Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Willie on Weed (High Times, October 2005)

Friday, October 4th, 2019

Willie on Weed
High Times Magazine
October 2005
by Richard Cusick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WN:  Yeah.  That’s right.

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

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

HT:  Does marijuana help your songwriting?

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

HT:  Really?

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

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

WN:  Yeah.  You need that age.

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

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

Bob Dylan:  They gotcha trapped.

HT:  We got him now.

BD:  I’ll come back.

WN:  All right.

(exit Bob Dylan)

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

WN:  You did?

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

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

HT:  I believe we were talking about songwriting.

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

HT:  Black Drop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HT:  You just think a certain way and…

KS…groups like NORML start using you politically.

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

WN:  Zero that I know of.

HT:  It’s amazing how you get buy.

WN:  Well, I got busted.

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

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

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

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

WN:  I thought it was brilliant.

KS:  I did, too.

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

WN:  You’ve gotta get there.

HT:  Well, I know you recommend moderation.

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

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

WN:  It costs more money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Smith featured in Texas Monthly

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

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

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

photo:  Laura Farr
by:  Jeff Gordinier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And…how did you feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Nelson in Luck

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

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Hosted by Andy Langer, the National Podcast of Texas features weekly interviews with prominent Texas thinkers, leaders, and newsmakers. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This week, on a special edition of the National Podcast of Texas: Willie Nelson & Friends, recorded live on July 6, from the porch of Willie’s Luck, Texas, headquarters. The conversation followed a screening of the first-ever digital presentation of 1986’s Red Headed Stranger, an Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow and Luck Reunion co-production that allowed 400 fans to watch the movie on the very property where it was filmed.

Red Headed Stranger has a complicated history. In 1979, screenwriter and director Bill Wittliff wrote a script based on Willie’s 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, telling the story of a scorned preacher seeking revenge on his wife and the man she left him for. Universal Studios quickly secured the rights to the script and set out to make a $14 million film with Robert Redford in the title role. When Redford wound up backing out, the project stalled, and Wittliff and Nelson opted to fund the film on their own. Now a $1.8 million project starring Willie himself, they got help from friends and family to make it happen, rounded up investors, and built the western town on Willie’s property just outside of Austin. In the end, Carolyn Mugar, a friend and fan from Boston, swooped in with the finishing money (she’s also executive director of Farm Aid).

Red Headed Stranger was the third movie Willie worked on with Wittliff, who passed away in June. It followed 1980’s Honeysuckle Rose and 1982’s Barbarosa. Red Headed Stranger has never been available on DVD, let alone streaming services. The print that the Alamo screened in Luck was found in a Los Angeles warehouse after an exhaustive search, then restored and digitized by the American Genre Film Archive.

After the Rolling Roadshow screening, we sat with Willie to discuss the film’s history, to remember Bill Wittliff, and to memorialize the story of how Luck came to be. Onstage with us were Luck architect Cary White; Willie’s former tour manager, confidant, and Red Head Stranger producer David Anderson; actor Sonny Carl Davis (who plays Odie in the film); and Willie’s daughter and the film’s wardrobe designer, Lana Nelson. Her son, Brian Fowler, also appeared onstage to discuss his first acting job.

With permission from Nelson, the Luck Reunion, and Alamo Drafthouse, we were able to record the Q&A session and present it to you as the National Podcast of Texas.

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

Saturday, July 13th, 2019
by: Chet Filippo
July 13, 1978

The saga of the king of Texas, from the night life to the good life

The desk man at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Holiday Inn shook his head when I asked for Willie Nelson. “Got no Willie Nelsons today.” He turned away officiously and resumed cleaning his fingernails with a Holiday Inn matchbook.

He was about as encouraging as my cab driver had been: “You goin’ to see Willie Nelson? Man, he was a no-show last week. They had to haul that Wet Willie in; he play instead. You see Willie Nelson, you tell him for me, ‘Man, you die fast in this town.’

I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: “See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs.”

“Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so.” He started thumbing through registration forms: “Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain’t here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is . . . ”

“Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.”

Poodie, who is Willie’s road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night’s concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake’s duties are exactly. He’s a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: “What do you want done?” He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet – if, that is, Fast Eddie weren’t so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days.

It wasn’t always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn’t even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie’s songs – Rusty Draper with “Night Life,” Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Patsy Cline with “Crazy,” Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Andy Williams with “Wake Me When It’s Over” and Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper,” to name a few – but Willie’s own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville’s establishment.

Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville’s idea of what is and is not country music. He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of “my favorite ten songs.” His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums? But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake’s door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don’t mean a lot to him.

Snake opened his door: “Damn, I didn’t know you were coming. I guess it’s okay if you didn’t bring too many women. C’mon, Eddie’s just down the hall.”

Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. “Shit, Eddie,” said Snake. “Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We’re gonna sell 24 million.” Willie laughed softly, as he always does.

I told him about the cabdriver: “And not only do you die fast, the driver said: ‘Shoot, I ain’t gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.’” Willie fell over laughing. “Why, hell yes,” he finally said. “Why buy old songs?”

“What happened to your beard, Willie?” I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. “Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin’? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?”

With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes.

Eyes that don’t miss much. He is not the most talkative person around – lending credence to the theory that the best writers are watchers, not doers. Willie Hugh Nelson, a.k.a. Fast Eddie, is an intense watcher. I always get the feeling around him that he’s sizing me up: am I a potential song or just another disciple? He gets plenty of both.

Disciples are many and fanatical now that he positively exudes spirituality. I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie’s music.

He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie’s singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God’s word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists suggested that he make a choice. He chose music. “I had considered preaching,” he now laughed, “but preachers don’t make a lot and they have to work hard.”

Still, he didn’t protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music’s only preacher. “I have met people,” I said, “who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally.”

He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. “Maybe you’re exaggerating. I am religious, even though I don’t go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We’re taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes. So that’s not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time, we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we’re all images of him – in the beginning. He made us all in the beginning and since then we’ve been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we’ve lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin’ through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again.”

He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. “But I know what you mean about fans,” he continued. “And I know what they’re doing. In their minds, they’re relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that. There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations are good for us to hear – how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems.”

Willie has compressed a fair amount of history in what I think is his best work – his three “concept” or storytelling albums. The first, the early – Seventies Yesterday’s Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it. At the time, Willie’s house in Nashville had burned – there’s an oft-quoted story that he rushed back into the flames to save his guitar case, which contained an impressive quantity of marijuana – and he moved to Bandera, Texas. RCA called him on a Friday and said his contract called for him to be in Nashville on Monday to cut a new album. He had no new songs whatsoever, but flew into town, took an upper and stayed up writing songs nonstop. The result was a moving collection of songs that Willie describes as “before life and after life.”

Phases and Stages, released by Altantic in 1974, was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man’s and woman’s points of view. Atlantic was phasing out its country line at the time and didn’t promote the album. Exit Phases and Stages.

