Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie Nelson – the Top Balladeer (New York Times) (September 9, 1981)

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

WHY is Willie Nelson, who wears his long, graying hair in braids, dresses like a hippie and was singing honky tonk music in Texas roadhouses as long ago as the l950’s, America’s most admired pop balladeer?

Kenny Rogers sells more records with his saccharine love songs and stagey whisky-rasp, and Frank Sinatra is certainly still a force to be reckoned with, but it is Willie Nelson who has turned chestnuts like ”Georgia on My Mind,” ”Stardust” and ”Mona Lisa” into recent pop hits, and Mr. Nelson draws a more diverse audience than either Mr. Rogers or Mr. Sinatra. The last time he performed in New York, pot-smoking rock fans were sitting next to middle-aged businessmen and their wives and a few grandmothers, and all of them were hanging on to Willie Nelson’s every word.

The release this week of ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” (Columbia records) offers some clues, both in the music it includes and in what it omits. On first hearing, Mr. Nelson’s dry, reedy tenor can sound deceptively thin, but listening to his hits back to back, one soon notices a sinewy strength that’s barely hidden behind his apparently vulnerable sound and casual delivery. One also notices that most of his hit records have used a sound, a kind of musical formula, that refers to several traditions, including country music, rock, folk and middle-of-the-road pop, without really belonging to any of them. Their most characteristic sound is a softly strummed acoustic guitar, a wailing harmonica played by his band’s most prominent soloist, Mickey Raphael, and Mr. Nelson singing, straightforwardly and with just a hint of melancholy, about faded loves, rejection in love, and men who are drawn to the open road and can’t seem to help themselves, men who live like cowboys not because they want to but because that’s what they are. A Land of Cowboys

Cowboys – there’s a clue. America needs its cowboys. There’s a cowboy in the White House, a cowboy who likes living on his ranch and gives press conferences with his boots on. There were latter-day cowboys in ”Urban Cowboy,” one of the most successful films and record-album soundtracks last year. There are more and more countryand-western clubs opening, and more and more city slickers in western shirts and boots to go to them, even in Manhattan. And Willie Nelson is a cowboy.

He’s still a convincing cowboy at the age of 48. He crisscrossed Texas for years, playing in roadside honky tonks. He peddled his songs in Nashville, and some of them, most notably ”Crazy” and ”Funny (How Time Slips Away),” became country standards. But record producers in Nashville didn’t think he could sing, and when he did get a chance to record, he was saddled with string orchestras and inappropriate material. By the time he finally became a full-fledged country star, in the mid-70’s, he had been branded an ”outlaw” by Nashville’s conservative country-music establishment, and although he has long since become a pop star, with a fistful of platinum albums and singles and several film roles to his credit, he still projects that outlaw image.

This is a curious thing. What one sees is an outlaw – a cowboy gone wrong. What one hears, especially on Mr. Nelson’s recordings of ”Stardust” and other standards, is a weathe red but reassuring voicesinging the old songs as if they really matte r to him, against a simple, folksy musical backdrop. Apparently, American pop consumers won’t buy records of songs like ”Stardust” when they are performed by entertainers who project an old-fashioned, sophisticated showbusiness image, but they will buy them wh en the singer is a longhaired, pot-smoking rebel.

The counterculture of the 60’s has become the mainstream culture of the 80’s, an d Mr. Nelson is the one American popular singer who gives the impress ion of being part of both the counterculture and the mainstream at the same time. Back to Honky Tonk

Interestingly, ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits,” a double album that includes two previously unreleased performances, has only one of his performances of pop evergreens on it -his hit version of ”Georgia on My Mind.” The rest of the album concentrates on hits that are clos er to country music and to country rock. There are several live performances recorded with his wonderfully idiosyncraticband, which l ayers electric guitars and back-country church-style piano over he avy bass and the two-beat cowboy drumming of Mr. Nelson’s long time sidekick, Paul English. There are tributes to Mr. Nelson’s honk y-tonk roots, including a fine reworking of Lefty Frizzell’s ” If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” and two numbers, ”Fa ded Love” and ”Stay a Little Longer,” that were associated wi th the late Bob Wills, ”King of Western Swing” and probably the most popular Southwestern entertainer or all time. Mr. Nelson’s most celebrated duet with his fellow country ”Outlaw” Waylon Jennin gs, ”Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” is here, too.

So ”Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” is really the best of Willie Nelson, country singer, an album for his hard-core fans. Perhaps he feels that with his albums of pre-World War II pop standards and his movie appearances, he has been neglecting the people who made his reputation in the first place. At any rate, he is still a winning country stylist.

And it is somehow reassuring, at a time when most country entertainers can’t wait to get that first pop hit and start wearing tuxedos and playing Las Vegas, to find one who knows who he is and what he comes from. Maybe that’s why his fans accept the long hair and the rumpled clothes; they are outward indications that no matter how successful he becomes, the inner Willie Nelson is not about to change.

Country Rhythms (September 1981) (UK)

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

[Thanks so much to Phil Weisman for gifting me this great magazine from the UK. The country music magazines always have the best photos.]

Country Rhythms
September 1981

It takes three buses and two trucks to move Willie Nelson and his band and crew around the country for the over 250 performances that Willie gives each year. But for all it grueling aspects, life on the road never loses that sense of freedom and adventure so important to country musicians like Willie Nelson, who spent much of their early lives yearning to escape from backgrounds of poverty and rural isolation.

These photographs by Michael Abramson, courtesy of Columbia Records, tell the story of Willie’s magic caravan better than worlds could ever do.

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Willie Nelson, Connie Nelson and daughters Amy and Paula

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As unspoiled by his fantastic success as any one could possibly be, Willie Nelson is always available t his fans after a show. Although he values his privacy, Willie knows how important it is to maintain personal contact with the people to whom he means so much.

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People Magazine (September 1, 1980)

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021
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People Magazine
September 1, 1980
by Cheryl McCall

Before he ever imagined the high life, the whiskey nights and the Bloody Mary mornings to follow, Willie Nelson yearned for the road and its promise of freedom.  As a Texas school boy, chopping cotton for $1.5o a day, he listened to the gospel songs of the field hands and daydreamed about moving on.  “I didn’t like picking cotton one bit,” he recalls.  “I used to stand in the fields and watch the cars go by and think, ‘I want to go with them.’”

Today, nearly four decades and a million miles later, Willie, 47, continues to heed the call of the highway.  Overtaken by success a mere five years ago with the release of his album Red Headed Stranger, he simply picked up the tempo and put his foot to the floor.  Once branded an outlaw by Nashville’s rhinestone-encrusted music establishment, Nelson has lately become an inadvertent and unassailable national monument.  No one really objected when Willie dropped a lyric from The Star-Spangled Banner at the recent Democratic National Conveniton.

Since Stranger went platinum in 1976, Nelson has added two more platinums, two double platinums, four golds and a whole atticfull of Grammys and Country Music Association awards.  Currently, with seven LPs on the charts plus his new double LP Honeysuckle Rose, Willie has taken his guitar and his low-key persona and is trying his hand at being a movie star.

As he tells it, his starring role as Buck Bonham in Honeysuckle Rose is one he could play almost from memory.  “I never did know you had to the trained to have your picture made,” drawls Willie.  “Maybe that’s the whole point — not knowing anything is maybe better than just knowing a little.  Besides, I can sympathize with Buck,” he adds. “He’s a married guy who succumbs to temptation on a potholed highway.  I’ve been that route myself.”

