Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Lukas Nelson Interview

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

www.Forbes. om
By: Steve Baltin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Willie Nelson album – just what we need

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

www.premierguitar.com
by: Bill Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not bad,” he says finally.

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

Willie Nelson CMT Insider Interview (4/23/2010)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020
countrymusic

www.cmt.com

Even when his albums centered around pop standards, blues, jazz and reggae, Willie Nelson has always put his unique country spin on the music. With his new album, Country Music, he chose to delve deep into the kind of music he grew up hearing and playing.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, Country Music was recorded in Nashville with a band of local musicians that included Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Ronnie McCoury. The song selection includes new arrangements of traditional material and covers of songs popularized by Porter Wagoner (“Satisfied Mind”), Hank Williams (“House of Gold”), Ernest Tubb (“Seaman’s Blues”), Merle Travis (“I Am a Pilgrim”) and Al Dexter (“Pistol Packin’ Mama”).

During a recent interview, CMT Insider talked to the Country Music Hall of Fame member about the album and if there was a reason it had a specific release date of April 20 — also referred to by some as 4/20 or “Pot Day.”

Where did the idea for this album country music come from?

Nelson: My idea of country music is basically what this album has on it. It’s fiddles, steels, mandolins, and it just seems like a natural title. And underneath Country Music, I was tempted to say, “Lest we forget this is country music.”

What was the criteria for this album?

Well, T Bone Burnett produced it, and if you’ve got a good producer like that, you kind of just let him have the ball and run with it. And that’s what I did. He brought all the songs to the session except for “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and all the musicians, he called them all together. He’s really the best at doing things like that.

I’ve read that you said three takes are enough if you’ve got the right people in the studio. Did you feel like you had that there?

Oh, yeah. And a lot of times, the first take is the best, so the second and third are just insurance.

A lot of people are saying Country Music is similar to yourStardust album because these songs are standards. Do you agree with that?

I do. It’s a Stardust in its own right. All of these songs are the same type of standard songs in the country music as theStardust album were in pop. So, yeah, there is definitely a connection.

Is there a song on this album that means the most to you personally?

They’re all really good songs that I grew up singing — “Satisfied Mind,” “Dark as a Dungeon.” You know, these days the mining songs are very special to me because of all the tragedies with all these mines. But all of these songs are very good songs.

The traditional song, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” was one you hadn’t even heard before.

No, I hadn’t heard that. T Bone brought some good things to the session, but I had never heard that one. He brought a Bob Willssong I had never heard. I thought I’d heard all the Bob Wills songs, but “Gotta Walk Alone” is an obscure Bob Wills song that I had never heard.

You included Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” on the album and have said it helped get you through some hard times. What is it about his songs that have the power to heal?

Well, songs like “House of Gold” … it’s just pure Hank Williams. No one sings those like Hank did, but I sure love to try.

Is there a type of music that you wouldn’t touch these days?

Oh, I don’t know. There are probably lots of different things. … I’m just now aware yet.

You had carpal tunnel surgery a few years back. How is your hand doing?

The hand’s doing better. I’ve got a rotator cuff that’s torn, and it’s cutting down on my golf but … .

There was a lot of speculation about your reasons for releasing the album on 4/20. Is this a coincidence?

Well, you know, I wasn’t even aware of a 4/20 kind of the release date. I never put anything together — because I’m usually kind of slow on things like that — but I think it’s funny.

A district attorney in North Carolina is planning to prosecute some of your band members for possession of moonshine and marijuana. That’s kind of got to be disappointing.

Well, yeah it’s very disappointing. … To have a little moonshine, in North Carolina, I thought they put that in baby bottles. I didn’t know that was a problem.

We’ve been hearing rumors that you’re going to do a movie with Johnny Knoxville. Is that happening?

We’re certainly talking about one together. And that’d be great. I love Johnny. We’d have a lot of fun.

Anything new to report about your constant touring?

Not really. I’m having fun playing. We played … in Vegas for all the broadcast people, and we had the band from Nashville there. That’s happening a few more times. I think we’re doing it in L.A. and New York. I’m looking forward to it because these guys are very good.

And T Bone will be doing some performances with you, right?

He’s great musician, and any time he’s around, you feel a little better because you feel like he’s got your back. I’m glad to know he’s in the studio or on the stage or anything.

Willie Nelson interview, ‘Stomp and Stammer’ (April 1999)

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

At 66, Willie Nelson is Still on the Road, and Headed for Another Joint

by Bob Townsend
April 1999

After the Yesterday’s Wine album came out a friend of mine got a call from a hippie fan in San Francisco who said, “I’m worried about Willie.  He thinks he’s Jesus.”

I got a kick out of that.  Just last year, one of those supermarket newspapers had a full page story about the face of Jesus suddenly appearing on the outside wall of a grocery store in South America  after a dramatic rainstorm.  Hundreds of people came to pray to the image of Jesus, and some of the sick went away cured.  A few days later, following another thunderstorm, a new figure appeared on the wall beside Jesus.  It was Julio Iglesias.

What happened, the rain had washed off the coat of whitewash that had covered a poster for “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

The supermarket headline said:  THAT’S NOT JESUS – IT’S JUST OLD WILLIE

— Willie Nelson
An Autobiography

It’s hard to say much about Willie Nelson without reverting to hyperbole, let alone spiritual metaphor.  But the man is a cultural icon like few others — fiercely capable of maintaining his artistic integrity while somehow being all things to all people.

An idol beloved by bikers and hemp smokers, old ladies and babies and almost everyone in between, Willie has done time in Nashville and Hollywood, recorded over 200 albums and, in a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, appeared in the guise of country-politan songsmith, redneck outlaw, rural folk hero, canny interpreter of sappy standards, savior of the family farmer, and David fighting the IRS Goliath.

An ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic wrote in the liner notes to the recent weirdo tribute Twisted Willie, he is the rare figure who ‘transcends genre and generation.”  But unlike many big stars, his larger-than-life persona exudse a mellow, comforting quality.  Willie is the wide-eyed, pothead rascal in red pigtails, T-shirt and running shoes, who seems to hold some cabalistic clue to the meaning of the universe.

“He has this presence that radiates out of him – an aura.”  Emmylou Harris has said, “You can feel it even when he’s not in the room.  If you want to understand what I’m taliking aobut, go to one of his concerts.  People act like they’re in church, as if he fills a spirtual void for them.”

That commingling of the everyday and the ethereal even translates over the telephone wire.  Calling from a stop in Albuquerque one afternoon, Nelson’s sonorous baritone fills the receiver like a familiar refrain.  “This is Willie,” he says.  And so it is.

Nelson is on the road again.  But isn’t he always on the road, if only in his mind?  Through he turns 66 this month – an age when most of his associates have retired, or set up shop in Branson — Willie is touring behind one of the most adventurous recordings of his career.

Teatro harks back to the turbulent early ’60’s, when Nelson sojourned in the wilderness of Nashville as a short-haired Music Row songwriter.  That’s when he penned such jazz-bent masterpieces as “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls” and “Crazy”  — songs that forever changed the sound of country music, and gained Nelson his first measure of success.  But it was also a period when his personal life was disintegrating along with his first marriage.

With the help of producers Daniel Lanois and fellow traveler Emmylou Harrris, Nelson recalled those days in radical fashion on Teatro.  Recording in a converted Mexican movie theater, Lanois delivered the kind of cinematic energy he made famous in his work with U2, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan and lately, Harris herself.  But Nelson didn’t allow Lanois to go too far over the top, as he turned in one of his most battered and beautiful performances since the early ’70s, when he made Phases and Stages in Miracle Shoals with Jerry Wexler.

Nelson, who entrusted Lanois with nearly complete control of the Teatro sessions, is magnamimous in his praise for the shifting sonic textrues he conjured on the disc.  “I felt like I was lucky to get him” he says.  “I left it up to him, more or less, because his idea was to take the song, and the voice and the guitar and then build around it and enhance it.  I was interested to see what he would do, so I let him have a free hand.”

Interestingly, Nelson says he even allowed Lanois to pick the songs for the album.  “We started out with 100 songs, picked 20 of those, and then ten of those to record . I turned in new songs and old songs together.  And I felt like maybe all the new songs would get reocrded, but I was going to let Daniel choose the ones he liked.  He listened to the old ones and the new ones not knowing which was which, and he picked the songs that are on the album/  I left it enterely up to him.”

But there was one tune Nelson thought twice about:  “The one where I choke the girl.”  He says he thought the jealous murder ballad, “I Just Can’t Let You Say Good-Bye” was a tad too dark — even for an album that features, “I Never cared for you,” “I Just Destroyed the World” and “Darkness On the Face of the Earth,” in its exhibition of lovesick devastation.  “I probably wouldn’t have put it in.  But he liked it so well.  I even argued with him.  I said, ‘No.  You don’t want to put that goddammed song in there.”

Of course, listeners who’ve only heard Willie crooning with Julio or pickin’ with Waylon may be surprised by how much he risks on Teatro.  But longtime fans have seen Nelson through all manner of changes.  And as his continuing spate of concept albums (he recorded his first, Yesterday’s Wine, in 1971), duet projects and musical tributes prove, he clearly likes shaking things up from time to time.  “Maybe that’s what I do best,” he allows.

Nelson laughs easily when reminded of the grocery store Jesus story.  “Pretty weird,” he says.  But when it comes to accounting for all the fame, fortune and awards — such as being named a Kennedy Center honoree, and squeezing into a tux to stand alongside the likes of Bill Cosby and Shirley Temple Black — Willie cops the perfect Zen bastard blend of antic, irony and wistful awe.