Willie moved on to CBS and hit gold with Red Headed Stranger, a deeply moving, very moral tale of sin and redemption. Columbia Records President Bruce Lundvall, along with other CBS executives, thought it underproduced and weird, but it, and the single off the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” broke the C&W crossover market wide open. (It also recently brought Willie a movie deal with Universal for a filmed version of Stranger and a movie based on Willie’s life.)

After the success of Stranger, RCA brought out The Outlaws, a compendium of material by Willie and Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It sold a million copies right out of the chute, and Nashville, which was accustomed to patting itself on the back for selling 200,000 copies of a C&W album, found its system obsolete. Willie and Waylon, after being outcasts for years, were suddenly Nashville royalty. And Willie started telling CBS what he wanted done, rather than vice versa, which had been the Nashville way of doing business.

But Willie’s success really goes back further, back to a dusty pasture in central Texas in the summer of ’72.

When I met Willie Nelson then, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him. That picnic was a real oddity: a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun. The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk. The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons. I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades. I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson. I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it. We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while. He told me his history: born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30th, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents. As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day. At age ten, he started playing guitar with polka bands in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled. He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed. Did a stint in the air force. Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music. Dropped out. Sold Bibles door-to-door. Sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side. Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks. Disc jockeyed all around the country. Played every beer joint there was. Taught guitar lessons. Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars – Family Bible” – and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.” Traveled there in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there. Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract. Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished. “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set. “I’ll do all right.”

Indeed he did. That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on. Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs.

The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up. It was the watershed in the progressive country movement. Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell. Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence. Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.”

From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses – too many gate-crashers – but he was established. Texas was his.

That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of Fast Eddie to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time. When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two-lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out. I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway. But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate. I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me. Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key. He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off.

I still don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career. Right place at the right time. Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong. His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people, and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life. “I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Mickey Raphael, told me.

Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music. But, though it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it.

Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman. “Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans.

There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one’s lover. No wonder Nashville didn’t know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics:

The flesh around your throat is pale
Indented by my fingernails
Please don’t scream, please don’t cry
I just can’t let you say goodbye.

Willie’s explanations of his songs sound almost too simple: “I’d been to bed and I got up about three or four o’clock in the morning and started readin’ the paper. There was a story where some guy killed his old lady and I thought, well, that would be a far-out thing to do.” He laughed. “To write this song where you’re killin’ this chick, so I started there. ‘I had not planned on seeing you’ was the start, and I brought it up to where she was really pissin’ him off, she was sayin’ bad things to him and so he was tryin’ to shut her up and started chokin’ her.” All very matter-of-fact. Did he consider alternate forms of murder? “Ah, well, chokin’ seemed to be the way to do it at the time.”

Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: “Opportunity to Cry” is about suicide, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, “I’ve Got a Wonderful Future behind Me” means just what it says. Some of Willie’s best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages. “What Can You Do to Me Now?” and “Half a Man” resulted from incidents like the time Willie, the story goes, came home drunk and was sewed up in bed sheets and whipped by his wife. Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in “One Day at a Time”:

I live one day at a time
I dream one dream at a time
Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at a time.

“I don’t know whether I’ve ever written any just hopeless songs,” he said. “Maybe I have, maybe I’m not thinking back far enough. I’m sure I have. Songs I’m writing now are less hopeless. I started thinking positive somewhere along the way. Started writing songs that, whether it sounded like it or not, had a happy ending. You might have to look for it. Even though the story I’m trying to tell in a song might not necessarily be a happy story to some people. Like ‘Walking’: ‘After carefully considering the whole situation, here I stand with my back to the wall/I found that walking is better than running away and crawling ain’t no good at all/If guilt is the question then truth is the answer/And I’ve been lying to thee all along/There ain’t nothing worth saving except one another/Before you wake up I’ll be gone’ – to me that’s a happy song. This person has resolved himself to the fact that this is the way things are and this is what ought to be done about it. Rather than sitting somewhere in a beer joint listening to the jukebox and crying. I used to do that too.”

Is writing his form of therapy?

“Yeah, it’s like taking a shit.” He laughed his soft laugh. “I guess a lotta people who can’t write songs, instead of writing songs they’ll get drunk and kick out a window. What I was doing was kinda recording what was happening to me at the time. I was going through a rough period when I wrote a lot of those songs, some traumatic experiences. I was going through a divorce, split-up, kids involved and everything. Fortunately now I don’t have those problems. But I went through thirty negative years. Wallowing in all kind of misery and pain and self-pity and guilt and all of that shit. But out of it came some good songs. And out of it came the knowledge that everybody wallows in that same old shit – guilt and self-pity – and I just happened to write about it. There’d be no way to write a sad song unless you had really been sad.”

Fast Eddie got up from his Holiday Inn bed and put on his blue Nike jogging shoes. “Gonna go out and run three miles,” he said. “Wanta come along?”

“I can’t do 300 yards,” I replied. He laughed.

Three miles later, Willie and entourage boarded his Silver Eagle bus for the drive to the coliseum. Willie, reading The Voice of the Master by Gibran, assumed his usual seat, beneath the bus’ only poster, an illustration of Frank Fools Crow, the chief and medicine man of the Lakota Indian Nation. Underneath Crow is the Four Winds Prayer, which Crow once recited onstage at a Willie concert. The prayer, which is addressed to grandfather God, asks for mercy and help from the outsiders encroaching on his people’s land. Without even asking Willie, I know why that poster is there. He and Chief Fools Crow are both throwbacks, remnants of the American West, honest men who try to tell the truth and who believe in justice.

I thought of a Willie Nelson song, “Slow Movin’ Outlaw,” that talked about that:

The land where I traveled once fashioned with beauty,
Now stands with scars on her face;
And the wide open spaces are closing in quickly,
From the weight of the whole human race;
And it’s not that I blame them for claiming her beauty,
I just wish they’d taken it slow;
‘Cause where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go?

Symbolism with Willie is too tempting, I reminded myself, as the Silver Eagle threaded its way through Greensboro’s evening traffic. Still, I couldn’t avoid thinking of another song as we arrived at the coliseum and Willie plunged into a backstage crowd that was one – third Hell’s Angels, one-third young people and one-third middle-aged folks in leisure suits. All of them said the same thing: “Wil-lie! Wil-lie!” Some wanted autographs, some wanted to touch him, some just wanted to bask in his presence.

The song I was thinking of was “The Troublemaker:”

I could tell the moment that I saw him
He was nothing but the troublemaking kind
His hair was much too long
And his motley group of friends
Had nothing but rebellion on their minds
He’s rejected the establishment completely
And I know for sure he’s never held a job
He just goes from town to town
Stirring up the young ones
Till they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob.2

The song’s about Jesus, in case you didn’t guess.

