Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Keith Richards talks about Willie Nelson

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Graeme Thomson
from 2005 interview with Keith Richards

KR: Hello Graeme

GT: Hello Keith. How are you?

KR: What are you doing up this time of night, old boy?

 GT: I’m writing my book on Willie Nelson.

KR: Yeah, that does take a lot of midnight oil!

GT: Hell, yeah, it takes a long time. What are you up to?

KR: I just got into Portland out of Seattle.. on the road, you know.

GT: How’s it all going?

KR: Yeah, going very well, man. I mean, brilliantly. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

GT: In context of Willie, I’ve been thinking a lot about what …

KR: Yeah, you must be well embroiled in it by now!

GT:……I’m up to my neck in it, but it’s brilliant. I’ve been thinking a lot about what keeps people on the road. In your case what is it that keeps you out there?

KR: I dunno. You could ask Willie that one!

GT: I know. I have.

KR: One could say that it becomes like an addiction or… there’s loads of people out there who want to see what you do and you feel like doing it. It’s a simple as that. It’s probably somewhere between the two: white line fever.

GT: With him it seems to have just become his life almost…

KR: [Sings] On the Road Again…

GT: It’s his manifesto, isn’t it?

KR: He’s an amazing guy, Willie. I’ve never hung with Willie except when we’ve been working together, but Willie always makes a little space to hang. He’s an amazing guy. He’s your All American. He’s what I would call an American patriot, but not in the flag waving sense or that shallow sort of…. he loves the soil, man, he loves the… land itself, and he’s the right guy to put the case. I mean, he’s a real old regular American. There’s very few of them, really, at least that stand up and say so. Willie is just that way. He couldn’t be any different any other way I don’t think. Times that I’ve known him, I always have a great time with him. We’re guitar pickers and song writers and shit so we can just kinda kick shit around, you know. But as a man he’s a bit of a mystery, actually.

GT: I get the sense he’s pretty unknowable really.

KR: So you’ve got that feeling too, right?

GT: Totally, yeah.

KR: I don’t think he really knows all of himself, he’s just dedicated to his idea and after all, on top of that a brilliant musician and a songwriter par excellence – that’s your actual French, you know?

GT: Ha! When did you first become aware of him? His harmonica player Mickey Raphael told me that the Stones offered him a support slot in the 70s and he turned it down. Do you remember that?

KR: Well, I do believe so, it is very hard to recall that kind of thing. Maybe it was because he had a previous engagement, a lot of the times you want to work with people on the road and you find that they’re doing Australia while you’re trying to get a gig together in LA. It’s all that ships in the night passing away. But, em, Willie sort of cracked into my perception, I started to hear these songs first…. ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, and ‘Crazy’, and I started to see this name Nelson. When they were 45s it was easier to check out who wrote what. I knew nothing about his character, I just heard these very interesting songs coming out of this guy called Nelson.

Finally, when he burst through the bubble and actually became Willie Nelson in fact rather than just being a Nashville songwriter and whatever it was he was doing – I know what he was doing, actually, but I’m not going to tell! – but Willie sort of creeps up on you. Every time you heard a really interesting song, half the time you’d find Willie Nelson’s name attached to it. And then when he became a performer, because he’s such a recluse in a way. He’s the most unlikely star.

I’ve worked with him…. I think the first time I worked with him he asked me to come up to that casino somewhere in Connecticut, where the Indians are running the joint. About time they got their money back – Willie agreed with me I think. I was amazed at that country thing – there’s Willie, he finishes the show and then he spends like an hour or more and he just signs about every autograph in the audience, you know that country tradition of ‘you’re one of the folks.’ When you’re up there on the stage you’re that, but then afterwards you’ve got to mix, and I was amazed that that was still going on. And Willie, that great patience that he has, that sort of stoic…. meanwhile he’s going, ‘Where’s the joint,’ you know? I always judged Willie shows when I’ve worked with him by how many guys he’s got rolling behind him in the bus: ‘This is a three Frisbee show, pal!’

GT:  He smokes an unbelievable amount of dope, doesn’t he?

KR: Oh, absolutely – and always good stuff. Believe me, I’m a connoisseur. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I work with him a lot! No, I’m attracted to the man just as a character and a player. His knowledge of the music… those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music.

GT: How do you rate him as a guitar player?

KR: Oh, he’s incredible man. Absolutely. He’s unique, can you get any better? I mean nobody else could play like that. I mean, look at the state of the guitar for Chrissakes! He’s punched holes through it, scraped it away, and it still sounds better than ever. It’s that weird mixture of stuff, and he doesn’t mind going off on a flight somewhere in the middle of a song. Just taking it and seeing where he ends up. He’s got a beautiful bravado. I admire that.

GT: Has he ever let you play that guitar?

KR: Oh, I’ve had a bash at it. I say, ‘I can’t play it, it’s got a hole in it Willie!’ Where’s there’s a Willie there’s a way.

GT: I’m surprised you’ve never done… because he’s done so many albums and duets and stuff, have you never discussed doing anything on record together as a piece?

KR: We kind of talk about it and look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, when and where?’ and then it becomes: Oh, later. It’s sort of in the air, I’d love to, but his schedule is…most of the difficult things about working with guys you really admire and would like to get together with is since everybody’s busy, they’re always on the other side of the planet when you’re doing things. It’s finding the time and stuff, and Willie’s a busy man. He has to save all those small farms.

GT: Last time I spoke to him he said he was making six albums – at the same time!

KR: Yeah, he’s been incredibly productive in the last few years, he’s really working hard, man. But then I don’t think he couldn’t. If he wasn’t working I can imagine him fading away.

GT: Do you know his band very well, have you met those guys?

KR: Yeah, the guys around him and everything, I always have a great time when I see Willie. I’m always waiting for the ‘I’m doing a TV show, do you want to come by?’ I say, ‘How many Frisbees involved, man?’ The last time, I met Merle Haggard via Willie. I’d never met Merle before, which was interesting. It ends up with Merle working with us in a few weeks time in Texas. I’m sitting rehearsing with Willie on the West coast somewhere, I think it was Parsons thing or whatever, and sitting there on the drum riser, and there’s this guy with a baseball cap on – the right way around – and a grey beard and he’s picking like a maniac, and he’s sitting next to me and suddenly I said, ‘Your name’s not Merle?’ Yup! Jesus Christ, what a way to meet.

Willie brings people together, that’s the other thing that I think is important to stress. Willie is a great magnet. All kinds of different music. He can pull people together that probably very rarely that somebody else could. They’d be staying in their own lanes, so to speak. But Willie can pull together like Norah Jones…. a diverse amount of people from every spectrum of music you can think of, Jesus Christ there’s enough spectrums to think!

I always admire him because…. when I work with him he’s doing these TV shows. And he’s on stage with absolutely everybody. All day. He’s got to rehearse with them and then he’s got to do the show. Me, I come there and I just do my bit with him, ‘You wanna join in on this?’ I can pick and choose. But I watch the man work, Graeme, and it’s amazing the heart and diplomacy of the man. He should be President, I think! We’d be a lot better off, or at least the Americans would. Possibly we would. But his dedication to what he does, amazing energy. A lot of guys say: how do we [the Stones] do it? How does Willie do it? I mean I’m watching him up there with 24 acts and he’s singing with every one of them. And he’s got it all together, very very smooth, beautiful, no sweat. He has that amazing effect on people, a sort of calmness, but there’s a certain ….under there there’s a hint of real danger if it blows up.

GT: Those eyes…those black eyes he’s got.

KR: Yeah, yeah, he’s one of your great Westerners. A real love for the soil of the land and a feel for it, more than waving stars and stripes and all that crap. A real concern for where it all comes from and what you live on, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really honest. Which is hard to find in this day and age and this world we live in.

GT: Pretty much unique, I’d say.

KR: How does he strike you, once you’ve taken this gig on? Same way?

GT: Pretty much the same way, yeah. I think….

KR: Oh, he’s a great singer man, Such a wry delivery. I mean, everybody has got a great voice, it’s just a matter of what to do with it. I mean, I get a lot of that flak too, you know. The Grizzle, and all that crap. Willie and I have been pretty well grizzled and we kind of find ourselves in a weird way – which is really amazing coming from where we come from, totally different places – I feel at home with Willie.

GT: Did you listen to that reggae album he made?

KR: Yes I did, yes, cos I live in Jamaica I know most of the cats that are on the session. I thought it was a very bold move, and then I found out that Johnny Cash has been living in Jamaica for years, and round the corner from me. But when you go to live in Jamaica you don’t advertise, I found out without me knowing it that Johnny Cash had been my neighbour, virtually, at 20 minutes away, for like 20 years, but probably never there at the same time because when you go to Jamaica you don’t want to be seen by white people! It’s one of those things.

GT: How much time do you spend there?

KR: As much as I can. I haven’t been there for about a year now, mainly because we’ve been making records and doing this. But as soon as these hurricanes stop I’m going to the bolt hole.

GT: Well listen, that’s fantastic.

KR: Ok, Graeme. All right.

GT: Can I use this as a little introduction to the book? Is that cool?

KR: You can use it in any way you like. Yes. And give my regards to Willie, all right?

GT: I shall, and thanks for your time Keith. Take care.

KR: Pleasure, Graeme. Later man

Willie Nelson on Fresh Air Radio

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

by: Dave Davies


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, Willie Nelson became the first country singer and songwriter to receive the Library of Congress George Gershwin Prize for popular song. In his 60-year, Wilson has written 2,500 songs, won seven Grammy awards, been honored at the Kennedy Center and is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. At 82, he’s still recording and touring. He told an interviewer last week, I don’t do time off very well. Willie Nelson established himself as a songwriter in the ’60s with songs such as “Hello Walls,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” He broke through as a performer in the ’70s, wearing blue jeans and long hair, defying the rhinestone-style of country performers of the day. Today, we’ll hear parts of two interviews Terry recorded with Willie Nelson, starting with one in 1996. Nelson brought his guitar for some music and conversation after he’d released a gospel album and a recording of original songs called “Spirit.” They began with a track from that album called “Your Memory Won’t Die In My Grave.”


WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Been feeling kind of free, but I sure do feel lonesome. Baby’s takin’ a trip, but she ain’t taking me. I’ve been feeling kind of free, but I’d rather feel your arms around me ’cause you’re taking away everything that I wanted. There’s an old hollow tree…



Willie Nelson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Now, one of the first songs that you wrote that got recorded was called the “Family Bible.”

NELSON: Right.

GROSS: And this was – what – in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I don’t remember which.

NELSON: This was in the ’60s. I was down in Houston writing and playing down there and run into (unintelligible) Claude Gray. He was looking for a song to record, so I sang him “Family Bible” and wound up selling it to him between – I sold it to him and two more guys for $50 I think. And it went on to be No. 1 record.

GROSS: Did you get any royalties since you’d already sold the song?

NELSON: (Laughter) Not really.


NELSON: Not really.

GROSS: Would you sing us a big of the “Family Bible” and tell us what went into the writing of it?

NELSON: Well, this is sort of autobiographical, or practically 100 percent autobiographical.

(Singing) There’s a family Bible on the table. Its pages worn and hard to read. But the family Bible on the table will ever be my key to memories. At the end of day when work was over and when the evening meal was done Dad would read to us from the family Bible, and we’d count our many blessings one by one. I can see us sitting ’round the table when from the family Bible Dad would read. And I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages, rock of ages cleft for me.

GROSS: Well, that’s nice. Willie Nelson, thank you for singing that.


GROSS: What did your family Bible look like?

NELSON: Oh, it was worn and hard to read (laughter). It was one of those typical old faded family Bibles where all the history was – the family was in there, you know? All the – where all the grandparents came from and the great-grandparents, and it was a wonderful – it was very interesting. A lot of the Sunday school lessons that we learned from the Bible and things that were taken from the Bible – very interesting. It must’ve been to keep a kid my age interested enough to, you know, want to sing it and want to get involved in it.

GROSS: Well, I think it’s very interesting that you could write compelling autobiographical songs about the family Bible and about the nightlife (laughter).

NELSON: Well, they’re very much involved. You know, they’re very much – they’re very close together (laughter). I mean, I would sing to the same people on Saturday nights in the clubs that I would sing to on Sunday mornings in church. I had to act like I didn’t see them the night before.


GROSS: Now, you made your very first record back in 1957 and Rhino Records put out a box set – a three-CD box set – of your recordings. And they reissued this first recording that you made called “No Place For Me,” one of your songs. Why don’t I play that very early recording?


GROSS: And we’ll see how it sounded.


NELSON: (Singing) Your love is as cold as a north wind blows and the river that runs to the sea. How can I go on when your only love is gone? I can see this is no place for me. The light in your eye is still shining. It shines, but it don’t shine for me. It’s a story so old, another love grown cold. I can see this is no place for me.

GROSS: That’s Willie Nelson, his very first recording made in 1957.

What were the circumstances under which this record was made?

NELSON: Well, I wanted to make a record. I wanted to sell it over my radio program. I was with KVAN in Vancouver, Wash., and thought it’d be a good idea if I, you know, pressed up a few records and sold them. And so I went over to this friend of mine’s house who had a tape recorder in his basement, and we sat there and recorded that one – “No Place For Me,” and the Leon Payne song called “Lumberjack.” And I pressed up 500 copies and sold them on my radio show.

GROSS: And the kind of echo effect, the reverb, was that intentional or was that just the sound of the room?

NELSON: Well, I think there was a little echo in the room, but the most of it was there was an echo attachment on the recorder that we may have overdone a little bit.

GROSS: Right.


GROSS: So then what happened with this record? You sold 500 copies on your radio show. Did you send it to a record company?

NELSON: Well, there was a company out of Texas that if you sent them the money they would press you up their copies, and they would sell them to you at their cost and you could sell them and make a little profit if you wanted to, or just sell them for the advertisement. And that’s basically what I did. I sold them over the air, sold them, a 8-by-10 picture and a record, I think both of them for a buck, which is about what it cost me to make it.

GROSS: You said when you were growing up all the music kind of blended together. You were a disc jockey for a while. Did you play a wide variety of music on the radio?

NELSON: Yeah, I played everything. I played everything from Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod” to Marty Robbins’s “White Sport Coat.” I played everything – anything I wanted to play. It was back in the good old days of radio when you could go in and grab your favorite records and play them.

GROSS: Right, before playlists told you what you were supposed to play (laughter).


GROSS: Did you have a persona on the air? Did you go by your own name? Did you have a different voice that you used?

NELSON: Not really. I didn’t have a different voice, but I used to open my show – when I first started out, I had some disc jockey heroes that I ripped off pretty thoroughly (laughter), and there was a guy named Eddie Hill out of Memphis that I stole a lot of his things from. But anyway, the way I would wind up opening my show, I’d say, this is your old cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, gravy soppin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.

GROSS: Whoa. (Laughter). And, did you write that yourself?

NELSON: Well, as I say, I wrote a lot of it myself and I ripped off Eddie and some of the other guys.


GROSS: Right.

NELSON: But it’s some of theirs and some of mine all put together.

GROSS: You must have said it a lot of times to remember that off the top of your head so well (laughter).

NELSON: Yeah, I must have. (Laughter).

GROSS: Now, how did you get to Nashville, where you started writing songs professionally?

NELSON: I was living in Houston, in Pasadena really, outside, working at another radio station there and playing at clubs at night and writing songs. And I’d written – one week, I’d written – let’s see, “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.”

GROSS: I’m sorry – did you say you wrote that in one week?

NELSON: Yeah, I was working…


GROSS: Oh, jeez, I wish I had a week like that.

NELSON: That was a great – well, that’s when I decided maybe I ought to go to Nashville. And so I took off to Nashville in my ’46 Buick that just barely made it – I think it died when it hit the city limits – and went immediately to a place called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where I had heard was the spot to be in Nashville if you want find some songwriters and hang out a little bit. So – and sure enough, it was the spot to be. I’d run into some friends of mine – Buddy Edmondson, Hank Cochran, Faron Young was there. And we all got in a jam session and started singing songs, and I sung some songs to Faron that he liked and wanted to record. So we recorded them the next week. He did two of my songs, one called “Congratulations,” and the other one was called “Hello Walls.”

GROSS: So just to make sure I’m hearing correctly, you wrote “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life” in one week?


