Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Willie Nelson Interview: Country Music Magazine (March 1992)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

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Country Music
March/April 1992
by Michael Bane

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Question Two, then is has it change?

Let’s let Willie answer in hs own words.

To Question One:

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

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

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

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

Might as well blame it on the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has it been pretty hard on you?”

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

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

“Well, that’s true…” [laughter]

“Where are you living, anyway?”

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

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

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

“You still give away everything you get?”

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

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

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

— Michael Bane
    Country Music (March/April 1992)

Willie Nelson, “Band of Brothers”

Monday, October 6th, 2014

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www.cbsnews.com
by:  Jan Crawford.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the music that keeps driving him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He struggled with drugs, alcohol and marriage.

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

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

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

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

How much does he smoke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His next album will be released in December.

Willie Nelson and Maureen Dowd

Sunday, September 21st, 2014


photo:  James Minchin

www.nytimes.com
by:  Maureen Dowd

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

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

It seemed like a match made in hash heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did he also indulge in the Lincoln Bedroom?

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 12th, 2014

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photo: David McClister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/09/11/4138787_willie-nelsons-road-goes-on-forever.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

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

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014





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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

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http://www.rollingstone.com

by Patrick Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Archives Issue 1216: August 28, 2014.

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

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Rolling Stone
www.Rollingstone.com

Willie Nelson, America’s most beloved outlaw, opens up about his craziest weed stories, the IRS, his pal George Clooney and the death of his close friend Ray Price in our new issue: http://rol.st/1pO1lqf

Willie Nelson Interview (Radio.com)

Monday, August 11th, 2014

onguitar

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

http://radio.com

by:  Kurt Wolff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Nelson interview (AARP)

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Willie Nelson: What I Know Now

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

http://www.aarp.org/entertainment/music/info-2014/willie-nelson-country-music-legend.html

Homegrown

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

Two on the bus

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

Ties that bind

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

 Unlikely duo

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

Hat trick

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

Move it or lose it

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

The power of positive thinking

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

A toke a day keeps the doctor away

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

Keepin’ on

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

—Reported by Alanna Nash

Rolling Stone Interview: Willie Nelson (7/13/1978)

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Rolling Stone
July 13, 1978
by Chet Filippo

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 ta 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 24million.” 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. Thoseold 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 uggested 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 thebeginning. 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.”

When I met Willie Nelson, 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 30, 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 a polka band 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 Blbles 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 him 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 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, Michael Raphel, told me.

Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music.  But, thought 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.

Willie Nelson interview on PBS

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the continuing musical saga of the great Willie Nelson.

Jeff is back with our profile.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s 81 years old, hair still long, though no longer all red, more legend these days than outlaw, but, yes, still very much on the road.

WILLIE NELSON: And I can’t wait to get on the road.

And everybody say it right here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Willie Nelson has just released a new album titled “Band of Brothers,” the first in many years to feature primarily his own original material.

On his tour bus before a recent concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, I asked him about the burst of songwriting.

WILLIE NELSON: Well, I know that some days you write and some days you don’t. And you learn to live with that. Roger Miller said one time that the well goes try, and you have to wait until it fills up again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know what makes a good song after all these years of writing?

WILLIE NELSON: Oh, I think I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Nelson has been writing songs and hits for five decades.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Crazy for feeling so lonely.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline in 1961, “Always on My Mind” in 1982, and dozens of others from more than 100 albums.

All the while, he’s performed around the world, long ago becoming one of music’s best known faces and voices.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Time just slips away.

JEFFREY BROWN: All this began in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, a childhood in which he and his sister, Bobbie, who still performs with him on piano, were raids by their grandparents.

He wrote about those beginnings in his 2012 memoir titled, in pure Willie fashion, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

I read in your last memoir, you said that you actually started writing poetry as a kid.

WILLIE NELSON: As I kid, I had — before I could play guitar, I was writing poems. And then, once I had figured out a couple chords on the guitar, I started putting melodies to my poems. And nobody ever told me I couldn’t, so I went ahead and done it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But were the words first?

WILLIE NELSON: Usually, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?

WILLIE NELSON: Usually a little line or something that is said, and then the melodies are out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: In that memoir, you write about working in the fields picking cotton in 100-degree-plus weather and thinking that maybe playing the guitar would be a better way of making a living.

WILLIE NELSON: I would see these Cadillacs drive by on the highway with the air conditioner and all, and I would get a little bit jealous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes? You remember that feeling?

WILLIE NELSON: Oh, yes, heck yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you surprised these years later that it worked , that it worked out?

WILLIE NELSON: No. I’m a little surprised at the — how well it worked out.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are?

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIE NELSON (singing): We’re a band of brothers, sisters and whatever on a mission to break all the rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not only has it worked out, but it seems to have done so on Nelson’s terms. He had success as a songwriter in Nashville in the ’60s. Then from his new base in Austin, Texas, he helped create a new, more raw sound for country music dubbed outlaw country.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Whiskey River, take my mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: He appeared on the first “Austin City Limits” program on PBS 40 years ago and in the ’80s was part of an all-star collaboration with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson called the Highwaymen.