It shows.  On-screen, Willie projects the same earthy sex appeal and relaxed masculinity that give his life performances tension.  His face is as brown and creased as a walnut, the reddish hair and beard dusted with gray.  But the camera dimisses the etchings of age and lingers instead on the soulful brown eyes and the effortless smile.  When Nelson is teamed with Dyan Cannon, who plays his lusty wife, Viv, in Honeysucke Rose, the movie crackles with high voltage.  “Willie does it like a real person, which is what an actor is supposed to do,” says the film’s director, Jerry Schatzberg.  “He’s very natural in the love scenes because he’s had a lot of experience there.  The man’s been married three times and he knows what he’s doing.”

While Honeysuckle Rose borrows freely from the singer’s nomadic, loosely plotted existence, the unabridged script of Willie’s life story is part Grapes of Wrath, part contrified Battle of the Sexes.  Children of the Depression, Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, were raised by their paternal grandparents in dusty little Abbott, Texas after Ira and Myrle Nelson divorced.  While Bobbie learned piano from her grandmoteher, Willie was given his first guitar at 7 by his grandfather, a blacksmith who took mail-order music lessons.  When the old man died the following year, Willie kept his ear to the family’s wooden Philco radio, learning as many Grand Ole Opry songs as he could.  “He’d pick up things just like that,” says Bobbie.  “His ear is so fantastic, he doesn’t even know how good he is.”

Graduating from high school at 16, Willie left the cotton fields for a job as a disc jockey.  “When I found myself singing over the radio, I didn’t think life got much better than that,” he recalls.  For a while it didn’t.  He joined the Air Force in 1950, but was discharged with a back injury.  Afterward he enrolled at Baylor University, but spent most of his single semester there playing dominos.  

Dropping out, he was earning as little as 50 cents a night with a local band when he met and married Martha Matthews, a 16-year-old Waco carhop, in 1952.  “She was a full-blooded Cherokee.”  Willie recalls, “and every night with us was like Custer’s last stand.  We’d live in one place a month then pack up and move when the rent would come due.”  By 1958 Willie had three children to support.  He made ends meet, after his fashion, as a plumber’s helper and a door-to-door salesman, while working nights playing his songs in the honky-tonks.

The Nelsons drifted to Nashville in 1960, about the time their stormy marriage was nearing its end.  Martha resorted to bartending, while Willie hawked his satchel of songs on Music Row and drank up the profits at Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge.  In what turned out to be her final gesture of compassion, Martha had to rescue Willie from a drunken suicide attempt when he sprawled in the street outside Tootsie’s and waited for a car to run him over.

 The last night of their marriage was even more garish.  “I came home drunk,” Willie remembers, “and while I was passed out, she sewed me up in a sheet.  Must’ve taken her two hours.  Then she got a broomstick and started beating the hell out of me.  I woke up in this strait jacket, getting pounded like a short-order steak,” he continues.  “By the time I got loose, she’d lit out in the car with the kids, her clothes and my clothes.  There was no way I could follow her naked, and that was kind of the end of it.”

That was about the time his intensely personal, offbeat laments began turning into hits for better-known singers.  Night Life (which Willie had sold for $150), Crazy, Hello Walls and Funny How Time Slips Away all cracked the country Top 20 by 1963, and soon he was earning $600 a week in composer royalties.  (His own renditions weren’t selling then, because producers kept smothering his reedy baritone in syrupy strings.)  Over the years Nelson has composed more than 1,000 songs, while successfully avoiding the old Nashville formulas.  “I’d say that 99 percent of what I write has come from my own experience,” he says.  “A person could probably start from my first song and go all the way to my last and — if he knew what to look for — write my autobiography.”

Several painful chapters were inspired by his second marriage, to country singer Shirley Collie.  Husband and wife sang, recorded and traveled together until settling down on 200 acres near Nashville in 1964.  There Willie blew a small fortune fattening hogs (“I bought them for 25 cents a pound and ended up selling for 17”) while performing at the Grand Ole Opry.  When Willie hit the road again to recoup his losses, he left Shirley at home to take care of his kids.  Both drifted into smashing up cars, drinking, drugs and infidelity until the marriage simply died of neglect.

Still, Willie wasn’t destined for bachelorhood.  Even before the divorce from Shirley was final, he had gone ahead and married his present wife, Connie Koepke Nelson, 36, a factory worker whom he’d spotted during a club date in Cut and Shoot, Texas.  “When Willie came out to sing,” she remembers, “he looked down and smiled.  It wasn’t a flirty look, just a warm, neat feeling.  Before the night was over he asked for my phone number, and the next time he came through Houston he called.  I went to the show and that was it.”

By 1970 Shirley had moved out and Connie had moved in, but Willie’s career was going nowhere in Nashville.  Then his house caught fire.  “By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” Willie remembers, “but I had this pound of Colombian grass inside.  I wasn’t being brave running in there to get my dope — I was trying to keep the fireman from finding it and turning me over to the police.”  Willie saved the grass, but lost more than 100 tapes of songs he hadn’t yet recorded.  Still, out of the ashes came a sense of relief and a determination to abandon Nashville for Texas.  Installing his family in Austin, Willie bought a used Greyhound bus and began touring the county fairs, dance halls and violence-prone bars where he was known and loved.

Just as Merle Haggard was topping the charts with his hippie-baiting Okie from Muscogee, Willie — never a slave to fashion — began sporting long hair, a beard and and earring.  With fellow outlaws like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker, he began forging the gritty Austin sound that finally brought him success as a singer.  

Within six months of its release in 1973, the LP Shotgun Willie outsold all his previous albums combined; he was inducted int Nashville’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame; and his first Fourth of July picnic draws 50,000 rockers and rednecks to the little hamlet of Dripping Springs, Texas.  Creative control over his recordings brought Willie a string of hit LPs that hasn’t been broken, and later led to his first movie role — as Robert Redford’s manager in The Electric Horseman.  Five more film commitments await, at a reported $1 million per roll, but Willie insists he’s not going Hollywood.  “I like making movies,” he said, “But it’s confining, and I don’t like to go too long without playing concerts.”

Willie and his extended family of 25 musicians and roadies average 250 days a year on tour, traveling in a convoy of three customized buses and two semis of sound gear.  Though he could comfortably afford to fly to his concerts, the bus is a kind of spiritual haven.  “I rest better because there’s no phone,” he explains, “and traveling is a big part of my life.  I haven’t seen much of the country, but I’ve been all over it a thousand times, just laying in the back with the blinds drawn.  I guess it’s the perpetual motion I like.”

Backed by what may be the highest paid band in country music (members earn $750 a night — $1,000 for cutting an album), Willie’s roistering performances always start on time and usually run through 54 songs.  Then he shrugs off his battered Martin guitar to sign autographs for perhaps another two hours.  Whether he’s playing Caesars Palace (where he’s paid $1.5 million a year) or a little Bible Belt fair, Willie’s accessibility is his immutable trademark.  “He just can’t say no to anybody,”  Connie says.  “I’ve seen Will so tired he can’t go any further.  Then someone will ask one more thing from him and he’ll do it.  He doesn’t ever want anybody to think that success has changed him.”

In some ways, of course, Willie has changed.  Though he and his sidemen continue to graze on $3, 500-a-pound Arkansas grass (“Most people smoke to get high,” says a friend.  “Willie smokes to get normal”), he has sworn off pills and cut back on his whiskey.  He offers no apologies for the marijuana (“I think most sensible human beings know it’s not something you send people to the penitentiary for”) but forbids the use of any other drugs — especially cocaine — by his band.  “If you’re wired,” he says simply, “you’re fired.”

