Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie Nelson at 65

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Texas Monthly
by:  Gary Cartwright
April 1998

I first met Willie Nelson on August 12, 1972, a few hours before his first gig at the Armadillo World Headquarters, in Austin. Both of us were in our late thirties and relatively new to psychedelics and long hair. A couple of friends and I were in the small office that the Armadillo had set aside for Mad dog, Inc., a shadowy organization that Bud Shrake and I had founded at roughly that same time. Artist Jim Franklin was decorating a wall of the Mad Dog office with a portrait of a crazed Abe Lincoln when we spotted Willie and the band across the hall.

I didn’t recognize him at first. I had been a fan since 1966, when Don Meredith handed me a copy of Willie’s album that was recorded live at Panther Hall in Fort Worth. The album cover pictured a straight-looking country singer with short hair and a bad suit. He clutched a guitar, but from his looks it could have easily been a pipe wrench.

Willie was different now. His hair fell almost to his shoulders, and though he was still clean-shaven and passably middle class, he was obviously undergoing a metamorphosis. “I saw a lot of people with long hair that day,” Willie recalls. “People in jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, basically what I grew up wearing. I remember thinking: ‘F— coats and ties! Let’s get comfortable!’”

The real eye-opener for me came that night. Who in his right mind could have predicted that the same audience that got turned on by B.B. King and Jerry Garcia would also go nuts for Willie Nelson? This Abbott cotton picker had merged blues, rock, and country into something altogether original and evocative.

Willie Nelson Interview, Interview Magazine (August 2005)

Sunday, August 5th, 2018

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portrait: Julian Schnabel

Interview Magazine
by: Stephen Mooallem
August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM: How did you pick the songs for Countryman?

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

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

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

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

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

GM: You play Uncle Jesse in the movie.

WN: Most of my scenes are with Wonder Woman.

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

WN: She plays my girlfriend.

GM: Very nice.

WN: Yeah. She’s a great gal.

SM: Do you still like being on the road?

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

SM: Do you still keep late nights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

interview
August 2005

Willie and Waylon on Music City News (August 1995)

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

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 in Newsweek: The Enduring Face of Country Music (9/23/2013)

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

newsweeky

Newsweek
9/23/2013
by: Malcolm Jones Kevin Winter

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

In his 80 years on this planet, Nelson has written something like 1,000 songs, recorded more than 100 albums, and won 10 Grammys. “Crazy” was rated the No. 1 jukebox song of all time, according to NPR. Performing professionally since he was a teenager growing up in little Abbott, Texas, he has, he estimates, spent at least half of every year since then either recording or touring, playing nightclubs, honky-tonks, outdoor arenas, concert halls, and every other venue imaginable. Somewhere in there he found the time to appear in more than 20 movies and a handful of television shows. He co-founded Farm Aid, which has raised $43 million to help America’s small farmers hang on to their land, and he sits on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He has also written seven books, including an autobiography and a novel, played at the White House, and sung at the wedding of Bill and Melinda Gates (his fee: $1 million). Last year the city of Austin erected a statue in his honor—larger than life, naturally.

Somewhere along the line, he ceased being famous as a singer or a songwriter or an activist and simply became famous. You may not care for his songs. You may not give a damn about farmers or marijuana. But the chances that you live in this country and don’t know Willie Nelson are somewhere between slim and none. Like Louis Armstrong—and almost no one else, really—he is a musician whose appeal transcends genre, race, age, or fashion, a stranger to no one, and if you had to put a face on American music, that face would be Willie Nelson’s.At this point it gets a little trickier. Which Willie Nelson do you know? Is it Willie, the “good timing man” who has graced thousands of stages? The “outlaw” who along with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings taught Nashville how to reach a new generation of young listeners more comfortable with long hair and jeans than Nudie suits and beehive hairdos? Or is it the avuncular apostle of pot? The farmers’ friend or the proponent of biodiesel fuel? Animal-rights and LGBT advocate? Or the man so honorable that rather than declare bankruptcy he worked to pay off the $16.7 million he owed the IRS in back taxes? Or is it Willie Nelson, the exquisite vocal stylist who can navigate from honky-tonk weepers to the intricate verbal acrobatics of a Rodgers and Hart ballad without missing a beat (he may toy with the beat, sing behind it, ahead of it, or take it halfway to Mars, but he never misses). Or is it Willie Nelson, the peerless songwriter who once wrote “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” all in one road trip from Texas to Tennessee? Like Walt Whitman, Willie Nelson contains multitudes.