Over the years, he’s become known for his activism on behalf of small farmers and for legalizing marijuana and for reaching new audiences with recordings of American standards.

WILLIE NELSON: I think innately knew that music draws people together and that good music is liked by almost everybody.

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like “Stardust,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” or “Crazy Arms” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” There are just certain sounds, music, that sort of you know people are going to like it.

That was me. Oh, you like it. And you try it out on an audience and, sure enough, they like it, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: You come across in song and here in person as calm, gentle. I was a little surprised that I read in your memoir where you talked about the rage that was — that has been there at times and that drinking somehow pushed that and marijuana later kind of helped it, suppressed it.

WILLIE NELSON: Well, I think there must be a little bit of truth in high temper and red hair.

JEFFREY BROWN: High temper and red hair.

WILLIE NELSON: Yes. Have you heard that?

JEFFREY BROWN: I have heard of that.

WILLIE NELSON: Yes. Well, I was sort of living proof of that, I guess, because I had flaming red hair and a high temper.

And that’s something that I have to control and live with all the time. But at least I know what my problem is.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever you call it, even after all the awards and honors, there’s clearly still a drive to the man that comes out on stage, the guitar playing on a guitar famous in its rights, as well-worn as its owner, named Trigger.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): I can be moving or I can be still, but still is still moving to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the unique phrasing, often off the beat, that has made Nelson’s sing so familiar to millions.

Behind all this, it turns out, is a great deal of attention to keeping in shape. Nelson has a black belt in karate and another in Korean mixed martial arts.

While on tour, he told me, he rides a bike, works out with a punching bag, takes walks. And that’s how he can do this into his 80s.

WILLIE NELSON: Really, I think the best exercise that I do is singing for an hour-and-a-half out on the stage, because, yes, I use the lung, the biggest muscle in your body. And I use it continually. And I kind of watch myself and I kind of feel how that singing is helping me as I do it physically.

JEFFREY BROWN: After a show, you feel better?

WILLIE NELSON: Oh, I feel much better after a show. And so does my sister, Bobbie, and all of us in the band.

JEFFREY BROWN: So being out on the road and playing like this all the time you think is keeping you healthier?

WILLIE NELSON: You have to be a professional athlete to do it.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

A professional athlete maybe, but somewhere in every tour, he says, he decides, at least for the moment, that he’s had enough. He wrote of that on a new song titled “The Wall.”

WILLIE NELSON (singing): I hit the wall.

That really happens to you along the way. But I enjoy playing music. Then I get back doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But what happens to you when you’re not playing that for too long?

WILLIE NELSON: You get bored to be at home, or you’re used to coming out and doing it. It is an addiction. There’s no doubt about it, but it’s one of the good ones, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: And not only the performing, but the songwriting continues. Nelson has already announced that another album of new material will come out later this year.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): You can’t tell me what to do. You can’t tell me what to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That Willie Nelson is an inspiration.

 

Real Time with Bill Maher – Overtime (with Willie Nelson, Howard Dean….) (Jan. 24, 2013)

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

hbo

Thanks to Jenny Thompson for this cool screen shot of Willie Nelson from his appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

billmaher

Overtime: January 24, 2014

Bill ended the after-show, show, with, “Let’s get high, now that it’s legal.”

Willie Nelson interview @celebstoner

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

countryman

www.celebstoner.com
by:   Steve Bloom

We caught up with Willie Nelson on June 20 for an interview on The CelebStoner Show. The focus of the interview was Nelson’s new album, Band of Brothers. We also touched upon a variety of subjects related to marijuana.

It’s a good time for country music as far as marijuana advocacy, isn’t it?

I think so. I think it has a lot to do with Colorado and Washington, all the states that have legalized it. That’s a big deal. I probably was one of the most surprised. I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime, but here it is. The future looks good.

Have you been to Colorado since they started selling marijuana legally?

No, I haven’t been there.

I read that the governor’s office in Colorado contacted you to do a PSA about marijuana.

Yeah, we’ve talked about doing a couple of things. I don’t know, I may or may not do it. I haven’t decided yet.

What do you attribute to all these changes happening as far as marijuana laws?

One word: Money. There’s a lot of money in selling marijuana. If you can do it legally, that’s good. Why should all the criminals make the money? This is what people are thinking. If it’s happening, if it’s going to be legal, let’s tax it and regulate it, like we do with everything else and make some money off this. I think that’s one reason why people are talking this a little more seriously.

That’s what you said when we started the Teapot Party. What kind of message do you have for Teapot Party people out there who are looking for advice from you about what the Teapot Party should be doing at this point?

Voting. Find out who in their area believes the way they do and vote for them. Get out and go vote. If it’s the day to go vote, make sure you go vote before you burn one down. Don’t get high and forget to vote.

Willie Nelson: “I’m not a huge advocate of edibles.”

You’re supporting Wendy Davis for the governor of Texas. You’ve faced some backlash because of her support of abortion. Have you felt any of this negativity from some people?