Despite his new found willingness to set commonsense limits, Willie’s most powerful addiction is to life on the road.  “It’s been a strain on Willie and me to an extent, but we’ve never had trouble between us, ever,” reports Connie.  “I don’t worry about the women.  I trust Willie completely.  But sometimes I feel that he doesn’t need me.  He’s got the road and he’s got his life.  It’s real easy to feel pushed aside.”  This summer Connie and the kids have been touring with Willie — a visible rebuttal to stories linking Willie with actress Amy Irving, his adulterous interest in Honeysuckle Rose.  “Amy and I were friends during the movie and I hope we’re still friends.” says Willie.  “Anything more is only what people wanted to write about.”

There was a time when Willie’s definition of a successful performer was “anyone who got to play music and eat.”  Today he says, “I have all the material things I need and a couple I don’t.”  When their life in Austin became oppressively public, he, Connie and their two children moved to Colorado in 1977.  There Willie can hang his hat in a three-story chalet on 60 acres near Denver or at the family’s 64-acre Pedernales Country Club outside Austin, an 80-unit apartment complex, the 1,700-seat Austin Opry House and the previous Nelson residence — a 44-acre spread with $750,000 limestone ranch house hidden behind a wall topped with electrified barbed wire.  Around Nashville, his holdings include a music publishing company and 200 acres outside town.

Inevitably, becoming a man of property, as well as the father of five, grandfather of six and paterfamilias to a musical entourage, has given Willie a sense of responsibility that is occasionally burdensome.  “I’m not worried about the next car payment,” he says, “But I am worried about income taxes.  A lot of families (including numerous ex-in-laws) depend on me, and it’s a lot of pressure in some ways.  But we’re making more now than we ever did, so at least if I decide to hang it up for a couple of months, nobody’s going to starve to death.”  Shouldn’t his success entitle him to be a little more sanguine?  “Maybe,” he says.  “But I still get knocked off my feet like anybody else. I’ve had so many ups and down in the last 30 years that I’ve learned to live with both.  The successes are great, but they’re not going to last forever.  And I’ve come back from a lot of failures.”

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Willie Nelson and family in Life Magazine (August 1983)

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

Life Magazine (8/83)
Photography: Harry Benson
Text: Cheryl McCall

“I’ve about forgotten what a private life is,” says Willie Nelson, padding around his kitchen with a mug of tea. “But when I really want to get away, this is the santuary.”

Here, 40 miles outside Denver, a contented Nelson is secluded with his wife, Connie, and their daughters, Paula and Amy. In the largest of four houses on a 122-acre spread. (One house is an office, the others for rare guests.) The Nelsons’ family life is anchored here; it’s where the girls go to school (public).

But they have another big house near Austin, Texas., site of the country superstar’s personal recording studio. During the summer, Connie and the kids adopt a gypsy lifestyle to keep up with the perapathetic. Willie., who, at 50, shows no sign of setting a more sensible pace. He logs over 200 days a year on the road for as much as $500,000 per concert, and often takes his family along in a customized bus.

“The kids don’t mind the traveling because it’s all they’ve ever known,” says Connie. When she married Willie in 1971, she recalls, “We had to search for pennies before we could go to the grocery store.” In the years since, the royalties form a dozen gold and six platinum albums have made them land barons.

Besides their two “hideouts,” they own a 400-acre ranch in Utah, a 200-acre farm near Nashville and two houses in Hawaii. Their holdings in the Austin area include a 44-acre ranch, an 80-unit town-house complex, the 1, 700-seat Austin Opry House, a motel and a small catfish restaurant called Mona’s.

“That’s a lot of doorknobs,” Nelson says with some satisfaction. What’s it all worth? “It would take a week of inventorying to figure that out,” says his business manager. Recently the Nelsons’s gave LIFE a first-ever look at their homes in Colorado and Texas.

“The most important thing I do for Willie is make sure he gets rest. He doesn’t even realize when he’s running himself into the ground,” says Connie, soaking with her old man in their king-size tub. “I keep the people to a minimum, or before we know it, our time together is gone.”

“When I have time off the road, I try to split it between Colorado and Texas,” says Nelson. To shuttle back and forth, he bought a $1.7 million, seven-passenger Learjet this winter. “The plane makes a difference,” says Paula. “Dad gets home more, and we go to Texas a lot when we’re not in school.”

West of Austin, the family as an eight-room house overlooking the 775 acre Pedernales Country Club, which Nelson owns outright and permits his band, staff and friends to use. His clubhouse office, filled with tapes, awards and a six-foot feathered headdress given him by an Oklahoma Indian tribe, is next to his state-of-the-art recording studio. “I like being able to go in there in the middle of the night,” he says. When fellow muscicians drop by, the beer and tequila flow.

“It can be a continuous party,” Connie sighs. “When one set of people gets worn out, there’s another set ready to go. But there’s only one Willie.” In Austin, Nelson also does some fatherly fence-mending with his children by his first marriage. (Lana, 29, Susie, 27, and Billy, 26, live nearby.) “I was too busy trying to pay the rent when they were small,” he says. “I spend more time with them and my six grandkids now than I ever did before. I like being a father.”

Willie and Waylon on Music City News (August 1995)

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Willie & Waylon – “From Outlaws to Good Guys”
Music City News
August 1995
by Lydia Dixon Harden

Together and alone, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson stand tall in the eyes of country music fans.  They each stepped out of the mainstream of country music to put their own indelible brand to the genre — Waylon’s music with its walking bass and his growling voice; Willie with his unique phrasing and trademark guitar licks.

In 1970s, the two teamed together for a series of duets which fused their long-standing friendship.  They urged people to “get back to the basics of love” and extolled the virtues of a good hearted woman.  They have been tagged as outlaws, but in reality, they are also good hearted.  Willie has raised more than $12 million for American farmers.  Waylon has made adult literacy his cause.  For all their efforts through the years, each earned an honor during this year’s TNN Music City News Country Awards.

Now Waylon and Willie will work again this summer with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the HIghwaymen.  The foursome released their third Highwayman collaboration in the past ten years.

Individually, Willie is making plans for another Farm Aid and has released a new album for Justice Records, “Just One Love,” and Rhino Records is releasing “A Classic & Unreleased Collection.” Waylon is still writing songs and working to follow-up his “Waymore’s blues Part II” album.

Music City News took time to catch up with these two busy artists during the TNN Music City News Country Awards.

Willie Nelson

‘I love Minnie Pearl to death,” says Willie about the woman for whom his award was named.  “She is a wonderful person and we have been friends for many, many years.  I was a big fan before I ever met her.  But then through the years, we became great friends.  This is a great award, and especially great because of Minnie Pearl.”

Willie was chosen for the honor due to his efforts with Farm Aid.  “We are talking about doing another Farm Aid, maybe in September.  I have heard Louisville mentioned a couple of times.  We’ll see.  I never thought we would have to do more than one,” he adds.  “I figured that maybe once people realized, that something would be done.  This is the tenth anniverary and things are worse now than they were, what with the environemental disasters like floods and those things.  It’s pretty bad out there.  The situation started out as one thing and now it has grown into another.  Now farm aid is trying to help all those peole who are going through all those different disasters much at the same time as their farm problems. Now they have all these environmental problems.’

Willie Nelson has a global outlook when it comes to his music.  He and his band recently returned from Europe.  The trip covered 23 cities in 12 countries in a span of 25 days.

‘It was a whirlwind tour, but a good one,” he says.  “There are a lot of fans over there.  I have been several times and each time I go back.  it seems to be growing a little bit more.”