GROSS: Did you say to yourself, wow, these are three great songs that will become classics?

NELSON: (Laughter). Well, I’m afraid I wasn’t that knowledgeable, but I wish I’d had known then what they were going to do. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t. I made enough mistakes as it was. But, no, I had no idea that these songs would be as successful as they have been.

GROSS: Would you play one of those three for us now?


GROSS: Thank you.

NELSON: (Singing) Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely. I’m crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. I knew you loved me as long as you wanted and then some day you’d leave me for somebody new. Worry, why do I let myself worry? Wondering, what in the world did I do? And I’m crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. Crazy for trying, crazy for crying and I’m crazy for loving you.

GROSS: That’s such a terrific song. What came first when you were writing it? Was it the hook of crazy?

NELSON: Yeah. And then it all – you know, everything sort of came from that. And I don’t know where that one came from. Maybe it was a self-analysis.


NELSON: It must’ve been.

GROSS: Now, how did Patsy Cline end up recording it?

NELSON: I went to Nashville and I had that song and – with some others. And I met Hank Cochran, who was with Pamper Music, which eventually wound up to be the publishing company that I signed with, thanks to Hank. And Hank knew Patsy. He knew her husband, Charlie Dick, and he took the song to Patsy and to Charlie. I think maybe Charlie heard it first and thought it would be a good song for Patsy. So that’s through Charlie, Patsy’s husband, and through Hank Cochran that she got the song. She wasn’t too sure about it, and it took her a little while to – I think the first day she went into the session, she spent about four hours trying to sing it the way I was singing it and it wasn’t working for her. And so the next day, the producer, Owen Bradley, said, why don’t you sing it like Patsy one time? And that’s what she did, and that song has gone on to be the top jukebox song of all time, Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy.”

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1996. We’ll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to interviews Terry recorded with Willie Nelson. He’s now the first country artist awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.


GROSS: Now, I think it was before you went to Nashville that you wanted to record your song “Night Life.” And one of the producers you were working with at the time, Pappy Daily, told you that you weren’t country enough. Do I have that right?

NELSON: Actually, I recorded in Houston for Pappy Daily. And I recorded “Family Bible,” a couple of other songs. But “Night Life” they wouldn’t record it because they said it was too bluesy. It wasn’t country. So I recorded “Night Life” under the name of Hugh Nelson on another label across town just to prove a point.

GROSS: And did you prove it?

NELSON: Yeah, that particular record of “Night Life” I think is still the best record of it. I did it with Paul Buskirk, Herb Remington, Dean Reynolds, some of the greatest jazz musicians around Houston.

GROSS: Would you sing the song for us now? And maybe tell us about writing it.

NELSON: Well, this is one of those songs that I wrote on the same week that I wrote “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It was driving back and forth from the Esquire Club to Pasadena every night. (Singing) When the evening sun goes down. You will find me hanging around. The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life. And many people just like me dream of old used to be’s. And the nightlife ain’t no good life, but it’s my life. Listen to the blues they’re playing. And listen to what the blues are saying. Mine is just another scene from the world of broken dreams. And the nightlife ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.

GROSS: What was your night life like when you wrote that?

NELSON: I don’t remember.


GROSS: As if to prove a point.



GROSS: Well, were you really cutting loose for a while? I mean, you were on your own, and you were starting to make money with your career as a songwriter.

NELSON: Well, yeah, I was, you know, throwing it away with both hands.


NELSON: The faster I make it, the faster I would spend it. Everybody else would travel on the bus and – I was still playing bass for Ray Price when “Hello Walls” made a hit and I got my first royalty check. So I, you know, started flying first class to all the dates as Ray’s bass player, right? I’m making $25 a day.


NELSON: And I get a suite at the hotel. Ray’s got a regular room at the Holiday Inn, you know, and I got the penthouse. So the checks came and went (Laughter.) But I had a lot of fun.

GROSS: Were you married at the time?

NELSON: Yeah, I was.

GROSS: And did that bother you?

NELSON: It bothered her.


GROSS: All right, now when you really started recording in Nashville, your own songs, did you feel you had any trouble fitting into country music as it was?

NELSON: At those – at that time?

GROSS: Yeah.

NELSON: Yeah, well, I didn’t. There was no slot that I fit in. I wouldn’t go in that one, or that one or that one. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t. I just didn’t fit.

GROSS: What were the available slots, and why weren’t you fitting in?

NELSON: Well, my chords – my songs had a few chords in them and the country songs weren’t supposed to have over three chords according to executive decisions (Laughter). And if it had more than three, then it wasn’t country, and it shouldn’t be recorded. And my voice wasn’t exactly – I was nowhere near Eddy Arnold. And I was not – I guess I was closer to Ernest Tubb than Eddy Arnold. But still, my phrasing was sort of funny. I didn’t sing on the beat. I had too many chords in my – I just didn’t fit the slots, you know? And I wouldn’t take orders (Laughter). I just – I couldn’t, you know, I didn’t know how to take direction that well. So I wouldn’t fit in any of these slots, and so I became one of those guys that, you know, they had to call something else. You have to have a label, you know.

GROSS: What were you called?

NELSON: Well, troublemaker at first and then they found the word outlaw and then decided that would smooth it out a little bit. So they started calling us that. I think the first time that term was used was in a column written by Hazel Smith, an old friend of ours from Nashville, and it took off I guess.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1996. After a break we’ll hear some of their 2006 conversation about Nelson’s book “The Tao Of Willie.” I’m Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


NELSON: (Singing) On the road again just can’t wait to get on the road again. Life I love is making music with my friends. And I can’t wait to get on the road again. On the road again going places that I’ve never been. Seeing things that I may never see again. I can’t wait to get on the road again. On the road again like a band of gypsies we go down the highway. We’re the best of friends insisting that the world be turning our way. And our way is 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 get on the road again.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, Willie Nelson became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for popular song. Terry last spoke to him in 2006 when he’d published his memoir, “The Tao of Willie.”


GROSS: You so have many great records. It was really hard to narrow down what songs I wanted to play during your FRESH AIR visit today. But here’s one I know I want to play. There’s a great album that came out about three years ago called, “Crazy: The Demo Sessions.” And it’s demo recordings that you made after you were a DJ (laughter) when you got to Nashville. And these are – some of them are from the early 1960s. This one is. It’s from 1961. It’s just voice and guitar. It’s a demo of the song “Opportunity To Cry.”


NELSON: (Singing) Just watched the sun rise on the other side of town. Once more I’ve waited, and once more you’ve let me down. This would be a perfect time for me to die. I’d like to take this opportunity to cry. You gave your word. Now I’ll return it to you with this suggestion as to what you can do. Just exchange the words I love you to goodbye while I take this opportunity to cry. I’d like to see you, but I’m afraid…

GROSS: That’s Willie Nelson and a demo recording he made of his own song in 1961 when he was trying to interest people in recording his songs. What was the fate of that song? Did anybody ever do it?

NELSON: I don’t think anybody had done it but me. I’ve recorded it maybe a couple of times since then. It was one of those really sad, almost pitiful…


NELSON: …songs.

GROSS: In your new book, you write, I’ve always had my own way of singing and it was nothing like the way other Nashville stars sang.

What did people think of your singing on the demos before you recorded yourself?

NELSON: I think a lot of the musicians understood what I was doing. And my phrasing was a little different, and my chords were a little strange too. They weren’t your normal three-chord country songs. And that was a little strange for a lot of the people in the industry at that time because country and pop hadn’t really melted together like they have today in some instances. So a song with a lot of chords in it wasn’t considered to be that commercial. So I had fun trying to get those songs done in that kind of atmosphere.

GROSS: When you said that your singing was different and your chords were different, do you think that the chords and the singing were more jazz inflected in some ways, and had you listened to a lot of jazz?

NELSON: Well, I have listened to a lot of different kinds of music, and I grew up listening to everything from Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams. So I’m sure I picked up a lot from, you know, every one of those guys. I lived across the street from a whole gang of great Mexican friends of mine who played music all the time. So I was influenced by all that music. I worked in the fields with all kinds of people who sang and played in practically every language, from bohemian to Czech to Spanish. So I heard all kinds of music. It was like being in an opera out there in the cotton fields. And picking cotton wasn’t that fun, but the music out there was incredible.

GROSS: Did you sing when you were picking cotton?

NELSON: Oh, at the top of my voice.

GROSS: Yeah? (Laughter).

NELSON: (Laughter).

GROSS: What would you like to sing?

NELSON: I would sing what they were singing, you know? They would be singing over there, singing some blues and I would sing some blues with them. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was trying to sing. And I’d just sing songs that I knew back then. And I didn’t know many songs other than gospel songs back then. I’d sing, you know, “Amazing Grace” and songs like that.

GROSS: Now, in your new book, “The Tao Of Willie,” you say that you wrote your first cheating song when you were 7, long before you knew firsthand anything about broken hearts and cheating. When you started writing songs when you were older, (laughter), did you know anything about, like, the structure of a 32-bar song or how to write the bridge to a song? Did you think of the song in technical terms when you started seriously writing them?

NELSON: No, I never did and I still really don’t. I just kind of write and sing what I feel like writing. And my timing is pretty good so I, you know, I don’t break meter that much. And my ear is pretty good so I don’t play a lot of wrong chords. But, you know, as far as the lyrics and the singing itself, everybody has to judge that for themselves. But back in those days, I was writing about things I had – you know, like you say, at that age I couldn’t have possibly known what I was writing about. Unless you happen to believe in reincarnation, which I do, and…

GROSS: (Laughter).

NELSON: …Maybe I come here knowing some things that I wrote about before I knew I knew.

GROSS: You know, in talking about country songs, like, country songs have certain conventions in a way. You know, like, a lot of country songs are about cheating or drinking too much or falling in love. I guess you could say the same thing about rock songs. (Laughter). But there’s also, like, a subcategory of country songs, songs where, like, you’re feeling so bad, you’re just overwhelmed with self-pity. And one of the most self-pitying of the self-pitying songs is a song that you wrote that’s included on your “Demo Sessions” that I really want to play and hear the story behind. And so here it comes. This is Willie Nelson singing a very self-pitying song.


NELSON: (Singing) If I’d only had one arm to hold you – better yet, if I’d had none at all then I wouldn’t have two arms that ache for you and there’d be one less memory to recall. If I’d only…

GROSS: Then in the next verse, you imagine having only one eye so he’d have only one eye to cry. (Laughter). Did you think of…

NELSON: That’s pitiful.

GROSS: Yes, so self-pitying.


NELSON: Did you think, when you sat down to write this, that you would write the ultimate self-pitying song?

NELSON: Well, actually I didn’t sit down to write that one. The way that song happened, I was lying in bed with Shirley. And I woke up in the middle of the night wanting a cigarette, and her head was on my arm. So I had to reach over on the side of the bed and get a cigarette and put it in my mouth and then get a match with that one hand and then try to strike that one match. So it all started from that.

GROSS: Oh – because you only had one arm?


GROSS: Really? Is this really what happened?

NELSON: That’s true. That’s a true story. So from the one arm, I went into the one eye, one ear, one leg.

GROSS: (Laughter). That’s really funny.


GROSS: And what was the fate of this song?

NELSON: I recorded it a couple of times. Other people have recorded it. Merle Haggard recorded it, I think George Jones did. So it’s got a pretty good history.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2006. We’ll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to an interview Terry recorded with Willie Nelson in 2006. This week, he became the first country artist awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.


GROSS: Now, you have a very recent CD – I guess I could call it a new CD – of songs by Cindy Walker, who’s most famous for “You Don’t Know Me” and “Bubbles In My Beer.” Did you know her well? She died just at about the time your CD was released.

NELSON: Yeah. And at the time we started doing this album, I’d – you know, I had known her a long time. She was a very good friend. And I had talked to her, and we talked about doing an album of her songs for years. And she had sent me songs, and I had a quite an accumulation of Cindy’s songs and I knew a lot of them. But I just hadn’t gotten into the studio to do it, you know, for one reason or another. And I’m glad I did it when I did because Cindy’s health was deteriorating pretty well at that time. And I was just hoping that I could get the album completed and out while she was still here to listen to it. And as it happened she did get to hear it before she died.

GROSS: What did she have to say?

NELSON: Oh, she loved it. She called me up and told me, you know, a lot of great things about how she enjoyed it. And she really made me feel good about getting it done.

GROSS: I’d like to play a song from that CD. And I’m going to give you your choice of one of her two most famous songs, “You Don’t Know Me” or “Bubbles In My Beer.”

NELSON: Well, you know, “Bubbles In My Beer” is a great up-tempo song that I first learned from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I had no idea who wrote the song when I started singing it. But I was a huge Bob Wills fan, and I just tried to sing and play every song that they recorded. So when “Bubbles In My Beer” came out, it was a natural because I was, you know, a beer joint operator – I mean, beer joint club player. So naturally, it was a good song for where I was playing, and it still is. It’s a great piece of literature. And so let’s play “Bubbles In My Beer.”

GROSS: Good enough, and this is from Willie Nelson’s CD of songs by Cindy Walker.


NELSON: (Singing) Tonight in a bar alone I’m sitting apart from the laughter and the cheer, while scenes from the past rise before me just watching the bubbles in my beer. And I’m seeing the road that I’ve traveled, a road paved with heartaches and tears. And I’m seeing the past that I’ve wasted while watching the bubbles in my beer. A vision of someone who loved me brings a long silent tear to my eye as I think of the heart that I’ve broken and all the golden chances that have passed me by. I know that my life has been a failure, and I’ve lost everything that made life dear. And the dreams I once dreamed now are empty, as empty as the bubbles in my beer.

GROSS: My guest is Willie Nelson. Now, the last couple of summers you’ve been touring minor league baseball parks with Bob Dylan. What do you feel you and Bob Dylan have most in common as friends or as songwriters or lovers of music?

NELSON: Well, I think all those things. He enjoys touring and playing probably as much as I do because he’s always out here somewhere. I enjoy his friendship because he’s a great guy. He’s a little shy and reserved but, you know, so am I in a lot of ways. And so I understand that. We’ve written a song together one time. We wrote a song called “The American Dream.” And it was written in sort of a different way I guess because he sent me the melody that – a track that he had already recorded where he just hummed a melody. So the whole thing was like (humming) so (laughter) it was kind of a strange demo. But the track was great, so I wrote lyrics to the – to his instrumental, and it turned out I thought pretty good. We recorded it here in New York, maybe just a month or so after we finished it.

GROSS: My guest is Willie Nelson. Here he is with Bob Dylan singing “Heartland,” which they co-wrote.


WILLIE NELSON AND BOB DYLAN: (Singing) There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland, and the bankers are taking my home and my land from me. There’s a big gaping hole in my chest now where my heart was and a hole in the sky where God used to be. There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland with a well where the water’s so bitter nobody can drink. Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t drink. Don’t they know that I’m dying? Why ain’t nobody crying for me? My American dream fell apart at the scene. You tell me what it means. You tell me what it means.

GROSS: I want to ask you about somebody else who you were very close to, and that’s Johnny Cash. You knew him for years. You played together in The Highwaymen. How would you describe him as a friend?

NELSON: Well, a friend is a friend. You know, a friend is with you good or bad, any time. So John and I have always been friends. And whenever – you know, he’d call me up several times when he was having a bad day just to hear a joke. So I’d tell him my latest dirty joke (laughter). And I’d try to make it as dirty as possible so he would laugh louder.

GROSS: You actually must collect jokes or something because, like, your new book, for instance, is filled with jokes, literally jokes.

NELSON: Well, I believe in jokes. You know, I think jokes are important, a necessity. You need to laugh at yourself, other people, life, death. You need to figure out a way to laugh at everything.

GROSS: Do you tell a lot of jokes onstage?

NELSON: No, I don’t tell any jokes onstage.

GROSS: How come?

NELSON: I’m afraid that if I quit singing, people will leave.


NELSON: I don’t think they came to hear me tell jokes.

GROSS: That’s funny. Let me bring this back to your songwriting. When you write songs, are you sitting down and working in a craftsman-like way on the song, or are they just kind of coming to you while you’re doing things?