The Hell’s Angels, working as volunteer security, parted a way for Willie and his band to pass through: Bobbie, his sister, who plays piano; guitarist Jody Payne, another ex-paratrooper; Chris Ethridge, who played bass with the Flying Burrito Brothers; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; and drummer Paul English, who’s been with Willie since 1954. English was once what used to be called “a police character” in Texas, and not too long ago the FBI is said to have tailed Willie Nelson and band for a year because they were after a notorious police character that English once knew and they thought he might show up on the tour. Leon Russell once wrote a song about English, called “You Look like the Devil.” He does, too, and he’s still the only country drummer to appear onstage all in black with a flowing black-and-red cape, goat’s-head rings and a five-inch-wide black leather belt embedded with silver dollars. Used to really freak out the country fans, but he’s as kind a man as you could hope to meet. He could be Keith Richard’s father.

Although the 17,000-seat coliseum was not full, it was a splendid evening of music: Billy Joe Shaver opened, followed by Emmylou Harris and then Willie. The bulk of his set was material from Red Headed Stranger, and when he started “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in his powerful baritone, I heard actual gasps of awe from the front rows. Been a long time since I heard that.

When Emmylou came out to join him for the encores, it turned into a gospel-camp meeting with their voices soaring in “Amazing Grace” and Willie pointing his right hand heavenward.

One of Willie’s friends, for a joke, once showed up at a concert in a wheelchair in the front row. During “Amazing Grace” he began shouting, “I’m healed. I’m healed.” He dragged himself up out of the wheelchair and tottered a dozen steps before collapsing. There were “amens” from the folks around him.

Another of Willie’s friends, a famous Houston attorney, once introduced one of Willie’s songs as evidence in a trial. He was representing a construction worker who had been maimed in an accident on the job. The lawyer recited Willie’s “Half a Man” and soon had the jury weeping: “If I only had one arm to hold you . . . ”

Over the years I have known him, Willie Nelson has not been known as an extremely talkative interviewee. I am not the most garrulous person in the world, either, so a lot of our taped conversations amount to lengthy, very profound silences, punctuated by the wheeze of long tokes.

One such exchange that seemed to take an hour:

1. Willie sang “Whiskey River.”
2. We both nodded affirmatively. No words needed. A toke.
3. Willie: “Went over to Peckinpah’s house.”
4. Me: “You talk to Dylan?”
5. Willie: “No. Dylan don’t talk a lot.”
6. Me: “I know.”
7. Willie: “He introduced himself to me and talked just a little bit. I saw him again the next night at a party over at Peckinpah’s house. He was a little shy, scared to death. They had him jumpin’ and runnin’on them horses down there and he ain’t no cowboy.”
8. Willie sang “Shotgun Willie.”
9. Me: “You write that?”
10. Willie: “Yeah.”
11. Me: “Good.”
12. Silence.
13. His daughter Paula Carlene came in.
14. Willie: “Go away. I’m busy.”
15. Paula: “Why can’t I stay?”
16. Willie: ‘Cause you’re a little ole girl.”
17. Paula: “Help me carry something.”
18. Willie: “I can’t. My legs are broke.”
19. A toke.
20. Silence.

He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit.

“Wasn’t Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?” I asked.

Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. “Yeah, it was,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how it’ll do, but so far it’s outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it’d either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn’t really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber. These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album.”

After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson? Are you still writing songs?

“Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I’ll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me.” He chuckled. “I do have some new ones, ‘She’s Gone,’ ‘Is the Better Part Over,’ ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ I don’t think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don’t write as much depressive music now because I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Do you feel any vindication now that you’ve succeeded when the Nashville establishment said for so long that you couldn’t be a singer?

“I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don’t know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track.”

During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong?

“Not really. I never had any doubts about what I was trying to do, my songs or my music. I just felt it was good. I had some discouraging moments as far as record labels were concerned, and I thought about droppin’ out and quittin’ and never doin’ it again. In fact, I did quit several times. But it wasn’t because I didn’t think the music wasn’t good. I just thought it was the wrong time for me.”

When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters?

“Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other’s houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town. By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin’ wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I’ll never write again, never sing again, don’t wanta see nobody again, don’t call me. I stayed out in the country a year and didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed ’em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin’ up and hog prices kept goin’ down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs.”

Do you think what happened is that the public finally caught up to what you were doing?

“Yeah, I do. I’ve been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin’ up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don’t progress, they could very well pass me too.

“But I wasn’t considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in ’em to be country. And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don’t know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story. And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn’t do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people’s ears to where you would listen to lyrics. The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance.”

But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson.

“Well, Kris has agreed with that. He’d been listenin’ to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I’d listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville.”

I’ll bet, I said, that you had thought for years about doing an album like Stardust. Didn’t you listen to Sinatra and Crosby?

“Sure I did. Radio was the only thing I had growin’ up. We didn’t have TV. So I stayed with a radio in my ear all the time I was home. I turned the dial constantly, so I’d hear pop, country, jazz, blues, so I was accustomed to all types of music. My sister read music and took piano lessons and bought sheet music so I could learn the songs that way.”

Was growing up in Texas a big influence on your music?

“I think there’s a big freedom in Texas that gives a person a right to move around and think and do what he wants to do. And I was taught this way: anybody from Texas could do whatever they fucking wanted to do. And that confidence, shit, if you got that going for you, you can do almost anything. I believe that has a lot to do with it.”

Besides Texas, what were your biggest influences? I know you heard Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and you liked them. But what else?

“Well, I used to work in the fields a lot, pick cotton alongside of niggers, and there would be a whole field full of niggers singing the blues. And I’d pick along and listen to that all day long. I loved to hear them sing.”

(Author’s Note: If you find that offensive, you should be advised that Willie Nelson personally risked his career and reputation by starting the career of Charlie Pride, the only prominent black country singer, at a time when C&W fans were not favorably disposed toward black singers. Nelson personally escorted him through the South and occasionally kissed him on the cheek onstage. Doing that in Southern honky-tonks was a brave, brave move.)

There is still argument in Nashville, I told Willie, over whether he beat the system or whether he made it work for him. What does he think?

He answered seriously. “I think I made it work for me. There’s no secrets about it. I think I kinda let it work for me. I waited till the time was right. Fortunately, all those years of waiting, I had some songs that I’d written that I could live off of and that let me keep my band together and keep my show on the road. Or else I’da had to have folded long ago. Gone back to selling encyclopedias door-to-door.”

He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter. “Willie,” I asked, “do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?”

He thought about that one for a long time: “The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they’re gonna try to figure out how that’s done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they’re firing at that market. Those guys just didn’t know that audience was there. That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don’t get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin’ beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear.”

Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia’s Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn’t particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board. He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he’s decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly.

After one run-through of “I Gotta Get Drunk,” it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals. Willie tried to put him at ease: “You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn’t have the nerve to pitch it to you.”

“Hell, Willie,” said Jones, “I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut ‘Crazy’ but I couldn’t find you.”

Even after a couple more run-throughs, Jones was still having trouble harmonizing with Willie, and Sherrill called from the control room: “Okay, Willie’s stuff is good and we can overdub George later.”

They moved on to “Half a Man,” and Jones was still having trouble. “How the hell does Waylon sing with you,” he asked. “I’m used to singin’ right on the note. I could do two lines during one of your pauses.” Willie laughed.