Closer to home, Nelson has his own recording studio.  One of the real benefits of that is he gets to hear what other musicians are up to.  He was pleasantly surprised when he came home one day to find the members of his first band laying down tracks.  Willie joined in and they recorded a whole bunch of material.

“The Offenders is the name of the group that I first put together,” he tells.  “We went on the road and for some reason we decided to call ourselves the Offenders.  Johnny Bush, who has gone on to have a lot of record sales and hits on his own, played drums for me back then.  David Zettner played the bass and Jimmy Day played steel guitar.  I came home a few weeks ago and those guys were in the studio just recording this song.  We woujnd up doing a lot of the older songs and a couple of new things.  I’m trying to sell it to somebody.”

That project will be put to the back burner now that the Highwaymen tour is under full swing.  Does he think the Highwaymen concept would work with four other people?

“Would it work with any other configuration?  I didn’t think it would work with us!” he laughs.

“It is one of those miracles again.  Fortunately, we are not in control.  Each time it comes together, it is another miracle because we all come in from so many different directions.  But it is a good thing,” he states.  “Whether it could happen again with anybody else, I am sure it could.  There are four people around somewhere, I am sure, that they can get along a little while on the road. We get along amazingly well.

“It is a vacation for me.  I stand over there three-quarters of the time and listen to these guys sing and listen to a great band and usually a full house.  So I get to be entertianed.  The rest of the time, I get to entertain.  So I am having a big time.  It is not work.  All I have to do is show up.”

Willie and Poodie

Monday, August 16th, 2021
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Willie and Waylon on Music City News (August 1995)

Monday, August 2nd, 2021

Willie & Waylon – “From Outlaws to Good Guys”
Music City News
August 1995
by Lydia Dixon Harden

Together and alone, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson stand tall in the eyes of country music fans.  They each stepped out of the mainstream of country music to put their own indelible brand to the genre — Waylon’s music with its walking bass and his growling voice; Willie with his unique phrasing and trademark guitar licks.

In 1970s, the two teamed together for a series of duets which fused their long-standing friendship.  They urged people to “get back to the basics of love” and extolled the virtues of a good hearted woman.  They have been tagged as outlaws, but in reality, they are also good hearted.  Willie has raised more than $12 million for American farmers.  Waylon has made adult literacy his cause.  For all their efforts through the years, each earned an honor during this year’s TNN Music City News Country Awards.

Now Waylon and Willie will work again this summer with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the HIghwaymen.  The foursome released their third Highwayman collaboration in the past ten years.

Individually, Willie is making plans for another Farm Aid and has released a new album for Justice Records, “Just One Love,” and Rhino Records is releasing “A Classic & Unreleased Collection.” Waylon is still writing songs and working to follow-up his “Waymore’s blues Part II” album.

Music City News took time to catch up with these two busy artists during the TNN Music City News Country Awards.

Willie Nelson

‘I love Minnie Pearl to death,” says Willie about the woman for whom his award was named.  “She is a wonderful person and we have been friends for many, many years.  I was a big fan before I ever met her.  But then through the years, we became great friends.  This is a great award, and especially great because of Minnie Pearl.”

Willie was chosen for the honor due to his efforts with Farm Aid.  “We are talking about doing another Farm Aid, maybe in September.  I have heard Louisville mentioned a couple of times.  We’ll see.  I never thought we would have to do more than one,” he adds.  “I figured that maybe once people realized, that something would be done.  This is the tenth anniverary and things are worse now than they were, what with the environemental disasters like floods and those things.  It’s pretty bad out there.  The situation started out as one thing and now it has grown into another.  Now farm aid is trying to help all those peole who are going through all those different disasters much at the same time as their farm problems. Now they have all these environmental problems.’

Willie Nelson has a global outlook when it comes to his music.  He and his band recently returned from Europe.  The trip covered 23 cities in 12 countries in a span of 25 days.

‘It was a whirlwind tour, but a good one,” he says.  “There are a lot of fans over there.  I have been several times and each time I go back.  it seems to be growing a little bit more.”

Closer to home, Nelson has his own recording studio.  One of the real benefits of that is he gets to hear what other musicians are up to.  He was pleasantly surprised when he came home one day to find the members of his first band laying down tracks.  Willie joined in and they recorded a whole bunch of material.

“The Offenders is the name of the group that I first put together,” he tells.  “We went on the road and for some reason we decided to call ourselves the Offenders.  Johnny Bush, who has gone on to have a lot of record sales and hits on his own, played drums for me back then.  David Zettner played the bass and Jimmy Day played steel guitar.  I came home a few weeks ago and those guys were in the studio just recording this song.  We woujnd up doing a lot of the older songs and a couple of new things.  I’m trying to sell it to somebody.”

That project will be put to the back burner now that the Highwaymen tour is under full swing.  Does he think the Highwaymen concept would work with four other people?

“Would it work with any other configuration?  I didn’t think it would work with us!” he laughs.

“It is one of those miracles again.  Fortunately, we are not in control.  Each time it comes together, it is another miracle because we all come in from so many different directions.  But it is a good thing,” he states.  “Whether it could happen again with anybody else, I am sure it could.  There are four people around somewhere, I am sure, that they can get along a little while on the road. We get along amazingly well.

“It is a vacation for me.  I stand over there three-quarters of the time and listen to these guys sing and listen to a great band and usually a full house.  So I get to be entertianed.  The rest of the time, I get to entertain.  So I am having a big time.  It is not work.  All I have to do is show up.”

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

Thursday, July 8th, 2021

 www.RollingStone.com
by: Chet Filippo
July 13, 1978

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

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

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

I went back to the Holiday Inn desk man: “See here, I was really looking for the party of Fast Eddie and the Electric Japs.” “Well, goddamnit, why dincha say so.” He started thumbing through registration forms: “Lemme see, Mr. Eddie ain’t here yet, but Mr. Snake is, Mr. Poodie is, Mr. Beast is . . . ”

“Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.” Poodie, who is Willie’s road manager, and Beast, his cook and caterer, would, I knew, be over at the coliseum setting up for the night’s concert. But Snake would be here, taking care of business. I would be hard pressed to say what Snake’s duties are exactly. He’s a lean, rangy ex-paratrooper who, if you ask him point-blank what he does, will reply with a slight smile: “What do you want done?”

He is one of about twenty persons whom Willie Nelson has handpicked over the years to help him in his calling. The Electric Japs, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s Family, a.k.a. the Rolling Smoke Revue, are a devoted crew, all loyal to the point of being ready to jump forward and take the bullet – if, that is, Fast Eddie weren’t so proficient with kung fu that he himself would have already wiped out the gunman. If, that is, there were a gunman. Because everybody, it seems, loves Willie Nelson these days.

It wasn’t always thus, I reflected as I went off in search of Snake. Ten years ago, Fast Eddie couldn’t even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie’s songs – Rusty Draper with “Night Life,” Jimmy Elledge and Johnny Tillotson with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Patsy Cline with “Crazy,” Faron Young with “Hello Walls,” Andy Williams with “Wake Me When It’s Over” and Roy Orbison with “Pretty Paper,” to name a few – but Willie’s own records went nowhere.

Good writer, no singer, said Nashville’s establishment. Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him.

He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville’s idea of what is and is not country music. He wrote none of the songs on his current album, Stardust, a collection of “my favorite ten songs.” His record company, CBS, was not real hot about either album. Willie was supposed to be a country singer, so what the hell, they wondered, was he doing with these off-the-wall albums?

But then, I remembered as I knocked on Snake’s door, Fast Eddie got his nickname by doing the unpredictable. Rules don’t mean a lot to him. Snake opened his door: “Damn, I didn’t know you were coming. I guess it’s okay if you didn’t bring too many women. C’mon, Eddie’s just down the hall.”