NELSON: I used to. When I was driving myself to different gigs around the country, I would do a lot of writing just driving down the highway. And I still think, you know, that’s the best way for me to write. I can get in the car, I believe, and take off driving, head anywhere and start thinking about something. And if I’m lucky, I’ll write a song. But I have to get somewhere by myself to do it. And there’s a lot of things going on, a lot of interruptions and things that makes it difficult to do and just, you know, riding the bus.

GROSS: And what about writing the music part, like the chords, for instance? Do you need a piano or a guitar when you do that?

NELSON: If there’s a guitar or piano around, I would use it. But I can usually write it all in my head. And then I’ll get a guitar when I find one and go over the lyrics and the melodies and probably wind up changing it several times before I finally decide this is the way I want it.

GROSS: But from what you said before, it sounds like – I mean, do you ever, like, actually write it down?

NELSON: I do now more than I used to. I used to have this theory that well, if you don’t remember it, it ain’t worth remembering. But later on in life, I’ve figured out well, maybe I should jot down this one because I don’t want to forget it.

GROSS: Willie Nelson, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

NELSON: Well, thank you. It’s nice to talk to you again.

DAVIES: Willie Nelson speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. This week, he became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He marked the occasion by performing at a concert with Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, Neil Young and others. It’ll be broadcast on PBS stations January 15. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.” This is FRESH AIR.

Willie Nelson Keeps on Rolling (Washington Post Interview)

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

photo:  Gary Miller
by:  Joe Helm

Willie Nelson, 82, is a singer, songwriter and musician with few peers. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998, is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and is on Rolling Stone’s lists of 100 Greatest Singers and 100 Greatest Guitarists. On Nov. 18 he will receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for lifetime contributions to popular music.

Do you still recognize the Willie Nelson who wrote songs 50 or more years ago like “Funny How Time Slips Away” or “Crazy”? Or does that seem like a different you?

No, I sing those songs every night, so I can still relate to all of that. I think “Crazy” probably fits me more ways than one.

Is there a songwriter in American history whom you wished people knew more about?

Vern Gosdin. He’s a guy who kind of got lost along the way, but he’s one of my favorite all-time songwriters.

And why is that?

’Cause he’s a good f—— writer! [Laughs.]

You still tour pretty extensively and put out albums. Is resting not an option for you?

Well, I don’t do time off very well. But I’m really pissed that I’ve been laid up here the past couple of weeks with this operation, because I need to be working.

What was the operation for?

It was a stem-cell operation. It’s supposed to help the lungs. Over the years I’ve smoked a lotof cigarettes, and I’ve had emphysema and pneumonia four or five times, so my lungs were really screwed up, and I had heard that this stem-cell operation would be good for them. So I said, “Well, I’m gonna try it out.” But I’m still so sore that I can’t say that it was a success. I’ll have to wait until all the soreness goes away.

Does it hurt to sing?

I’ll let you know. [Laughs.] I think I’ll be able to sing. The only thing that worries me more than anything is carrying my guitar, because they did the operation right in my stomach. But I think I’ll be all right.

If you could receive a lifetime achievement award for something other than music, what would it be?

[Laughs.] That’s about all I know anything about.

Who is someone you never saw perform that you wish you’d had a chance to see?

You know, I’ve been pretty lucky. Even when I was a kid my heroes were people like Bob Wills, and I had the pleasure of getting to know him real well. I not only performed with him, but I booked some shows. When I was about 15 years old, I was about a half-a–ed promoter, I thought. I booked some shows with Bob Wills, and I got to get up and sing with him, so I thought that was a pretty good deal.

You’ve been a big proponent of legalizing marijuana, and as you probably know, D.C. legalized it last year.

You know, I was in Washington the day they legalized it. I happened to be playing at the White House, so I asked President Obama, “Did you hear they legalized pot here today?” and he said, “Yeah, I heard about that.” And I laughed. And he said, “Well, you know, I’m from Hawaii.” So we had a big laugh about it.

Did you light one up at the White House?

No. Well, I did, but not with him.

You could try at the Library of Congress.

Oh, I better be careful there.

Willie Nelson, Fit Magazine (November 2012)

Thursday, September 17th, 2015


The songs of John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and Neil Young have made their way from A-tracks to CD players to today’s iPhone. Most would be surprised to know that those same names that appear on your shuffle playlist appear on the list of names of board members for an organization that is fighting for the family farmer in America. The four renowned recording artists are leaders for Farm Aid, whose slogan reads “Keep America Growing!”

Farm Aid’s mission is simple: keep family farmers on their land. This nonprofit organization assists farmers struggling economically by connecting them to local and regional markets to get family food into the grocery stores and families’ cabinets in urban neighborhoods. Along with this focus on family farming is the Good Food Movement, which promotes the use of “direct sales” through farmers’ markets, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) and farm stands. Through it all is the common thread of making good choices — for farms, in our food and the country’s agriculture policies — that build a better, healthier future.

27 years ago, in 1985, Nelson, Mellencamp and Young organized the first Farm Aid concert to raise awareness about the danger family farms were facing at the hands of factory farms. Today, local farmers are feeling the danger even more, with upwards of 80 percent of farms in certain agricultural markets owned by private companies. “We all see what’s happening with agriculture, what’s happening to our small towns,” John Mellencamp stated for the organization. “They are going out of business, and that’s a direct result of the farm problem.”

According to the group’s website, the movement has gone so far as to provide workers from the organization to participate in protests outside of factory farms. In addition, the group provides a hotline for support services for farm families in times of crisis. More recently, the Farmer Resource Network has been developed for families in difficult financial situations across the country. Another stride taken towards factory farms and the privatization of the market is education in the area of hormones and genetically modified food more widely produced by the corporate sector of farming.

“If we lose the family farm, we lose the caretakers of our land,” Dave Matthews told his audience in a short clip about the company’s mission. “It’s something worth fighting for because I think we’ll lose a lot more than the family farmer if we lose the family farmer.”

Every year, thousands of farmers are pushed off their land by the growing economic pressures of an industry that has created too much competition for a family farmer to survive without help. Through market strengthening, education and personal assistance to thousands of Americans, Farm Aid is working alongside the good food movement to get high quality produce straight from local farmers to schools, local stores and into the pantries of a wider market.

“It’s not about how big the food is, or how shiny it is,” Neil Young said in a video made for the Farm Aid website. “It’s about where it came from, and how it was grown.”

Last year’s concert featured a variety of high caliber bands, such as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jamey Johnson, Kenny Chesney and Jack Johnson, alongside the veteran fundraisers and founding members. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews also graced the stage for Farm Aid’s Benefit Concert.

The appearance of such widely recognized performers speaks to the growing respect Farm Aid is gaining nationwide. Nelson, who has been a part of the company since its beginnings, describes his involvement simply: “There’s a new food movement sweeping across the country and Farm Aid is doing all we can to promote that movement.”

Read more about Willie Nelson’s views on fitness, food and fuel (among other topics), in Austin Fit Magazine’s November cover story, Willie Nelson Talks Food, Fuel, and, yes, Hemp by Melanie P. Moore, at

Willie Nelson CNN Interview with Miles O’Brien about Farm Aid (9/17/2000)

Saturday, September 12th, 2015


Sunday Morning News

Willie Nelson Discusses Farm Aid

Aired September 17, 2000 – 8:50 a.m. ET MILES O’BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It’s hard to believe but it was 15 years ago that Willie Nelson first helped bring the plight of family farmers to America’s consciousness, lending his voice and talent to the first Farm Aid concert.

Today, the plight continues and so does the Farm Aid concert.

Joining us this morning to talk about this year’s concert is, who else, Willie Nelson. He joins us from Washington.

Good to have you with us, Mr. Nelson.


O’BRIEN: First of all, just tell us what’s in store for this special anniversary concert.

NELSON: Well, first of all, it’ll be a great concert. There’s a whole lot of talent here and mainly we’re here, though, for the family farmer and rancher and we’re here to call attention to their problems and we’ll spend the day doing that.

O’BRIEN: Take us back to the early days, the inception of this idea and the origins of it. Did you suspect it would be as successful as it has? I read here that over the years you’ve raised more than $15 million to help organizations which help family farms.

NELSON: Well, in the beginning I first heard that there was a real problem in the farm communities several years ago when they were having a show called Live Aid and Bob Dylan had mentioned that wouldn’t it be nice if some of this money stayed here for our family farmers. And I started checking around with some of my friends and found out that there really was a serious problem.

So while we were working in Springfield for a state fair there, I ran into the Governor, who he and I usually have a bowl of chili and a beer every year on my bus, and we were talking about the farm problems and he said yes, there is a serious problem. So we started talking about the first Farm Aid in Champagne, Illinois.

O’BRIEN: So over the years, 15 years later, would you — how would you assess the overall plight of family farmers in this country?

NELSON: Well, first of all, I think it’s really a black eye on America to have to do a farm aid for our farmers and ranchers. They’re our, the backbone of our country. All this talk about including everyone in this new millennium government, I think it’s time that we start including our farmers and ranchers and family businessmen who we’ve been neglecting for the last several years.

There’s a new farm bill that we’re trying to put together so the purpose of all this is to draw attention to the farm problems and try to get this new farm bill introduced.

O’BRIEN: All right, let me just play devil’s advocate for a moment. There are a lot of small family businesses in this country in need of help. Why should farmers be given special federal subsidies, special help from the likes of you?

NELSON: Well, they don’t really want subsidies. They want enough money to make a living without subsidies. They enough money for their product. They don’t want giveaways. They don’t want welfare. Many years ago the farmers were — and the ranchers and all raw producers in America had what they call 100 percent parity. It was back during the war when we were trying to be strong and we had guaranteed our raw producers 100 percent production and labor costs and they were doing well. And we had six to eight million small family farmers on the land back during W.W.II.

After the war, they decided that there was too much, too much political power, for one thing, in the farm communities. So they decided to move two million farmers off the land into the big cities to make cheaper labor for the automobile factories and everything else. So what they did is they dropped the 100 percent parity to a 60 to 70 percent sliding parity, which immediately started taking farmers off the land.

So far, they’ve took off five or six million farmers. Right now we’re down to two million or less, losing 300 to 500 a week.

O’BRIEN: Willie Nelson, congratulations on your continued efforts on behalf of farmers on this, your 15th year of Farm Aid, and just so you know, folks, that begins at 2:00 P.M. Eastern Time on the Country Music Television Network.

Thanks again, Mr. Nelson. Good luck to you.

NELSON: Thank you.

Willie Nelson GQ Interview

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

by:  Chris Heath
photos:  Pari Dukovic

Marijuana’s state-by-state march toward full legalization would never have happened without Willie Nelson. He’s 82 now, and he’s spent nearly half his life as America’s most famous stoner. But this fall he’ll be making the leap from aficionado to entrepreneur. What Paul Newman did for tomato sauce, what Francis Coppola did for Cabernet, Willie Nelson is hoping to do for weed.  

“I’ve bought a lot of pot in my life,” Willie Nelson tells me, “and now I’m selling it back.”

Willie Nelson has this kind of answer—stock, pithy—for all kinds of questions, and he’s been using them for decades. Bring up his brief abortive stint at college studying business administration? Invariably he’ll soon say, “I majored in dominoes.” Mention the massive sum he owed the IRS in the early ’90s—somewhere between $17 million and $32 million—and you’ll get the one about how it isn’t so much “if you say it real fast.”

As time passes, the world offers up new questions, and so sometimes new answers are required. Once he reached the age when people began asking about retirement, Nelson would reply that he doesn’t do anything but play music and golf: “I wouldn’t know what to quit.” And now that one of America’s stoner icons is going into the pot business and planning to launch his own proprietary brand called Willie’s Reserve, this bought-a-lot-of-pot-in-my-life line is already on instant replay and you can confidently expect to hear Nelson use it for the next few years, anytime the subject is raised in his vicinity. In fact when we first meet, on the tour bus where he likes to do interviews and live much of his life, less than ninety seconds pass before he
deploys it.

There’s a lot of shade and space behind answers like these. They leave people feeling like they’ve had a funny and intimate encounter with someone who, as Willie Nelson does, knows how to deliver them—with an amiable mischievous half-smile and a wizened wink in his eye, as though the words have just popped into his head. Answers that charm and entertain but also leave his real thoughts unbothered, his real life unruffled.

Willie Nelson has plenty of real thoughts, and he has lived a life as real and unreal as they come for eighty-two years and counting. Those stories are a little harder to shake loose, but he will share some of them, too. And when it comes to Willie Nelson, it’s worth holding out for the good stuff.


Maybe all of us are engaged in a lifelong fight to find our better natures. But some of us, perhaps the luckiest ones, find a reliable shortcut. For Willie Nelson, that shortcut has turned out to be pot. It works for him, and he needed it. His public image is a kind of Zen cowboy, a naturally chilled-out elder—Robin Williams used to have a bit in his act about how even Buddha was jealous of how mellow Willie Nelson was—but of course the truth is more complicated. “I can be a real asshole when I’m straight,” he tells me. “As Annie can probably adhere to.”

Annie is Nelson’s fourth wife—“my current wife,” as he has sometimes described her, though they have now been married for twenty-four years. She sits out of my sight, behind me, but periodically she contributes to the conversation. “He’s not an asshole sober,” she clarifies, coming to her husband’s defense. Briefly, at least. “Only when he’s drinking. Then he’s an asshole.”

Did you think you were an asshole at the time?

“Oh, I’ve always known that possibility, you know,” he says. “I saw a funny cartoon the other day. ‘How do you piss off a redhead?’ ‘Say something.’

And you felt like some anger came with your red hair?

“I could associate with the temper that goes with it.”

So are you still as angry as you used to be, but now that you smoke you’ve just learned how to not show it?

“Probably. I still get pissed off, and take a couple of hits and say, ‘Well, it ain’t that bad.…’ Delete and fast-forward: That’s my new motto.”

“It works,” Annie attests.

How long’s that been the motto?

“Oh, six months,” he says.

What kind of things can annoy you?

“Life itself, you know. If you start going over the way things are and you don’t get pissed off, you just haven’t studied the facts yet.” He laughs.

So, overall, you’re proposing that one should study the facts, get pissed off, and then smoke and get un-pissed off?

“Yeah. Delete and fast-forward, start over again. Admit that you’re an asshole and move on.”

You’ve said that you’re naturally a little too revved up, and that pot brings you back closer to normal.

He nods. “I have compared myself to the motorboat where the fuel for the motorboat is a little too hot for the motor, where you have to add a little oil in it. I figure that’s my oil, you know. It’s what I have to do to, you know, to make it easier.”

And what happens to the motorboat without the oil?

“Burns out,” says Annie.

“Yeah. It wears out. And he does dumb and dumber things.”

“The motorboat stays a redhead,” says Annie.

Do you ever drink at all now?

“Very rarely. If you got a drink, I’ll take a drink. But no, I don’t like me drinking.”

Why do you think it had that effect on you?

“I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of Indian blood in me, and something true is that Indians can’t do alcohol. So I start out knowing that. My drummer, Paul, we’ve been together for a long time, and back in my drinking days whenever I’d get too drunk and out of order, he’d roll up a joint and hand it and I’d take a couple hits and pass out. So he knew how to handle me.”

He’s said that you always wanted to drive cars when you were drunk.

Nelson’s eyes light up. “Yeah. And see how fast they would go.”

That’s really not a good idea.

“Thank you.” He laughs. “No, you’re right.”

You crashed a few?

“A couple.”

Someone once said—and I think it was you—that it was maybe a hundred.

“Couple. I don’t know. Quite a few.”

Never got hurt?

“Never got killed. Lucky. Never killed nobody. Lucky. Very, very lucky.”

Why do you think you had the impulse to do that?

“I don’t know. I was always a kind of go-fast guy, you know.”

And what are you now?

“I still am a go-fast guy, but I know that and I try to guard against my instincts a little better.”

Does it still come out behind the wheel?

“Well, I have a pickup truck—” he begins.

“Don’t get in it,” Annie interjects.

“—and I’ve got a ranch down there with a bunch of roads on it and a lot of cedar trees and it’s…” He grins. “I have to take you for a ride in my truck sometime.”

“Don’t do it,” Annie advises. “It’s a bad idea.”

Do people get scared?

He looks gleeful at the thought. “Hopefully. That’s the whole point of it. You take people out and scare the shit out of ‘em. It’s just fun, you know.” He laughs again.

