good friend. We hung out and jogged together. He was the biggest country music fan ever. Another coach that is a good friend of mine is Don Nelson, we play poker a lot. He’s another good guy.
Ray/Indiana [via mobile]
Have you ever lost or misplaced “Trigger?” What will happen if you outlive Trigger or vice versa?
Willie Nelson
I don’t know. I’ve never lost him. A lot of people keep their eye on him all the time. I don’t even want to think about what I’d do without him.
Mary Benedict (Maryland)
Have you ever thought about making a new Highwayman album? Maybe having the newer bad boys of Toby Keith and Trace Adkins and maybe adding Shooter Jennings and John Carter Cash to honor their Dads, so the Highwayman songs can keep on living.
Willie Nelson
I thought about doing one with maybe me and Merle and Kris, Jamey. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve thought about it.
Neal (Miami)
What is one of your favorite memories of Johnny Cash?
Willie Nelson
Johnny Cash, he called me a lot and wanted me to tell him jokes. He liked my jokes. He was another good friend.
Jenny (Chicago)
What kind of athlete are you now? What about back in your youth?
Willie Nelson
I played all kind of sports, I wasn’t great in any of them but I enjoyed them. It’s still the same way. I run, walk, bike. Do martial arts. I just do enough to keep me going. I try not to overdo it. I think it’s important to do something.
Victor (Monroe)
What,s It Like Being in the country music hall of fame?
Willie Nelson
It was a great honor to be inducted into the hall of fame. It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in my career.
Kevin (Miami)
How many songs do you think you’ve written in your life?
Willie Nelson
I don’t know. 3,000, 4,000.
Wally (KC)
What do you still remember about being on Miami Vice. Did you enjoy acting? Do you still enjoy it?
Willie Nelson
I had fun doing that. I saw that on rerun the other day. With Don Johnson. It was pretty funny. I enjoy acting. It’s a lot of fun.
Tampa Red (Parkersville)
Which late musician do you wish you done a duet with?
Willie Nelson
I would have loved to have played with Django. I am pretty lucky, I got to sing with a lot of the people I wanted to. I’ve been pretty lucky.
Erika (NYC)
Did you come up with the term “Outlaw Country”? If you didn’t, do you like that title?
Willie Nelson
That was started by somebody else in Nashville. I thought it was funny. I liked it from the beginning.
Will Emery (Texas)
Willie, thank you for the years and years of great music. How is your health? 81 going on 18?
Willie Nelson
Pretty much. I feel pretty good. I had a good show last night. Everybody showed up. Was healthy. Can’t ask for much more than that.
Derrick (Chicago)
Hey Willie, I gotta ask you, does too much marijuana ever impact your singing voice? Any long term issues you’ve noticed?
Willie Nelson
It makes me sound too much like Frank Sinatra. I can’t tell if it’s helped or hindered.
Clem Brown (Mineola, TX)
Any surprises for this year’s Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic in Ft. Worth? What’s the lineup this year? Good luck with your new album, can’t wait to hear it.
Willie Nelson
I don’t know. We have a lot of favorites from Texas. We have a lot of other acts booked. David Allan Coe. Ray Wylie Hubbard. If you have three names, I’ll put you on the list.
TimmyJim (Metter)
Even though everything’s better in Metter, which city is your favorite tour stop?
Willie Nelson
I am from Texas. I always look forward to playing in Texas.
QABill (V town)
Besides your own songs, what is your favorite song of all time?
Willie Nelson
My favorite all time song is “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Chris (Kenova, WV)
Your favorite NFL Team?
Willie Nelson
Dallas Cowboys.
Willie Nelson
I’m glad the fans are still all out there. Thanks for the questions.
Willie Nelson
And the USA has a good shot at winning in the World Cup. Good luck USA. Go get ’em!

New Willie Nelson album – just what we need

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

www.premierguitar.com
by: Bill Murphy

No matter what’s happening around him, you can bet safe money that Willie Nelson still can’t wait to get on the road again. From the confines of his Luck Ranch on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, he’s trying to make the most of the conditions that forced him to cancel the remaining dates on his spring tour and delayed the release of his latest album, First Rose of Spring. But after speaking with him for just a few minutes, it’s pretty clear that nothing, not even a coronavirus pandemic, will keep the ever-resilient country music hero from staying focused on the future.

“I mean, for now we just have to work with what we get,” he says matter-of-factly in his amiable, zen-like drawl. “We’re up in the hill country, and everybody seems to be pretty healthy, so we’re just trying to keep it that way. But we have a few things we’re planning online, and then I’ve been going in the studio every day since I’ve been here. I have a lot of stuff happening with Micah, my son—he’s recording some. We just need to have something to do, because you can’t do nothing else, really.”

By the end of April, Nelson and his family production team had hosted four of his Luck Presents events from the ranch, including the annual Luck Reunion, which normally draws 4,000 fortunate fans to Nelson’s property for a day-long music festival. It was quickly reconfigured as a livestream called “‘Til Further Notice” and aired on its originally scheduled date of March 19. In the closing highlight, Nelson sat in his living room with his two multi-talented sons, Lukas and Micah, to play a freewheeling acoustic rendition of his longtime live staple “Whiskey River.” And a few weeks later, the three convened again to perform “Hands on the Wheel,” from Nelson’s classic 1975 breakthrough Red Headed Stranger, for his long-running Farm Aid benefit.

Under the circumstances, it’s a treat to get a glimpse of the Nelson family at home, but it’s also a painful reminder of what we’re missing. Willie Nelson in concert is more than just a performer. He’s an experience unto himself: a walking, talking wellspring of country, soul, blues, and jazz lore, and a profoundly gifted interpreter of music who can take a crowd of 70,000 people on an emotional journey that lingers for the rest of their lives.