Fast Eddie Nelson was in room 326, sitting barefoot, in jeans and a blue T-shirt, reading the trade magazines. “Shit, Eddie,” said Snake. “Stardust is seventy-six on the pop charts. We’re gonna sell 24 million.” Willie laughed softly, as he always does. I told him about the cabdriver: “And not only do you die fast, the driver said: ‘Shoot, I ain’t gonna pay no $8.95 for Stardust. Those old songs, I heard them before.’” Willie fell over laughing.

“Why, hell yes,” he finally said. “Why buy old songs?” “What happened to your beard, Willie?” I asked. He fingered his chin gingerly. “Aw, I shaved it for the summer. Gets too hot. How you doin’? Ready to go ride the bus with me, son?” With the beard, Willie had always reminded me of a benign patriarch. Without it, the forty-five-year-old singer resembles a proud Indian chief: stark, chiseled profile, flowing red hair, deeply lined face and piercing brown eyes. Eyes that don’t miss much.

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

I have heard first-person tales of marriages saved, of nervous breakdowns averted, of illnesses healed by the power of Willie’s music. He was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church in Fort Worth when he had to decide about his career. Fort Worth in the 1950s was a shining jewel on the Bible belt, and some of the Baptists there felt that Willie’s singing in honky-tonks on Saturday night and then teaching God’s word on Sunday morning were incompatible callings. The Baptists suggested that he make a choice. He chose music.

“I had considered preaching,” he now laughed, “but preachers don’t make a lot and they have to work hard.” Still, he didn’t protest strongly when I suggested that he is pop music’s only preacher. “I have met people,” I said, “who have driven hundreds of miles just to touch the hem of your garment. Literally.”

He looked a little uncomfortable at the thought. “Maybe you’re exaggerating. I am religious, even though I don’t go to church. I believe in reincarnation. We’re taught to believe that all men are created equal and yet we know that one guy is born without eyes and one guy is born with eyes. So that’s not equal. They had to be born together in the beginning. At one time, we were all born at the same time. God imagines everyone, so we’re all images of him – in the beginning.

He made us all in the beginning and since then we’ve been coming back and forth. First time we came in we knew a lot and we’ve lost it along the way. Being down here is kinda like goin’ through the university: you go through one grade at a time and if you fail, you gotta go back and take those tests again.”

He laughed at the analogy and fell silent for a moment. “But I know what you mean about fans,” he continued. “And I know what they’re doing. In their minds, they’re relating the music to something else, and I appreciate that.

There are answers in music. Poems and music about our problems and situations are good for us to hear – how other people react to the same problems and live through them and survive. This is all put in songs; I guess the history of the whole world is in songs and poems.”

Willie has compressed a fair amount of history in what I think is his best work – his three “concept” or storytelling albums. The first, the early – Seventies Yesterday’s Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it.

At the time, Willie’s house in Nashville had burned – there’s an oft-quoted story that he rushed back into the flames to save his guitar case, which contained an impressive quantity of marijuana – and he moved to Bandera, Texas. RCA called him on a Friday and said his contract called for him to be in Nashville on Monday to cut a new album.

He had no new songs whatsoever, but flew into town, took an upper and stayed up writing songs nonstop. The result was a moving collection of songs that Willie describes as “before life and after life.”

Phases and Stages, released by Altantic in 1974, was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man’s and woman’s points of view. Atlantic was phasing out its country line at the time and didn’t promote the album. Exit Phases and Stages. Willie moved on to CBS and hit gold with Red Headed Stranger, a deeply moving, very moral tale of sin and redemption.

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

After the success of Stranger, RCA brought out The Outlaws, a compendium of material by Willie and Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. It sold a million copies right out of the chute, and Nashville, which was accustomed to patting itself on the back for selling 200,000 copies of a C&W album, found its system obsolete.

Willie and Waylon, after being outcasts for years, were suddenly Nashville royalty. And Willie started telling CBS what he wanted done, rather than vice versa, which had been the Nashville way of doing business.

But Willie’s success really goes back further, back to a dusty pasture in central Texas in the summer of ’72. When I met Willie Nelson then, backstage at the Dripping Springs Picnic on July 4th, 1972, I didn’t even know it was him. That picnic was a real oddity: a bunch of Dallas promoters booking Nashville singers into a cow pasture in Dripping Springs under an unmerciful Texas sun.

The crowd was a hostile mix of young longhairs looking for their own Woodstock and traditional country fans who just wanted to get drunk. The truce was an uneasy one, broken by beatings of the longhairs by both the drunks and the security goons. I was standing backstage, talking about all this to a shorthaired guy who was wearing a golf cap and oversized shades.

I didn’t know who he was until Tex Ritter walked over and introduced him to me as Willie Nelson. I was properly embarrassed, but Willie just laughed about it. We retired to the shelter of an air-conditioned Winnebago to have a beer and to talk. He said he was tired of Nashville and had moved back to Texas for a while.

He told me his history: born in Abbott, a wide spot in the road south of Dallas, April 30th, 1933; parents separated; raised by his grandparents. As a boy, he worked in the cotton fields for three dollars a day. At age ten, he started playing guitar with polka bands in the Bohemian towns of central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants had settled.

He tried for a baseball scholarship at Weatherford Junior College, failed. Did a stint in the air force. Tried being a business major at Baylor University, but preferred playing dominoes and music. Dropped out. Sold Bibles door-to-door. Sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Became a disc jockey, kept playing music on the side. Taught Sunday school till that became a conflict with playing honky-tonks. Disc jockeyed all around the country. Played every beer joint there was.

Taught guitar lessons. Finally sold a song in Houston for fifty dollars – Family Bible” – and decided to take the money and head for Nashville, “the big time.” Traveled there in a ’51 Buick that sank to the ground and died once he got there. Hung out drinking in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge behind the Grand Ole Opry, where he met songwriter Hank Cochran, who liked his stuff and got him a publishing contract.

Other people had hits with his songs but his own recording career languished. “I’m not worried, though,” he laughed as we emerged from the Winnebago just before his set. “I’ll do all right.” Indeed he did. That picnic was pretty much a disaster, but Willie was carefully watching everything that was going on.

Half a year later, he had long hair and an earring and was a cult figure in Austin rock clubs. The next July 4th, we were all back at Dripping Springs for “Willie Nelson’s First Annual Fourth of July Picnic,” with performers like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Doug Sahm. This time, the longhairs weren’t beat up. It was the watershed in the progressive country movement. Prominent state politicians mingled with longhaired kids. University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal had his arm around Leon Russell. Peaceful coexistence had come to Texas, thanks to Willie’s pontifical presence. Two years later, for his 1975 picnic, the Texas Senate declared July 4th “Willie Nelson Day.” From that first 1973 picnic, he had to take out a bank loan to cover his losses – too many gate-crashers – but he was established. Texas was his. That picnic was also the first time that I had witnessed the uncanny ability of Fast Eddie to appear – or disappear – at exactly the right time.

When the picnic ended at about four in the morning and the 50,000 or so people there were jamming the two-lane highway that led back to Austin, I decided to find a back way out. I took off driving across flat ranchland and, finally, miles away, found an alternate highway. But between me and that highway was a locked cattle gate.

I was just revving up my Chevy to ram the gate when, from out of the ghostly blackness, a Mercedes came roaring up beside me. Willie got out, nodded hello and held up a key. He unlocked the gate, smiled goodbye and drove off. I still don’t know how the hell he pulled that one off, but timing has been the key to his career. Right place at the right time. Seemingly, everything he has done has been wrong.