Jones left for home, Sherrill left for his houseboat and Willie drove over to Municipal Auditorium and walked onstage to thunderous applause: his triumphant conquest of a city that had long spurned him.

The Willie Nelson Family Creed

Friday, July 12th, 2019

Willie Nelson Interview (Modern Screen’s Country Music July 1997)

Monday, July 1st, 2019

One-on-one With America’s Greatest Singer/Songwriter… Willie Nelson
by Elianne Halbersberg
Modern Screen Country Magazine
July 1997

It’s raining in Mississippi, which means “too wet to play golf” for Willie Nelson.  Instead, he’s enjoying, as he says, “great food,” which, in this case, is organically grown spinach, turnip greens and potatoes. This is significant for the man in charge of Farm Aid, and he has decided to spend this day granting interviews…although in Nelson’s case, they’re mostly conversations — relaxed and open to any subject.  Asked if he always schedules interview based on the weather, he chuckles, “I hadn’t really planned on golfing today. I was sitting here and Evelyn [his publicist] sent me a list of phone numbers.  I thought today would be a good day to start talking.  It’s nice to have people who want to talk to you — that makes my day!

Elianne Halbersberg:  Your publicist told me you usually schedule only 15-minute interviews.  How much can you accomplish in such brief soundbites?

Willie Nelson:  I don’t know. It depends how good I am at using a few words to say a lot.  It also depends on the particular writer who puts it down on paper making it sound better than I said it.  I may need your help on this!

EH:  Do you ever lose patience with interviewers?

WN:  Oh no.  I get asked the same questions over and over, three or four times today, even.  I usually just answer it differently, try to make it colorful.

EH:  Does the press really understand, in your opinion, what fans want to know?

WN:  I doubt it, unless they’re fans too. You have an opinion and it’s more powerful because you’re the press.  It’s like me and a song — we have an edge on the rest of the people.  A fan can only get his message across by reading your articles and buying my records.  Hopefully, they do both.

EH:  What DO fans want to know?

WN:  Everything you don’t want them to — they want to know that first!

EH:  In order to succeed, you must have self-confidence.  What’s the difference between that and conceit?

WN:  Not much!  It’s a thin line.  That’s a good question.  Neither one, in and of itself, is totally negative.  Or positive.  I think confidence is good, but it is very similar to conceit.

EH:  How do you know when you’ve crossed that line?

WN:  Your best friends may tell you.  But better to have that than the alternative.  It’s kind of like halitosis — bad breath is better than no breath at all.

DH:  A couple of days ago Marty Stuart told me, “I believe in friends like Johnny Cash and Willie.  They make the trends look ridiculous, thin, and vain.”  Aside from knowing Marty’s in your corner, how does such a comment make you feel?

WN:  I knew I was in trouble when I heard someone say, “I wish they’d play the old guys like George Strait and Randy Travis.”  You know, music changes, fads come along.  Remember when Ray Charles released ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and brought millions of new fans?  Every time country goes through changes, it brings a lot of new people.  But it’s all phases and stages.  I never had that much radio airplay, never depended on it to make a living.  I depended on having a good band, doing a good show, and when you work clubs — which I still do because I enjoy them — you have the advantage of them being open every night, so with a poster, they can advertise who’s coming.  That gives a guy a chance to go to town without a record being played every day on the radio. 

Word of mouth is still the best advertising and if you do a good job, you’ll have a better crowd next time, then next year you play theaters, and so on.  The system fights the hell out of it and tries to tell you that getting played on their radio station is the only way.  There are several stations in any town, and if a guy really works and wants it enough, you can make your own record, sell it out of the trunk of your car, find a station who’ll play it, work a club, and work each town individually. 

A lot of people I know have put their futures in the hands of a record company and that’s not very wise, because you’re only as good a major label as your next record and they’ll drop you like a hot potato and then what do you do?

EH:  Sell your records out of the trunk of your car?

WN:  Right!

EH:  You’ve written so many classic country songs.  Do you appreciate your own compositions as much as country fans do?

WN:  Probably not.  I’m sure I take a lot of them for granted.  There’s a lot of my own songs I do every night, on stage that have the same special meaning to my audiences as certain songs (by other artists) that have touched me.

EH:  You’ve recorded approximately 100 albums!  Do you even remember all those songs.

WN:  I normally do. Some nights I forget “Whiskey River,” but we do 40 or so a night and they’re not always the same.  When I worked with Waylon, Kris and Johnny, I felt like I retired!  I was only working one-fourth of the time with my corner of the stage, my monitor, with the words — I felt like Frank Sinatra!

EH:  Do you ever play a song, the crowd goes notes, and wonder, “Why are they screaming for THAT one?”

WN:  No, because the ones they really like every night, I like, too, like “On the Road Again.”  Or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” — I didn’t write it, but it’s still a great song.  “Always On My Mind” — I didn’t write that one, either, but I really enjoy singing it.  The audience knows that, and they like seeing somebody enjoying what they do.

EH:  Are you still in touch with President Jimmy Carter and his family?

WN:  Occasionally.  I talk to him about one thing or another, usually his Habitat for Humanity program.  We’ve done things together.  He’s a great man. He’d still have my vote.

EH:  Were you invited to Amy Carter’s wedding?

WN:  No, I wasn’t.  But, I move around so much, I’m sure [the invitation] is lying around somewhere!

EH:  I hear you’re cutting a reggae album.

WN:  I’ve already recorded it.  It probably won’t be out until the first of the year.  Island is using this year to still work Spirit.  It surprised me when Don Was brought up the reggae idea. I wasn’t sure how it would sound until we went to the studio and cut one of my obscure ’60s songs that i think only he remembered, with a reggae band.  It sounded so good, we thought maybe we should try to put out an album. So we went to Jamaica, talked to Island, I had Spirit with me, and we just did it.

EH:  Nashville still doesn’t get it, do they?

WN:  Not really, but Island does and that’s the big difference.  Label Chairman Chris Blackwell got it immediately, never hesitated.  It was completely produced, finished product.  All he had to do was put it out and advertise.  They’ve-done a great job.  I had been presented with problems with “Just One Love” and “Moonlight Becomes You” and fortunately there’s Justice Records.  If Island hadn’t gotten it, I’d have probably gone to Justice (in Texas) or kept looking.

EH:  Is it difficult coming to terms with people thinking you’re great?

WN:  No, but I used to think so. Now, thought, I can completely understand it.  Leon Russell — remember him? — once had people at a fevered pitch as only he can do.  It was right after he put together the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour for Joe Cocker.  The first time I saw him, playing to tens of thousands every night, he stopped and said, “Be careful of who you let get to you.”  It’s a responsibility, a highly electrical period with everyone’s emotions out there.

EH:  Farm Aid has a website.  Are you into the computer onling thing?

WN:  No, that’s beyond me.  There’s one on the bus, the house, the office and, fortunately, someone knows all about it. You can’t do that and golf! It’s like fishing — there’s no time to fish AND golf.  Computers?  That’s completely out of the question.  I’m not going for it.