“I guess I think, “Fooled ’em again,’” he says.  “Dazzled ’em with fancy footwork.’ But I do, I wonder about it occasionally — how it all happened, and how it all got to where it is — until I just give up wondering about it.”

When he was born in 1933, in the town of Abbott, in the midst of the Great Depression, it would have been pretty hard to predict that Willie Hugh Nelson would amount to anything.  It would have been nigh on impossible to foresee Red Headed Stranger, let alone The Electric Horseman, or Wag the Dog.

“I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was 7,” Willie recently told an Entertainment Weekly writer.  “Because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer your’re going to hell.  And by 7, I was gone.”

Willie found salvation in poetry and music:  “I started writing poems when I was about 5. And when I learned to play guitar I was about 6, so I started putting melodies to the poems.”  And he began embracing the whole wide world of sounds that emanated from the fields and churches of Abbott, and the air waves beyond.

“I listened to the radio a lot when I was growing up.  I listened to all the stations, from jazz, to blues, to boogie woogie, to country to WSLM in Nashville — and we listened to WLS in Chicago, and we’d catch a station out of New Orleans — so I just listened to everything.”

As to his distinction Django Reinhardt meets Bob Wills style of guitar playing, Wilie has a rather surprising explanation:  “I’ve always felt that I was about half Mexican.  And I may be, because I really love the Spanish flavors, and Mexican mariachi, and gypsy type music.  I was just born and raised around that kind of music and I love it.  So I guess that’s why you hear a lot of that in my music, because that’s part of me.”

One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the way he goes about writing a song, “I guess it’s always been the same,” he ways. “I get an idea and I write it.  But I have to have an idea to start with.  The melodies aren’t that hard, once you get the lyrics.”

Nelson says his early years as a songwriter, which Teatro reveals in stark relief, were a kind of excruciating conundrum.  “Nashvile was easy, really, because everything was formula.  If you wanted to write commercial stuff and you were a professional writer, it wouldn’t be a problem to do it.  I just wanted to write what I felt like saying.  And then, if at the same time I could imagine someone singing that song, then I would write it with a melody, or a rhythm that I felt like that one perosn might be comfortable with.”

“For instance I wanted to hear Billy Walker do “Funny How Time Slips Away’ and I wanted to hear Faron young do “Hellow Walls’ and wanted to hear Ray Price do ‘Night Life’ – so I just had these little ideas of what I wanted to hear, and I would try to work in that direction.”

Confronted with the standard show biz query as to if there’s anyone he hasn’t worked with that he’d like to, Nelson pauses to think about it for a moment.  “I would be sort of greedy and selfish if I said, “Oh I’d like to do this, and this, and this and this,” he says.  “Because I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of things with a lot of great people.  I’ve sung with B.B. King and Hank Williams and Ray Price and Faron Young and Lefty Frizell and Julio.  What else could I want?  I jokingly said the other day that I think Barbra Streisand and I ought to do something together.  But after I think about it awhile, maybe we could.  Like ‘A Star is Buried.’”

The Family, Willie’s legendary road band,  is another thing that has remained fairly constant over time.  His sister, Bobbie Nelson, can still be found on keyboards, offering an emotional and musical continuity that goes back to Abbott, where she and Willie learned to play through mail order courses taught to them by their grandparents.  And then there’s long time sidekicks, harmonica player Mickey Raphael and drummer Paul English.

“We’re more acoustic than we used to be,” Nelson offers.  “The instrumentation is a little different.  The bass player now is playing acoustic bass.  Paul is playing just the snare.  So we’ve reduced the loudness of the rhythms –  it’s a little more subtle.  And I like that because it makes everything stand out a little better.”

Willie says the current show runs the gamut from old favorites such as “Whiskey River” to several songs form Teatro and even a set from the jazz flavored instrumental album Night and Day that’s due out in July.

Asked if the new acoustic bent to his live performances is a sing he’s finally slowing down, Nelson says simply, “Mother Nature has a way of doing that to you.  But, he quickly adds, life’s too good, and he’s having way too much fun to ever consider retirement.

“I guess the best part of it is that I’m still here.  Still out here having a good time playing music and hanging out with my friends and family and fans — hey, let me put a melody to that and I’ll call you back.  But, seriously, that’s it.  I just enjoy what I do.  I don’t know why I’m still here.  A lot of my friends are gone.  And a lot of the guys that are my age decided long ago that they didn’t want no more of this stuff.  But I’m lucky.  I’m healthy and I enjoy what I’m doing.  People ask, ‘Why are you still doing this? And I say, ‘All I do is play golf and music.’  And don’t wanna quit either one of them.  I don’t really wanna quit nothin’”

Willie Nelson interview on hemp

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

Willie Nelson: His own story in his own words (Country Song Roundup) (February 1979)

Sunday, February 2nd, 2020
roundup

Country Song Roundup
America’s #1 Country Music Magazine
February 1969

The Willie Nelson Story
by Judy Myers

When I was given the assignment to do a story on Willie Nelson, I couldn’t have been more pleased.  You see, I’m a big Willie Nelson fan!  Not only do I appreciate his song writing, but he’s one of the best song writers ever.  Proof can be found in the listening to such songs as “It Should Be Easier Now” (one of my favorites), “Night Life”, “Crazy”, “Funny How TIme Slips Away”, “Hello Walls”, and I could go on and on… I really “dig” Willie’s singing.  I’d just about rather hear Willie sing than anyone I can think of.

The day finally arrived and I met Willie at his office for the interview.  His manner was charming and relaxed.

“Where do I start?” Willie asked.

“Why not start at the beginning”, I said.

“In the beginning I created”… he began laughing.  Then he got serious and there followed a series of reminiscence that had me sitting on the edge of my chair, listening to Willie, who has a mind that works like a human tape recorder.  He had almost total recall of everything.  It was one of the most enchanting hours I’ve ever spent.  Now, I want to share it with you…

“I was born in Abbott, Texas, on April 30, 1933.  That’s in West Texas.  My grandparents raised us, and my daddy (Ira) was a blacksmith.  My grandparents taught music that they had learned by studying a correspondence course.  My father got me a guitar when I was about four or five years old, and I learned to play.  I guess I started writing songs when I was about eight or a little younger.  My first song was pretty bad!  My mother still has it, along with a lot of others in a scrapbook, and she says one day she’s going to publish it.  I’d sure like to have that book, but she won’t give it up.”

“When I was thirteen, I started playing clubs with my sister, Bobbie.  She played the piano, my brother-in-law was our manager and he played a broomstick.  You  know, a broomstick with a piece of shingle attached that he could beat back and forth to create a little rhythm.  He later took up playing the bass, but mostly he just hit it and swung it around.  My father played a little fiddle and rhythm guitar and I played lead guitar.  We were called “Bud Fletcher and His Texans.”  Bud is my brother-in-law.

We had a sign-on show on KHBR Radio in Hillsboro, Texas, every Sunday morning.  We’d come dragging in after playing and driving all night, making us late most of the time.  We were followed by preachers, and most of the time they directed their preaching right at us.  You know, they thought we were wicked hillbillys.

“I was a relief telephone operator there in Abbott.   We had a central switchboard and the woman who ran it liked to go out on Saturday nights so my sister or I would take over for her.  My voice was changing then and I guess they thought I was a girl.  They didn’t know I was a boy, but I sure knew everything that was going on in the county.

“My first real job was that of a tree trimmer.  We went around cutting branches away from the high tension wires.  Once my buddy was about forty feet up and needed a rope, so I took it up the tree.  Then, rather than climb down, I decided to go down the rope.  I got about four feet down and got my finger hung up.  I couldn’t go up or down, and I was too far from my friend for him to help, so the only choice I had was to have him cut the rope.  I fell down through those high tension wires and branches and I was able to get up and walk away, but I never went back to that job.

“Then I worked in a pawn shop, went into the Air Force, got out, worked as a bouncer in one of the roughest joints in Texas, (that didn’t last long, there was a fight every night, and I don’t like fights).  I got married, worked as a parts man in an auto house, trimmed trees again, formed a band and started pickin’ again, made saddles, worked in the oil fields in Texas, got married for the second time, and worked for a short time at a radio station in San Antonio.

“I went to work for Johnny Bush.  He had a band and I played lead guitar.  I asked him if I could sing, so he did let me sing some, but then he asked me to just play guitar,  I don’t think he liked my singing.  I managed him for awhile.

“We moved to Pleasanton, Texas, where I saw an ad for a D.J. job on KBOP Radio.  I had two kids by then, Lana and Susie.  I’d never worked as a D.J., but I wanted that job.  I went to see Dr. Ben Parker, who incidentally did more to help me than almost anyone.  He asked me if I had any experience and I told him that I had.  He then asked me if I was familiar with the board there.  I said, “That’s a Gates board isn’t it?  Anybody could see it was a Gates board, it was written right across it.  I told him I didn’t know that board as I’d worked on an RCA Victor Board.  I remember that’s what they had at the other station.  He’d have to show me how to use that one because they looked different.

“My test was to do fifteen minutes of news…live…the first time I’d ever been on the air as an announcer.  Then he gave me a commerical to do.  It was for the Pleasanton Pharmacy.  It went like this…’The Pleasanton Pharmacy Pharmaceutical department accurately and preciseley fills your doctor’s perscription,’ and after I got through with that, he knew I’d never done radio work.  It was the hardest commercial I’ve ever done.  He gave me the job anyway.  Then he worked with me to show me all arbout radio work.

“Dr. Ben Parker really helped me a lot.