You’ve got an interesting sense of fun.

“Yeah. You see why I smoke a lot. I’ve got to calm that out.”


When it comes to explaining how Nelson is, he’ll often go all the way back to the small Texas town, Abbott, in which he was raised after he and his elder sister, Bobbie, were left by their warring parents to live with their grandparents. It’s fair to say that he grew up in a way few people still do.

“You know, all we did in Abbott,” he explains, “was fuck, fight, and throw rocks.”

Throw rocks?

“That was all we had to do in Abbott,” he says.

What would you throw them at?

“Tin cans. Or at each other, you know. We used to have BB-gun fights—we’d put on leather jackets and shoot each other with BB guns. We were kind of bored. We used to go fight bumblebees on Sunday, go home with our eyes swollen shut for being stung. That’s young and stupid, but fun.”

So: fuck, fight, throw rocks…and fight bees. And right from the start, the young Willie Nelson would also smoke. As the Second World War fomented in Europe, he was already experimenting. “Anything you could roll up,” he recalls, “I would try to smoke it. I don’t know why.” As a kid, he cast the net of the potentially tokable indiscriminately wide. One early mistake was the bark of cedar trees.

“It’s a little harsh,” he concedes now. “It tastes exactly like it sounds. It’s too harsh. And after a couple of drags of it you say, ‘Maybe not.’ ”

So he tried grapevine.

“Not as harsh as the cedar bark,” he considers, “but it was harsh.”

And then there was the one inadvisable occasion when he tried to smoke some herbal laxatives known as black draughts.

“Bad,” he remembers. “Terrible. Not as harsh, but still no good.” A momentary grin. “I was regular for a day or two.”

Soon he graduated to cigarettes, at first ones he’d scavenge off the floor. An improvement. “I said, ‘Well, this is better than cedar bark,’ ” he remembers.

Improbably, Nelson believes that he tried pot for the first time when he was 11 or 12, though he didn’t realize it until much later on. “I was with a cousin of mine, he was about 15. He had asthma and the doctors gave him a cigarette to smoke. An asthma cigarette. And he offered me a puff off it, and I didn’t particularly care for it so I handed it back to him. But years later, when I smoked my first what-I-knew-was-marijuana, I said, ‘Wait a minute—I’ve had this before.’ And it took me right back to my cousin with the asthma cigarette.”

That seems like weird medicine for asthma—I ask whether it worked for his cousin.

“Yeah,” he replies, as though the notion that a joint would be the best medical treatment for asthma were the least unlikely part of the story. “Oh yeah.”

When Willie Nelson first started touring he used to stay in hotels, but many years ago he realized that he preferred life here on the bus. Now, even when the bus is parked outside a hotel for the night and everyone else goes in, he stays on board. He has slept on this bus, and on its four predecessors, maybe six months of the year for the past thirty or forty years. “Got everything I need,” he says. “Shower, stove, an icebox, a computer, radio, TV. It’s been my home for a long time.”

He likes being on the bus and he likes being on the move. “Every place gets old after a while,” he explains. “I have a nice home in Maui, and even that…you know, I get a little anxious to go away after a while. I just like to travel. That’s what I do. I just enjoy moving. It’s really hard for me to stay somewhere—I have to get up and go somewhere.” He also has a home near Austin, and he even owns a house in Abbott, but he is usually to be found somewhere else. “I’ve got a lot of Gypsy blood in me, I think,” he says.

He’s not much fonder of lingering in his own past. When I ruffle one too many uncomfortable memories, he halts me. “Nothing to be gained by bringing up all that horseshit again.” He gestures to a copy of his latest ghosted autobiography, It’s a Long Story, which was published earlier this year. “Have you read the book?” he asks.


Of course, I say. (And not just that. The collected Willie Nelson library is quite large—even setting aside the unofficial books, there’s also an earlier autobiography, three books of reminiscences and advice and jokes, his ghosted Western novel, and his monograph about the benefits of biodiesel.)

He smiles. “I’ll get around to it one day.”

You haven’t read it?

“It’s too big,” he says. “Too long. At some point somewhere in the past I remember most of it. But to me it’s a funny story.”

What do you mean?

“You know, the fact that I’m still here talking to you about it and you give a damn. I’m 82 years old. Lot of people my age are in a home somewhere. So I’m very fortunate, and why I don’t know, but I don’t question it. I figure this is the way it’s supposed to be, and I just enjoy it.”

The first time Nelson tried pot as an adult, in the mid-’60s, he was unmoved. He was playing in a band in Fort Worth and the fiddle player offered him a hit. “I didn’t like it,” he remembers. “Didn’t care for it. Of course, I was smoking cigarettes, one after the other. I didn’t even get anything—like, puff and puff and nothing and nothing.” He’d tell people that pot gave him a headache.

Eventually, as the world knows, he came round. When I ask him what he eventually felt that he hadn’t felt before, he deflects. “I have trouble remembering yesterday,” he says. (This endlessly adaptable brush-off has been his charming go-to non-answer for years.) I ask whether he doesn’t even foggily remember.

“I wasn’t enjoying smoking cigarettes,” he says. “It’s really that simple. I was getting nothing from a cigarette except pneumonia and cancer. And at least from a hit off a joint I got a little brief high off of it.” And at this point he chooses to digress, in a way that is both revealing and uncharacteristically immodest. “I have a huge tolerance for pot. I can probably smoke with anybody anywhere. Me and Snoop Dogg had a smoke-off in Amsterdam and he crawled away.”

Ah, yes. The legendary First Willie-Snoop Amsterdam Smoke-off. I have listened to a history of this encounter as described by the loser. Snoop Dogg explained how he brought along a blunt only to discover that Nelson already had a joint, a vape pen, and a pipe up and running, and that Nelson simply rotated among all four.

I ask Nelson whether this is true.

“As stupid as it sounds, it’s probably true. We had a lot of fun.”

Do you normally quadruple up like that?

“Oh, I don’t have any set of rules that I follow when I’m smoking. If you have one, I’ll take a hit.”

Is four types at once your maximum?

He looks at me as though for just a moment he thinks I might be bearing a surprise that could enrich his life. “Have you got another one?” he asks. Sadly, I can only disappoint. “I’ll try any of them,” he says. “Whatever way you can smoke it or take it, I’m for it.”

As this story suggests, it turns out that Nelson is still fairly flexible when it comes to his pot consumption. I had read that he had taken up vaping some years ago and had given up smoking to save his lungs. “I smoke a joint whenever I don’t care if the smoke is out there,” he explains, “but if there’s people and I don’t want to offend, I’ll take a vaporizer.”

“And he eats candy or has oil at night for sleeping,” Annie clarifies.

If Nelson doesn’t smoke or get his high somehow, at night there are consequences.

“I start having bad dreams,” he says. (He once described the price of abstention like this: “You remember why you started smoking, to stop them crazy fucking dreams. Those crazy dreams that you never really get used to.”)

I ask him what he dreams about, but Annie answers first.

“Intruders, usually,” she says.

“A lot of fighting,” he elaborates. “Screaming and fighting. I wake up in the middle of the night, scaring the shit out of her.”

“It’s dangerous to sleep with him when he hasn’t smoked,” she says.

I ask him whether he has any dreams at all when he does smoke.

“No,” he answers. “No.”

“Yeah, you do,” says Annie.

“I don’t have any negative dreams,” he clarifies.

“Right,” says Annie. “He’s usually playing music. He plays music, he plays his guitar. Otherwise he’s kicking out and lashing out.” And she demonstrates how her husband lies on his back, fingering guitar parts with his hands, playing silent music from somewhere deep within him that no one will ever hear.

Nelson first found success as a songwriter, with songs like “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and, most famously, the one recorded by Patsy Cline, “Crazy.” (Legend has it that he wrote these three in one single week in 1959.) Those were just the tip of the iceberg, just three of the dozens of clever, elegant songs he wrote back then, dark lilting country poems suffused with misery and heartache. “I wrote some of the saddest songs in the world,” he once said, and it was not an empty claim.

At first he seems to dodge when I mention this. “Well, you know, the old love ballads, first of all people like them, and they seem to be commercial.”

But all those songs, I persist, they were pretty heavy in what they described.

“Well, yeah,” he says. “I was going through all those marriages and divorces.”

So, I ask, they came directly from what you were feeling?

“Sure.” This reminds him of something. “I won’t mention names, but there was one guy who recorded, his manager would tell him horrible things about his wife so that he would feel bad and write another heartbreaker. I thought that was pretty cruel.”

Willie didn’t need the extra help. But in time he began to think that songs like these created a vortex, a spiral of sorrow from which it was difficult to escape.

“Sometimes I think that’s why a lot of those singers out there drink so much,” he says. “Because after you go out and sing those same old motherfucking songs every night, it puts them in that bad mood. And a lot of them, they’re not a good enough actor to go in there and come out without being affected. So they drink a lot. And that’s the beginning of the end, when you start having to drink to go do what you do. I think those old sad songs have a lot to do with it. It makes you want to cry, and then you want to drink, and then you want more sad songs—the one thing calls for the other.”

He still sings some of his old ones, of course. “I’m not that highly emotional about anything,” he says, “and so I feel like I can deliver the song—the lyric—without getting too involved.” He has been singing those three songs I mentioned the same way for over forty years, as a medley, usually quite early in the set. He says that he’ll play a couple of new songs at a show like tonight’s. (This evening he will sing outdoors in Bend, Oregon, though until he steps out of the bus, he could be anywhere.) “Other than that I’ll just kind of coast through the show,” he says. It’s pretty much the same most nights: Among old Hank Williams covers, gospel songs, and a Django Reinhardt instrumental, there’ll be those three songs from the ‘50s, something with a fuck-you lyric that chugs along from when he grew his hair and became part of the outlaw country movement in the early ‘70s (“Me and Paul,” a travelogue that, among other things, details an early near-drug-bust in Laredo), one of the old-time covers that sent his career to new heights in the late ‘70s (“Georgia on My Mind”), hits from the pop heyday that followed (“Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”), and maybe the recent pot anthem “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” to accompany the new “It’s All Going to Pot.” Aside from those couple of new songs, very little has changed in the past thirty years, and he sees no reason that it should. “If they show up,” he argues, “you’re doing it right.”

So in some ways a Willie Nelson show is one of the most predictable pieces of mainstream musical theater imaginable. And yet, at the same time, it is also deeply strange. Nelson’s vocal phrasing has always been unusual for country music, sliding over the beat, rushing to and from it in capricious ways, and that tendency has only become more pronounced as time has passed. And his guitar playing is, at times, even more extraordinary—skittering and juddering and lurching, little runs of notes that accelerate, then slow down, like a man speaking a language no one else knows, pacing himself by an erratic metronome. In short bursts, the sound he makes is as close to some kind of Japanese avant-garde art-metal as it is to middle-of-the-road country music. He seems pleased and amused when I touch on this subject, as though it’s something he takes private pleasure in. “I like to surprise myself on the guitar,” he says.

It’s quite a performance. Often, by the way he plays and the way he sings, he can make a song sound as though it’s teetering on the brink of collapse—only, of course, that’s part of the larger trick, because then you realize that he has created a situation where he is the only person in the world who can, and will, save it.

One Willie Nelson weed story is more famous than all the others, though some key details about it have always remained unclear. It took place during Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Famously, you smoked on the roof of the White House.

“I heard that somewhere,” he replies.

You’re always coy about it. Why?

“Well, I don’t know,” he says. “I’m trying to find out who that was with me up there. I keep asking people. Wasn’t me and you, was it?”

Nelson has told this story in his autobiographies and cagily acknowledged it in endless TV interviews. In his 1988 autobiography he describes being up there “with a beer in one hand and a fat Austin Torpedo in the other,” enjoying a view you can get from nowhere else of how Washington’s principal streets fan out from the White House. In the 2015 version he describes “a friend of mine who happened to be a White House insider” coming to his bedroom door at the end of the night and offering him a private tour, which took them to the roof:

To top things off, my friend pulled out a joint.

“Think it’s time to burn one, Willie, if you don’t object.”

“Think it’s cool?”

“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be offering.”

Nelson has always declined to identify his accomplice in mischief. But I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in Nelson’s life, and having picked off little clues from all that’s been written and said over the years, I feel like I might have a pretty good idea. And what Nelson has just said to me seems like an open invitation to chance it.

I kind of reckon I know who it was.

“Oh, you know who it was?” He says this in what seems like a gently mocking whisper.

Wasn’t it Jimmy Carter’s middle son, Chip?

And then there’s a pause, not too long, but long enough that I feel pretty sure he wasn’t expecting this name. And long enough that I know the name is right. But then—and maybe there’s just a quarter of a second of delete/fast-forward, and a decision is made that there’s no longer any point in getting too hung up about this—he rolls amiably on with the conversation.

“Looked a lot like,” he says. “Could have been, yeah.”

Why have you always been shy about saying?

“Well, it ain’t something you want to brag about, you know.”

When you were up there, did you think this is a big deal, this is kind of naughty, or…?

“Oh, not at the time. It seemed like the thing to do. We were there, and there it was, and uh…why not, you know? And they have a great view from the roof.”

But it must have been a good story to tell people.

“Well, I don’t really go around bragging about that. It happened, and it’s something that I don’t deny, you know, but I don’t bring it up all the time.”

“But it wasn’t you who said it to begin with,” Annie points out. (These events predate Annie, but she clearly knows the inside story.)

“No, it wasn’t me who leaked it,” says Willie.

“It was probably Chip,” says Annie.

“You know, he probably told somewhere, laughing about it,” says Willie.

Did you mind that people knew?

“No, I don’t mind it, no. At all.”

Did you worry it would embarrass the president at the time?

“Oh, I think he knew me and he knew Chip so, you know, there wasn’t much we could do to embarrass him.”

And so there it is: one minor mystery from the Carter administration solved. A few afternoons later, I telephone James Earl “Chip” Carter III, now 65 years old, at his home in Decatur, Georgia. He answers the phone and listens as I explain: that I have been talking to Nelson for this article about that famous night on the White House roof, and that Nelson did not volunteer his name, but when he realized I had worked it out, he had talked to me about it.

At first Carter seems to, very briefly, laugh.

“Well,” he says, “he told me not to ever tell anybody.”

I tell Carter that I believe the cat is now out of the bag.

“Okay,” he says evenly.

Then I continue, inquiring whether I can ask him some more about what happened.

“No,” he says. “No, you can’t. Thank you.”

And that is when James Earl Carter III hangs up.

For someone with Nelson’s experience, and for someone who is planning to launch his own brand of pot, you might think that he would have the very specific tastes and preferences of a connoisseur, but if this is the case, he is not keen to share.

“There’s only two kinds,” he tells me. “It’s like sex—it’s all good, but some’s better.”

And with pot, what differentiates the good and the better?

“Well, you’ll know it when you smoke it, and you might not know it until you do. A good hit off a good joint and you know you don’t have to smoke the whole thing. A good joint’ll last me all day.”

You haven’t settled on particular favorites you like?

“Oh, wherever I am there are favorites. You know, you got your Maui Wowie, you got your Humboldt County in California, and you got the purple, you know, uh, in Florida…lot of different places that have their own brand that’s from the area. The growers and the farmers around can tell you what grows best in their area.”

I know a lot of people who avoid some of the modern stuff that’s just too strong for them.

“Really?” says Willie, his attention perking up. “I’m looking for that.”

You’ve never found any too strong?

“No,” he says.

“No, that’s not true,” Annie tells him. “You found a couple of those really strong ones…”

“I found some of it that was really, really strong,” he disagrees. “But too strong? No.”

“His resistance is better than yours,” Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, who’s been listening in on our conversation, points out.

“That’s the difference,” says Willie. “I’ve been smoking cedar bark.”

“I’d beg to have the shit he throws away,” says Raphael.

Is there any stoned that’s too stoned?

“Too stoned?” Nelson repeats. “I don’t know. I don’t know what too stoned is.”

“Well,” says Annie, “that time I found you in the back when my brother brought that purple African something and you were laying on the floor with your feet on the bed.” She laughs. “And you said, ‘I’m too high.’ ”

He nods in acknowledgment. “However, I think if I had to I could have got up, washed my face, and went and do a two-hour show.”