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

The stocky man who stands to greet me in the bus’s kitchen certainly looks familiar: black jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, and the once-red hair now gone to silver but still long enough to make two chest-length braids. And there is no mistaking that piercing pair of dark brown eyes that know more than they will ever tell, or the still-boyish drawl that has purred out of countless jukeboxes, record players, car radios, and concert halls and is now asking if I want some coffee.We sit facing each other in a small but comfortable booth. A laptop lies on the table between us, and behind his head is a bulletin board covered in photographs of children and grandchildren. Up close, the famous face looks like a well-creased map of rough country, and the unwavering gaze appears less intimidating and maybe even secretly amused, as though to say, there’s nothing you can ask me that I haven’t been asked a dozen times or more, but let’s do this anyway.

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

The family didn’t have a record player, but they did have a Philco radio. “I grew up listening to all kinds of music,” he says. “I’d hear blues, I’d hear country, I’d hear Western swing, and I could see how it all fit together.” Before he got the guitar, Willie wrote poems, but as soon as he learned to form a few chords, he started writing his own songs. His early influences included Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne, and Ted Daffan. “They’re some great songwriters.” But the king of them all, for Willie and most every other music lover in the American Southwest, was Bob Wills, the fiddle-playing bandleader whose Texas Playboys set the standard for big-band excellence for most of three decades.“A lot of the Bob Wills stuff was for the Texas dance halls, the California dance halls, the Oklahoma dance halls, and it was very popular dance music,” says Willie, who got a chance to study his idol up close when he, just 16, helped his brother-in-law book Wills for a local dance (his career as a booking agent ended almost as soon as it began when someone ran off with the money from the ticket sales). Willie still remembers how tightly Wills kept things moving from one song to the next so people never had a chance to leave the dance floor, and how he would simply point to a musician when he wanted a solo. Two hours later, watching Willie run his own show inside the Capitol Theater, I thought back to what he had said about Wills, and I was struck by how much of it plainly stuck with him. You don’t think of the scruffy man who practically invented outlaw country as a disciplinarian, but no one puts on a tighter show.When I suggested that these days people seem to have forsaken dancing for just sitting and listening to concerts, Willie shakes his head. “They still dance a helluva lot in Texas!” he says with a laugh. “They haven’t quit down there. They didn’t get the word.” But is there a difference playing for people who are dancing? “Yeah, you feel close to the crowd. They feel part of you. There’s something about working a beer joint that brings you right to the people. I love it and always have.”

What’s the weirdest place you ever played, I ask him. “I don’t know,” he says, looking genuinely puzzled. “I don’t know what weird is.”WHEN WILLIE was a teenager, there wasn’t much difference between the people in the audience and the musicians on the bandstand, many of whom had taken to music as the fastest way out of the cotton patch. “And you were probably going with a waitress in the beer joint,” he chuckles. The thing is, you could hear that shared experience in the songs and the voices that sang them. It’s a sound, Willie agreed, that’s been mostly scrubbed out of modern country.With the instincts of a true gentleman, he politely declined all invitations to criticize what passes for country on most radio stations these days (“I don’t get a chance to listen to local radio a lot, so I don’t know what they’re playing”). But now that SiriusXM radio has given him his own channel, Willie’s Roadhouse, we have a very good idea of what he thinks a country music station should sound like, which turns out to be more Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell but not too many of the modern “hat acts.” Even contemporary artists sound traditional on the Roadhouse. “I like to think that on our channel we play all kinds of music, and one way or another we pull it together,” he says. “We play a little Vern Gosdin, a little Dolly, then we’ll do some Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, some Merle Haggard, Texas swing. We pretty well cover it. It may not be for every ear, but nothing is.”Nor would he be inveigled into carping about the Nashville establishment.

Later, on stage, he’d sing “Me & Paul,” his autobiographical song about road life with his longtime drummer Paul English that hilariously and somewhat bitterly encapsulates his odd-man-out status with the country establishment back in the ’60s (“Nashville was the roughest”). But in the privacy of his bus, he is downright diplomatic when the subject comes up. “Nashville was a different town back then,” he says. “It’s changed a lot now. A lot of people are thinking more progressive now. It’s all coming together, so it’s all good.”WILLIE NEVER made it in Nashville as a singer. But as a songwriter he became a superstar.