EH:  You recently won the Living Legend Award.  What does that mean to you?

WN:  [laughs] After the show, I asked them, “How do you find someone every year?”  Do they go through a list and ask, “Who’s living?  Give me the legend list?”  I dont’ know.  I guess it means, “We’re glad you’re still alive.”

EH:  Will we see another Highwayman tour?

WN:  Probably not.  It’s not likely we’ll tour… this week.  We may all tour individually, the four of us, but not this year.  “Ever” is a long time, putting out the word that it’s over forever, but Waylon wants it that way.

EH:  Maybe Sinatra could stand in.

WN:  He’d be a good one.  Or Billy Joe Shaver.  Or Merle Haggard.  Or none of the above.  Give me that legends list!

EH:  Does it really matter to you what critics think?

WN:  Not really. For most of ’em, their daddy’s got ’em there jobs anyway.  Otherwise, they’d be out on the streets selling drugs.  Critics are like the Bitch Box we had in the Air Force.  Any complaints, you wrote them down, you put them in the box.  It wouldn’t help at all, but you could bitch freely.  That’s a critic.

Willie Nelson on CMT Hot 20 Countdown

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

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Willie Nelson is always good for a joke. He loves them, and before he and Katie Cook wrapped their CMT Hot 20 Countdown interview on his bus in San Diego, they exchanged a few clean ones.

“I went on this blind date and I told the guy I’d meet him in the bar,” Cook said. “I sat exactly where I would be, he comes walking over and he was like, ‘Are you Katie?’ I’m like, ‘Are you John?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’m not Katie.’”

“That’s good,” Nelson said. “I’ve got a drop joke that you might like: A guy was on the second floor of this hotel, too close to the window and he fell out on the ground. Someone walks up to him and says, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I don’t know I just got here.’”

Humor is at the heart of how Nelson looks at life — and death. Rumors and hoaxes about the music icon’s untimely end have followed the singer since his 1980 No. 1 “On the Road Again” and he takes them all in stride.

“There have been rumors out there,” he said, “‘One day, Willie was out on the road singing ‘On the Road Again’ and a truck hit him.’ … Ever since then I’ve been hearing those stories. I thought it was really funny.”

At 84, Nelson shows no signs of stopping. In the last 60 years, he’s recorded more than 110 albums (not counting his live sets and greatest hits compilations), and he continues to tour all year long.

His latest collection, God’s Problem Child, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart. The lineup for his six-city Outlaw Music Festival tour starting July 1 in New Orleans includes Bob Dylan and His Band, the Avett Brothers, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, My Morning Jacket, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Margo Price, Hayes Carll and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.

When Cook asked Nelson if he saw age as just another number, he agreed.

“People do get old, that’s the way life is, and fortunately we’ve gotten this old. And hopefully we can get older.

“One of those heavy-thinkers, Seneca, said that you should look upon death and comedy with the same countenance. I thought that’s pretty interesting.

“You know we’re all gonna die one day,” he added, “It’s not not going to happen. So you have to have some kind of attitude about it, and I guess comedy is as good as any.”

Willie Nelson, G.Q. Interview (May 11, 2012)

Saturday, May 11th, 2019
photo: Mike Brooks
by:  Dan Hyman

Willie Nelson doesn’t schedule interviews. Nowadays, his publicist rings him up, and when the country legend happens to pick up—which, judging by our multiple failed attempts to get him on the line, is a rare occurrence—he’s informed there’s a reporter on the other line. Would he like to chat, perhaps? He almost never says no. So on the first call that Nelson answers—our fourth attempt overall—we’re on the line with the man known as the Red Headed Stranger.

At seventy-eight, Willie Nelson is a relic. But he doesn’t see it that way, because the country star has managed to stay as busy as ever. He’s usually touring. When he’s not, Nelson is either at his Austin, Texas ranch or at his home in Maui. Time away, however, doesn’t often suit Willie well. He likes to work. And after all, how fun could resting on your laurels be when you’ve has sold upwards of 50 million albums?

Nelson is most excited about his latest endeavor, Heroes (due May 15), a full-length album he recorded last year with family and close friends, including Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, and Jamey Johnson. Heroes is not your average Willie Nelson post-millennial release—the man, in addition to a trio of new originals, covers Coldplay and Pearl Jam. Nelson was in Mississippi when he hopped on the line with GQ, and talked about his new album, enjoying Amsterdam with his pal Snoop Dogg, and how he’s smoking as much pot as ever. 

GQ: Thanks for hopping on the phone, Willie!
Willie Nelson: Sure!

GQ: Heroes was a family affair. Your sons, Lukas and Micah, share writing credits on the album.

Willie Nelson: It was, and is always nice to work with the kids. But I also had a lot (of others): Kris (Kristofferson) and Jamey (Johnson) and Snoop and Sheryl Crow and a bunch of other great talent in there. (Billie) Joe Shaver. Ray Price. So a lot of my friends were in there.

GQ: Speaking of Snoop, I hear you shared some time together in Amsterdam.

Willie Nelson: Yah. I was in Amsterdam and I got a call from Snoop and he was, I think, in New York or somewhere and didn’t have anything to do. So he just flew over and we hung out for a few days.

GQ: I assume you two frequented a few of Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops?

Willie Nelson: We had a cup of coffee or two [laughs]. We got to be good buddies.

GQ: I know you are also longtime buddies with fellow country icon Billy Joe Shaver, who also appears on the album.

Willie Nelson: Heck, yah! In fact the song, “Heroes”, I wrote that song about Billy Joe, really. We stay in touch. We text back and forth all the time.

GQ: And Kris Kristofferson, another longtime friend of yours, also makes an appearance.

Willie Nelson: We’re big friends. I saw him a little while ago. I was in Maui and he lives over there also sometimes. He’d come by. We hung out a little bit. Another time before, that he brought Muhammad Ali by.

GQ: Kristofferson and Ali. Quite the combination.

Willie Nelson: [Ali]’s an incredible guy. One time I think we were playing in Kentucky or something and he’d come by and say hello. And I brought him on the bus and we hung out a little bit. And I’ve got a punching bag in the back so I got him back there punching the bag.

GQ: You have some surprising covers on Heroesyour cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” in particular.

Willie Nelson: It was for a [Chipotle] commercial first and it was pretty well received, so we decided to put it out on the new album.

GQ: And Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”? Can’t say I saw that coming.

Willie Nelson: My son Lukas knew that song and he brought it to the studio. And that’s really how that happened. He brought about half the songs to the studio.

GQ: Is that a different process than normal? Do you usually come up with the track list yourself?

Willie Nelson: [It happens] all kind of different ways. On this particular one, Luke came up with the song and naturally I liked the song. But I wasn’t familiar with it until we recorded it.

GQ: It’s interesting because “Just Breathe” sounds like it could have been one of your originals.
Willie Nelson: Aw, thanks!