There’s a bittersweetness, a sweeping sense of nostalgia, in that notion, which Nelson captures perfectly on First Rose of Spring. Produced by longtime friend and confidant Buddy Cannon, who has helped craft Nelson’s sound—and co-written a growing number of songs—on some 15 recordings going back to 2008’s Moment of Forever, the album is as much a statement of love, hope, reflection, and, yes, house-rocking and hell-raising, as it is a solemn and intimate portrait of a man fondly looking back over a life that’s been lived to the fullest.

Of course, the title song pretty much says it all. “First Rose of Spring” is first and foremost a sweet love song, and finds Nelson singing with unusual tenderness, clarity, and strength, while the brief solo he takes on Trigger—his instantly recognizable road-beaten Martin N-20 nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, which he acquired new back in 1969—crackles with the sound of Texas blues and flamenco-flavored Mexican folk, all imbued with Nelson’s confident touch and quirky, fleet-fingered licks.

“I just love Willie’s guitar playing,” Cannon says from his home just outside of Nashville. “Every time he plays Trigger, he plays something different. I mean, he even surprises himself. Sometimes he’ll play something and he’ll laugh, you know? Everything is improv with him. He doesn’t sit and think, ‘Hey, how about this lick? Let me work on this and get it right.’ He never plays the same thing. You can play the same song, same track, 10 times, and everywhere he places a note is different every time—and to me, it’s all correct. It’s never wrong.”

Nelson might wave off the praise, but it’s clear that he trusts Cannon implicitly in the studio. “Buddy and I just work really well together,” he says. “He’s in Nashville, and I’m usually somewhere else, so he’ll cut the tracks in Nashville, using the musicians he likes to work with, and then when things are ready, normally he’ll come down here to my studio. Then I’ll just go in and do my parts. It’s really an easy way to record.”

It’s also testament to Cannon’s talents that he can make the album sound like it was tracked with everyone in the room together [see sidebar, “Trigger Happy:Buddy Cannon on Recording with Willie”]. “Blue Star” and “Love Just Laughed,” in particular, both new songs that Nelson co-wrote with Cannon, stand out for the way Trigger meshes in the mix with the harmonica licks of longtime band member Mickey Raphael, as well as the buttery steel guitar played by Mike Johnson, and the lush Fender Rhodes (on “Blue Star”) by keyboardist Catherine Marx.

Nelson plays through a vintage Baldwin C1 Custom amp, which accents the lushness of the Martin while also giving it a unique bite that responds to his touch, and can cut through any wall of sound, depending on how hard he plays.

Back in ’69, Trigger was outfitted with the Prismatone pickup from a Baldwin 800C acoustic-electric guitar, which Nelson had been playing for a year or two, until one night, according to the legend, a drunken fan accidentally crushed it underfoot after a gig in a San Antonio suburb.) And, as the years have shown, he does play hard. Since the mid ’70s, a distinctive gash has opened up in the guitar’s spruce top that, to this day, requires periodic repairs by Austin-based luthier and guitar guru Mark Erlewine.

For all the ballads on First Rose, Nelson still went for what he says felt right, from the campfire-like mood of Chris Stapleton’s beautiful “Our Song” to the honky-tonk groove of “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” made famous in 1977 by none other than Johnny Paycheck. “Me and Paycheck were good buddies,” Nelson says, “and I loved what he did on that record. But yeah, I just picked what was available and did pretty much what I wanted to do, you know? I think that’s the way it ought to be.”

Nowhere else does that intention come through more forcefully than on the album’s closer, “Yesterday When I Was Young,” made famous by the late Roy Clark back in 1969. Nelson seems literally to feel the song in his bones, while his picking of the main melody and plucking of the underlying chords conjures visions of Django Reinhardt (one of his childhood heroes) laying back on a classic ballad like “September Song”—complete with a string section to heighten the sanctified mood.

Of course, Nelson is fully conscious of the song’s implications, since it’s such a moving and heartfelt way to close the album. “I thought so, too, and I’m glad you agree,” he says. “I remember hearing Roy Clark doing it a hundred years ago. He really turned me on to that song, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

He pauses to consider the memory. Having just turned 87, and having lost so many close friends in recent years—including his longtime drummer and best friend Paul English, who passed away in February—Nelson can be forgiven for sounding a bit sentimental. The thing is, a sense of vulnerability is part of what makes his music so accessible. From his country standards “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” to his latter-day hits “Always on My Mind” and “On the Road Again,” a palpable warmth, openness, and humanity runs through everything he’s ever recorded.

Nelson also took naturally to the ethos of the “outlaw” country sound that he’s credited with helping to invent. After all, his penchant for cannabis is well documented, and although he gave up smoking late last year, his weed brand Willie’s Reserve, launched in 2015, is currently in, well, high demand. But he’d also point out that his buddies Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, and so many more were just as integral to the building of the mystique. The thing they have in common: They grabbed life by the throat and never let go.

Nelson picks up that thread and runs with it. “You know, Buddy and I also wrote some stuff for a new album that we’ve started,” he reveals. “One song is called ‘Live Every Day’—that’s the title. It goes, ‘Treat everyone like you want to be treated, and see how that changes your life. Yesterday’s dead, tomorrow is blind, and the future is way out of sight. So just live every day like it was your last one, and one day you’ll be right.’” He pauses again, to let the words sink in.

“It’s not bad,” he says finally.

Not bad, indeed. Read on for the rest of Premier Guitar’s candid chat with the one and only Willie Nelson.