He had spent the ’50s bumming around, playing Texas honky-tonks and taking the occasional deejay job (and selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door-to-door). But ever since he cobbled together his first book of songs at age 12 (with a hand-drawn cover adorned in cursive script resembling a cowboy’s lariat), he has been dead serious about songwriting. He had his first big success in 1960 when Claude Gray had a hit with “Family Bible,” a good but rather pious song by Willie standards that gave no hint of the complex, open-a-vein material that soon followed and made him one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters.Ask him today to name his favorites in his own catalog, and he’ll deflect, as though he doesn’t want to be rude, even to a song: “It’s kinda like kids,” he says. “You can’t hardly separate one from the other. If you took the time to write it, put a melody to it, sing it, record it, whatever, then it’s important.” But when he does relent and starts listing favorites (“Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” “Pretty Paper,” “On the Road Again”), they’re almost all songs made famous by other singers and the songs that cemented his reputation as one of the best writers ever to cross the Nashville city limits.

About songwriting, Nelson says, “It’s just a thought process where you hear a good line and you think, well, maybe I’ll take that line and try to write a song. Or it could be a melody that you look for a line to put to it. Works both ways for me.”

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

”No one alive knows more about songwriting than Willie Nelson, but he would be the first to tell you that he can’t explain it. “It’s just a thought process where you hear a good line and you think, well, maybe I’ll take that line and try to write a song. Or it could be a melody that you look for a line to put to it. Works both ways for me.” But either way, it’s a mystery: “You wonder where it comes from.” As for trying to teach someone how to write a song, “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”The distinctive thing about his songs is their deceptively easygoing ability to balance the specific and universal. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is written from the point of view of a songwriter (“I’m writing a song all about you/a true song as real as my tears/But you’ve no need to fear it/’cause no one will hear it/’cause sad songs and waltzes/aren’t selling this year”). But it doesn’t matter that most of us who hear that tune aren’t songwriters; the sadness at the core of that lyric could pierce the heart of anyone done wrong by love. Sometimes the transaction is more personal. In “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” a frustrated father calls out to a teenager slipping past the bonds of parental control. I first heard the song when my kids were just becoming teens, and what I loved about the lyrics was that no lessons were imparted, just the vivid ache of helplessness that any parent feels at the loss of childhood. The best of Willie’s songs, certainly the ballads, work similar magic, articulating emotions we’ve all felt but couldn’t find the words for.

After his Ridgetop farmhouse burned down two days before Christmas in 1970, Willie moved back to Texas. “When I went to Nashville, things were already starting to click in Texas. I was drawing crowds there. And then when I got to Nashville, I kind of got stymied, because I was trying to play for the whole world. So I thought, I’ll just go on back to Texas and play there a while. And it was a good decision.” There would be one more move to Nashville, but by the early ’70s, Willie was ensconced in the Lone Star State, where he encountered an entirely new audience: young longhairs bred on rock and roll and the blues were turning up at his shows, and when Willie helped host the first annual Dripping Springs Reunion music festival in 1972, a precursor of his famous Fourth of July picnic concerts, the audience was equal parts Texas country folks and Woodstock nation, and nobody got beat up.In 1975 he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album conceived and largely written on a road trip from Colorado to Texas (Willie, typically modest, sees nothing in that feat to boast about: “It’s not that unusual, really, because when you start writing, you think of one and then think of another. I wrote a couple of concept albums that way. One song led to another”). The antithesis of the string-drenched countrypolitan sounds emanating from Nashville, the album was so raw, so sparely produced (studio costs: $4,000) that Columbia Records thought he was handing them a demo.

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But they came around in a hurry when “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was released as a single and gave the singer his first No. 1 hit on the country charts. The album went on to sell more than 2 million copies. When he wanted to release Stardust, a collection of some of his favorite standards, the record company wasn’t sure about that one either, until it shot to No. 1. It lingered on the charts for more than 10 years. By 2002 it had sold more than 5 million copies.It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but when success finally found Nelson, it stuck. His 1982 album, Always on My Mind, was the No. 1 country album of the year and remained on the charts for almost five years. Willie took up acting and had starring roles in The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose (for which he wrote “On the Road Again”). And where he had once played concert halls and clubs small enough to make steady eye contact with his audience, suddenly he was playing arenas, a new and not entirely comfortable experience. As he writes in Willie, his 1988 autobiography, “I do a number of big concerts at night in arenas or at outdoor picnics—by big I mean crowds of 100,000—and I have to work those shows by feel. I can see nothing but a wide deep-purple canyon blinking with the fire of thousands of cigarettes.”