“You did,” she points out.

“By the time I get through ‘Whiskey River,’ two or three songs, I’m okay.”

So when you think of the prime Willie’s Reserve brand, are you able to describe what qualities you want it to have?

“No,” he says. “You’ll know it when you smoke it.”

“You want the shit that killed Elvis, is what you said,” prompts Raphael.

Willie grins, glad to have been reminded. “That’s what I’m looking for.”

How hard have you looked?

“Well, how hard can you look, you know?” Willie says, smiling, as though there are things in life he has cared about more than this, but not too many.

It is hard to work out just how involved Nelson is in Willie’s Reserve. When I first ask him what he wants the company to be, he just says “successful.” And other than mentioning that he wants to make sure that what they sell is “the best quality,” that’s about it. “I don’t know who first came up with that idea,” he says vaguely. “Annie may have come up with the title, Willie’s Reserve. I don’t know exactly where that came from.”

In an attempt to learn more, I speak with two people from the company, the CEO, Andrew Davison, and a vice president, Elizabeth Hogan. Davison explains that the first business meeting took place with Willie and Annie around the kitchen table at their ranch just outside Austin in March 2014, and presents the basic Willie’s Reserve pitch: “For fifty years he’s been such an icon in this space that [for] everybody taking part in the artistic development of this plant over the last thirty, forty years, it’s kind of their bucket list to get product to Willie. And so Willie’s experienced the best cornucopia that has been grown over the decades and, you know, he really developed a legendary stash. And he’s developed a point of view about how he feels about the category and how he feels about the product and how he feels about consumers. So it’s taking that and distilling that vision and those values, translating that into the marketplace.”

In fact, there won’t be just one Willie’s Reserve Legendary Stash. Far from it. This is business. Davison says that according to their research, consumers want “high-quality flower,” concentrates, vape pens, and edibles, and so they “envision going to a market with a variety and a collection of smokable products as well as concentrate products.”

Nelson participated in a “tasting” of Willie’s Reserve in June, when he was brought ten different strains to smoke. Hogan says that Nelson sampled them over two days; she took notes on his comments and left him and Annie with a workbook to fill out thoughts as his research continued.

I ask what conclusions were drawn.

“Well, you know,” Hogan replies, “Willie Nelson likes pot.”

In truth, at least some of the key selections had already been made, and the impression she gives is that Nelson’s views are more to be used in the packaging and marketing than in determining specific pot choices. This seems wise, because when I catch up with Nelson after this tasting, he is characteristically breezy about the experience—“How bad a job can it be, testing the best weed in the world?”—but sidesteps any expectation that he should be considered an expert. “I think it all depends on the individual,” he says, “and I’ve been smoking weed a long time and I’ve got a great tolerance for it, so whatever I say about it won’t necessarily be the same thing that someone else would say, so I’m not really the best guy to ask about those things.”

Davison says they hope that the first Willie’s Reserve products will go on sale in Colorado and Washington “by late fall or end of year.” Merle Haggard, who recently recorded the top ten Django and Jimmie album with Nelson, is optimistic about its prospects: “I think he’s got a new brand that will probably be bigger than Sir Walter Raleigh.” Typically, it is Nelson who dodges every opportunity to oversell it. He makes clear that while he’s enthusiastic about Willie’s Reserve, what really excites him is the wider evolution of society’s attitude toward pot.

“I’m just glad to see all this happening,” he says. “Whether there’s a Willie Reserve or not, that’s not a big deal.”

When it comes to the benefits of the weed-lived life, Nelson’s point of view is that he is an unscientifically representative sample of one. “I’m kinda like the canary in the mine,” he says. “Here’s the old fart, 82, out there doing an hour-and-a-half, two-hour show, remembering all the goddamn words—you know, he don’t have a set list out or none of that shit out there. At least watch me and see what happens.” And so far the canary is thriving. Merle Haggard says that Nelson thinks they’re both alive because of these lifestyle choices: “The main thing is that we’re both healthy. That’s in contrast to what they say about people who indulge. He told me—and I don’t disagree with him—that had we not smoked pot during our life, then we would probably be dead from drinking whiskey or smoking Camels.”

When Willie Nelson first made records, he was clean-shaven and short-haired, and favored a suit and tie. He started growing his hair in the early 1970s, and for well over thirty years now he has been alternating between letting his long gray hair hang freely and wearing it in two braids. Recently some braids he cut off in the early 1980s were put up for auction, where it was explained that he had given them to Waylon Jennings at a sobriety party in 1983. Nelson says this isn’t quite true—he cut them off in Maui and gave them to his manager and “some way it got back to Waylon.” Either way, they were auctioned off as part of Jennings’s estate and sold for $37,000.

“It’s weird—very weird,” he comments, though you can tell by the way he says it that this doesn’t even come close to some of the weirdness he has known.

Still, it also made him realize that if everything goes wrong, at least he can feel safe knowing that the Willie Nelson emergency pension plan is close at hand, hanging down both sides of his ears.

As we talk, he fingers his right braid.

“I’ve got six months of groceries right here,” he announces.

And then he jiggles its twin, the braid that dangles down over his heart. That, he explains, is the best side. “Things grow better over here,” he says. And, come the need and come the day, he reckons it’d see him right in times of trouble, get him what he’d really want.

Willie Nelson, 2008 Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Honor roll

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Willie Nelson was interviewed in connection with his recognition by Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association in 2008.  Video Includes interviews with other artists and friends.

Willie Nelson Interviews (from CD Universe)

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

9840881 (2)

“Included on this disc is an exclusive interview containing intimate details, rare insight, and other gems not previously available until now.”

The CD Universe site is slim on details of the source  or date of the interview(s), but it’s intriguing, and I think I have to order it.  It says it will be released on August 14th.   You can get pre-order your copy here.

Take a look at the track list:


Click to hear an MP3 sound sample Trk Song
1 Liking Songs He Writes
2 Farm Aid
3 Getting Good Ideas
4 Liking Jimmy Carter
5 Martin Guitars
6 Norah Jones
7 Ray Charles
8 Toby Keiths Politics
9 Bernie Writing Great Songs
10 Classical Martin Guitar
11 Downtime From Tour
12 His Band Still Being Together
13 His New Tour Bus
14 His Style
15 James Stroud Writing
16 Listening to Music
17 Nerve Damage
18 Writing Crazy
19 Writing On the Road
20 Talks About the Present Interview

Willie Nelson in “Angels Sing”

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

Willie Nelson on the red carpet at South by Southwest.

photo:  Deborah Cannon
by: Mekado Murphy

AUSTIN, Tex. — The country music legend and occasional film actor Willie Nelson took time out from touring Sunday for a visit to the  South by Southwest film festival and the premiere of “When Angels Sing,” an Austin-made holiday film directed by Tim McCanlies. Harry Connick Jr. stars as Michael Walker, a family man who is Christmas-averse. He meets Nick (Mr. Nelson), who sells him his mansion for a steal, but Michael only later discovers that the house is on one of the most Christmas-obsessed blocks in town. The movie, which also features performances by Lyle Lovett, the Trishas, Dale Watson and others, plays as kind of a country-western version of “A Christmas Carol.”

In the film, Kris Kristofferson performs one of Mr. Nelson’s holiday songs, “Pretty Paper,”  and Mr. Nelson’s character sings a moving version of “Amazing Grace.” The screenplay, written by Lou Berney, is based on the book by Turk Pipkin, a friend of Mr. Nelson’s. Before greeting enthusiastic fans on the red carpet, and then heading  for a concert in Houston, Mr. Nelson, who will turn 80 in April, agreed to discuss “When Angels Sing,” life in the Austin area and his music career. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q.  How would you describe the character Nick?
A.  I’m supposed to be some side of a half-crazed Santa Claus. Not really Santa Claus, but not really not.
Q.  What was the experience like playing that character?
A.  It was fun, working with Harry and Kris and all those good guys and friends of mine.  My sister Bobbie is in there, too. We did a song in church. It was a time that we could all spend together.
Q.  How was the shoot?
A.  It was real easy. We got to do it here at home [in Texas]. We shot most of it in Bastrop and that’s within driving distance from my house. So we drove to the set and back home every day. I’d love to do some more like that.
Q.  It sounds like you’re keeping busy with concerts as well.
A.  Yes, we’re playing Houston tonight and San Antonio the next night. We have a new record coming out named after an Irving Berlin song, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” And it’s with me and my band. It’s the first time me and the band have gotten together for an album in a while. It will be coming out in April.
Q.  I came across your statue in downtown Austin this weekend. What do you think of it?
A.  It’s a great tribute and I appreciate it. I love it when people go down there and get their pictures made or throw [stuff] at the statue. Whatever they do is cool.
Q.  What do you have planned next?
A.  We’re doing a duet album. If you remember my song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” I’m doing an album with girls. I did a song with Barbra Streisand, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Alison Krauss, Rosanne Cash. Dolly wrote a great song in there, “From Here to the Moon and Back.” We did that song together. Sheryl Crow and I did “Far Away Places.” It was just a lot of fun singing with all the gals.
Q.  What’s your songwriting process like?
A.  It’s kind of like labor pains. But whenever I get an idea, I have to sit down and write it. Because if I put it off until tomorrow, I might not do it.

PBS: American Roots Music – Oral Histories (Willie Nelson)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015


photo: Anthony Scarleti

Can you describe the kind of music you heard growing up?

Well, I heard everything. We lived just across the street from two houses of Mexicans, they played their music day and night with their radio. So I was educated early in life on “south of the border” music. Most of the people that I lived and grew up with around there in Abbot [Texas] were Czechoslovakians. I learned a lot of polkas and waltzes. And from working in the fields with a lot of the black folks there, I learned a lot of blues. And working and going to church, I learned gospel. So I was pretty educated on a lot of different kinds of music while I was still pretty young.

That’s great. In Texas, there’s a kind of theme of dancing all Saturday night and praying all Sunday. People were all dispersed on the ranches, and they would come in and make community by having dances and so forth because the people were way out in the forests. Is that something you experienced?

Well, the town that I grew up in was a dry county, so if anyone wanted a beer they had to drive six miles south to a town called West Texas. Now down there, they danced and partied, and I’m sure a lot of those, you’d see them in church on Sunday morning. Because I played a lot of those bars down there in the early part of my life, I saw a lot of people from Abbot down there on a Saturday night, and I’d see them again on Sunday morning. So it wasn’t that unusual.

How did you come to start playing music?

My grandparents raised me from the time I was sixth months old, and they were both music teachers, so they started out giving us voice lessons. My sister didn’t really take to singing that much, but I enjoyed it, so I took all the lessons that I could from them. And they taught me to play, they taught my sister to play. My grandmother played the organ, piano a little bit, so she got a piano and an organ for our house early. My granddad got me a guitar when I was six years old. So from that time on, we were picking.

Where’d you get those early guitars? Guitars were just being mastered then, right?

Mostly there were Harmonies and Stellas back in those days, and I had a six dollar Stella for my first guitar.

When did you decide to become a musician, and what influenced you?

I think I always thought I was. I never even thought about doing anything else. I take that back. There was a while when I thought maybe I might want to get a law degree or something, so I went to Baylor University in Waco. I decided pretty quickly that I’d rather stay in music.

Can you describe your relationship with Johnny Gimble and who he was for somebody who wouldn’t know?

Well, I first met him when he was playing with Bob Wills. And he left Bob’s band and came back to his hometown in Waco and put together a band. I played with him on a few dates when he would be looking for a guitar player or a vocalist. And he turned me on to Django Rheinhart and to some great music and musicians.

Johnny Gimble was and is one of the greatest musicians, violinists, fiddle players, whatever you want to call him. We played a lot of music together around Waco and Texas. He played on my “Spirit” album, he played on the “Night and Day” instrumental album, and we’ve played on maybe eight or ten albums together over the years and an incredible amount of shows.

Now he turned you on to Django, and Django’s been a big influence on you for a long time.

Yeah, Johnny Gimble gave me some Django tapes back in those days. And after listening to Django and his music, I began to see where a lot of other music had come from, including a lot of the Western Swing. I could see that a lot of guitar players had heard of Django, and fiddle players like Johnny Gimble had definitely heard of Stephan Gripelli. So there were a lot of things there that I had seen in the Django tapes that I had heard before. And my dad played pretty good fiddle and pretty good guitar, but he sounded a little bit like Django and the rhythms that Django and his brother played. Before I really knew it, I had been introduced to Django.

Bob Wills was also a big influence, right? Can you describe him?

Bob Wills was my hero in those days. He was a bandleader; I wanted to be a bandleader. He had an incredible association and relation with his band. They watched him all the time, and he only had to nod or point his fiddle bow, and they would play. And they respected him a lot, and it was mutual respect. So I always thought that he was the greatest bandleader that I had seen.

His music’s a real American music, a real combination of different sounds. For somebody who’s not familiar with it, can you kind of break it down?

Well, the Bob Wills music, Western Swing music, is a combination of jazz and blues and that’s about it, I think.

Can you talk about the kind of music that came out of the honky-tonks?

Well, again, I think it was the blues connection that made these songs – the blues and the jazz that made even the country songs that we were all playing. We played them with that Bob Wills-Django influence whether we knew it or not. So it came out different. I think that had a lot to do with it. Now when we play ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ it still has a little blues feeling to it.

Were there certain blues artists when you were growing up that were significant?

Well, I loved Ray Charles and Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), and Louis Jordan. As far as blues were concerned, the first blues that I remember hearing, other than what I heard in the cotton fields and the juke boxes around West Texas, was the Bob Will’s music – the ‘Milk Cow Blues,’ and ‘Basin Street Blues,’ and all this blues that was coming from Western Swing.

He borrowed a lot of stuff called hokum blues. I don’t know if you’re aware of that – that was coming out of the black community, kind of bawdy stuff. Could you talk at all about that?

Well, it was obvious that he was getting it somewhere. He was getting that blues feeling, and it was showing up in his music. That’s why his music, I think, was so danceable. He was one of the biggest, greatest club bands, dance hall bands ever. I promoted him one time when I was fourteen years old, me and my brother-in-law.

What does that mean?

Well, I bought him and put on a show in Whitney, Texas. And Bob showed up, and he played, and we paid him, and it was a hell of a deal.

How important was radio to him and his audience in that circuit that he played in the Southwest? Didn’t radio kind of determine the touring circuit that he was on?

Well, radio and jukebox. Plus, he had a radio show in, I think it was Dallas or Fort Worth and he played music daily there. Two different times in his career he had a radio show there in Dallas and Fort Worth. He came back years later when he opened up what later turned into Dewey Grove’s Lawn-mowing Club – it used to be Bob Will’s Lawn-mowing Club. And he had a radio show there, daily, from Arlington, Texas. I went over a couple times and sang with him on his radio show. I’d sing ‘San Antonio Rose,’ and my phrasing was a little different from Tommy Duncan’s, so he didn’t really know where to come in and “Ah-ha” at.

The honky-tonk scene, how did that develop in the dance scene in Texas?

Early in life, I wound up in the beer joints in Texas, in West and Waco and different places, because that’s where I earned my money. I learned to play Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff, and whoever was hot at the moment on the jukebox.

Did you play that Jacksboro Highway? Can you describe what that is?

Well, I played a lot in Fort Worth in those early days, and I played a lot out on the Jacksboro Highway, which was the location of a whole lot of beer joints. Back in those days, Fort Worth itself was a pretty wild place, so naturally all the beer joints were subject to be wild at any given time.

When did you first become aware of Ernest Tubb?

I listened to Ernest Tubb on the radio when I was a kid growing up. He had a radio show in Fort Worth, and he came on every day and did a fifteen-minute radio show. I couldn’t have been over 6 or 8 years old. So I was turned on to his music real early. I learned most all his songs, ‘Walking the Floor Over You.’ Back there in the war he did ‘On My Way to Italy.’ Remember that?

I don’t.

Floyd Tillman did a song called ‘Each Night At Nine.’ It was about a soldier. I was turned on to Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne…back in those days those were the folks that I really listened to.

Do you remember when you started hearing the electric guitar in Ernest’s music at all?

Well, I heard some guitar… naturally in Bob Wills’s music, he had electric guitar in there. Ernest Tubb had electric guitar in his music. So I was hearing electric guitars in country music pretty early.