“I worked at KBOP for awhile, and then got itchy feet.  I went to Denton, Texas where I got a job as salesman for KDNT radio.  I wasn’t on the air so I didn’t like that much.  I went on to Ft. Worth, where I worked with Uncle Hank Cragg on station KCUL.  I learned some more about radio work from him.  From there I went to KCNC and Western Express.  I was still working nights pickin’.

“Well, I got itchy feet again.  I decided we should go to San Diego.  The only catch was, we didn’t have any money, and no car.  I saw an ad in the paper where you could drive cars to different places.  I went to see them and asked about taking a car to San Diego. They said that they had a car to go that way, and they would pay for the oil… but they had to know that I could get the car there. 

They said they would have to see at least $50.00.  Well, I was down to my last $25.00, and that was that.  However, i told them I’d go get the money as I didn’t have it on me.  I went out and found a friend and asked him to let me have $50.00.  I didn’t want to borrow it, I explained about the car.  I just wanted to show it.  He let me have the money and I took it to show, and they let me have the car.  I gave the money back to my friend, but we still had to get to San Diego, buy gas and food, and only had $25.00 to do it on.  Well, we made it, but I won’t go into details about how it was done.”  He gave a sort of half chuckle.

“Well, when we got to San Diego, I couldn’t find any work. My wife got a job, and I didn’t like that much, her working and me not working.  So I decided to go to my mother’s in Portland, Oregon and see what I could get there.

I planned to get something going and then send for my family.  So I started hitchhiking with $10.00 and a suitcase.  That was some trip.  We could get a whole story just out of the details of that trip alone.  I’ll just tell one thing that happened along the way.  I got to Orange, California.  It was night time and I was tired and broke, and awfully tired of carrying that ole’ suitcase.  I found a country music nightclub, went in, and found I had just enough money for one beer. 

By buying that beer and making it last all night, I was able to stay there without getting thrown out.  When the band was packing up, I asked if they knew of anybody who might give me a job, but they didn’t.  One old boy told me to stick around for a few mintues and he would make some phone calls for me and maybe find something.  I waited and he did make the calls, but with no luck.  Then, I had an idea.  This old suitcase was getting heaver every mile, and I thought I could trust him, so I gave him my mother’s address in Portland, and asked him if he would send the suitcase to me there.  Well, I never did see that suitcase again!

“I made Portland eventually.  I got a job with KVAN in Vancouver, Washington, just across the river.  I also had my own weekly t.v. show.

” I sent for my family to join me, and things were going pretty well in Portland but…..I got restless.

“On the move again, we headed for Springfield, Mo.  On the way, we went through Denver, Colorado, and I got a job pickin’ there, at a place called “Heart’s Corner.”  The guy that ran the place rented a guitar for me, and I guess I stayed there about six weeks.  Then we were on the move again.  When we got to Springfield, I ran into Billy Walker. He was working the Ozark Jubilee at the time.  His wife and my wife had been friends in Texas, so they invited us to stay with them for a few days.  Billy even set up an interview for me with Si SImon, who was running the Jubilee.  Si didn’t seem to think I was too good, so I took the only job I could find, dishwashing.

I wasn’t too happy as a dishwasher, so I took my family and headed south to Waco, Texas.  Right after that, we moved to Ft. Worth and I quit the music business for a year.  During that time, I sold just about everything, door to door.  They even made me manager for Ameriana Encyclopedia.

“But I wanted to pick.  I went back to Waco, then to Houston.  I had, in the meantime, written “Family Bible” for Frankie Miller, who was recording on Starday, but Don Pierce wouldn’t let him record it.  When in Houston, I ran into a guy I’d known before, Paul Buskirk. I was pretty broke so I decided to sell the song, “Family Bible”  Paul, Walt Breelin and Claude Grey split it three ways and gave me $25.00 for it.

“Looking for work, I went to the Esquire Club where Larry Butler was the head of the band.  I asked him for a job, but he said that he didn’t need anyone at that time.  I aksed him if he would buy some of my songs then, for $10.00 each.  I sang him about ten or twelve of my best ones, including “Mr. Record Man”, “Crazy”, “Nightlife” and “What a Way to Live.”  He wouldn’t buy my songs, not because they weren’t good he said, but because they were too good, and if I needed money that bad, he would loan me some, and he did.  That kept me from being compeltely broke.

“Paul Buskirk had a recording studio and he offered me a job teaching guitar.  Well, I didn’t know how to read music, but he said that was okay, he’d teach me.  I got my first lesson on Wednesday, and gave my first lesson on Monday.  I always managed to stay one lesson ahead of the students.  They didn’t know any better, since I did know how to play, I didn’t know how to read music, that’s all, but I learned that.

“I finally went to work for Larry Butler pickin’ in the evenings, and I worked the Sunday morning sign-on DJ show at KRCT radio, which now has the call letters, KIKK.  Leroy Gloger was the manager there, and he fired me.  That hurt my ego, and I left town.

“I took my family to Waco, and I headed for Nashville, and the first person I ran into there was my old buddy, Billy Walker.  I sent for my family, and brought them to Nashville.  Billy took me to Starday records and introduced me to Tommy Hill.  I sang some of my songs for him, and he told me that he’d set up a recording and writer’s contract for me, but Don Pierce turned us both down.

“One night when a bunch of us were jammin’ in Tootsie’s, Hank Cochran heard me and took me to Pamper music, where I signed an exclusive writer’s contract.  Faron young had heard me sing “Hello Walls” at Tootsie’s and told me that he wanted to record it.  I was working on the road with Bobby Sykes, playing lead guitar and Faron, who was on the show that night, asked me to sing the song again so that he could learn it.  I also sang “Coungratulations” that same night, and the next week, he recorded both of them, back to back.

“I moved my family into a trailer house, and I had three kids by then.  I found out later that it was the very same trailer Hank Cochran and his wife and three children lived in when they first came to Nashville.  It was green and ugly and the rent was $25.00 a week, and it was worth about $3.00, but they were always there to collect the rent eery rent day.

“I heard that Ray Price needed a man to play bass and front his band.  I didn’t know how to play bass, but I told Ray I did, got the job, then went out and got a bass and learned real quick. If he ever knew I didn’t know how to play, he was kind enough not to mention it.  I worked for Ray for a year.

“Crazy” was doing real good then, and Billy had recorded “Funny How Time Slips Away”, I wrote it for him, to follow “Thank You For Calling”.  Joe Allison signed me to Liberty Records, and produced an album and single for me.  The album was “And Then I Wrote” and the single was “Mr. Record Man.”  I did two albums on Liberty.

“My marriage broke up about that time and I moved to Texas.  I met and married my present wife, Shirley there.  Incidentally, she was a regular on the Ozark Jubilee the time I went through Springfield, but we didn’t know each other then.

“I stayed in Ft. Worth until 1963.  After that I went to California to run the office for Pamper Music.  I didn’t like that because I wasn’t pickin’, just running the office.  So we came back to Tennessee, and bought a farm at Ridgetop, just out of Nashville.

“I had been on Monument Records in the meantime, and had a record with them, but in 1964 I signed with RCA Victor.  My first release for them was “Pretty Paper.”  I’ve had six albums on Victor, and my latest single is, “Johnny One time”, written by Dallas Frasier.  I am really sold on the song, and I think we’ve got the most commercial sound on it of any of my other records.  Were hoping that this one will make it, but if it doesn’t, well, maybe next time.

“That’s it, up to now.  I remember some things I left out, but let’s save them for next time.”

That’s Wille’s story, and the hour I spent getting it was one of the most interesting I’ve had in a long time.  there’s nothing left for me to add, it’s all been said.

Author Judy Redditt read this post and kindly responded with her own stories.

  • Judy Redditt says: This takes me back. Willie was a good friend. I really enjoyed sitting down with Willie from time to time and just talking. I wrote several articles with him, but it was the stories that weren’t published that I loved the most. The ” road stories” that had me rolling on the floor, the stories behind the songs, and the family stories. Jeannie Seely was my roommate for several years, and the only reason we stopped being roommates was that she left to marry Hank Cochran. Hank was at our apartment much of the time and he would often bring his buddies with him.

    I was always delighted when he brought Willie. They would sing and often bring out their latest new song they had written. I was privileged to hear so many of the classics in their infancy or shortly after they were finished. I loved the songs that both Hank and Willie wrote and bugged Ray Price to record them, since Ray was my favorite singer of all time. Nobody had better control of their voice or could put more feeling into a song, or sang more beautifully than Ray. It got to the point that when he came into town to record, he would call me to ” find me the songs for this album, and have them by tomorrow.”

    All I generally had to do was look at Hank and Willie’s catalogs. I picked a lot of songs for Ray, and one of them, NOT written by Hank or Willie, turned out to be the biggest of his career.   Bonnie Guitar had been in town, and we were hanging out together. She was getting ready to record and was looking for songs. One night, we were in her hotel room and Kris Kristopherson and Mickey Newberry came to sing her some of their songs.

    Kris sang a song that night that I heard Ray singing in my mind. Ray had called me a few days before and told me to be on the look out for some songs for him, he would be in the next week to record. I asked Kris for a copy of the song, and of course, he wanted to know who I was taking it to. I told him just to get it for me and I would tell him who it was for later. The next day, Kris gave me a demo of the song and when Ray got to Nashville the following week, I gave him the demo of “For The Good Times”.

    The rest is music history. I went to work for Pamper Music as P.R Directer and the company was owned By Willie and Ray Price at the time, so for the time I worked there, I had my two favorite singers of all time as my boss’. Talk about the ideal job! It afforded me the opportunity to hear Willie’s stories, and Ray’s recordings, often and usually first hand. Stories from Willie like the one about the time he came home drunk, and passed out, only to wake up to find Shirley had sown him up in the bed sheet and was beating him up with the broom stick.