That was 25 years ago, and he’s been a constant on everybody’s radar ever since. Thinking again of that clothing ad that for its effect depends on you knowing who Willie Nelson is without being told, I ask him if he ever wished for anonymity, if fame ever got in his way.“Well,” he says slowly, smiling as he fingers one of his braids, “I dress kinda funny for anonymity. But, no, I don’t mind.”So fame is not as corrosive as they say?“I don’t think so,” he says. “I thought that was what we all looked for growing up. Some people when they get it say they don’t want it, but I still like it.“It’s nice to know people are going to come and hear you sing and hear you play. That’s sort of the mystique of the whole thing. People work all day, and then they get in their car and they drive somewhere to go hear somebody sing, and applaud and sing along with ’em. And there’s a therapy there, an exchange, an energy exchange that takes place between the audience and the performer, and it’s pretty magical really, to both the audience and the entertainer.“There was this guy I read about in India who woke up every morning, and he’d run out on the streets and start clapping his hands and running down the street, and everybody’d jump out and join him, and the next thing you know, there’d be hundreds of people running down the road. So they’re putting on their own little concert every morning.” The braided pied piper clearly relates.Repeatedly, when he talks about performing, the concept of serving comes up. “It’s not about me,” he insists. Consequently, he’s careful about espousing causes on stage: “I can promote Farm Aid OK, because I believe in the cause, so it’s not a big stretch for me to do that.

But there are probably several things that I wouldn’t want to talk about. And people come for the music. If they want preaching, they’ll go to church.” Maybe so, though many in his audiences would doubtless happily worship at the First Church of Willie: the crowd in Port Chester was nearly all white, but other than that the only common denominator was a fierce addiction among young and old to the music of Willie Nelson—these veterans knew the words to nearly every song.Since the ’70s, Willie has opened nearly every set with his pal Johnny Bush’s classic, “Whiskey River.” “After that, who knows,” he says.

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

Listening to Willie work his way through familiar material like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Good Hearted Woman” in Port Chester, I was struck by the fact that while he must have played and sung these songs thousands of times, he somehow still finds a way to invest them with a freshness and emotional depth that makes you believe that he is playing them for the first time. It’s as if he’s saying, you may have heard this one before, but you haven’t heard it this way yet. And you haven’t.There’s no loafing on a Willie Nelson stage. The Family band that backs him up includes blood kin (sister Bobbie has lately been joined by various Nelson sons and daughters) and performers like English, who has been in the band so long that he might as well be family. But don’t equate family with amateurism.

“First of all, they gotta be good musicians,” Nelson says. And to play with Willie, they’d better be. Given his eccentric way with a vocal or guitar solo, anyone who’s not a crack musician would be well and truly lost after half a dozen bars of any song.Over the years, Willie has lost some of the edge on his voice, a diminishment you hardly notice thanks to his impeccable phrasing. But time has only burnished his guitar playing. In the set I heard, he performed a slashing but dexterously lyrical version of the Django Reinhardt instrumental “Nuages.” The gypsy guitar genius has long been an idol for Willie, and if Willie isn’t quite as good as Reinhardt (who is?), you’d like to think that Reinhardt would nonetheless be touched by the love that came soaring through that song the other night.Willie has been a Reinhardt addict for so long, he can’t remember quite when it started.

The peerless Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble “gave me an old Django tape a long time ago. I listened to it, and I realized that this was the music I’d been listening to by other people. My dad played that kind of rhythm guitar, and someone else played that kind of fiddle. And then Bob Wills and all those guys took what Django did and enlarged on it. I had a lot of friends back there who loved Django music, so I got a chance to play it.” Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Reinhardt’s virtuosity was that he managed with only two working fingers on his fretting hand (he lost the use of the other fingers when he was badly burned in a fire). So when someone in the Little Willies, Norah Jones’s country band, called Willie “Django with one finger,” Willie was over the moon. “That was the best compliment I ever had,” he says with a huge grin.