His vocal phrasing is off the beat, the songs he writes are unconventional, his albums are unpredictable, his guitar playing is a startling mixture of Charlie Christian and Mexican blues picking (“Maybe I am half-Mexican,” he says, half-jokingly), he does not hang out with the right people, and he has never compromised himself, so far as I can tell, in his entire life.

“I don’t think he ever has a bad thought,” his harp player, Mickey Raphael, told me. Such people aren’t supposed to be successes in the opportunistic world of popular music. But, though it took years, Willie Nelson managed to do it. Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman.

“Willie understands,” is the most-heard quote from his fans. There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one’s lover.

No wonder Nashville didn’t know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics: The flesh around your throat is pale Indented by my fingernails Please don’t scream, please don’t cry I just can’t let you say goodbye.

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

All very matter-of-fact. Did he consider alternate forms of murder? “Ah, well, chokin’ seemed to be the way to do it at the time.” Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: “Opportunity to Cry” is about suicide, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, “I’ve Got a Wonderful Future behind Me” means just what it says.

Some of Willie’s best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages. “What Can You Do to Me Now?” and “Half a Man” resulted from incidents like the time Willie, the story goes, came home drunk and was sewed up in bed sheets and whipped by his wife.

Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in “One Day at a Time”: I live one day at a time I dream one dream at a time Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow is blind And I live one day at a time.

“I don’t know whether I’ve ever written any just hopeless songs,” he said. “Maybe I have, maybe I’m not thinking back far enough. I’m sure I have. Songs I’m writing now are less hopeless. I started thinking positive somewhere along the way. Started writing songs that, whether it sounded like it or not, had a happy ending. You might have to look for it.

Even though the story I’m trying to tell in a song might not necessarily be a happy story to some people. Like ‘Walking’: ‘After carefully considering the whole situation, here I stand with my back to the wall/I found that walking is better than running away and crawling ain’t no good at all/If guilt is the question then truth is the answer/And I’ve been lying to thee all along/There ain’t nothing worth saving except one another/Before you wake up I’ll be gone’ – to me that’s a happy song.

This person has resolved himself to the fact that this is the way things are and this is what ought to be done about it. Rather than sitting somewhere in a beer joint listening to the jukebox and crying. I used to do that too.” Is writing his form of therapy?

“Yeah, it’s like taking a shit.” He laughed his soft laugh. “I guess a lotta people who can’t write songs, instead of writing songs they’ll get drunk and kick out a window. What I was doing was kinda recording what was happening to me at the time.

I was going through a rough period when I wrote a lot of those songs, some traumatic experiences. I was going through a divorce, split-up, kids involved and everything. Fortunately now I don’t have those problems. But I went through thirty negative years. Wallowing in all kind of misery and pain and self-pity and guilt and all of that shit. But out of it came some good songs.

And out of it came the knowledge that everybody wallows in that same old shit – guilt and self-pity – and I just happened to write about it. There’d be no way to write a sad song unless you had really been sad.” Fast Eddie got up from his Holiday Inn bed and put on his blue Nike jogging shoes. “Gonna go out and run three miles,” he said. “Wanta come along?” “I can’t do 300 yards,” I replied. He laughed. Three miles later, Willie and entourage boarded his Silver Eagle bus for the drive to the coliseum.

Willie, reading The Voice of the Master by Gibran, assumed his usual seat, beneath the bus’ only poster, an illustration of Frank Fools Crow, the chief and medicine man of the Lakota Indian Nation. Underneath Crow is the Four Winds Prayer, which Crow once recited onstage at a Willie concert.

The prayer, which is addressed to grandfather God, asks for mercy and help from the outsiders encroaching on his people’s land. Without even asking Willie, I know why that poster is there. He and Chief Fools Crow are both throwbacks, remnants of the American West, honest men who try to tell the truth and who believe in justice.

I thought of a Willie Nelson song, “Slow Movin’ Outlaw,” that talked about that: The land where I traveled once fashioned with beauty, Now stands with scars on her face; And the wide open spaces are closing in quickly, From the weight of the whole human race; And it’s not that I blame them for claiming her beauty, I just wish they’d taken it slow; ‘Cause where has a slow-movin’, once quick-draw outlaw got to go? Symbolism with Willie is too tempting, I reminded myself, as the Silver Eagle threaded its way through Greensboro’s evening traffic.

Still, I couldn’t avoid thinking of another song as we arrived at the coliseum and Willie plunged into a backstage crowd that was one – third Hell’s Angels, one-third young people and one-third middle-aged folks in leisure suits. All of them said the same thing: “Wil-lie! Wil-lie!”

Some wanted autographs, some wanted to touch him, some just wanted to bask in his presence. The song I was thinking of was “The Troublemaker:” I could tell the moment that I saw him He was nothing but the troublemaking kind His hair was much too long And his motley group of friends Had nothing but rebellion on their minds He’s rejected the establishment completely. And I know for sure he’s never held a job He just goes from town to town Stirring up the young ones Till they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob.

The song’s about Jesus, in case you didn’t guess. The Hell’s Angels, working as volunteer security, parted a way for Willie and his band to pass through: Bobbie, his sister, who plays piano; guitarist Jody Payne, another ex-paratrooper; Chris Ethridge, who played bass with the Flying Burrito Brothers; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; and drummer Paul English, who’s been with Willie since 1954.

English was once what used to be called “a police character” in Texas, and not too long ago the FBI is said to have tailed Willie Nelson and band for a year because they were after a notorious police character that English once knew and they thought he might show up on the tour.

Leon Russell once wrote a song about English, called “You Look like the Devil.” He does, too, and he’s still the only country drummer to appear onstage all in black with a flowing black-and-red cape, goat’s-head rings and a five-inch-wide black leather belt embedded with silver dollars. Used to really freak out the country fans, but he’s as kind a man as you could hope to meet. He could be Keith Richard’s father.

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

When Emmylou came out to join him for the encores, it turned into a gospel-camp meeting with their voices soaring in “Amazing Grace” and Willie pointing his right hand heavenward. One of Willie’s friends, for a joke, once showed up at a concert in a wheelchair in the front row. During “Amazing Grace” he began shouting, “I’m healed. I’m healed.”

He dragged himself up out of the wheelchair and tottered a dozen steps before collapsing. There were “amens” from the folks around him. Another of Willie’s friends, a famous Houston attorney, once introduced one of Willie’s songs as evidence in a trial. He was representing a construction worker who had been maimed in an accident on the job. The lawyer recited Willie’s “Half a Man” and soon had the jury weeping: “If I only had one arm to hold you . . . ”

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

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

He does talk, of course, if you ask the right questions. After Greensboro, when we landed in Roanoke, Virginia, Willie sat down before his evening jog to talk a bit. “Wasn’t Stardust a real gamble for you, a big risk?” I asked.

Willie settled himself in his Holiday Inn armchair. “Yeah, it was,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how it’ll do, but so far it’s outlived a few expectations. But it was a big gamble. I felt it’d either do real good or real bad. I had had the idea for some time but until I met Booker [T. Jones, who produced Stardust], I wasn’t really sure in my mind how well I could do these songs because of my limited musical ability, as far as writing down songs of this caliber.

These are complicated songs; they have a lot of chords in them. I needed someone like Booker to write and arrange. Once I got with him it was easy to do the album.” After so many years of trying, has success changed Willie Nelson?

Are you still writing songs?

“Well, a lot of people think my writing career is over, that I’ll never write another song. But I do have one or two left in me.”