Do you think the music was played a little louder in these dance halls because people were dancing?

One time I was flying on an airplane, and I just happened to sit next to Bill Anderson. He says, “You do pretty good in those clubs in Texas. I just can’t seem to catch on down there. Can you give me any pointers?” I said, “Well, I think they drink beer louder than you sing.” And he laughed a little and said, “You’re probably right.”

What about Ernest’s vocal style? Can you describe that? It’s a little different.

I was one of the few guys who could do a pretty good Ernest Tubb imitation. He had, to me, the perfect Texas voice. I thought that he personified what I thought someone from Texas should sound like. He was a gentleman, he could talk well and intelligently, and I just loved his voice.

Later you joined up with him, and when you went into Nashville you had a role on his TV show.

Ernest and I did about, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty television shows together. With Jack Green and Cal Smith and the Johnson Sisters and Wade Ray, and that was probably some of the best times of my life.

You sang a lot of gospel songs on that show, right?

Well, I had written some songs, ‘Family Bible,’ and two or three different songs, ‘Kneeling at the Foot of Jesus.’ So I did them occasionally on those television shows.

Can you tell us how you got to Houston from the circuit that you were playing?

Well, I was playing around Waco and decided to go to Houston and play. I went down there to look for a job, stopped at a place called Esquire Club, it was a Monday afternoon, I went in, and there was a band rehearsing. And it was Larry Butler (not the Larry Butler from Nashville but the Larry Butler from Houston, it’s a different Larry Butler). And I listened to them rehearse and drank a beer, and after they took a break I introduced myself to Larry, and told him I wanted to sell him some songs. And he said, “Well, OK, play me some of them.” I played him two or three of the songs, and he said, “Well, I love the songs. How much you want for them?” I said, “Ten dollars a piece.” He said, “No, they’re worth more than that, but I’ll loan you some money and give you a job if that’ll help you.” So he did.

Some of those songs were ‘Night Life,’ ‘Crazy.’

‘Mr. Record Man,’ ‘I Gotta Get Drunk, I Sure Do Regret It,’ ‘Hello Walls,’ no, ‘Hello Walls’ I hadn’t written yet…

When did you meet Billy Walker?

Well, I met Billy first in Waco. He was called the Traveling Texan, the Masked Texan, and he played the guitar and sang, and went up and down the highway, and played the Big D Jamboree in Dallas. I got to meet him one time when I played the Jamboree. And then later on in life I found myself in Springfield, Illinois, and it just so happened that Billy Walker was on the Springfield Jamboree up there with Red Foley and all the guys. I wanted to try out for a job there, so I looked up Billy Walker, and he took me to his house and took care of me and tried to get me a job with a publishing company there. I stayed around a few days and couldn’t really find a job and moved on South down to Houston.

When you were growing up, Lefty was somebody that influenced you. Can you talk about him, what made him special?

Well, I heard his music on the jukebox all the time in Texas. He had songs like ‘If You Got the Money, I Got the Time,’ ‘Always Late,’ ‘I Love You a Thousand Ways,’ ‘Blue Quiet Thoughts Will Do,’ and these were all very hot tunes in Texas. I didn’t get to meet Lefty until years later when we were both in Nashville, but I was a big, huge fan of his.

Did a tribute record to him?

Yes, I did.

Also, Hank Williams was probably coming into prominence as you were emerging?

Yeah, well, Hank and Lefty were moving along about the same time there. And Hank had big hits like ‘Lovesick Blues,’ and ‘Move It On Over,’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ and I knew all those songs because they were always requested. They were on the jukebox, and I learned everything on the jukebox.

What made him special as a writer? He could really deal with pain and loneliness.

Well, that’s exactly right. He knew how to write about it, and write about life in terms that all of us can understand.

With both those guys, their careers were kind of cut short. Can you talk about that?

Hank died, I think, when he was 29 years old. Lefty Frizell lived longer than that. They both lived pretty hard and fast.

When did you decide to go to Nashville?

I was living in Houston, and I had a song called ‘Family Bible,’ that had been recorded by Claude Gray. It had become a number one song, and I decided that if I was ever going to, it was time to make a trip to Nashville and check it out. So I left my family in Houston and drove up there and again ran into Billy Walker, and he took me in again. My family got up there, and he took them in. And we lived with him for a couple of three weeks.

Billy describes you meeting him in a barn. I guess you were in a car because you had just come up and you were trying to get established, and he invited you to live at the house. Is that right?

That’s right. It was a nice period. I went up there not knowing anything hardly, or anybody, and pretty quick I happened to sort of get inside thanks to guys like Billy Walker and Faron Young and people like that. One of the first guys I met there was Charlie Dig who happened to be married to Patsy Cline.

What was the music business like in Nashville? When you went there, what did you find in terms of the way the writers and the artists were controlled and how records were made?

Well, I don’t think there’s any difference today than there was then. Whoever puts up the money wants to call the shots. If you can get by that, if you can get somebody to put up the money or put up your own money, go in and record your own album and say here it is, you might be better off. You might have a better chance because it’s real competitive. It’s more competitive, probably, in Nashville now than it was when I went there.

You had almost no problem getting established as a songwriter, right? I mean, your talents were really pretty quickly recognized as a songwriter.

Yeah, I was very fortunate to get listened to by some people who could really do something. For instance, Charlie Dig, Faron Young who went to the studio and recorded ‘Hello Walls,’ and ‘Congratulations.’ It was a lot easier than I expected it to be.

But you also wanted to be a performer.

I was a performer when I came to town, and it was difficult to find places to perform in Nashville. The bars and the clubs weren’t as plentiful as they were in Texas.

You were playing with Ray Price too, or was that later?

When I was there in Nashville, after a while Ray Price called me. He owned the publishing company that I was writing for. He called me and asked me if I could play bass. I said, “Of course, can’t everybody?” Johnny Paycheck, who, at that time, was going under the name of Donny Young, was playing bass for Ray Price, and Donny quit and went to California. So Ray called, and I was writing for him. So I joined up with Ray, and I played with him for over a year. By the way, I learned to play bass in Nashville on the way to the first gig.

Some people described the music that was coming out of there as being pretty cookie-cutter during that time: lush arrangements; artists didn’t really have a say. Very controlled. Not a lot of individuality.

One of the biggest problems, I thought, is that you had three hours to do four songs. That’s hard to do, especially if the band is not familiar with the songs when they get there. I always wanted to go in with my band and do it, because I knew we could knock them out. And it would be something that we could go out and perform, and it would be like the record. But that’s hard to do now.

What made you decide to leave Nashville?

I was working, most of my dates in Texas, driving back to Nashville mainly to work the Grand Ole Opry. Because you had to be there six months out of the year you had to work the Opry. You had to be there on Saturday night. I was working in Texas a lot, and it was really wearing me out, going back and forth just to get there Saturday night, and then go back to Fort Worth on Sunday. I finally left the Opry and decided that I would move to Texas. My house burned, so it gave me a real good excuse to leave early.

When that happened, you kind of found a new audience.

Well, I found the old audience again. I was raised up in the Texas beer joints, and they knew me a lot better when I left Nashville than they probably do in Nashville now. So when I got back to my old beer joints, I was at home again and met a lot of my old waitresses that took care of me. So, no, I got back to Texas, I got back in my element.

You seem to pick up a young element, a hippie element not usually associated with country music.

That’s true. I started playing places where a lot of hippies hung out, like Devil Road Headquarters in Austin, and different places around different towns. They would have their special places – the hippies went here, the rednecks went here. I tried to play in both places.

Your music didn’t really change during this period. I think you may have changed a little physically, but your music pretty much stayed on course, right?

I was trying to prove the point that the same people would like the same thing if they ever got together and listened to it. Hank Williams never fails. He would bring [people] together wherever [I went]. When I was playing with Ray Price, we’d always do a little Hank Williams. Of course, nobody knew who I was, so everything I did on those shows were other people’s songs, until ‘Bela Walsh,’ came out. But Hank Williams was my savior every night.

How did the whole outlaw thing come about? Was that marketing or a real thing, I mean, I know that there was this record that came out with you and Tom [Collins]. What was really behind that?

I think a lady wrote an article at the time that calls us outlaws. And someone picked up on it.

I think her name was Helen. I should know her name. She was a writer in Nashville, and she wrote an article about me and Waylan and Chris and a bunch of us and called us the Outlaws. I loved her for it, I thought it was great. Someone came along and decided it was a good marketing name, so all of a sudden now we were Outlaws, and there was an album out called “Outlaws” with me and Jesse and Tom and Waylan on it, and we did pretty good.

Where did ‘Red-headed Stranger’ come in?

‘The Red-headed Stranger’ is a song that was written by Arthur Smith.- no, I think it was written by two more people. But Arthur Smith recorded it back in the ’50s. I was a disc jockey then in Fort Worth, and I used to play it every day. I had a kiddie show from 1-1:30 in the daytime, when it was time for kids to take a nap, I would play children’s music, I’d play ‘Red-headed Stranger,’ and I played Tex Ritter’s ‘Blood on the Saddle,’ and all the different kid songs that I could come up with, and ‘Red-headed Stranger’ was one of the most popular songs that I played. I sang it to my kids every night. So several years later I had the opportunity to go on and do an album when I first signed with CBS. In our agreement, I could go in and do what I wanted to do any way I wanted to do it, and they would take it and put it down. So that’s when I wrote the ‘Red-headed Stranger’ album, and I took that song and I wrote from the first song from the time of the preacher all the way up to the Red-headed stranger, and imagined what would have happened after that. I wrote the concept album, recorded it, and gave it to CBS. They thought I’d gone insane because there wasn’t that much there. It was very sparse. But they put it out. I think Waylan shamed them into putting it out.

And that really changed it.

There were some good songs in there. ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ was a big hit out of the album, and the album itself sold very well. A lot of young people liked it. They still like it. It was re-released last year.

How would you describe how you gained control of your own music? What were the steps that you went through to gain control of your own career?

Well, as I say, I had a clause in my contract which gave me artistic freedom. That was all I needed, I thought. That’s really all anyone needs. If you think you can do it yourself, do it. That makes less for them to do, and they can just sell it. And if it doesn’t sell, you’re screwed.

So you assumed total responsibility for everything, right?

Yeah, I bet everything I had on this one album. It was the first album with CBS, and it had to be good or else the second one they don’t normally get excited about.

Can you talk about Fourth of July?

I was living in Texas, picking a lot, and this was about some of the same time there had been a concert in Wichita where a lot of the young pickers were coming together and listening to all kinds of music – rock and roll, mostly, I suppose. But they were coming together. Big crowd, I forget how many thousands of people, and I thought it was a good idea. Someone did the same thing in Austin at a place in Dicken Springs, and it was the First Annual Dicken Springs Reunion in March. I was on the show with Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller – a bunch of the traditional country people – Bill Anderson. And it wasn’t promoted, so it didn’t do that good, but I thought it was such a great idea, I felt like if we did the same thing further down in the year when the weather wasn’t so cold, like the fourth of July, it would be worthwhile trying to do it. So I started calling up friends and seeing who all wanted to come and work for nothing. And I rustled Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Charlie Rich, and the Bees-in-Slaws, Asleep at the Wheel, and a whole lot of great talent was there. We showed up, and we played, and we had about fifty thousand people, so everybody got paid, and we decided it worked and we should do it again.

As you were doing that, another guy you liked a lot, Merle Haggard. He had some of the same heroes, Bob Wills, like that. What do you think he brought to country music?

Merle Haggard is one of my favorite artists and writers. He’s been good ever since he started. His first records were good ones. People immediately liked Merle because they knew talent when they heard it. He was an original, and he still is. He’s one of the few guys that are still out here beating the bushes up and down the highway. His writing is just as good as it gets, and his singing is…well, he’s Haggard. Everybody loves him.

Was his ‘Okie from Muskogee’ sort of tongue in cheek, or did that reflect his politics at the time?

I don’t know. I’ve sung it many times, sort of tongue-in-cheek. I’m not sure where he was mentally when he wrote it.

Farm Aid was also something that you established. Can you talk about that and what was involved?

Well, I remember talking to a lot of friends of mine that were farmers. And they were telling me that there was a big problem. And we traveled around the country a lot and talked to a lot of farmers in different parts of the country. But I asked some of my friends in Texas around Abbot and Hills Vern West where I came from if they were having any problems. They said, “Well, it’s getting kind of tight, but they’re really having problems in the midwest.” A few weeks later I was playing in Springfield, Illinois, and the governor, Big Jim Thompson, a good friend of mine, was there. And we used to have a ritual where every year he’d come on the bus and have a bowl of chili and talk. And this particular time, I ask him about the farm situation, and he says, “Yeah, it’s really bad.” So I said, “What can we do about it? Can we do a Farm Aid, or something like that?” He said, “I don’t know, we can try.” So he got the venue in Champagne, Illinois, and we did the first one 21 days later.

And how many years has that been?

I forgot. It’s fifteen or sixteen, I guess.

Raised a lot of money.

Not as much as we need. The problem is as bad if not worse than it was when we started, and we’re still losing three to four hundred farmers every week with all the droughts and the floods and all the problems they have. Their prices are way down, and what they buy is way up. We need a new farm bill, the Freedom to Farm Bill that both the Democrats and the Republicans sign into is horrible. So both the Democrats and the Republicans have got to get together and come up with a farm bill, or else we’re going to lose all our small family farmers, and when we do that, we lose the next rung on the ladder. Whenever five farmers go out in an area, one business in that town goes under, and the schools and the hospitals fall right along behind it. So all these people who get thrown off the land wind up in a big city somewhere becoming a part of the problem there. So we need to reverse that. We need to get them a farm bill that will get people back on the land. Yesterday, I think, or the day before, I played over in Harvard, and we played a show for a school for young farmers, and I thought that was one of the greatest ideas I had heard. A lot of the people there are bringing kids out of the city, putting them on the farm, letting them learn how to farm, and teaching them what it’s like, teaching them where their food comes from. And that’s what we need to see – more of that.

You know, we focus on some of the tejano musicians that I think you know and like. Little Joe Hernadez is one. Tell us about Little Joe and how you know him and what you think of his music.

Well, Little Joe and I are real good friends, and we’ve been playing music together for a long time. He’s done Farm Aids, and we’ve recorded together. I’ve done a couple of songs in Spanish with him – hope to do some more. We were talking not too long ago about getting together, doing some more recording, and maybe going to Mexico and doing a couple of shows down there.

What about Flaco Jimenez? Is he somebody that you’ve worked with?

Oh yes.

Tell me about Flaco and his music.

Well, Flaco’s a great accordion player. He and his brother both received the Texas Music Art Award. Several of us did, Tommy Lee Jones, a bunch of us. And both Flaco and his brother got the award. They both deserve it.

I know that you also are good friends with B.B. King and that he’s influenced you.

I love the way he plays. And if you’re going to play the blues, you need to listen to B.B. and start from there and do the best you can. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the guy.

And he’s the guy that’s lived that Delta experience and brought it up and electrified it.

And stayed with it. He stayed with the blues. He hasn’t tried to go into this direction or that direction because he didn’t need to.

Another type of music that we’re looking at that’s been kind of negated in America is that of Native Americans. Native American music is starting to cross over. And it’s the first music in America. Is there anything you can say to help people realize the importance and the beauty of that music?

Well, if you’ve heard it than it’s not necessary to explain it. It’s different music, and it’s coming from a different part of life. The Native American rituals, I think, are an important part of life, and they’ve put a lot of this in their music, and there’s great education there, if one would listen. Their music is not something that you go around whistling and humming all the time (unless you’re an Indian, I guess you would), but I think a lot of those bands out there are capable of playing blues, they’re capable of playing country. I mean, just because they’re Indians doesn’t mean they can’t pick. So they can play their traditional stuff, and they can play all kinds of music.

In the explosion of American musics that occurred during the 20th Century, how important is radio and records? I mean, this music came out of different ethnic groups, different regions of the country, and it seems like it exploded all of a sudden and was being recorded for the first time and being broadcast. How important is the radio to American music of the 20th Century?