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

As integral to Willie’s sound as his indelible voice, Trigger is, like the man who plays it, inimitable.A better word for Willie would be indefatigable. When he’s not playing music, he’s playing chess, checkers, dominoes, or poker, or running, riding his bike, or playing golf (the only time he gets a little coy is when I ask for his handicap: “My driver and my putter and maybe my sand wedge,” he deadpans). So he would not agree with Mark Twain that golf is “a good walk spoiled”? “Some days it is,” he admits. “But then you hit one good one, make one good long putt, and it’s a nice day.”Watch him work a stage for close to two hours—which he finishes at the lip of the stage, shaking every hand he can reach and signing anything anyone puts in his hand—and you understand that his claims of exercising every day are the simple truth. Men half his age would have trouble keeping up. And along with the running and biking and golfing, “I’m a second-degree black-belt tae kwon do,” he says with some pride. “I can practice all my forms right here on the bus going 80 miles an hour down the highway.”

The most important words in that last sentence are “down the highway.” How apt that Huckleberry Finn is Willie’s favorite novel, for like Twain’s hero, he can never shake the urge to “light out for the territory,” in Willie’s case, just about every day. “You know that commercial that’s out right now that says a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest? That’s very true. Very true.” Bearing in mind that Huck is a fictional character and Willie is flesh and blood, is it too much to suggest that both embody what we want in our heroes—the uniquely American home brew of guts, youthful spirit, wiliness, honesty, freewheeling humor, and no taste at all for cant or hypocrisy?What keeps Willie more earthbound—but makes him, if anything, more admirable—is the unpoetic fact that he’s responsible for the 40-some people on his payroll, including a road crew of 22. If he doesn’t work, they don’t get paid. “I think about that,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m probably still here. And that’s good. I need another reason.” Leave it to Willie to fashion a blessing out of obligation.

Throughout the interview, he rarely breaks eye contact, never loses focus, dodges no questions, no matter how impertinent, and never fidgets, aside from a little restless-leg syndrome that shakes the table now and then. To call him calm would be an understatement. And yet I know that he has not had an easy life, that he has been through four marriages, lost his grandfather when he was 6 and a son to suicide, and more recently endured the deaths of two bandmates with whom he’d been playing for more than half his life. Then there are those songs, some of them joyful but just as many that took the full measure of human sadness and heartache. How exactly, I wondered, did all that square with the almost surreally unflappable man sitting across the table from me?Finally, I just say outright, “You seem pretty serene, based on my 40 minutes in here. Were you always that way?” That makes him laugh. “No. I used to drink a lot. Had a hot temper. Red hair and part Indian and all that horseshit. I used every excuse I had to get into trouble. Once I quit drinking, I managed to stay out of fights pretty good.”

Willie says he quit drinking and smoking sometime between age 30 and 35. “I had a pack of Chesterfields, and I was smoking pot and cigarettes, and my lungs were killing me, and I said, well, I ain’t getting high on these goddam cigarettes. So I took the cigarettes and threw ’em away and rolled about 20 fat joints and stuck ’em in the pack. When I wanted a cigarette, I lit a joint. And I haven’t smoked since. Very good way to quit. Cigarettes and alcohol killed a whole bunch of friends of mine.”Pressing my luck, and hoping he won’t think that I’ve come just to write his obituary, I ask if there was ever a point at which he confronted his own mortality and pondered what he had left to do.He pauses before answering that one. “I don’t know that there’s ever one moment or one second when I did that,” he says. “Or maybe there’s not a second when I’m not thinking about it. I’m always thinking about the next record or show, but mainly for my own entertainment.

But, yeah, there are things I haven’t done. I’m really looking forward to this duet album coming out. After that I’ll figure out what the next one will be. Might be an album of new songs that I’ve written. I’ve got a few stacked up over there. And I’ll be going to Nashville in a couple of weeks to do some more recording, and when I get enough done of my own original stuff, I might put it out.“I don’t really think about … I know some day I’ll move on. Everybody does. But I don’t worry about it. I like where I am now. Everything’s fine. And there’s nothing I can do about anything that’s happened. The only thing I have any control over is what’s happening right now. So I don’t worry about a while ago or after a while.”Night has fallen while we’ve been talking. Now it’s time for him to go to work.