GQ: I know you have a home in Hawaii. Have you been spending a good deal of time down there lately?

Willie Nelson: I just spent a couple weeks over there and we’re back traveling now. I’m in Mississippi tonight and then Illinois. I just enjoy both working and not working. And fortunately I work enough where I get that out of my system and then we take a few days off, take a rest. It’s working pretty good. We work a couple weeks and then we take a couple off.

GQ: What does Willie Nelson do in his downtime? Are his off-duty activities a bit different than in, say, 1975?

Willie Nelson: Oh, it’s the same stuff I was doing in ’75! I don’t notice any changes. I went for a bike ride a while ago, a little run. The weather’s nice here so I can get out. So I’m just doing whatever I can do. And when I’m off I’m either playing some golf or some poker or whatever comes up.

GQ: What motivates you to get up each morning and keep playing and writing music?

Willie Nelson: New music keeps coming along and every now and then I write some new things—there’s “Hero,” “Roll Me Up,” and “Come On Back Jesus” on the new album. Then I go back and do something in the show that we hadn’t done in maybe a long, long time. Like last night I did “I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here in Your Eyes”. And I recorded that twenty, thirty years ago. [Editor’s Note: Nelson recorded this track in 1996] Every now and then I’ll think of something to put back in the show. I just kind of play it off the top of my head. If I do it that way it keeps it kinda fresh.

GQ: People love to mythologize your marijuana intake. Is your current pot consumption level exaggerated?

Willie Nelson: No, I still probably smoke as much as I ever did! I use a few different methods now. I don’t smoke as many joints as I used to. I use vaporizers a lot. It cuts down on the heat and the smoke. And for a singer that’s not a bad idea.

GQ: I must ask. How’s your famous acoustic guitar, Trigger? She still receiving the finest of care?

Willie Nelson: Trigger’s doing great! Trigger’s probably in better shape than I am.

Willie Nelson Interview, by Kevin O’Hare (May/2010)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

by Kevin O’Hare

At the age of 77, Willie Nelson is still riding high and riding strong, touring steadily as always and celebrating the release of his exceptional new album “Country Music.”

It’s the latest in a rather astounding catalog of more than 200 albums, some dating back to his earliest days as a songwriter in the early 1960s, when he attracted the interest of stars like Patsy Cline, who famously recorded Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Ray Price, who had a major hit with Nelson’s “Night Life.”

Eventually Nelson shifted from Nashville to Austin where he became a key player in the “country outlaw’ movement that tossed aside every known stereotype about traditional country music of the era. Nelson’s hair got longer, he became well known for smoking marijuana and he turned into a superstar in 1978 with his distinct reworking of pop standards titled “Stardust.”

He began recording at a frenzied pace around this period, making sure to release albums of duets with old friends like Price, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell and many others. Whether he over-saturated the market at the time is still worthy of debate but his concert sales remain strong and steady to this day.

He recently spoke from his home in Texas about his amazing career, famous friends like the late great Cline, his reputation for smoking lots of weed, his new album and his thoughts for the future:

You’ve released more than 200 albums. How in the world can you try and deliver something fresh on the new album “Country Music?”

Well it depends a lot on the songs, the producers and the musicians. With this particular album “Country Music” it was a no brainer. T Bone Burnett knows this music as well as anyone. I’m sure it was easy for him to come up with great musicians and come up with some great songs. “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Oceans of Diamonds” and all those great songs that we’ve all heard and sung for many years but they’ve been sort of lost in the shuffle along the way and he was sharp enough to put them all together and say “Hey let’s do these again.”

What was it like working with T Bone Burnett and how did you guys get to first know each other?

Well, we’re old Texas buddies, he’s from Ft. Worth and I’m from somewhere around there. I’ve known about him for years and years. His wife and my wife were buddies. We played golf together not too long ago and talked about doing something. He’d just had the “Crazy Heart” movie and I felt maybe it’d be a good time for us to do a CD together and I just turned it over to him really.

There’s a great song on the album called “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” Do you see Satan in the world around us? If so, where?

Well of course. We all see things that are the opposite of peace and love so we put a name on it and it’s Satan. No matter what your thoughts and beliefs are, God is good, Satan is hate. And that’s just the way it is. We who sing gospel songs talk about God and Satan as mortal enemies. In this particular song, it’s an old traditional, it’s a wonderful song.“I’ve been promising myself to take it easy on myself and not work so hard so we’ll see how it goes.” – Willie Nelson

“Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Tell me a little about the song.

That song has been in my repertoire for a long, long time. Al Dexter, who originally recorded it, was a friend of mine, we knew each other back in the old days back in Ft. Worth. I’ve sung the song a lot. When T Bone brought it to the session I said “Hey where’s that song been?”

Speaking of “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” who’s the craziest woman you ever had a relationship with?

(extended laughter) How much time you got?

I got the time, if you’ve got the money.

I probably shouldn’t put names on them but there are a few (laughs).

When you had the huge breakthrough in the 1970s with “Red Headed Stranger” and then “Stardust” you started recording albums at an amazing pace. Did you ever worry that you might be over-saturating the market?

Well I was sort of warned that I could, but there really wasn’t a lot that I wanted to do about it because this was my shot and I had a chance to get stuff, record it and get it out there. I felt I could do it, I wasn’t overloading myself. I might have been overloading the record companies and their ability to market all that stuff. I could see where they were coming from.

There was some talk years ago that you might do an album of duets with Bob Dylan. Whatever happened to that?

It was an idea that is still a good idea that may or may not happen. As close as we came, we did write one song together, we were gonna write a whole album and then record it but we ended up doing one song together. He hummed a melody and cut a track and it went like (Nelson sings melody). What it wound up being was (“Heartland”) “There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland … My American dream fell apart at the seams.” He wrote it a little bit, I wrote it a little bit, we went into the studio and cut it.

On April 30 you turned 77. You’re still playing about 200 dates every year. How can you keep that up?

I don’t know, it’s crazy and I’ll probably slack off a little bit. I’ve been promising myself to take it easy on myself and not work so hard so we’ll see how it goes.

I interviewed B.B. King a few years ago and he said the same thing but I don’t think he’s slowed down too much either.

No but it’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re down here rounding third so it’s really whether we want to slide into home or just kind of trot across (laughs).

You take a lot of kidding for your rather legendary marijuana smoking. Larry King seemed startled that you had smoked up before appearing on his show recently. When did you start and do you ever see a day when you’ll stop?

Oh, I have stopped before and gone days and days and days. It’s not as though if I don’t get marijuana I get headaches. There have been cases where if I smoked too much my lungs get congested and I lay off awhile. Things are getting so simple now. In California and about 12, 15 different states you can buy edibles and you can get high eating candy. It’s not necessary to destroy your lungs anymore smoking if you just want to get high.

Is your bus as bad as Toby Keith says?

Toby can’t handle it (laughs) He’s a little wimpy in that department. He’s the first to admit it. God love him.

A few years ago you took up running. Are you still doing that?

I went out for a little run today. I don’t run as far or as fast as I used to but I still try and get in a few steps a day.