    It was while I was working there that Willie’s house burned down and being frustrated that no one in Nashville would let him make music his way, Willie decided to pull up stakes and return to Texas, and to do music ” his way.” Once again, music history was made. I could go on telling stories of those days, but I think I will save them for the book I plan to write. But I will say this, I am proud and happy to have formed a lasting friendship with one of the all time musical genius’, the awesome and amazing, Willie Nelson!

Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly (December 2005)

Friday, December 20th, 2019

Willie Nelson
The 72-year-old singer on growing up in Abbott, playing in public for the first time, what he listens to on the bus, and why he doesn’t hate the music business

by Evan Smith
Texas Monthly
December 2005

ES:  Could there have been a Willie Nelson without an Abbott?

WN:  I doubt it.  I’ve always felt like Abbott was a special place.  It was the perfect place for me to grow up because it was a small town and because everybody knew everybody.  Everybody there was friends or family or worked together or went to school together.  There was something real positive about that.

ES:  In a lot of small towns, everybody gossips about everybody else; there’s nothing positive about that.  But not inAbbott?

WN:  If it’s gossip that bothers you, you’re in trouble, because there’s gossip everywhere, in little towns and big towns.  I was a elephone operator in Abbott back when they had telephone exchange operators.  My sister was really the one who had the job.  Whenever the oerpators would take a vacation, they would hire her to run the board, and I would ocme in and help her.  All the time I was sitting there, I’d be listening in to the conversations going on all over Abbott.  I tapped every phone in town!  I knew everything about the whole county.

ES:  What’s your earliest memory of Abbott?

WN:  Playing in the mud and the creeks and the water and the cotton patches.

ES:  Did you have any sense back then that there was a while other world out there, and were you intersted in seeing it?

WN:  No, I didn’t think there was a lot out there for me.  I was surprised when I left Abbott that there was another world out there, because I thought we had it all right here.  In a way, Abbott was a littlebitty picture of the whole world.  You had nice people, you had assholes, and you learned to live with them and like them and work with them.  I thought it wa a good education growing up there.

ES:  tell me about the house your family lived in.

WN:  the first one was down at the edge of town.  We had a house with a well where we got our water.  We had a garden we grew vegetables in. We had a hog pen where we raised hogs and cattle.  We had a barn where we fattened up calves.  I was with the Future Farmers of America, so every year I had a project.  I loved being outside.

ES:  Big house or small house?

WN:  Very small house.  My parents were divored when I was six monts old, so it was my sister and my grandparents who raised me.  My grandfather was a blackmith. I hung out with him every day in his shop.  After he died, we mvoed to another house just a couple of blocks to the north, and my grandmoterh started teaching school and cooking in the school lunchroom.  The house wa a little bigger and a little nicer.  It was right next to the church tabernacle, so we got religous services through the summer.  We were pretty well soaked in religion.

ES:  Did it take?

WN:  Yeah.  I realized there’s a highter power.  There’s somebody smarter than I am out there, and I’m not picky about who it is.  It’s like Kinky [Friedman] says:  “May the God of your choice bless you.”  If you’ve got one, you’re all right.

ES:  You’ve been back to Abbott a bunch of times over the course of your life, right?

WN:  I still go back a lot.  I just bought another house there — the doctor who delivered me used to own it — and we fixed it up a little bit.  That’s where I spend some time every now and then.

ES:  Could there have been a Willie Nelson without a Texas?

WN:  I don’t think so.  Texas suits me so well.  I love the freedom, the wide-opened spaces.  Now, a lot of people out there might say, “That’s a load of horseshit, because I live in Oklahoma, and we’re just as crowded as you are.”  I’m sure that’s true.

ES:  Is Texas a good place to make country music, or do you have to go to Nashville?

WN:  I went to Nashville becasue that’s where I thought you went to sell your product.  Maybe it still is.  Maybe you take care of your business in Nashville becuase that’s where the store is — that’s where they pay you off, that’s where your publisher and your record company are.  In my day, Nashville was were you needed to go to get some recognition, so I did.  And then, when my house burned up there in Ridgetop, Tennessee, I thought it was a good time to go back home.

ES:  Did it every occur to you while you were in Nashville that Tennessee had become your home, or was it always just another stop along the way?

WN:  Well, I have a lot of friends in Nashville and all over Tennessee, so it really was my home for a while.  But I always thought I’d probably go back to Texas one day.  I didn’t realize it would be sooner rather than later.

ES:  Do you respect the popular strain of country music that comes out of Nashville now?

WN:  I respect songwriters and musicians probably more than anybody.  It’s difficult dealing with the record company.  You’re supposed to be commercial today and tomorrow.  That was always one word I couldn’t get along with, “commercial.”  I never could fall into any of the categories that they would say were commercial.

ES:  Was there ever a point in your career when you thought, “I need to get with the program and figure out a way to be more radio friendly or album friendly or I’ll never be successful?

WN:  Never.  I always thought that If was having fun doing what I was doing and making a living doing it, then I was already successful.  I didn’t have any idea I’d be this successful, but the first night that I made money making music, I knew that I had succeeded.

ES:  Do you remember when that first night was?

WN:  I played rhythm guitar in a bohemian polka band in West, Texas.  It was John Rejcek’s band.  There’s no way he could have heard anything I did, but I would just sit there and play, make my mistakes ad move on.  I made $8, so I’ll never forget that.

ES:  How did you get the gig?

WN: He was from around Abbott, and he was a blacksmith, like my granddaddy.  We had a lot in common, I guess, and I think he just liked me.  I grew up playing with his kids.  He had sixteen kids, and they were all musicians.  Every one of them could play horns or drums or something.

ES:  Could you ever imagine having sixteen kids in your life, Willie.

WN:  There probably would have been sixteen wives and one Willie.

ES:  Who taught you to play the guitar the first time?

WN:  My grandfather taught me some open chords and taught me to play a couple of songs.  After that, I picked it up from various people listening to the radio and hanging out with other guitar players who happened to come by.

ES:  Do you remember the first song you learned?

WN:  The first song I learned was “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”  You ever hear that song?  [singing] “Show me the way to go home/I’m tired and I want to go to bbed.”  You remember a song called “Polly Wolly Doodle”?  That was another one I learned.

ES:  How old were you?

WN:  I was six when I started playing guitar, but I started writing songs when I was about five.

ES:  And your grandfather gave you your first guitar?

WN:  Yeah.  It was a Stella guitar, from Sears,Roebuck.

ES:  When was the first time you played by yourself?

WN:  I started a band when I got to high school.  It was me and my sister — she was a junior then — and a guy named Bud Fletcher, who she eventually wound up marrying.  I had my football coach in it; he played trombone.  My dad played fiddle, and we had a guy named Whistle Watson, out of Hillsboro, to play drums.  We were probably pretty bad.

ES:  And the name of the band was?

WN:  Bud Flether and the Texans.

ES:  Why not Willie Nelson and the Texans?

WN:  I was the guitar player and the singer, but I wasn’t really old enough to go out oand book the jobs. We but Bud’s name on it because we was the front man.

ES:  Was there ever a time when you thought you would end up dong anything other than this to make a living?

WN:  I always thought I would figure out a way to do it with music.  I knew I might have to do other things along the way.  Of course, I have had to do other things.  I was disc jockey, a vacuum salesman.  I got a pretty good education in that respect.

ES:  At what point did you no longer have to do those odd jobs to make enough money to live on?

WN:  When I started playing in clubs all the time.  It was harder to do a day job as well as play six nights.  So it kind of eliminated itself. I drifted over into the nighttime and got away from the salesman stuff that you have to get up early in the morning to do.  I couldn’t do them both for very long, so I finally gave up the salesman part.

ES:  What do you like about what you do?

WN:  I love to play.  I love to play to an audience. I love having good musicians around me.  I love the fact that we travel from one place to another.  That keeps it new and fresh every day.

ES:  You’re on the road an extraordinary amount of time.

WN:  Almost all the time.

ES:  What sort of music do you listen to on the bus?

WN:  I listen to XM satellite radio a lot because I can pick it up all the way across the country.  When you travel as much as I do, satellite is the most dependable thing.  You hear a song and think, “Wow, that takes me back.”  That’s the joy in listening to traditional music.  It’s like Trisha Yearwood said in her song:  “The Song Remembers When.”

ES:  Since you mention traditional music, there ought to be a Willie Nelson channel on satellite radio, if there isn’t one already.

WN:  Well, I do a radio show on XM channel 171 every Wednesday.  They call it Willie Wednesday.  I’m on with Bill Mack, my old disc jockey buddy from years and years ago.  When he was in Fort Worth, he was the Midnight Cowboy, but now that he’s on XM, he’s the Satellite Cowboy.  A guy named Eddie Kilroy also has a show on channel 13. I listen to that a lot, because you can hear Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and all that good stuff 24/7.

ES:  What happened to that kind of music?  Why has it been forgotten by so many people?

WN:  The bottom line is whatever’s commercial today, whatever’s selling.  And, you know, Hank Williams is dead, and Bob Wills is dead, and they can’t make any money off of them.  They move on to somebody else.

ES:  Do you have the bad feeling about the music business that a lot of people have?

WN:  No.  You might think, “Whoever is running this record coming is going to run it into the ground and ruin music” or “Whoever’s doing all these radio stations, they’re going to ruin music,” but I don’t think so.  I don’t see it.  I know a lot of guys who are doing it a different way.  In Austin there’s Sam and Bob.  They have a radio show in the morning over there on KVET, and they play great music.  And they’re at a Clear Channel station.  It just depends on the personalities.  Some stations will play good music and some won’t.