Willie Nelson, on the cover of Utne Reader (August 2013)

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

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Willie Nelson and family in Life Magazine (August 1983)

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

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

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

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 stll the best advertising and if you do a good job, you’ll have a better crowd next time, then next year you play theaters, and so on.  The system fights the hell out of it and tries to tell you that getting played on their radio station is the only way.  There are several stations in any town, and if a guy really works and wants it enough, you can make your own record, sell it out of the trunk of your car, find a station who’ll play it, work a club, and work each town individually.  A lot of people I know have put their futures in the hands of a record company and that’s not very wise, because you’re only as good a major label as your next record and they’ll drop you like a hot potato and then what do you do?

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

WN:  Right!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EH:  Will we see another Highwayman tour?

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

EH:  Maybe Sinatra could stand in.

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, gimme Snake’s room number.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is writing his form of therapy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One such exchange that seemed to take an hour:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Old at Willie Nelson’s Picnic

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Willie Nelson, Country Song Roundup (July 1978)

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

Country Song Roundup
July 1978
by Stacy Harris

The summer of 1977 has come and gone without Willie Nelson’s traditional 4th of July picnic.  Looking toward July 1978, Willie maintains that the picnics have been scuttled indefinitely.  “I’ll have to wait and see,” Willie says with regard to future picnics.  “I’m not planning on doing one again because of all the problems involved.  It’s too big of a hassle, plus you lose a lot of support form the local folks who don’t want 100,000 people in their back yards.”

Nelson attributes the word-of-mouth success of his picnics with their demise, conceding that “You always lose a little bit more control each time you put one of ’em on, because they’re a little big larger each time.  Plus you’ve got experienced picnickers now.  They’ve been going every year for four years and they know how to do it.  And they come and they bring their awning and they camp out.  And they get in free, because they know they didn’t have to pay last year.  So they come expecting to get in free.

Willie stresses that “99 percent come, and if there’d be somebody there for ’em to pay their money to, they’ give it to ’em and  go in.  If there’s not anyone there, they walk in.  I don’t blame ’em.  I’d do the same thing.  Most of the people are all right.  There’s just one or two that cause a problem — and too big a problem.”

Perhaps the largest simple factor which convinced Nelson to drop his plans for any future picnics was the bad rap the ’76 gig got from disgruntled press people.  “How can you give press accommodations out there in the middle of a pasture anyway, when there’s 100,000 people coming?  I know there were a lot of things promised that shouldn’t have been promised because there’s just no way.  There’s no way.  You have far more people backstage who expect special treatment than you can handle.  If everyone would just come and not expect any special treatment and just sit out front and watch the show and then let the people who are backstage put on the show, then I think it would be a lot better.

“If the press people were promised things and didn’t get them,” adds Nelson, “then I apologize for whoever’s action that was, but you know how these things get out of hand.  But anyone who’s ever been to a picnic or an outside festival before should know it’s going to be hot, it’s going to be uncomfortable, and air conditioned buildings — you’re going to sweat in those, too.  So there’s really no way to give anybody protection from the heat or comfort during a picnic.”

Surveying the aftermath, Nelson says, “The last thing in the world that I wanted to do was upset the press.  I don’t know whether we started not living up to what we were promising the press, or if the press asked for something that was impossible to give.  One of the two happened, and a couple at the people down there were unhappy because they thought they had been mistreated.  A lot of people wanted on stage.  There’s a rule that if you don’t pick, you don’t go on stage.  I don’t care who you are.”

Appropriately enough then, the death knell seems to have been sounded for the Dripping  Springs, Texas, festivities.  Nelson, looking relaxed in his jeans, Emmy Lou Harris warmup jacket, and tennis shoes, says, “I’m enjoying not doing it.”  And Bee Spears says it better, “I am, too — and I’m just the bass player.”

At 85, Willie Nelson Knows the Secret to a Life Well Lived (AARP, June 2018)

Friday, June 29th, 2018

For 60 years, country music outlaw has set the bar for being true to yourself

Willie Nelson turned 85 in April, and though he still tours, drinks, vapes, writes and golfs, he’s smart enough to know where he is — on the flip side, the back nine. It gives him freedom; he’s down to essential things now, with time for only what he truly loves. Like his wife and children. Like his famous guitar, Trigger, the one with the hole worn through the top from strumming. Like Frank Sinatra and country music.

Willie’s taught us so much — how to be an honest outlaw, how to properly wear a bandanna, how to listen and how to be cool. Now just one lesson remains: how to remain yourself while getting old. “I don’t think that my attitude has changed,” he told me. “I’m still doing what I want to do, and I suggest everybody do the same thing.”