He chuckled. “I do have some new ones, ‘She’s Gone,’ ‘Is the Better Part Over,’ ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ I don’t think success has hurt or helped me. I still write when I get a good idea. I don’t write as much depressive music now because I don’t feel that way anymore.”

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

“I feel a lot of self-satisfaction. I don’t know if vindication is the right word. Just knowing that I had been on the right track.” During all those years of trying, did you ever have self-doubts, think of quitting, think you were wrong?

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

When you first got to Nashville, was there any kind of group of young songwriters? “Yeah, there was a bunch of us. Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, myself. We were pretty close all the time. Stayed at each other’s houses and partied a lot. This was before Kris came to town.

By then I had already left Nashville, really. I had gone to the country and vowed not to return. Everything was goin’ wrong, and I just said fuck it all, I’ll never write again, never sing again, don’t wanta see nobody again, don’t call me.

I stayed out in the country a year and didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t work any dates. I let my beard grow. Raised some hogs. I lost more money in hogs than anybody. I had some fat hogs, too. I fed ’em that high-priced feed. All they could eat of it. Feed prices kept goin’ up and hog prices kept goin’ down. I lost about $5000 in three months there. On one load of hogs.”

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

“Yeah, I do. I’ve been told that my songs and me were ahead of my time for so many years, but if the times are catchin’ up to me – and it seems like they are – and if I don’t progress, they could very well pass me too. “But I wasn’t considered commercial in Nashville because my songs had too many chords in ’em to be country.

And they said my ideas, the songs were too deep. I don’t know what they meant by that. You have to listen to the lyric, I think, to appreciate the song. If you can hear one line of a song and have captured the whole of it and you can hum along for the rest of it, then those are more commercial. But mine usually tell a story.

And in order to get the whole thought, you have to listen to the whole song. And that requires listening, which people didn’t do till recently. I really believe that the young people, that rock & roll music, all of it has been good because if nothing else it cleaned out the cobwebs in people’s ears to where you would listen to lyrics.

The day of the writer and of the poet came. The Kristoffersons finally had a chance.” But, I pointed out, you paved the way for Kristofferson. “Well, Kris has agreed with that. He’d been listenin’ to me before he came to Nashville. Just as I’d listened to Floyd Tillman before I went to Nashville.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He got up and we started walking down the corridor to the bus: time for another one-nighter.

“Willie,” I asked, “do you think that what you have done has permanently altered the Nashville system?”

He thought about that one for a long time: “The big change – now that we proved that country albums can sell a million units, naturally they’re gonna try to figure out how that’s done. No one had any idea there was that kind of market out there. Now they know that, and they’re firing at that market. Those guys just didn’t know that audience was there.

That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot. You don’t get out there and see what people are paying money to go see. I been playin’ beer joints all my life; I know what those people like to hear.”

Two days later, I got a chance to see exactly what he was talking about. We arrived at Columbia’s Studio A in Nashville to find producer Billy Sherrill (one of the CBS executives who reportedly didn’t particularly like Stranger) sitting behind the board.

He and George Jones had been waiting for two hours for Willie. George Jones used to be the undisputed king of country, the staunch defender of the traditional country sound. Now, he’s decided to cut an album of duets with such people as Willie, Waylon, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

He and Sherrill finally saw the writing on the wall. Jones and Nelson, those two giants of country, greeted each other warmly. After one run-through of “I Gotta Get Drunk,” it was obvious who was king now. Jones was nervous and holding back on his vocals.

Willie tried to put him at ease: “You know something George? I wrote that song for you back in the Fifties but I didn’t have the nerve to pitch it to you.” “Hell, Willie,” said Jones, “I tried to find you once because I wanted to cut ‘Crazy’ but I couldn’t find you.”

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 8th, 2021

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 on Weed (High Times, October 2005)

Sunday, July 4th, 2021

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?

The Willie Charisma (Buddy Magazine, June 1975)

Sunday, June 27th, 2021

Buddy Magazine
June 1975
by Mike Rhyner

Who is this Willie Nelson and why is he hosting those giant music festivals?

What is this Willie Nelson charisma that has caused the redneck to make peace with the hippie?  That can get the cowboys to sit down in the dust and share a beer and a joint with a longhair?  That can make an outdoor festival in Texas in July the nation’s largest annual music event?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that question.  You have to experience for yourself the excitement of the Willie Nelson performance.  The energy of the crowd, generated by the man with the gut-string guitar with a hole worn right through the top of it from years of hard picken’.

Willie himself doesn’t understand it.  He just rolls with the punches, although it does give him a few anxious moments.  Like  few weekends ago at an outdoor concert in Dallas when a young lady, sans shirt, was hoisted above the heads of the crowd and demanded a kiss from Willie.  When he obliged she grabbed his guitar strap and wouldn’t let go.  Rather than be pulled off the 10-foot tall stage, Willie and some stagehands pulled her up and escorted her down the back steps.  After regaining his composure, Willie returned to sing for a few more hours.

Willie’s nationally famous outdoor country music spectacular, the Willie Nelson Third Annual Fourth of July Picnic, will happen this year at Liberty Hill, Texas, about 30 miles north of Austin on a green country slope where the South Gabriel River winds into the Texas hill country.

The site is more accessible than the site of the historic 1st Annual Picnic near Dripping Springs  and is covered with trees, two ponds and the winding fork of the San Gabriel River.

Appearing this year with Willie and his Family are the Pointer sister, the Charlie Daniel Band, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Billy Swan, Donnie Fritts, Doug Sahm, Billy C., Milton Carroll, Alex Harvey, Delbert McClinton, Johnny Bush, Floyd Tillman, and like all Willie Nelson performances, especially the Picnic, there will probably be a few artists appear unannounced.  Leon Russell was onstage at sunup at Dripping Springs singing gospel songs to the early arrivals and last year John Sebastian and David Carradine spent the Forth in front of Texas picnic freaks.

People Magazine: Inside Country Music (May 21, 1984)

Friday, May 21st, 2021

People Magazine
Inside Country Music
May 21, 1984
by Chet Flippo

When country’s greatest star, the late Hank Williams, went into the studio to record an album, he was treated like a serf.  Fred Rose, the autocratic producer and co-writer, had already decreed what songs would be cut and which musicians would perform on those cuts.  A true feudal system, hank was the firsrt  country superstar and never made much more than $100,000 a year.  He didn’t know that he could complain — though had he lived to see Kenny Rogers take in more than $20 million last year, he might have figured it out. 

The drastic change – that is to say, the commercial change — began early in 1976 with Wanted:  the Outlaws.  That was the first Nashville album to go platinum.  And it was strictly a patch job designed to pick up a few extra bucks with a handful of songs already in the can.  Jerry Bradley, then running RCA in Nashville, had a keen eye for packaging a concept.  He saw that Willie Nelson had abandoned Nashville for  Texas, and that Willie’s buddy, Waylon Jennings, was wearing not only leather and long hair but a fierce spirit of musical independence that was drawing a new, young multiclass audience.  For the Outlaws album, Bradley put together some cuts by Willie, Waylon, Jessi Colter (Waylon’s wife) and Tompall Glaser, fronting the package with an album cover that looked like a Wild West wanted poster.  The songs were not among any of the artist’s finest work, but the album’s image was perfect.  After years of country stars singing syrup and looking like mannequins, here were some mavericks daring to get down and dirty, if need be.  The surprise was that the music had not changed — Willie had always sung eclectic country blues and Waylon had played a hard, rock-tinged sound ever since his stint in Buddy Holly’s band — but that the audience had.  It was a weird mix of hippies and rednecks, stumbling over this “progressive country” after rejecting the soft country and soft rock that were the alternatives.  The outlaw phenomenon took off, and amazing thins happened. Urban cowboys sprang up all over the pace.  This was not such a country-to-pop crossover hit as a Certified New Thing.  Utopia reigned as rednecks grew their hair long and hippies cut there’s short, and everybody danced arm-in-arm with honky-tonks everywhere.