You’re still golfing?

I’ve had to stop golfing for awhile because I hurt my arm … golfing naturally. So I’ve not been golfing for about three months now.

That must be killing you.

Well, it’s good enough for me I guess, if I had a better swing I wouldn’t have done it.

Hopefully you’ll be back on the course soon.

One of these days, but I had a ruptured bicep from overdoing something and then I tore the rotator in my left arm. My left side is a little bit out but it will get better.

Can you tell me a little bit about Patsy Cline?

Well, she was the greatest female vocalist maybe all around ever, but for sure, for country, that I ever heard. There’s this joke. After Patsy Cline did “Crazy” and everyone else has tried it, and this joke is really not meant to hurt anybody else’s feelings but when they say “How many girl singers does it take to sing “Crazy” and they answered “All of them.” But as Patsy Cline nailed it, who else since then, it’s like Ray Charles singing “Georgia.” I had enough nerve to cover him but I never thought I did as good a job on it as he did.

Were you and Patsy close?

Yeah, we toured together and … I first met her one night back there in Tootsies Bar, drinking a little beer and her husband Charlie Dick was there and we were talking, listening to some songs that I’d just brought up from Texas. I had Tootsie put a couple of 45s on her jukebox. One of them had “Crazy” and “Night Life.” And Charlie Dick just really loved “Crazy” and wanted to play it for Patsy. We went over to his house and he wanted me to go in and meet Patsy and I wouldn’t do it. I said “No it’s late and we’re drinking, I don’t want to wake her up. He said “Aw she’ll be fine.” I didn’t go in. He went in and then she came out and got me and made me go in. She was a wonderful person, fixed us coffee, was just a great gal. I got to know her real well, we toured some together and she was just great.

\You were in the Highwaymen. What are your favorite memories of playing and touring with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and you all in one band?

Well every night was a great show for me ‘cause I was way over on the right and I got to see three of my heroes perform all night long all over the world. It doesn’t get any better than that.

What was it like after the shows?

Well we had all our families with us. Most of our wild days were behind us by the time we got together in the Highwaymen. Actually the last two or three times we went on tour, we had all our kids and families and went to Singapore and Australia and different places. We had 278 pieces of luggage.

Who had the idea of the four of you working together?

We had gone to Switzerland to do a Christmas show with Johnny Cash and June Carter. They invited me and Waylon and Kris to play on their Christmas show. We were having a photo session one day and the photographer said “What are you all going to Switzerland for?” And we said. “That’s where Jesus was born.” And the photographer said “Oh, ok.” We laughed about that awhile. We did that and decided it was a lot of fun and thought maybe we should do some records together. Someone, I forget who it was, had the song “The Highwayman,” the Jimmy Webb song. We played it and liked it and thought this might be something we want to do.

How long did it take you to record the new album “Country Music?”

A couple of minute s (laughs) It was really quick. Everyone knew the songs. Most of the things we did in one or two takes, it doesn’t take long to record when you do it that way.

You’re not a seven, or eight or nine take guy anyway are you?

No, three’s my limit. Usually I get it in one ‘cause usually we do not press the record button until we know just what we’re doing. Then once that happens I like to do two more just for insurance in case I’m not hearing something. But a lot of times I take the first take.

Of the movies you have made, which one is your favorite and why?

I liked “Barbarosa” and “Red Headed Stranger.” Hell, I enjoyed doing “The Songwriter” and “A Pair of Aces” with Kris. With “The Songwriter,” Kris and I always had a lot of fun. As far as “Red Headed Stranger” and “Barbarosa,” I like horses a lot and I got along with them ok so that was always fun where I could ride a horse or play my guitar.

Speaking of your guitar, your Martin guitar has a huge hole in it. That hole was there back in the 1970s. Has it gotten bigger and how long can you keep playing it?

It’ll last longer than I do probably. It still plays fine. I have to take it in every few years and have them do a reinforcement in the inside to make sure it hasn’t collapsed anymore in there. But right now it’s in fine shape, it’ll last longer that I will.

You have a lot of signatures on there right?

Well the first person I heard of anybody signing their guitar was Leon Russell and he asked me to sign his. I said “Sure” and I started to sign it with a marker and he said “No scratch it in there with a knife.” He had a knife there so I scratched my name with a knife. Then I said “Now that I’ve done yours why don’t’ you do mine?” So I had him scratch his name on Trigger (the name of Nelson’s guitar), he was the first one I had on there.

How is Leon Russell doing, I’d heard he’s been sick.

I think he’s doing fine. I think he and Elton John are doing an album together and he’s supposed to play my 4th of July picnic down in Austin so I think he’s doing better.

You two made a great album, “One For the Road”

We have another one that’s in the can that we’re waiting to put out.

When did you record it?

Last year sometime.

What songs did you do?

We did some country things that I like, some Vern Gosdin things. We did “My Cricket and Me, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash, “Chiseled in Stone,” a lot of different songs that we like.

What do you still want to achieve and what are you working on next?

Honestly, I want to achieve this tour (laughs). It’s been a long one. Then I can figure out what I want to do next. Once it’s over with, I want to rest a while and then I can figure out what I want to do next. So far we’ve had a good year, the album’s doing good, I really don’t have a lot to worry about anything right now.”

Willie Nelson in Rolling Stone

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

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

Saturday, April 27th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch me,” he says.

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

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

I make the call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This kind of loose talk irks Dorsey, who, of course, was the Duke’s valet for many years before he worked for Willie. Dorsey staunchly defends Wayne and releases a new narrative about beautiful women, freight elevators, seven passenger roadsters and Tijuana, at the end of which Willie concedes to Dorsey that Wayne was indeed a great American. I inquire if it’s true, as Nashville’s famous Captain Midnight asserts, that Willie stole the idea of wearing the bandanna from Midnight and John Wayne. Willie contends that the bandanna and tennis shoes are not an affectation – they are the outfit he wore as a child, predating Wayne’s or Midnight’s use of the bandanna. Dorsey takes out a John Wayne book and authenticates that the Duke wore a bandanna in a movie in 1928, five years before Willie was born. The conversation has become metaphysical. “Do you ever think of being old?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About a thousand,” Willie says.

“How many kids do you have?”

“About a thousand.”

How many wives have you had?


“How many albums have you made?”

“Over a hundred.”

“How many cars have you wrecked?’

“Over a hundred.”

“Ever been really brokenhearted?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What effect does marijuana have on you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the fairgrounds empty, i am left with afterimages. I remember walking far into the crowd as Willie sang “Georgia on My Mind,” evoking the spirits of Hoagy Carmichael’s and Richard Manuel. I remember every person in the back of the huge fairgrounds seemingly listening to every word and every note. “Angle Flying Too Close to the Ground.” the metal spokes of the wheelchairs. The pulsating neon spokes of the giant Ferris wheel in the nearby field, a world away. childhood is close by, but you can’t quite touch it. “Blue Eyes Crying’ in the Rain.” Sister Bobbie playing “Down yonder” in a style that seems to bravely flutter like a balloon escaping to some beautiful place between a little country church and an old New Orleans whorehouse. “Just another scene from the world of broken dreams/The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”

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

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

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

Willie Nelson interview “Country Music” (February 1976)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Country Music Magazine
February 1976
by Patrick Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A segment of my Willie Nelson interview:

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

Me: “You ever do that?”