ES:  How hard must it be to play good music?

WN:  There are a lot of politics going on with a lot of those records you hear played.  The word “payola” has been around since I can remember.  I don’t remember anybody giving me any say, and I don’t remember paying anybody any, but I knwo it happens. Payola ain’t dead. It ain’t even sick.

ES:  Does it make a difference, really, if Willie Nelson moves product anymore?  Don’t they just want to have you on their label? You must get an exemption.

WN:  I don’t think anyone has an exemption.  I think maybe there might have been a time, years ago, when they carried you for a while even if you weren’t selling, but I don’t think that’s true today.  Even with the great guys, at some point the record companies say, “That’s it for you.”  They’re pretty cold-blooded; they’ll drop you in a second.

ES:  I bet you’ve probably been dropped at least once in your life.

WN:  Oh, I’ve been dropped and drop-kicked.  but I don’t mind it.  I’m just looking for a good label. I’m just looking for a fan.  If I can find somebody in the executive branch who’s a fan, then I don’t really are what label it is. I can figure out a way to make it happen.

ES:  Am I remembering correctly that you’re about to be 73?

WN:  Born in ’33.

ES:  A lot of people much younger than you would have already said to themselves, “You know something?  I’ve had a god career, I want to sit in a lawn chair and drink a beer.”

WN:  Well, I don’t like lawn chairs, and I don’t drink beer.

ES:  So you’re not tired of this life of yours?

WN:  I’ve been home [outside of Austin] now for a few days, and I’ve had a lot of fun.  I played some golf and rode my horse, but now I’m ready to go back out and play, ‘Whiskey River.’

ES:  How’s your golf game?

WN:  I lie so much that I don’t really know.

ES:  Can you get out there and beat the average person?

WN:  I really don’t like to play people I can’t beat.

ES:  Probably the same with chess.

WN:  The same with chess and dominoes. I love to play all those games.  I’m not a horrible golfer, but you know, the really good golfers can have their way with me.

ES:  Speaking of golf, you’re about to play in a tournament to raise money for Kinky’s campaign for governor.  Are you totally on board with his running as an independent?

WN:  I like what he says about himself.  He says, “I might not be worth a dam, but I’m better than what you got.”  I’m a farmer and a rancher, and I want to see agriculture do well.  I haven’t seen any help from either Democrats or Republicans on that front.  There’s plenty of blame all over the place.

ES:  Kinky has made so many joke about what your job will be in a Friedman administration that I can’t keep track of them.

WN:  The last offer I had was to be head of the DEA or the Texas Rangers. I’m not sure.

ES:  this is not the first time you’ve been involved in politics.  You campaigned for Dennis Kucinich during the last presidential race.

WN:  Right, I did back him.  I didn’t have any idea if he could win, but we felt the same about the war and oil.  I had to go with the guy I believed in.

ES:  You don’t cut George Bush any slack because he’s from Texas.

WN:  Hell no.  Being from somewhere doesn’t give you any rights.  I don’t have anything at all against the president personally.  In fact, I understand he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s said a couple nice things about me.  I’ve got nothing derogatory to say about him, but I do think he’s getting a lot of real bad advice.  The people around him who whisper in his ear all the time?  They’re not his friends.

ES:  I’m imagining what a kid — say, six years old or a little bit older — must think walking down the street in Abbott, and here comes Willie Nelson riding his bike.  It must be a total shock.

WN:  It’s not exactly like I sneak into town.  The last time I was there, we had two buses parked in the driveway with the generators going.  I’m sure everyone knew I was home.

Willie Nelson in Easyriders, (December 1979)

Saturday, December 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER:  Why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER:  As you did, too — right?

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

ER:  Were you good at it?

WN:  Yeah, I was good at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER:  Thank you, Willie.

WN:  Thank you.

Willie Nelson on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

A New Online Archive Lets You Listen to 40 Years Worth of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air Interviews: Stream 22,000 Segment Online

I searched for Willie Nelson, and 31 entries came up, including this interview from 1993.

Country Singer and Songwriter Willie Nelson.

July 5, 1993 17:51

Country music star and actor Willie Nelson. His best-known songs include “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Good Hearted Woman.” Nelson talks about his life before stardom: as a cotton-picker, Sunday school teacher and songwriter selling his music dirt cheap. (REBROADCAST from October 24, 1988).

Willie Nelson is still doing it

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

Willie Nelson Interview (by Malcolm Jones)

Thursday, November 21st, 2019
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www.thedailybeast.com
by:  Malcolm Jones

Everyone knows Willie Nelson. I know this because the other day I saw a billboard advertisement that featured Nelson modeling an upscale line of menswear. Here’s the thing: the only type on the ad was the name of the clothing company. Obviously the advertisers assumed that you’d recognize Willie without any help from them. And why shouldn’t they?

In his 80 years on this planet, Nelson has written something like 1,000 songs, recorded more than 100 albums, and won 10 Grammys. “Crazy” was rated the No. 1 jukebox song of all time, according to NPR. Performing professionally since he was a teenager growing up in little Abbott, Texas, he has, he estimates, spent at least half of every year since then either recording or touring, playing nightclubs, honky-tonks, outdoor arenas, concert halls, and every other venue imaginable. Somewhere in there he found the time to appear in more than 20 movies and a handful of television shows.

He co-founded Farm Aid, which has raised $43 million to help America’s small farmers hang on to their land, and he sits on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He has also written seven books, including an autobiography and a novel, played at the White House, and sung at the wedding of Bill and Melinda Gates (his fee: $1 million). Last year the city of Austin erected a statue in his honor—larger than life, naturally.

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photo: Anna Webber

Somewhere along the line, he ceased being famous as a singer or a songwriter or an activist and simply became famous. You may not care for his songs. You may not give a damn about farmers or marijuana. But the chances that you live in this country and don’t know Willie Nelson are somewhere between slim and none. Like Louis Armstrong—and almost no one else, really—he is a musician whose appeal transcends genre, race, age, or fashion, a stranger to no one, and if you had to put a face on American music, that face would be Willie Nelson’s.

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Read the entire article, see more photos at the Daily Beast. 

At this point it gets a little trickier. Which Willie Nelson do you know? Is it Willie, the “good timing man” who has graced thousands of stages? The “outlaw” who along with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings taught Nashville how to reach a new generation of young listeners more comfortable with long hair and jeans than Nudie suits and beehive hairdos? Or is it the avuncular apostle of pot? The farmers’ friend or the proponent of biodiesel fuel? Animal-rights and LGBT advocate? Or the man so honorable that rather than declare bankruptcy he worked to pay off the $16.7 million he owed the IRS in back taxes? Or is it Willie Nelson, the exquisite vocal stylist who can navigate from honky-tonk weepers to the intricate verbal acrobatics of a Rodgers and Hart ballad without missing a beat (he may toy with the beat, sing behind it, ahead of it, or take it halfway to Mars, but he never misses). Or is it Willie Nelson, the peerless songwriter who once wrote “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” all in one road trip from Texas to Tennessee? Like Walt Whitman, Willie Nelson contains multitudes.

All those questions flooded my mind on a recent autumn evening as I was ushered onto Nelson’s tour bus outside the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, where Nelson and the Family, his band, were set to play later that night. I’ve listened to him since a friend played me a record called Red Headed Strangerin 1975. I know probably an album’s worth of his songs by heart, and I’ve had his voice inside my head for so long that it has become an old friend. Despite all that, I realized while waiting for that bus door to wheeze open that I really had no idea who I was about to meet. I didn’t even know what to call him. “Mr. Nelson” seemed too formal somehow, and just “Willie” too presumptuous. In the end I went with “Willie” on the shaky grounds that even one-sided friendships have their prerogatives.

THE STOCKY man who stands to greet me in the bus’s kitchen certainly looks familiar: black jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, and the once-red hair now gone to silver but still long enough to make two chest-length braids. And there is no mistaking that piercing pair of dark brown eyes that know more than they will ever tell, or the still-boyish drawl that has purred out of countless jukeboxes, record players, car radios, and concert halls and is now asking if I want some coffee.

We sit facing each other in a small but comfortable booth. A laptop lies on the table between us, and behind his head is a bulletin board covered in photographs of children and grandchildren. Up close, the famous face looks like a well-creased map of rough country, and the unwavering gaze appears less intimidating and maybe even secretly amused, as though to say, there’s nothing you can ask me that I haven’t been asked a dozen times or more, but let’s do this anyway.

I begin by asking if music was an inevitable path for him. “I think so,” he says after a moment of silence. “My parents, grandparents were all musicians. I think there’s something in the DNA.” His parents split up when he was a small boy, and Willie and his sister, Bobbie, who plays piano in his band, were raised by their grandparents, who both taught music and ran the choir at the Methodist church (among other jobs—Willie’s grandfather was also the town’s blacksmith, and Willie grew up picking cotton to help the family out). The Nelsons were poor, but music mattered to them, even in the depths of the Depression: there was a piano in the house for Bobbie, and Willie got a Stella guitar when he was 6 years old.

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David Gahr/GettyNelson in the recording studio with his sister, Bobbie, who plays piano in his band, and drummer Paul English.

The family didn’t have a record player, but they did have a Philco radio. “I grew up listening to all kinds of music,” he says. “I’d hear blues, I’d hear country, I’d hear Western swing, and I could see how it all fit together.” Before he got the guitar, Willie wrote poems, but as soon as he learned to form a few chords, he started writing his own songs. His early influences included Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne, and Ted Daffan. “They’re some great songwriters.” But the king of them all, for Willie and most every other music lover in the American Southwest, was Bob Wills, the fiddle-playing bandleader whose Texas Playboys set the standard for big-band excellence for most of three decades.