After years of slumber, Nashville was cashville.  Out went the violins, back were the fiddles, albeit mixed with ringing electric guitars and a solid rock beat.  Into town came the money merchants, sniffing a trend.  In 1977 former pop singer, jazz singer and folk singer Kenny Rogers tested country’s water with Lucille — and he found something he never had before:  a big career.  Country became a genuine big business.

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“Then there’s Willie Nelson, who is in his own time zone and can do whatever we wants.” — Chet Flippo

(The entire article not included here.   It’s a great article; read it if you can find this magazine.)

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

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021
mikebrooks3
photo: Mike Brooks

http://www.gq.com
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 in Mother Earth News (May/June 1987)

Friday, May 7th, 2021

Mother Earth News
May/June 1987
Farm Aid’s Founder:  Willie Nelson
Patrick Carr

It’s midwinter in Tampa, Florida, and as usual the weather is warm going on stifling.  Willie Nelson really needs the air conditioner humming peacefully in his mobile home away from home, the Silver Eagle Honeysuckle Rose.

In his own, quiet, careful way, Willie’s all business today.  Waiting in the cool, dark comfort of the bus for the horde of people his presence will draw to town tonight, he’s working hard:  poring over snapshots of himself and his sister Bobbie outside the Abbott, Texas, church in which they learned to sing, for the cover of a genuine hard-core Christian mail-order gospel album; making little decisions about the set he and his band of honky-tonk gypsies will play tonight; ordering up a carefully nutritious chicken dinner from the kitchen bus that travels with his five-vehicle caravan, then forgetting to eat it; talking business with little haste or waste of words or energy, on the radio telephone at his elbow.

The business concerns the usual megastar matters — movie promotion, investment opportunities, the touring schedule, a $1.5 million book contract — but also something seemingly out of place in this context:  the Farm Aid cause, Mr. Nelson’s foray into public service.  Cocooned amid Tampa’s concrete consumerism, the former Bible salesman, and latter-day multimillionaire is taking time to help the family farmers of his country fight back against government policy, big business and the economics of scale.

There is something rather special about Willie Nelson.  It was he, after all, who united the rednecks and the hippies and the surburbanites of the 1970s in appreciation of a style of country music considered both archaic and impossibly uncommercial by the Nashville powers-that-were.  Likewise his image — a lovely blend of longhair, cowboy, rebel, hardcore party legend and wise old man — is suggestive.

It’s no wonder he’s such an institution.  You can look up to some entertainers (Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Paul McCartney), but Willie invites involvement, not distance.  The dominant element of his stare — a thoroughly savvy serenity — is mighty trustworthy.

That invitation to trust must have been part of his image all along.  Certainly it was during his late teenage years, when he was already trying to get ahead in the world by promoting dance concerts throughout east Texas, earning his percentage from acts like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and the Brownies, Spade Cooley, and the legendary Ernest Tubb while he watched from the wings and learned the ropes.  It also impressed the folks in the Nashville big leagues after Willie had decided to forgo his studies for the Baptist ministry in favor of a full-time career in the hillbilly highway nightlife; you need a lot more than even the kind of devastating song-writing talent Willie possesses to become a primary source for the Music Row hit machine the way he did in pretty short order.  And when eventually his ambitions outstripped what Nashville was willing to offer and he made his legendary end-run around Music Row, his aura so impressed the college hippies of Austin, texas, that not too long after he’d been among them they began to buy posters proclaiming, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Willie,” and to enshrine them in their places of fun and meditation.

A Nashville executive describes his experience:  “It was amazing, just wonderful,” says the Nashville executive.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.  Neil Reshen (Willie’s manager) was so bad — I mean, you really wanted to have the man arrested; the secretaries used to run for the bathroom when he showed up.  But when you talked to Willie, it was like negotiating with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and you were so relieved you didn’t have to deal with Neil that you gave Willie whatever he wanted.  But, of course, what Neil wanted and what Willie wanted were the same things.  They were working the good cop, bad cop routine, the oldest con in the world, but they did it so well you didn’t realize what was going on till it was all over.  And by then you’d done a deal you’d never have even dreamed of otherwise.  Willie just outplayed me, and he ended up getting what he really deserved.  And all that means is he’s smarter than I am.  He just has to turn that smile on you, and you’re hooked.  But now I take him seriously.  He may be beautiful, but he’s not dumb.”

Such a man — with his hard-earned combination of country compassion, common sense and carefully honed business skills – would have been the perfect choice if American farmers had gone looking for a leader in their hour of need.  That’s not how it happened, though.  It was Willie who went unbidden to the farmers.

September 1985 was when it began, in Champagne, Illinois, as a notion kicked around between Willie and his crew in the wake of Bob Geldof’s Life Aid marathon.  As Willie recalls, in the low-to-vanishing key for which he is renowned, “I have no idea how it got started.  I was just sitting in the bus….”

Like a large proportion of the projects Willie judges worthy, the 14-hour Farm Aid benefit moved from the idea to action with little further ado.  It was set up with minimum fuss and executed with slightly less toll and craziness than usually attends a mammoth outdoor music festival featuring multiple major entertainers.  (Which figures.  After more than a decade of organizing and hosting his legendary Fourth of July picnics, Willie is perhaps the world’s premier mastermind of such events.)   When it was all over — when Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Alabama, Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson, Bon Jovi, Joni Mitchell, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, John Cougar Mellencamp and some 45 other acts had done their thing and the TV viewers who watched them had sent in their donations — Willie and his crew suddenly found themselves in temporary possession of a great deal of donated money.

That came as something of a shock.  “I figured people would respond,” says Willie, “but not nearly as well as they did, and as all that money started rollin’ in, I had to rethink my position.  I realized I had to do a lot more than make some calls and go out and sing.  My name was attached to that money, so by necessity I had to take responsibility and decide that I would be the one who writes the checks.  So that’s what happens, nothing goes out without my signature on it.  And so far, I know that every quarter of that money has gone to benefit the family farmer in some way.”

After Farm Aid One in Illinois and Farm Aid Two, held in Austin on the Fourth of July, 1986, the approximate total for which Willie has taken responsibility is $14 million.

And Willie doesn’t just sign the checks, he approves them.

“He makes the final decision,” says Caroline Mugar, the director of Farm Aid (Willie is Chairman of the Board).  “We just do the research on what’s going on, who’s doing what where, what they hope to do and how they’ve used the money they’ve already gotten, and we make recommendations.  Then Willie decides.”

Willie Nelson, Forever Young (Country Weekly, May 6, 2013)

Thursday, May 6th, 2021
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Country Weekly
May 6, 2013

Willie Nelson can be described in so many ways:  singer, songwriter, activist, author, actor, even the “Red Headed Stranger,” after one of his best-known albums.  You can also call him “youthful” and “relevant”, even as he reaches the milestone age of 80 on April 30. 

With a poingnant new album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, a bestselling memoir, Roll me UP and Smoke Me When I DIe:  Musings From the Road, and a full tour schedule, Willie is clearly indicating that he’s not quite done yet. 

As he’s often joked about retirement, “All I do is play music and golf.  Which one do you want me to give up?”  In celebration of his big 8-0, we take a look back at the key moments of Willie Nelson’s career.

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