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

Me: “You still do it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Willie, how are you doing on that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he says. “I really was.”

“Are you a religious man?”

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

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

Willie Nelson Interview (Spinner, January 2008)

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

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

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

My driver and my putter! [laughs]

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

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

And you actually bought a golf course!

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

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

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

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

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

What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you sing? [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you supporting any particular candidate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Row Again: Heifer Magazine Interviews Willie Nelson

Saturday, December 15th, 2018

Willie Nelson sports a Heifer USA hat on his tour bus before performing in Troutdale, Oregon.
by:  Jason Woods

The six-decade career of music legend and American icon Willie Nelson is certainly not short of highlights. That makes it nearly impossible to pick a defining characteristic of his career—but it might just be how his music is beloved by people from all walks of life.

“One good thing about music is it brings together everybody,” Nelson said. “No matter if you’re Baptist, Methodist, Christian, whoever you are, Republican, Democrat, Independent, they all like to come hear music.”

Part of Nelson’s appeal is how much he cares for the people around him. In 1985, Nelson co-founded Farm Aid to raise awareness about the struggles of family farmers and help keep them on the land. Both Nelson and Farm Aid are still going strong, supporting small-scale farmers throughout the United States.

Everyone’s favorite country singer let us on board his tour bus to share some thoughts on farming, hustling poker and his bromance with Frank Sinatra.

Willie Nelson sports a Heifer USA hat on his tour bus before performing in Troutdale, Oregon.

WORLD ARK: You’ve been an advocate, famously, for small-scale farmers since at least 1985 with Farm Aid. Why is it so important to you personally to help farmers?

WILLIE NELSON: Well, I grew up in farm country, in Texas. And I knew all about how hard farming was. I did a lot of it myself, working for other people. Picking cotton, all that good stuff.

And then I started hearing from some of my friends around that there was a problem. In fact, I was in Illinois, I believe it was, with Big Jim Thompson, the governor up there. And we were talking about how farmers were having a bad time. I asked him how it was there, and he said, “Well, it’s bad here, too.” At this time, it wasn’t that bad in Texas, but in the Midwest and other places, it had really gotten bad. And 21 days later we had the first Farm Aid.

What message or advice do you have for small-scale farmers who are struggling, either in the U.S. or internationally?

Well, stay with it. Don’t give up, because there are a lot of us out here who are trying to keep you on the land. And, for maybe a selfish reason, we know that the small family farmer takes better care of the land, and we want to have something to leave for our children and our grandchildren. And the small family farmer is the best one to do that.

A lot of us in the United States are out of touch with the people who raise our food, with the farmers. 

Well, I think more and more people are realizing that, when they have breakfast in the morning—why should everything that they’re eating come from 1,500 miles away on some truck somewhere when they could have their local farmer grow it for them and have organic food every day? So, you know, the farmers aren’t dumb. They figured that out, that there’s a way to do it.

Part of the foundation of Heifer International’s work is Passing on the Gift. What’s a gift someone has passed on to you that’s made a difference in your life?

Everything I have, I owe to other people, for one reason or another. Willie Nelson

Oh. How much time you got? Everything I have, I owe to other people, for one reason or another. Everything.

Does music have a role in activism?

Yeah. Music is a good way to put out what you think and you believe and if other people believe it and think it, then you can spread the world. “Living in the Promiseland” [about welcoming immigrants to the United States] is a song we that we did many, many years ago, and it becomes more and more important every day.

Immigration is an issue you’ve spoken about recently. What should we do to take care of the families who are caught up in that struggle?

Well, unfortunately for the ones who were ripped out of their parents’ arms and spread around all over, nobody knows where they are … That is one of the damndest sins I’ve run into in my lifetime, with all those people down on the border going through all that, and our government saying that’s OK.

You know, there’s the old saying in the Scripture, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and I know that for a fact. Willie Nelson

Where does your drive for helping people come from?

Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been helping a lot of people all my life. You know, there’s the old saying in the Scripture, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and I know that for a fact.

I’ve heard you like to eat bacon and eggs for dinner most nights. Is that true?

That’s true.

Do you keep backyard chickens when you’re at home?

We’re never home long enough to, but I would if I could. I love fresh eggs. They’re hard to get.

But you have done some farming, you mentioned earlier. 

Yeah, I worked in all the farms around Abbott, Texas, where I grew up. I picked cotton, pulled corn, baled hay, worked in a corn sheller. I did all that stuff. I worked out in the fields with, we had African Americans over there, we had Mexican Americans over there. They were all, at one time or another, singing. It was like a big opera in the cotton field. And I learned a whole lot about other people just by picking cotton with them.

Your latest album is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. What made you want to pay tribute to him? (Editor’s note: My Way was released on September 14).

Ever since I heard him, he’s been my favorite singer. And I’ve met him a few times, and we became good friends. And I read somewhere that I was his favorite singer. So, you know, that made me feel pretty good.

Speaking of meeting Sinatra, you’ve played with nearly every musician I can think of. Is there anyone you haven’t played with who you’d like to?

No. [Laughs]

Willie Nelson performs in front of a sold-out crowd in Troutdale, Oregon. Photo by Joe Tobiason.

You’ve hit them all.

Yeah, I’ve already played with ‘em. [Laughs]

In your interviews, you’re always very positive. And you’ve also had an incredibly long career. Do you have any regrets along the way?

I don’t worry about regrets. There’s nothing I can do about what happened this morning, you know. Nothing I can do about what’s going to happen tonight. I have no control over anything except right now. And that’s all that really concerns me, is what’s going on right now.

When was the first time you played in front of people?

The first time I performed for an audience was at one of those all-day singing, dinner on the ground things down in Texas. I was like 6 years old, I think. I had been given a poem that my grandmother, who raised me, had taught me. And so I stood out there and said this poem. And I had on this sailor suit, a little red and white sailor suit, and I started picking my nose, and my nose started bleeding. And what my grandmother had taught me to say was, “What are you looking at me for? I ain’t got nothing to say. If you don’t like the looks of me, just look some other way.”

That’s pretty good.

It’s a good one.

Sounds like a tough first gig, though.

Yeah. [Laughs]. Yeah.

When you put your name in on YouTube, about every other video is a famous person telling a story about losing a lot of money to you in poker. 

Those are some of my favorite stories.

Can you share your secret for winning at poker?

Oh, I’m writing a book on poker—

Are you?

Yeah—so I’ll put you in there in chapter 11. [Laughs]

What general advice would you share for our readers?

Don’t worry. Worry will give you cancer and you’ll die, and it’s all over, you know. Having a positive attitude is the best way to keep going.