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“A lot of the Bob Wills stuff was for the Texas dance halls, the California dance halls, the Oklahoma dance halls, and it was very popular dance music,” says Willie, who got a chance to study his idol up close when he, just 16, helped his brother-in-law book Wills for a local dance (his career as a booking agent ended almost as soon as it began when someone ran off with the money from the ticket sales). Willie still remembers how tightly Wills kept things moving from one song to the next so people never had a chance to leave the dance floor, and how he would simply point to a musician when he wanted a solo. Two hours later, watching Willie run his own show inside the Capitol Theater, I thought back to what he had said about Wills, and I was struck by how much of it plainly stuck with him. You don’t think of the scruffy man who practically invented outlaw country as a disciplinarian, but no one puts on a tighter show.

When I suggested that these days people seem to have forsaken dancing for just sitting and listening to concerts, Willie shakes his head. “They still dance a helluva lot in Texas!” he says with a laugh. “They haven’t quit down there. They didn’t get the word.” But is there a difference playing for people who are dancing? “Yeah, you feel close to the crowd. They feel part of you. There’s something about working a beer joint that brings you right to the people. I love it and always have.”

What’s the weirdest place you have ever played, I asked him.  “I don’t know,” he says, looking genuinely puzzled. “I don’t know what weird is.”

WHEN WILLIE was a teenager, there wasn’t much difference between the people in the audience and the musicians on the bandstand, many of whom had taken to music as the fastest way out of the cotton patch. “And you were probably going with a waitress in the beer joint,” he chuckles. The thing is, you could hear that shared experience in the songs and the voices that sang them. It’s a sound, Willie agreed, that’s been mostly scrubbed out of modern country.

With the instincts of a true gentleman, he politely declined all invitations to criticize what passes for country on most radio stations these days (“I don’t get a chance to listen to local radio a lot, so I don’t know what they’re playing”). But now that SiriusXM radio has given him his own channel, Willie’s Roadhouse, we have a very good idea of what he thinks a country music station should sound like, which turns out to be more Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell but not too many of the modern “hat acts.”

Even contemporary artists sound traditional on the Roadhouse. “I like to think that on our channel we play all kinds of music, and one way or another we pull it together,” he says. “We play a little Vern Gosdin, a little Dolly, then we’ll do some Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, some Merle Haggard, Texas swing. We pretty well cover it. It may not be for every ear, but nothing is.”

Nor would he be inveigled into carping about the Nashville establishment. Later, on stage, he’d sing “Me & Paul,” his autobiographical song about road life with his longtime drummer Paul English that hilariously and somewhat bitterly encapsulates his odd-man-out status with the country establishment back in the ’60s (“Nashville was the roughest”). But in the privacy of his bus, he is downright diplomatic when the subject comes up. “Nashville was a different town back then,” he says. “It’s changed a lot now. A lot of people are thinking more progressive now. It’s all coming together, so it’s all good.”

WILLIE NEVER made it in Nashville as a singer. But as a songwriter he became a superstar. He had spent the ’50s bumming around, playing Texas honky-tonks and taking the occasional deejay job (and selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door-to-door). But ever since he cobbled together his first book of songs at age 12 (with a hand-drawn cover adorned in cursive script resembling a cowboy’s lariat), he has been dead serious about songwriting. He had his first big success in 1960 when Claude Gray had a hit with “Family Bible,” a good but rather pious song by Willie standards that gave no hint of the complex, open-a-vein material that soon followed and made him one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters.

Ask him today to name his favorites in his own catalog, and he’ll deflect, as though he doesn’t want to be rude, even to a song: “It’s kinda like kids,” he says. “You can’t hardly separate one from the other. If you took the time to write it, put a melody to it, sing it, record it, whatever, then it’s important.” But when he does relent and starts listing favorites (“Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” “Pretty Paper,” “On the Road Again”), they’re almost all songs made famous by other singers and the songs that cemented his reputation as one of the best writers ever to cross the Nashville city limits.

Willie stuck it out in Nashville for most of the ’60s, but the industry never figured out how to sell this man with the dark songs, a reedy tenor, and a jazzman’s sense of phrasing. Yet whenever he became frustrated with his lack of recording success, he would retreat to writing, the one thing that always earned him respect—and generous paychecks. “I felt like Nashville was good to me” as a songwriter, he says. “And for a time I lived up there on my farm at Ridgetop and raised horses and cattle and hogs, just kinda retired for a while and just wrote songs. I enjoyed living in Tennessee. Great place.” The farm gave him perspective, reminding him that there was more to the world than being a star. “I had a guy work for me there, Mr. Hughes. Lived there all his life, there in Goodlettsville, and he had never seen the Grand Ole Opry. He was about 70 years old then, and had never been. He didn’t want to go. So that was a big thing to a lot of people, but to a lot of people there it wasn’t that big a deal.”

No one alive knows more about songwriting than Willie Nelson, but he would be the first to tell you that he can’t explain it. “It’s just a thought process where you hear a good line and you think, well, maybe I’ll take that line and try to write a song. Or it could be a melody that you look for a line to put to it. Works both ways for me.” But either way, it’s a mystery: “You wonder where it comes from.” As for trying to teach someone how to write a song, “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

The distinctive thing about his songs is their deceptively easygoing ability to balance the specific and universal. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is written from the point of view of a songwriter (“I’m writing a song all about you/a true song as real as my tears/But you’ve no need to fear it/’cause no one will hear it/’cause sad songs and waltzes/aren’t selling this year”). But it doesn’t matter that most of us who hear that tune aren’t songwriters; the sadness at the core of that lyric could pierce the heart of anyone done wrong by love. Sometimes the transaction is more personal. In “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” a frustrated father calls out to a teenager slipping past the bonds of parental control. I first heard the song when my kids were just becoming teens, and what I loved about the lyrics was that no lessons were imparted, just the vivid ache of helplessness that any parent feels at the loss of childhood. The best of Willie’s songs, certainly the ballads, work similar magic, articulating emotions we’ve all felt but couldn’t find the words for.

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Rob Verhorst/GettyNelson played with country heavyweights Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson as part of the Highwaymen from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.

AFTER HIS Ridgetop farmhouse burned down two days before Christmas in 1970, Willie moved back to Texas. “When I went to Nashville, things were already starting to click in Texas. I was drawing crowds there. And then when I got to Nashville, I kind of got stymied, because I was trying to play for the whole world. So I thought, I’ll just go on back to Texas and play there a while. And it was a good decision.” There would be one more move to Nashville, but by the early ’70s, Willie was ensconced in the Lone Star State, where he encountered an entirely new audience: young longhairs bred on rock and roll and the blues were turning up at his shows, and when Willie helped host the first annual Dripping Springs Reunion music festival in 1972, a precursor of his famous Fourth of July picnic concerts, the audience was equal parts Texas country folks and Woodstock nation, and nobody got beat up.

In 1975 he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album conceived and largely written on a road trip from Colorado to Texas (Willie, typically modest, sees nothing in that feat to boast about: “It’s not that unusual, really, because when you start writing, you think of one and then think of another. I wrote a couple of concept albums that way. One song led to another”). The antithesis of the string-drenched countrypolitan sounds emanating from Nashville, the album was so raw, so sparely produced (studio costs: $4,000) that Columbia Records thought he was handing them a demo. But they came around in a hurry when “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was released as a single and gave the singer his first No. 1 hit on the country charts. The album went on to sell more than 2 million copies. When he wanted to release Stardust, a collection of some of his favorite standards, the record company wasn’t sure about that one either, until it shot to No. 1. It lingered on the charts for more than 10 years. By 2002 it had sold more than 5 million copies.

It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but when success finally found Nelson, it stuck. His 1982 album, Always on My Mind, was the No. 1 country album of the year and remained on the charts for almost five years. Willie took up acting and had starring roles in The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose (for which he wrote “On the Road Again”). And where he had once played concert halls and clubs small enough to make steady eye contact with his audience, suddenly he was playing arenas, a new and not entirely comfortable experience. As he writes in Willie, his 1988 autobiography, “I do a number of big concerts at night in arenas or at outdoor picnics—by big I mean crowds of 100,000—and I have to work those shows by feel. I can see nothing but a wide deep-purple canyon blinking with the fire of thousands of cigarettes.”

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Charles Rex Arbogast/APNelson sings with Sheryl Crow in his upcoming album, “To All the Girls …,” a compliation of duets with female artists.

THAT WAS 25 years ago, and he’s been a constant on everybody’s radar ever since. Thinking again of that clothing ad that for its effect depends on you knowing who Willie Nelson is without being told, I ask him if he ever wished for anonymity, if fame ever got in his way.

“Well,” he says slowly, smiling as he fingers one of his braids, “I dress kinda funny for anonymity. But, no, I don’t mind.”

So fame is not as corrosive as they say?

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I thought that was what we all looked for growing up. Some people when they get it say they don’t want it, but I still like it.

“It’s nice to know people are going to come and hear you sing and hear you play. That’s sort of the mystique of the whole thing. People work all day, and then they get in their car and they drive somewhere to go hear somebody sing, and applaud and sing along with ’em. And there’s a therapy there, an exchange, an energy exchange that takes place between the audience and the performer, and it’s pretty magical really, to both the audience and the entertainer.

“There was this guy I read about in India who woke up every morning, and he’d run out on the streets and start clapping his hands and running down the street, and everybody’d jump out and join him, and the next thing you know, there’d be hundreds of people running down the road. So they’re putting on their own little concert every morning.” The braided pied piper clearly relates.