For one, it’s important in trying to get people to hear you on radio. If you can get your music on the radio, which is harder to do these days. There’s not a lot of radio stations playing traditional like they used to be. There are a few, and there seems to be more and more coming along. But radio used to be really important to me because I didn’t get a lot of airplay. Still don’t get a lot of airplay. But it was important to me whenever I’d work for Alice Ray to have some radio station in that town would play my records before I come to town so I would be ensured of having a pretty good crowd, maybe. So I would promote all these stations and try to find somebody in town that would play. So radio was very important.

When you were growing up, what were some of the first things that you remember over the radio or on records very early on?

The Grand Ole Opry. I used to listen to WSM every Saturday night. That was Roy Acuff, it was Minnie Pearl…

If you were to summarize your music and what you’ve done so beautifully and so consistently for quite a while now, what do you think that you brought into the mix that was different that you feel is distinctly yours?

Well, I don’t really know about that. I know that I like to have freedom to play. I’m not locked into a lot of arrangement and things. Our band jams a lot. It’s fun, what we do, and I think people can see that we’re having fun, and that, I think, is infectious. You like to see a band that’s having fun.

If you were to summarize the main influences on your music…

I don’t know. I listened to everybody, so I’ve got to give everybody a little credit.

But what about those early influences. I hear a lot of different ethnic groups in your music.

Well, somewhere in there is a little gypsy music, a little Spanish, a little country, and a little blues. I think it’s a lot of different things.

Why do you feel that there’s such an explosion of American music in the 20th Century? At the beginning, almost no one really thought America had a musical tradition, it was such a young country, it comes from Europe, it comes from Africa. And we get all these things: gospel, Cajun, jazz, blues, country, tejano, just comes out. And it’s not the music that came over from Europe, it’s something that’s unique in America. Why does that happen in such a short time?

Well, I don’t know, but I think every country has it’s uniqueness, its own musical heritage. But it was a while before they discovered that we had one over here. And maybe it’s because it took it a while to develop. Maybe Jimmie Rodgers and Ray Charles and Hank Williams and Bob Wills had to sort of melt together into something.

What do you think the earliest strands of American music were?

Well, I don’t really know. The first music I remember hearing was on the radio like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, and I’m sure before radio there were singers that I don’t know.

Out of the songs that other people have done of your own material, which one is probably the one that opened up your career the most? Would it be ‘Crazy’ or ‘Hello Walls?’

Well, definitely, ‘Crazy’ would have to be in there somewhere.

Can you sing a little for us?

Sure. [singing] “Crazy. Crazy for feeling so lonely. Crazy. Crazy for feeling so blue. You’d love me as long as you wanted. And then someday you’d leave me for somebody new. Worry. Why do I let myself worry? Wondering what in the world did I do? Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. Crazy for trying, crazy for crying, and I’m crazy for loving you.”

Willie Nelson Interview (CBS) (January 2015)

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Willie Nelson in Interview Magazine, by Woody Harrelson (2015)

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015
by: Woody Harrelson

“The first six decades of my life had been filled with drama,” Willie Nelson writes, with staggering, knee-buckling understatement, toward the end of his new memoir, It’s a Long Story (Little, Brown). Fifty-odd studio albums, more than a dozen film and TV roles, four wives, eight children, more awards and scrapes with the law than anyone can count—yeah, the first 60 years of Nelson’s life are to drama as the Pacific is to water. Deep with it.

But looking back, from his self-sustaining, solar-powered home in Maui, where he has lived for 30-some years, only soothes him for so long. “I just wanted to kick back, enjoy a smoke, and listen to the waves splash against the shore,” he writes. “But beautiful as it was, I couldn’t sit there for long. Something started calling to me. It was that same ‘something’ that had always been calling.”

Cue the guitar licks: “And of course it led where it always led: Back out on the road.”

At 82, Nelson (who wrote the song “On the Road Again,” among a thousand or more others) is the elder statesman of country music, a steadying and powerful voice in the industry and on environmental issues, and he’s still on the road much of the year. The music keeps calling.

In his unceasing, compulsive rambling about the country, the Depression-era baby and inveterate hustler from Abbott, Texas, has run with the best of ’em, smoked, jammed, and thrown bones with the rest of ’em. Over the course of his more than a hundred albums and 30 years of playing the Farm Aid concert, a benefit he created in support of family farmers, Nelson has played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash to Waylon Jennings. He’s appeared onscreen numerous times, including in the movies The Electric Horseman (1979), Honeysuckle Rose(1980), and Red Headed Stranger (1986), and on TV shows, including Monk and The Simpsons. At the poker or domino table, he has lifted a small fortune off his Maui neighbors and best buds Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson—all the while burning more grass than the plains states in a drought. (And yet he has the kind of snap-trap memory and continual, thrumming, joke-telling patter of a sage.)

In the process, Nelson has become an enduring figurehead—the outlaw rider; the hippie-redneck activist; the legalization advocate; the ruffian, poet beatnik—and an endlessly beguiling, elusive man. Willie Nelson is already a legend, and still he rambles on.

As he tells his pal and fellow fan of the pipe, Woody Harrelson, it’s been quite a ride. –Chris Wallace

WOODY HARRELSON: Willieeee, I miss you, brother! Where are you?

WILLIE NELSON: I’m in Biloxi, Mississippi.

HARRELSON: Biloxi, whoa. I’m in London, so we’re close. [laughs] When are you going back to Maui?

NELSON: Around Easter. Will you be there?

HARRELSON: That depends. When is Easter?

NELSON: First week in April, I think.

HARRELSON: Oh, I’ll be there. I’m going to be there for three months. I’m trying to get some time off.

NELSON: Heck yeah, we’ll play some poker, dominoes.

HARRELSON: I got a lot to win back.

NELSON: You win a few thousand every day, and it won’t take you long. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: People know you as an affable, great guy who started Farm Aid. Most people wish you were president, and they don’t realize that you’re a fucking hustler. [both laugh]

NELSON: Don’t tell them about that.

HARRELSON: I’m proud of building the Woody wing on your house there in Maui.

NELSON: Hey, thank you, man. Owen [Wilson] was just there. He contributed a little bit.

HARRELSON: Before we start, do you have, like, a jay sitting around? Or maybe a Volcano or the pen, some kind of vaporizer or anything going on there? Maybe we can get stoned together.

NELSON: I’ve got at least four of each of those things. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: I don’t even know why I asked that.

NELSON: Yeah, really.

HARRELSON: Okay. So tell me about your grandparents, because they were a huge influence on you.

NELSON: My parents divorced when I was about 6 months old, and my grandparents raised me and my sister, Bobbie. I think they did a good job. They spoiled the hell out of us, but that’s what we needed.

HARRELSON: Why did you go to the grandparents? Neither parent could take you?

NELSON: They went different directions, and neither one of them had a way to take care of us. Really they did us a favor just by leaving us with our grandparents.

HARRELSON: This was around the Depression?

NELSON: Yeah, I was born in 1933.

HARRELSON: Do you have any memories of the Depression?

NELSON: I didn’t think we were any worse off than all of the other folks around us. Everybody I knew had to work in the fields, pick cotton, pull corn, bale hay; that’s the way we paid our way through school and bought our school supplies and things. My granddaddy died when I was about 6 years old, I think. And my grandmother took a job cooking in the school lunchroom. So she did great. She made $18 a week.

HARRELSON: That must’ve seemed like a small fortune.

NELSON: Well, it was. It took care of us.

HARRELSON: You really have a fond kind of vibe for your grandmother.

NELSON: And my granddad, too. He was a blacksmith, and I hung out in the blacksmith shop with him when I was a kid, watching him shoe horses. In fact, he got kicked by a horse one time, and he had to wear one of those rupture belts all the rest of his life. They were hard workers.

HARRELSON: Was he a disciplinarian?

NELSON: Well, he spanked me one time. I had to be 4, 5 years old, and I ran away from home. They brought me back and he whipped my little butt. He had one of those razor strops. You know, one of those wide, leather razor strops that you sharpen your razor on. And he hit me a few times with that. It sounded real terrible, but it didn’t hurt that much.

HARRELSON: But I’m sure you made a lot of crying noises so he’d stop.

NELSON: Oh, yeah. I screamed. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: You had that actor in you back then, didn’t you?

NELSON: Hustle! I had that hustle.

HARRELSON: When did you get your first guitar?

NELSON: I was about 5 or 6 years old, and I bought this guitar out of a Sears, Roebuck catalog. I think it was a Harmony guitar. My sister played the piano. She’s two years older than me, and I always wanted to play something. So my grandmother got the guitar for me, and showed me a couple of chords to start off. And then I got me a book. Next thing you know, I was playing along with sister.

HARRELSON: So when you graduated high school, around 1950, you joined the Air Force. What was that like?

NELSON: I didn’t care for it at all. The day I got in, I started trying to get out. I didn’t like taking orders that much, and I didn’t like getting up at dawn and marching and all that horseshit. I didn’t make a very good soldier, I’m afraid.

HARRELSON: I can’t imagine you taking orders.


HARRELSON: I mean, except from Annie [Nelson, Willie’s wife], obviously. [both laugh] So you weren’t a part of the Korean War?

NELSON: I never did go overseas. I spent all my time in Biloxi, Mississippi, right here where I’m at now. I took basic training down in San Antonio, at Lackland Air Force Base, and in Wichita Falls, at Sheppard Air Force Base. Then I spent my last few months in the Air Force here. I come back here to Biloxi quite a bit. I like it here.

HARRELSON: So out of the Air Force, you went to Baylor University?

NELSON: Yeah, I had some G.I. Bill coming. So I took what I had and went to Baylor there for a while, majored in dominoes. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: That’s what I want to know. When did you become a hustler?

NELSON: I’ve been playing dominoes all my life. When I was really young, the old men in Abbott all played dominoes. And when one of them would have to get up and go somewhere, they’d get me to come sit in. If I’d make a mistake, they’d yell at me and throw shit at me. So I learned to play dominoes pretty good. And some friends of mine, like old Zeke Varnon up in Hillsboro, who is the best dominoes player I ever met, showed me a lot of stuff. He was a card hustler, dominoes, pool … You name it, Zeke was good at it.

HARRELSON: I guess those are the people I have to thank for all the—what do you call it?—remuneration I’ve thrown your direction.

NELSON: I think remuneration is the word for it, yeah. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: Oh, man. I’ve experienced more pain in your house than I think anywhere.

NELSON: But you take it well, Woody. That’s what I tell them all.

HARRELSON: You notice how there’s just no shift from when I’m winning or losing—I just don’t care. I’m happy. So were you an encyclopedia salesman?

NELSON: I sold encyclopedias door-to-door. I also sold Singer sewing machines.

HARRELSON: Did you do well with that? Because I’m imagining Willie Nelson coming to my door to sell me something, whatever it is, I’m going to buy it.

NELSON: The big deal was to get in the door. When I would sell encyclopedias, I would drive down the road looking for a house with a swing set in the back, and I’d say, “Oh, those folks got kids. They need some books.” I’d knock on their door and sell them a set of encyclopedias, and those books were from $300 to $600. I’d look around the house, and if there wasn’t that much furniture in the house, I felt a little bad about selling a $600 set of books to people who couldn’t afford a couch. So I didn’t last at that job very long.

HARRELSON: The overly compassionate salesman. You just weren’t meant to do that, I think. How did you end up in Nashville?

NELSON: Well, when I was growing up, Nashville was the place to go if you had songs to sell and thought you had talent and wanted to tour and be on Grand Ole Opry [radio show]. It was the big deal back in those days to play the Grand Ole Opry. And you could travel around the world saying, “Hi, I’m Willie from the Grand Ole Opry.” And back in those days, it really helped you book dates. I had to quit the Opry because they insisted that you play it 26 weeks out of the year. They still do, I guess. But I was playing in Texas a lot, so it was hard on me to get back 26 weeks out of the year. I’ll always regret it.

HARRELSON: You were just driving back and forth?

NELSON: Yeah, and my good days were Friday and Saturday, so it was really cutting into my income to have to go all the way back to Nashville to play the Opry, and I was kind of torn between the two.

HARRELSON: But at the time, most anybody would have been frickin’ thrilled to be playing the Opry.

NELSON: Oh, yeah.

HARRELSON: I’ve got to backtrack. When did you say, “This is what I’m going to do”?

NELSON: I always knew that I wanted to do this. My first job was in a Bohemian polka band, the Rejcek family polka band in Abbott. The old man in the band had another blacksmith shop in Abbott, but he liked me. All he had was horns and drums, and I was set up over there with my little guitar with no amps or nothing. I would play as loud as I wanted to, and nobody could hear me. He paid me $8 or $10. I had been working in the fields all day for $2, baling hay, so that was a lot of money for me. He took good care of me. He had 20 children, I think, and they were all musicians.

HARRELSON: 20 kids, and I’m guessing different wives?

NELSON: Well now, that I can’t tell you for sure.

HARRELSON: I mean, you’ve got, like, 27 children and how many wives? Is it too early for that question?

NELSON: I don’t know how people handle 20 kids. I got a few, who I love dearly, but 20? Maybe if I went around the world, I’d have 20. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: You got at least 20 out there you don’t even know about.

NELSON: Lord willing! [both laugh]

HARRELSON: But officially, you have how many?

NELSON: Officially, we have Lana, who’s standing right here by me, my oldest, and her sister, Susie, and I had a son named Billy. He passed away. And Paula and Amy, from me and Connie. And Lukas and Micah, from me and Annie. I got a bunch of good kids.

HARRELSON: That’s a goodly number though. I lost track of how many that was …

NELSON: The boys are playing in the band with me tonight. Micah’s a great drummer, and Luke plays great guitar and sings, and they’re really helping us out on this tour.

HARRELSON: So tell me about this fellow Hank Cochran. He had a major influence on your life.

NELSON: Hank Cochran was a songwriter in Nashville, and he wrote for Pamper Music. Hank got me a job there at Pamper Music writing songs [in the early 1960s], with a $50 a week salary. So that set me up in Nashville. And then Ray Price, who owned Pamper Music, heard that I was a musician. And he called and asked me if I could play bass. His bass player, Donny Young, had quit on him, I think out in Nebraska somewhere. I said, “Sure, can’t everybody?” But I had never played bass a day in my life. So on my way to the first gig, Jimmy Day taught me how to play bass. Several years later I asked Ray if he knew I couldn’t play bass, and he said, “Yeah.” [both laugh] I didn’t fool him.

HARRELSON: At this time, you wrote a hell of a lot of amazing songs: “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Wake Me When It’s Over.” Great songs that other people were performing, like Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper.” I know you had to be glad to get a paycheck and have other people singing your songs, but were you frustrated at the same time?

NELSON: Not in the least. I knew what I could do, and I was getting my songs recorded. I was making money. I had no reason to complain about anything. I was touring with Ray Price, and whenever we would get home, we’d go into the studio and put down all these songs that me and Hank had written. The publishing company would give us three hours, and we’d see how many songs we could put down—we’d put down 20 or 30 songs in three hours.

HARRELSON: That’s outrageous!

NELSON: But I was performing. I was working Texas a lot, playing all of the beer joints down there, making a pretty good living. And, in fact, when I left Nashville, I went back to Texas and said, “Hey, I can make a living in Texas working the Broken Spoke and different places like that.”

HARRELSON: So that was all initiated when your house burned down in 1970? Was that kind of a blessing in disguise?

NELSON: Yeah, it really was. We were all living up there in Ridgetop, Tennessee, and writing songs and raising hogs. [both laugh] I decided I wanted to be a hog farmer, and I bought 17 weaner pigs. I think I paid 27 cents a pound for ’em. Brought ’em home and fed ’em for five months, sold ’em for 17 cents a pound. I lost a small fortune raising fuckin’ hogs. But I learned a lot. I learned I’d much rather be in Texas playing the beer joints. [both laugh]

HARRELSON: So when you got to Texas, you were already a known entity?

NELSON: More or less, yeah.

HARRELSON: So then everything started to really shift for you. You made Shotgun Willie [1973]. You made, like, three albums in succession.

NELSON: Red Headed Stranger [1975]—that was one of the first ones that started doing well. It had “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” My plan was to have the album come out the same time I had the movie come out. But you know how that goes—it took a decade before [the movie Red Headed Stranger] got made.

HARRELSON: Now, hold it. Was Red Headed Stranger the album that you just heard running through your head when you were driving through the night?