No, I haven’t. Maybe some people feel that way, but they haven’t said anything to me. She came out in support of medical marijuana. That was the issue. I’m not really familiar with the other issues.

Some states have legalized hemp. Are we moving in the right direction as far as making hemp available to people?

Yeah, we are. More and more people are finding out the benefits of it – hemp and marijuana. The more they delve into it and research it, the more they realize, Hey wait a minute, we should give this another look.

How’s your biodiesel company, BioWillie, doing?

Right now we’re sending out trucks to a lot of the restaurants around gathering up vegetable oil and taking it to our plants and turning it into biodiesel. That’s working very well.

As far as your personal smoking habits, are you vaporizing? Are you dabbing using concentrates?

No, I don’t really like any of those things. But vaporizers are good for your lungs. Cigarette smoke will kill you. I never heard of anybody dying from marijuana smoke. Vaporizers I think are smarter.

Do you use a vape pen or an old-fashioned vaporizer?

There are a few of those little pens going around. I see them around California, those e-cigarette type pens. They’re all right.

The latest thing is states are passing new medical marijuana laws that don’t allow for smoking. What do you think of that?

I don’t think much of them. I’m not a huge advocate of edibles. There are people who do find it beneficial. There are kids who are benefiting from it medicinally. The Charlotte’s Web folks – they’ve found ways to use it where it’s helpful. As far as me personally, I don’t do the edibles because it’s a different type of high and I just don’t like that.

When you go home, do you go to Hawaii or do you stay in the continental U.S.?

It depends on how much time I have. If I have enough time I like to go to Hawaii and hang out for a few days. or I’ll go to Austin. I’ve got a couple of good horses down there I like to ride.

What’s happening with your daughter Paula’s pot-bust case?

They dismissed that. The judge threw that out and took it off the record. She’s fine.

How’s the current tour going?

Working with Alison Krause + Union Station and Kacey Musgraves and these great musician and singers, it’s really a lot of fun, we’ve had a good tour. I look forward to touring with those folks again one day. Kacey and I are planning on doing a song together, an old song I wrote called “You Sure This Is Where You Want to Be.” We’re going to do some recording together and that’s going to be cool.

I hear you have another album in the works called December Day.

It’s just with my band and my sister Bobbie. It’s mostly me and sister with a little harmonica and a little bass in there. We’re doing nine songs that I wrote and a couple of Irving Berlin songs – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “What’ll I Do.” It’s coming out sometimes before the holidays, maybe October.

Your drummer Paul English was injured last year in a bus crash. How’s he doing?

Everybody’s fine. We’ve got a pretty good little band going. We’re having some fun out here.

Read the article, see photographs here.

Send your questions for Willie Nelson to ESPN SportsNation for LIVE CHAT (June 16, 2014)

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Before he was an American music icon, Willie Nelson was a songwriter, and a damned good one.

 

SportsNation: Willie Nelson Chat

http://espn.go.com

Listen to a sneak preview of “Bring it On”, from Willie Nelson’s new album, “Band of Brothers”

Before he was an American music icon, Willie Nelson was a songwriter, and a damned good one.

Ever heard “Crazy,” performed by Patsy Cline? He wrote that, and a slew of other hits, years before his own songs and vocal interpretations of others’ music sold millions of records across genres.

In his sixth decade in the music business, Nelson, now 81, is again emphasizing his own writing. He’s penned nine new songs for his new album, “Band of Brothers,” which is being released June 17. And here’s an ESPN.com exclusive: the premiere of the first track on the album, “Bring It On.”

All the good stuff that makes Nelson’s music instantly recognizable is here — the marvelous singing voice, the singular vocal delivery, the tone of “Trigger,” his irreplaceable Martin N-20 acoustic guitar. But more than anything, what comes across loud and clear in “Bring It On” is that the decades haven’t mellowed his fierce independence.

He’s been through his share of hard times — health problems, a run-in with the IRS and a marijuana possession charge in the great state of Texas — so it’s not hard to pick an enemy and imagine Willie staring ‘em down: “Well I know you’re out there ’cause I hear you breathin’/But it still don’t mean nothin’ to me/Bring it on.”

On the title track of “Band Of Brothers,” an ode to his fellow musicians, Nelson declares, “And I know you love me ’cause I love you too/But you can’t tell me what to do.”

As painfully shortsighted as it seems now, the Nashville establishment didn’t know quite what to do with Nelson as a recording artist when he arrived in Music City in the early 1960s. But the Nashville hit machine knew how to turn Nelson’s artfully crafted songs into gold. “Crazy” is the Nelson song everyone knows, but thumb through the country section at the used record store and you’ll find many more, such as “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Night Life.”

It was only when he returned to Texas in the 1970s that Nelson became one of his generation’s defining voices — not just in the outlaw country movement, but across genres — as a songwriter and a performer.

And now, for the first time in a long time, Nelson is once more leaning on his own songwriting for a new album. “I got on kind of a writing kick,” he recently explained. “It’s good to be writing again.”

“The Wall,” another track from “Band Of Brothers,” will be available for download Friday, the same day National Public Radio is scheduled to feature the album.

 

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

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

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'”