Repeatedly, when he talks about performing, the concept of serving comes up. “It’s not about me,” he insists. Consequently, he’s careful about espousing causes on stage: “I can promote Farm Aid OK, because I believe in the cause, so it’s not a big stretch for me to do that. But there are probably several things that I wouldn’t want to talk about. And people come for the music. If they want preaching, they’ll go to church.” Maybe so, though many in his audiences would doubtless happily worship at the First Church of Willie: the crowd in Port Chester was nearly all white, but other than that the only common denominator was a fierce addiction among young and old to the music of Willie Nelson—these veterans knew the words to nearly every song.

Since the ’70s, Willie has opened nearly every set with his pal Johnny Bush’s classic, “Whiskey River.” “After that, who knows,” he says. There is no set list, but every show features a generous helping of his hits (“I know what they come to hear, and if we know what they like, it’d be kinda dumb not to play it”). But he always tosses in a few country classics like “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” a couple or three Hank Williams tunes, some gospel, maybe even some gypsy swing. This is big-tent music, a stylistic amalgam that’s purely Willie but also a pretty good short course in American music. The show is also a chance for Willie to do what he has been doing since he was a kid: sell songs. “We have some new songs out that we’ll plug in here and there,” he says. “Then there’s this duet album [with 18 female vocalists] coming out next month, To All the Girls … We started doing a couple of those.”

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Listening to Willie work his way through familiar material like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Good Hearted Woman” in Port Chester, I was struck by the fact that while he must have played and sung these songs thousands of times, he somehow still finds a way to invest them with a freshness and emotional depth that makes you believe that he is playing them for the first time. It’s as if he’s saying, you may have heard this one before, but you haven’t heard it this way yet. And you haven’t.

There’s no loafing on a Willie Nelson stage. The Family band that backs him up includes blood kin (sister Bobbie has lately been joined by various Nelson sons and daughters) and performers like English, who has been in the band so long that he might as well be family. But don’t equate family with amateurism. “First of all, they gotta be good musicians,” Nelson says. And to play with Willie, they’d better be. Given his eccentric way with a vocal or guitar solo, anyone who’s not a crack musician would be well and truly lost after half a dozen bars of any song.

Over the years, Willie has lost some of the edge on his voice, a diminishment you hardly notice thanks to his impeccable phrasing. But time has only burnished his guitar playing. In the set I heard, he performed a slashing but dexterously lyrical version of the Django Reinhardt instrumental “Nuages.” The gypsy guitar genius has long been an idol for Willie, and if Willie isn’t quite as good as Reinhardt (who is?), you’d like to think that Reinhardt would nonetheless be touched by the love that came soaring through that song the other night.

Willie has been a Reinhardt addict for so long, he can’t remember quite when it started. The peerless Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble “gave me an old Django tape a long time ago. I listened to it, and I realized that this was the music I’d been listening to by other people. My dad played that kind of rhythm guitar, and someone else played that kind of fiddle. And then Bob Wills and all those guys took what Django did and enlarged on it. I had a lot of friends back there who loved Django music, so I got a chance to play it.” Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Reinhardt’s virtuosity was that he managed with only two working fingers on his fretting hand (he lost the use of the other fingers when he was badly burned in a fire). So when someone in the Little Willies, Norah Jones’s country band, called Willie “Django with one finger,” Willie was over the moon. “That was the best compliment I ever had,” he says with a huge grin.

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Ebet Roberts/Redferns/GettyThe Family band sometimes includes Nelson’s sons and daughters. Here, he plays with son Lukas at a Farm Aid concert.

Even Trigger, Willie’s battered but beloved guitar, has a Reinhardt connection. In the ’60s, “I was trying to get the Django sound, and [Nashville instrument builder and repairer] Shot Jackson told me about this Martin guitar that he had at his shop. I bought it, $750, sight unseen. And I still got it.” Or what’s left of it. Willie has played Trigger so long and so hard that he’s worn another hole in the top below the sound hole. “It’s supposed to be played with your fingers and not a pick, and that’s why the hole is in there, ’cause a lot of the guitars that need a pick will have a pick guard on them. This one didn’t have a pick guard, so that’s why the hole is in there.” And to anyone who wonders why a man who could afford any guitar in the world chooses to stick with an instrument that looks like a yard-sale reject, Willie says, “If they can look at it and listen to it and still not get it, I’m afraid I can’t help ’em. Sure, I can play any guitar. If it’s got six strings on it, I can play it. But which one do I really love to play? It’s Trigger. I love the sound that it gets.” As integral to Willie’s sound as his indelible voice, Trigger is, like the man who plays it, inimitable.

A better word for Willie would be indefatigable. When he’s not playing music, he’s playing chess, checkers, dominoes, or poker, or running, riding his bike, or playing golf (the only time he gets a little coy is when I ask for his handicap: “My driver and my putter and maybe my sand wedge,” he deadpans). So he would not agree with Mark Twain that golf is “a good walk spoiled”? “Some days it is,” he admits. “But then you hit one good one, make one good long putt, and it’s a nice day.”

Watch him work a stage for close to two hours—which he finishes at the lip of the stage, shaking every hand he can reach and signing anything anyone puts in his hand—and you understand that his claims of exercising every day are the simple truth. Men half his age would have trouble keeping up. And along with the running and biking and golfing, “I’m a second-degree black-belt tae kwon do,” he says with some pride. “I can practice all my forms right here on the bus going 80 miles an hour down the highway.”

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Chad Batka/Corbis

Nelson has played his guitar Trigger so long and so hard that he’s worn another hole in the top below the sound hole.

The most important words in that last sentence are “down the highway.” How apt that Huckleberry Finn is Willie’s favorite novel, for like Twain’s hero, he can never shake the urge to “light out for the territory,” in Willie’s case, just about every day. “You know that commercial that’s out right now that says a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest? That’s very true. Very true.” Bearing in mind that Huck is a fictional character and Willie is flesh and blood, is it too much to suggest that both embody what we want in our heroes—the uniquely American home brew of guts, youthful spirit, wiliness, honesty, freewheeling humor, and no taste at all for cant or hypocrisy?

What keeps Willie more earthbound—but makes him, if anything, more admirable—is the unpoetic fact that he’s responsible for the 40-some people on his payroll, including a road crew of 22. If he doesn’t work, they don’t get paid. “I think about that,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m probably still here. And that’s good. I need another reason.” Leave it to Willie to fashion a blessing out of obligation.

Throughout the interview, he rarely breaks eye contact, never loses focus, dodges no questions, no matter how impertinent, and never fidgets, aside from a little restless-leg syndrome that shakes the table now and then. To call him calm would be an understatement. And yet I know that he has not had an easy life, that he has been through four marriages, lost his grandfather when he was 6 and a son to suicide, and more recently endured the deaths of two bandmates with whom he’d been playing for more than half his life. Then there are those songs, some of them joyful but just as many that took the full measure of human sadness and heartache. How exactly, I wondered, did all that square with the almost surreally unflappable man sitting across the table from me?

Finally, I just say outright, “You seem pretty serene, based on my 40 minutes in here. Were you always that way?” That makes him laugh. “No. I used to drink a lot. Had a hot temper. Red hair and part Indian and all that horseshit. I used every excuse I had to get into trouble. Once I quit drinking, I managed to stay out of fights pretty good.”

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photo: Leonard Freed
MagnumWhen asked for his golf handicap, Nelson lists “my driver and my putter and maybe my sand wedge.”

Willie says he quit drinking and smoking sometime between age 30 and 35. “I had a pack of Chesterfields, and I was smoking pot and cigarettes, and my lungs were killing me, and I said, well, I ain’t getting high on these goddam cigarettes. So I took the cigarettes and threw ’em away and rolled about 20 fat joints and stuck ’em in the pack. When I wanted a cigarette, I lit a joint. And I haven’t smoked since. Very good way to quit. Cigarettes and alcohol killed a whole bunch of friends of mine.”

Pressing my luck, and hoping he won’t think that I’ve come just to write his obituary, I ask if there was ever a point at which he confronted his own mortality and pondered what he had left to do.

He pauses before answering that one. “I don’t know that there’s ever one moment or one second when I did that,” he says. “Or maybe there’s not a second when I’m not thinking about it. I’m always thinking about the next record or show, but mainly for my own entertainment. But, yeah, there are things I haven’t done. I’m really looking forward to this duet album coming out. After that I’ll figure out what the next one will be. Might be an album of new songs that I’ve written. I’ve got a few stacked up over there. And I’ll be going to Nashville in a couple of weeks to do some more recording, and when I get enough done of my own original stuff, I might put it out.

“I don’t really think about … I know some day I’ll move on. Everybody does. But I don’t worry about it. I like where I am now. Everything’s fine. And there’s nothing I can do about anything that’s happened. The only thing I have any control over is what’s happening right now. So I don’t worry about a while ago or after a while.”

Night has fallen while we’ve been talking. Now it’s time for him to go to work.

Willie Nelson: The Playboy Interview (November 2002)

Saturday, November 2nd, 2019

The Playboy Interview:  Willie Nelson
November 2002
by David Sheff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NELSON:  There’s one more thing about Viagra.

PLAYBOY:  What’s that?

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

PLAYBOY:  Where does all this joking come from?

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  What makes them harder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Does marijuana affect your memory?

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Why did you write the book?

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

PLAYBOY:  Do you keep journals?

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

PLAYBOY:  Was it similar to writing songs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Do you like to listen to your voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry.  What did you want to know again?

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  What inspired the collaboration with Paul Simon?

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Do you like rap?

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  It’s not?

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Why are small farmers better?

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

PLAYBOY:  How would you help the farmers?