NELSON: Yeah. I was coming back through Denver, driving to Austin. The lights were really bright, so, you know, “The bright lights of Denver / Were shining like diamonds / Like 10,000 stars in the sky.” And, “Nobody cared who you were or where you come from / You were judged by the look in your eye.” So I kind of set the theme for the Red Headed Stranger. I had it pretty much written by the time we got home. It didn’t take that long. But then “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was already written. Some of those songs had been hits in the past, and I placed them in there because they fit the story.

HARRELSON: So by the time that album came out, your star had really ascended?

NELSON: Yeah, pretty good. And I got lucky.

HARRELSON: You still tour over 100 days a year, I think. Were you on that kind of pace already?

NELSON: Yeah. I’m trying to cut back. We’re playing a little less than we have been. I think we’ll all be able to stay out here longer if we do it that way.

HARRELSON: And it’s helping all your friends out, too, because then we get to hang with you more. And how could you possibly make more out on the road than you do right at home? [both laugh] So tell me how you met Annie, your wife.

NELSON: I was doing a movie, Stagecoach [1986], a remake of the old John Wayne classic. We were in Tucson, and Annie was doing the makeup on the movie. We were there together for several weeks.

HARRELSON: And how did it go from makeup artist to … home stylist? [both laugh]

NELSON: Well, she still does my hair.

HARRELSON: How’d you get into biodiesel?

NELSON: Well, just as an alternative to using a lot of oil. A lot of the truckers use it. We use it on our buses. I noticed the price of oil has come down a lot, so that makes it more competitive. You know, if a guy can fill up with regular gas rather than pay a little bit more for some biofuels, he might do that. We got a factory there in Hillsboro, where we go around picking up all the vegetable oil from the restaurants and turning it into biofuel. My old buddy Bob King in Maui, at Pacific Biodiesel, he kind of helped start the whole idea. He’s doing fine. You remember him, don’t you?

HARRELSON: Oh, yeah. I go there and fill up every time I need to fuel. The UN calls 2015 the International Year of Soils, and I know you’re really involved in helping farmers. How’s that going?

NELSON: From what I hear, the ones who have gone into organic farming are doing very well. A lot of people are realizing that it’s better for them to buy from a local farmer. Instead of having their breakfast come from 1,500 miles away, they can get the same bacon and eggs from the farmer a mile out in the country. So I see some progress. We’re doing another Farm Aid this year, on September 19. I think this makes almost 30 of them.

HARRELSON: Wow. I didn’t realize it was that many. That is a cool thing and a great event, but I’m sure you look forward to the day when you don’t have to do it.

NELSON: You would think that our real intelligent people there in Washington would see the problem and fix it immediately, but unfortunately, the big corporations have pretty much told them what to do. And big corporations like it the way it is, all the pesticides and chemicals that they put on the land. It doesn’t change, and I think you have to expect that from people. You have to judge other people against yourself. They say you’re not supposed to do that, but that’s the only way I can judge other people. I kind of compare them to myself. And I know there’s a lot of hustlers out there, in every walk of life. Whether they’re preachers or insurance salesmen, it’s about the same thing.

HARRELSON: I’ve stopped hoping for much from the politicians.

NELSON: Yeah, they’re all bought and paid for.

HARRELSON: But this is boring …

NELSON: Let’s talk about sex.

HARRELSON: Yeah. How old were you when you first started masturbating?

NELSON: Um, let me see. [both laugh] I remember the first time I had sex. I’ll never forget what she said. “Moooooo!”

HARRELSON: That is honorable. And very funny.

NELSON: Do you want to hear a good joke?


NELSON: These people were in a courtroom, and they were accusing this guy of having sex with an animal. And so this lady said, “I only know what I saw. I was driving down the road, and I saw this guy out there with this sheep, and they were making love. And you’re not going to believe this, your Honor, but when they got through, the little sheep laid its head over on the guy’s shoulder and went to sleep.” And one of the guys on the jury punched another one in his elbow and said, “Yeah, it’ll do that.” [both laugh]

HARRELSON: I tell your jokes all the time—but when it gets met with a weird response, I always give you credit—the one about two nuns riding their bikes around the Vatican?

NELSON: And one says to the other, “I’ve never come this way before.” And the other one says, “Me neither, must be the cobblestones.” [both laugh]

HARRELSON: You probably have 52,000 jokes in your memory bank.

NELSON: You’re probably close.

HARRELSON: I’ve never seen you run out.

NELSON: I must enjoy telling them. I know I enjoy hearing ’em. And whenever I hear a good one, I kind of try to hang on to it and spread it around.

HARRELSON: Who’s influenced you the most?

NELSON: Well, we have to go all the way back to guys like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne, Ted Daffan, Spade Cooley, Hank Williams, Django Reinhardt. Me and Merle [Haggard] have a new album coming out called Django and Jimmie, about Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. There’s a song that says, “There might not have been a Merle or a Willie without a Django and Jimmie.”

HARRELSON: Ah! And did y’all write together?

NELSON: Merle wrote a few in there. Merle wrote one about Johnny Cash, and he wrote one about us called “The Only One Wilder Than Me.” [both laugh]

HARRELSON: And that’s saying something.

NELSON: And we did a song on there, coming out 4/20, called “It’s All Going to Pot.” “Whether we like it or not / As far as I can tell, the world’s gone to hell / And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot / And all of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee, just couldn’t hit the spot / So here’s a $100 bill, you can keep your pills, friend / It’s all going to pot.” [both laugh]

HARRELSON: That is great, man! Willie, I got to say, it really blows my mind how you tour over 100 days a year, you come up with at least one or two albums a year, and then you’re also writing books—you have a book coming out, right?

NELSON: Right. It’s called It’s a Long Story. [Harrelson laughs] I reviewed my own book, and I cut a song called “It’s a Long Story” [sings] “It’s a long story, you’ll probably never make it to the end / There’s way too many words, way too many pages / Too much time to stop and start again / But if you love a good mystery, you’ll never find a better one, my friend / It’s a real whodunit, who lost it, and who won it / And who’s still around to lose it all again.”

HARRELSON: Nice, man! You know, I never told you what a big influence you’ve been on my life. I was living in Costa Rica with Laura, and our daughters, Deni and Zoe, and I came back to L.A., and my buddy Jim Brooks asked me if I wanted to go to a concert you were doing. I went, it was a great show, and afterwards, this beautiful woman, Annie, comes up and says, “Hey, I’m Willie’s wife. Why don’t you come back and hang on the bus?” I’m like, “Whoa, sure.” So we go back there, the bus doors open, all the smoke billows out like, you know, Cheech and Chong, and I look through the fog, and I see you in there, with a big old fatty, like, “Come on in. Let’s burn one!” [Nelson laughs] The first of, like, 97,000 joints we would smoke together. And we had the most amazing conversation. I really felt like I met a real soul mate—someone I would always know. Of course, that proved to be true, but one of the great things that happened on that occasion, when we first met, which is an example of your generosity, was you said to me, “I live in Maui. If you ever want to come over there and stay—even if I’m not there—you can do that.” So, of course, we took you up on it, and ended up in Maui. And now, almost 20 years later, I’ve been living in Maui, and it’s thanks to you. So thanks for being such a good influence on my life, bro.

NELSON: Well, you’re sure welcome. I was lucky. I got booked over there, and once I got there, I realized, “Hey, this would be a good place to stay.”

HARRELSON: Yeah, you got a great spot there on the water.

NELSON: One thing I want to run by you, you know our spot over there on the ocean, what do you think about us putting in a little floatin’ gambling casino out there, maybe a little houseboat, you know, and calling it Woody and Willie’s?

HARRELSON: I love that idea. Bring ’em up in a boat, get a little gambling done, and send ’em back home.

NELSON: Yeah, they can ski over or whatever.

HARRELSON: You’ll have Owen there every night, trying to win back what he lost the previous night. I love that idea. I’m in.

NELSON: I’ll see you in Maui!

Willie Nelson in Interview Magazine (2005)

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

portrait:  Julian Schnabel

Interview Magazine
by:  Stephen Mooallem
August 2005

WILLIE NELSON:  Outlaw, legend, Countryman, Rastafarian?  It’s been a long and tempestuous road for music’s braided troubadour, and with a big-time movie, an old-time tour, and a good-time reggae record all on the go, he’s still the wildest ace in the deck.

Stephen Mooallem:  So, this reggae record you’ve done, Countryman [Lost Highway], has been nearly a decade in the making.

Willie Nelson:  Yeah.  It started around 10 years ago when don Was and I went to Jamaica to see Chris Blackwell, who was the head of Island Records at the time.  He had wanted us to do a reggae album, and we did one track, so we took it down to play it for him.  He liked it, but I also took a copy of a CD I’d just produced called Spirit, and he liked that, too, so he said, “Let’s put that out now, then we’ll put the reggae record out later.”  Meantime, the company had some shake-ups, so Chris moved into another spot, and the reggae album just lay around for a long time.

SM:  Is reggae music something you’ve been into for a long time?

WN:  No.  When I first heard it, there was way too much rhythm for me.  It took me a while to realize that they were doing something with all that rhythm and not just banging.  So once I was able to figure out what was going on, I discovered how well country songs could adapt themselves to reggae rhythms.

SM:  Why did you think they would adapt well?  Were there similarities in any way?

WN:  I tried doing my song “Undo the Right” in reggae style, and it turned out so well that I felt I could do any country song an put reggae rhythms behind it.  Then these musicians told me that reggae started from people in Jamaica listening to music from United States radio.  The people there had fiddles and guitars but no drums, so they added their own rhythms to what they were hearing.  They swore that’s where reggae came from.

GM:  How did you pick the songs for Countryman?

WN:  A friend of mine told me I couldn’t do a reggae album without “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo,” so I did those.  Then I did a Johnny Cash song called “I’m a Worried Man.”  When he found out I was doing a reggae album, he played me his song, and I said, “Yeah, that’d be good.”  Then on the rest of them, I used a lot of my old songs — just country songs that I’d written back in the ’60s and ’70s.

SM:  Was it hard waiting for this record to come out?

WN:  Oh, yeah.  But it’s the record business, so everything is different and strange.  [laughs]

GM:  You’re also in the new Dukes of Hazzard movie.  How was that experience?

WN:  Exceptionally good.  Movies come along so rarely that when they do it’s kind of like a vacation.  You pull the bus in there, and you stay for a week or two, and you get to see a lot of great people every day.

GM:  You play Uncle Jesse in the movie.

WN:  Most of my scenes are with Wonder Woman.

GM:  Oh, Lynda Carter.  Who does she play?

WN:  She plays my girlfriend.

GM:  Very nice.

WN:  Yeah.  She’s a great gal.

SM:  Do you still like being on the road?

WN:  Yes, I do. I enjoy being able to hang out during the day and not having anything to do until the nighttime.  But I do run and try to stay in shape.  With the way I abuse myself in the nighttime, I have to do something the next morning to at least even it out.

SM:  Do you still keep late nights.

WN:  No, I don’t really.  A lot of the old things I used to do, I don’t do anymore.  I don’t drink much anymore, so I have no reason to wake up feeling bad.

SM:  Did you ever think when you were starting out that you would still be touring and playing music at this point in your life?  What keeps you interested?

WN:  Every day is a challenge, for one thing.  And it keeps me off the streets.  It keeps me from getting into trouble, because I don’t know how to do days off that well.  For me, being out on the road, when you’ve got something to do every day,  is good therapy.  And my boys are playing with me, and they are just incredible musicians, so it’s fun to have them around.

SM:  Do yout hinkyour sons are going to become musicians as well?

WN:  No doubt.  It just depends on how quick their mom will let them hit the road.  She’s very interested in keeping them in school long enough to learn how to take care of the business part of it.  I am, too, because i learned mainly by making mistakes.  I started out playing in bands when I was around 8 or 9 years old, living in Abbott, Texas.  I was living with my grandmother, who raised me.  I’d play around town, in school and church and everything, and she said, “That’s all f ine, but I don’t ever want you to go on the road.”  So there was a little old club down in West, Texas, about six miles south of Abbott.  I went down there one night and played with a bohemian polka band.  Nobody heard me, but I made $8.  When I got home, my grandmother was a little upset.  She said, “You promised me you wouldn’t go on the road.”  Six miles away was “on the road” to her.

SM:  What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever learned?

WN:  Be careful what you say, and be careful what you promise, and be sure you’re able to do what you say you’ll do.

SM:  Do you have a philosophy then about, how to go about things?

WN:  Yes:  Fortunately, we’re not in control.

August 2005

Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

By Jeremy Martin

New to Willie Nelson?   Don’t cop to that shit around these parts, partner, unless you do it in a Martian accent.  In his 76 years, Abbott, Texas’s native son has done so many phenomenal things a list of them would amount to a religious text, but let’s put it this way: He wrote a hit song for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”) and appeared in a Snoop Dogg video (“My Medicine”). The words “living legend” aren’t really adequate; that should’ve opened up a wormhole in space-time. We’re still waiting for him to bring his Fourth of July Picnic back to San Antonio, but you’ve got a chance to verify his actual existence Sunday at the Majestic Theater, 224 E. Houston Street, on  February 28, 2010,

Mickey Raphael has played harmonica with Willie Nelson since 1973. He produced 2009’s Naked Willie, featuring Nelson recordings from 1966-1970 stripped of their Nashville studio flourishes. Raphael is currently working with Salvador Duran and Calexico’s John Convertino and Joey Burns to record a follow-up to his 1987 solo album Hand to Mouth.

How is Willie Nelson’s hand recovering? [He canceled a concert last month due to hand pain.]

It’s good. I mean he plays. He had that carpal-tunnel-syndrome operation — it’s been awhile back [2004]. … We’re out on the road now, but we just had a day off yesterday, and we’ve got a day off Monday, so he’s giving it some rest. … He’s the only guitar player we got, though.

What’s the strangest experience you’ve had playing with Willie Nelson?

[Performing in Amsterdam with] Snoop Dogg was pretty unique. We’ve gotten to play with U2.  Willie and I went to see Bono in Ireland, and they were working on a record and they asked us to come down and record a song that they released in Europe [“Slow Dancing”].  I don’t think it was a U.S. release. Willie and I played in Georgia at Ray Charles’s funeral. We just did this thing with Wynton Marsalis [2008’sTwo Men With the Blues].

How did you begin playing with him?

I met Willie through [former University of Texas football coach] Darrell Royal, at a jam session at the coach’s hotel room after a ball game. He had about 30 people in there … a bunch of musicians and just his buddies and stuff. They just sat around passing the guitar around. Willie sang some. I think Charlie Pride sang some; I can’t remember who else was there. And Willie just said, “Hey, if you ever hear we’re playing anywhere, come sit in.” I started checking his schedule and seeing where he was playing in Texas. … It just kind of segued into playing with him more often.

How did the idea for Naked Willie come about?

I just pitched the idea to the record label. I said, “We’ve got all these great songs from the ’60s, and I wonder what they would sound like without all these strings and background vocals. What would it sound like if Willie had been the producer?

So this was your idea?

Yeah, totally my idea.  Willie really heard it when it was finished.

The impression I’d had was it was similar to the way that Let It Be Naked had arisen— something that had been eating away at him for a long time.

No, no. It was something that had been eating away at me for a long time. •

Five Questions for Willie Nelson @Barnes & Noble

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

by: Lauren Passell

Willie Nelson has been putting his stories to music (with his guitar, Trigger) for more than 60 years—and now he’s put his stories to the page, in his just-released memoir “It’s a Long Story.” We sat down for a few minutes with the country-music legend before he signed copies before an excited audience of fans at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City.

BN:  You’ve been telling stories for years through song, and now a book. What’s your best advice for telling a good story?

WN: I would be the last one to give advice on anything.

BN: But you’re a gifted storyteller! How do you do it?  WillieN03

WN: Well it’s different selling a big, heavy book like this one, than writing a song.

BN:  How is it different?

WN:  With the book, I had a lot of good help. David (my co-writer) would ask me questions and did a good job taking what I said and making it sound half right.

BN:  You walk into a big, beautiful Barnes & Noble like this one. Which section do you head to first?

WN:  I like adventure and action books.

BN:  If we started a Willie Nelson book club, which book would you choose to make everyone read?

WN:  God’s Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell.


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