NELSON:  Farmers should get fair prices.

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

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

PLAYBOY:  How did September 11 change your life.

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

PLAYBOY:  What lessons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Let’s talk some about your background.

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

PLAYBOY:  What are you earliest memories of music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Let’s talk some about your background.

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

PLAYBOY:  What are you earliest memories of music?

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

PLAYBOY:  When did you begin to write songs?

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

PLAYBOY:  When did you have your first professional gig?

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

PLAYBOY:  Who was coming to see your shows?

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

PLAYBOY:  What inspired Stardust?

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

PLAYBOY:  Were you surprised by the success?

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

PLAYBOY:  Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Are jokes your way of dealing with emotion?

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

PLAYBOY:  Why not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NELSON:  The Internal Revenue Service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Stuff like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  When did you begin to write songs?

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

PLAYBOY:  When did you have your first professional gig?

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

PLAYBOY:  Who was coming to see your shows?

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

PLAYBOY:  What inspired Stardust?

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

PLAYBOY:  Were you surprised by the success?

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

PLAYBOY:  Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Are jokes your way of dealing with emotion?

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

PLAYBOY:  Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

NELSON:  The Internal Revenue Service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYBOY:  Stuff like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie on Weed (High Times, October 2005)

Friday, October 4th, 2019

Willie on Weed
High Times Magazine
October 2005
by Richard Cusick

When it comes to grass, Willie’s fans divide into three distinct camps:  stoners like myself who view Willie Nelson as a sterling example of humanity; politically conservative country folks who dislike the pot thing but cry in their beers whenever he sings “Crazy”; and finally, fans who don’t smoke and don’t care, but remain mildly amused by Shotgun Willie’s outlaw ways.  So, unlike most marijuana activists, Nelson doesn’t preach merely to the converted.  Arguably, on the strength of his art and his living example, he’s helped change more minds about marijuana than any other American.

“They’re watching me,” Nelson acknowledges.  “I’m like the canary in the coal mine.  As long as I can remember the words to my songs and do a good show, they say:  “Well, it may not be affecting them so much.”

And so, despite incessant interview request, HIGH TIMES has always been treated like a red-headed stranger by the managers, press agents, record companies, road managers and assorted family members who get paid to look out for Willie Nelson’s best interests.  Frankly, I don’t think the man himself gave a shit one way or the other.  We were all waiting for the right moment to make it happen.  The release of Willie’s long-delayed reggae CD, Countryman, turned out to be the right moment.  One look at the cover art proved that.  There are actually two covers:  “One for Wal-Mart,” Willie noted, and one for every fan of the singer’s favorite plant — with a big pot leaf commanding the center.

It’s the hottest day of the year.  The temperature on the field of Prince Geroge’s Stadium in Bowie, MD, reaches triple digits, but the Bob Dylan – Willie Nelson show has attracted a particular rugged type of music fan willing to roast for hours in the sun to secure a good seat on the general admission lawn.  I’m scheduled to meet with the American music legend for an hour and a half, but a family member’s illness delays Willie by nearly an hour.  How to stuff 30 years worth of interview into 30 minutes?  My strategy involves breaking the ice by bringing the musician’s old friend Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, along for the ride.  Willie has been a member of NORML’s advisory board for 22 years, and so I assumed their reputations would precede me…

The familiar sound of his guitar floats softly from a state-of-the-art sound system shelved above our heads on board one of the world’s most widely travelled and legendary tour buses.  A copy of Bob Dylan’s autobiography sits on the soft brown-leather couch in the front, while Willie holds court from a corner booth.  We will talk for the next 40 minutes without interruption — save for one very unusualy exception.

HT:  You’ve done reggae songs before, but Countryman is your first full-blown reggae album.  How did that happen?

WN:  Ten years ago, I went to see Chris Blackwell when he was the head of Island Records in Jamaica, and we talked about putting out a reggae album, Chris loved the idea, but I also played him a CD I produced called Spirit, and he said, “I love Spirit.  Let’s put that out now and y’all go finish the reggae and then we’ll put it out.”

But they had a shakeup, and he left the label.  So for 10 years it kinda laid there, until the good folks after at Lost Highway picked it up and ran with it.

Keith Stroup:  Does the title Countryman refer to the ganja growers up in the mountians?

WN:  Yeah.  That’s right.

HT:  I’ve always thought reggae and country gospel are very similar, not in sound so much as in spirit.

WN:  The way the musicians tell me, reggae took off – Peter Tosh, Toots and those guys — was that reggae came basically from country music, from listening to the radio in the United States and hearing WSM play ’em some Grand Old Opry.  When they told me that, I started thinking about how country songs just naturally lend themselves to a reggae rhythm.

HT:  Does marijuana help your songwriting?

WN:  I wrote most of my good songs before I ever heard of marijuana or used it, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t slow down your writing.

HT:  Really?

WN:  Well, if you’re hungry or on edge and you’re writing, you could always just sit down and smoke a little joint and not worry about it.  But some things you need to worry about.

HT:  So taking that edge off sometimes isn’t a good thing.

WN:  Yeah.  You need that age.

(Bob Dylan quielty enters the front of the bus — Yes, really.)

WN:  Hey! Bob! (rising from booth)  C’mere.  (A brief hug and Willie returns to the corner booth.)Â

Bob Dylan:  They gotcha trapped.

HT:  We got him now.

BD:  I’ll come back.

WN:  All right.

(exit Bob Dylan)

HT:  You know, I named my daughter after than man!

WN:  You did?

HT:  We figured the name works for either a boy or a girl.

WN:  Yeah, that’s true.  Well, he’s a good guy.  Believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve seen him this tour.  We’ve been out two weeks.  He was gonna play some chess.  He asked me if I want to play some chess, so we can do it tomorrow or the next day.

HT:  I believe we were talking about songwriting.

WN:  I started writing songs a long time before I started smoking.  Well, I started smoking cigarettes when I was 4.  I started smoking something when I was 4.  Cedar bark, Grapevines, Cotton leaves, Coffee leaves.  I even tried Black Drop one time.

HT:  Black Drop?

WN:  It was an old laxative in powder form.  Cedar bark, I smoked that.  And then I used to raise hens, so I would trade a dozen eggs for a pack of cigarettes back in those days.  About 18 cents, I think.  About 18 or 20 cents for a pack of cigarettes.  Lucky Strikes.  Camels.

HT:  In your autobiography, you said that marijuana got you off cigarettes and drinking.

WN:  Yeah.  I knew I was killing myself with cigarettes, and I knew I was really putting myself in danger with drinking so much, so somewhere along the way I decided.  “Wait a minute!  You know, do what you can do.”  In the early years, I drank all the time.  Mainly before pot.  Up until then, I was into whiskey and uppers.  You know, that’s the deal.  Truck drivers had the bennies when they made those LA turnaounds, and all that stuff was going around.  All the guitar players had it.

HT:  Fred Lockwood.  He was the first guy to ever turn you on to pot?

WN:  Yeah. A Fort Worth musician.  That’s right.

HT:  Fred Lockwood was not only the first person to give you a joint, as I understand it, he’s always the guy who gave you the line.  “I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure do Regret It.”

WN:  There was two.  There was Fred Lockwood and there was Ace Lockwood.  They were brothers.  Fred was the one who gave me the line, “I Gotta Get Drunk and I sure Do Regret It” and his brother Ace went and gave me a itty bitty little snuff can full of pot one time.

HT:  So that was your first ime around the block?

WN:  I played a club there, and we played together.  These guys were musicians, so we went over to their house, and Fred and I were playing dominoes.  That was the first time I ever smoked it.  I think I smoked it about six months before I ever got high.  And then, all of a sudden:  “Oh yeah –that’s what that is.”

HT:  Willie, you’re a musician known for making political stands.  Not every musician does that.

WN:  I’ve let my beliefs be known and they turned out to be political.  I didn’t start out taking any political stands — just taking stands.

HT:  You just think a certain way and…

KS…groups like NORML start using you politically.

HT:  You’ve also been out front about your use of cannabis for a long time.  Have you taken a lot of flak for it over your career.

WN:  Zero that I know of.

HT:  It’s amazing how you get buy.

WN:  Well, I got busted.

HT:  750,000 people got busted for marijuana last year.

KS:  Yeah, but none of them got busted because they slept on the side of the highway and then raised the “hand-rolled cigarette defense.” Which I don’t believe has worked for anybody else — wasn’t that it?

WN:  You can’t assume that a rolled-up cigarette in an ashtray, looking through the window, is a marijuana cigarette.

KS:  In Texas, in particular!  I think of that as the Willie Nelson Defense.

WN:  I thought it was brilliant.

KS:  I did, too.

HT:  I hope you don’t mind my blazing, but I’m about to see Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan play.

WN:  You’ve gotta get there.

HT:  Well, I know you recommend moderation.

WN:  Moderation is always the key, even for pot.  You can over-do pot.  And it’s not for the kids… After they get 18, 21 years old, they’re going to try whatever they’re gonna try…

HT:  What’s the difference smoking pot 50 years ago and now?

WN:  It costs more money.

HT:  People say it’s better now, but I don’t remember not getting high 25 years ago.

WN:  No, I don’t either.  You know, it’s kind of like sex — there’s none bad, but there’s just some that’s better.  I think our tolerance is pretty good, too.

HT:  I ususlaly stop for a month every year or so.

KS:  I usualy stop for a few days every now and then — because I run out.

WN:  I intentionally let myself run out every now and then.

KS:  A couple of days into that, I usually say, “Let me rethink that decision.”

WN:  Either that or one of the guys’ll bring me one and say, “Here, don’t you think it’s time?