I could try to sell you on the importance of Willie Nelson, but why? He notched his first hit as a songwriter in 1960 with a tune called “Family Bible.” In the decades that have followed, he’s performed on 24 platinum or gold albums and composed dozens of pop and country hits, including iconic, timeless numbers such as “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind” and “Me and Paul,” about wild times on tour with his drummer, Paul English. He’s appeared in more than 40 movies and headlined thousands of sold-out concerts. He smoked a joint on the White House roof during the Carter administration in 1977; organized Farm Aid, the annual benefit for American family farmers, in 1985; and made more than a few men reconsider the practicability of braids. He has his own satellite radio station, Willie’s Roadhouse, which is partly programmed by his daughter Paula. He has his own brand of weed, Willie’s Reserve, a bespoke variety that’s been well funded by venture capitalists. Some of the labels in that line carry Willie’s sleepy-eyed countenance, making him a kind of Captain Morgan for the bloodshot set. He was at the center of a group of run-around country music pals — with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson — who played together as the Highwaymen. As one of two survivors of that crew, Willie stands as a last living link between Hank Williams, the Babe Ruth of honky-tonk, and Blake Shelton, a country star of the moment.

Of course, there have been hard times, for this is country music: drug busts and failed marriages. The first marriage, which lasted 10 years, gave Willie a lot of the heartbreak material that still turns up in his sad songs. And in 1990, after Willie followed some disastrous financial advice, the IRS seized about everything he had — saying he owed $32 million in back taxes — with the exception of his guitar and his voice, which he used to climb back out of the hole.

photo:  David McClister

These days, he seems more joyful than ever, as satisfied as any country singer who’s lived past 30. His album count is well over 100, and his latest, Last Man Standing, features all new, original songs. He’s at work on a collection of Sinatra tunes, including “My Way.” But Willie does not like to talk about his achievements or place in history or how it will all be tallied when he’s gone. Sing about it, write about it, sure — his current live show includes “Still Not Dead” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” — but discussing his legacy with a reporter is the worst kind of bad luck. He wants to talk about his life instead. He grew up in Abbott, Texas, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot 70 miles outside Dallas. “They say the population never changes,” he told me. “Every time a baby’s born, a man leaves town.” His parents divorced when he was an infant, leaving Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, who gives his band its piano distinction — her instrument sounds as rickety as a piano in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D., circa 1885 — to be raised by their devoted grandparents. Comfort came via radio, old-time music wending through a Texas night. It suggested another kind of existence.

At some point, Willie picked up a guitar. “I started when I was 5 or 6,” he told me. “I had one of those old Sears & Roebuck guitars with the strings high off the neck — your fingers literally would bleed. When they healed up, though, they were pretty tough.” He was soon singing and playing at churches and in town halls, his sister hammering away at his side. Other things happened: He joined the Air Force, worked as a door-to-door vacuum and encyclopedia salesman, and as a disc jockey. And wrote. Those first songs came under the influence of country legends. “Bob Wills era,” he said. “Spade Cooley. Tex Williams. All those great Western swing bands.”

Flat broke, Willie headed to Nashville, Tenn., the mecca of country music. That was 1960. He worked his way into the late-night lineup at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which was across the alley from the Grand Ole Opry. Singers and songwriters partied at Tootsie’s from can till can’t. It’s where Willie debuted the songs — many now considered classics — that would become career-defining hits for other artists: “Hello Walls,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away.” One night he played a demo for Charlie Dick, a manager who happened to be married to Patsy Cline. Dick took Willie home, woke Cline and made Willie play her the demo tape. It was called “Crazy,” and it went Top 10 for Cline in 1961. Released before she died, it’s forever associated with the sadly beautiful mood of that short life.

Willie had a record contract of his own, but his voice was different from what you usually heard on the country charts. It had that old Western thing, the twang, but it was sophisticated, too, all about emphasizing certain words and drawing out certain syllables. It was only when he moved back to Texas that he found his audience and became not just a star, but the biggest star in country music. The rest followed as in a dream — surprising yet inevitable. Records and movies, sold-out stadiums, tours. He let his hair grow, braids thrown back, took up marijuana as a way to settle his mood. Before dope, he’s said, he was angry a lot of the time. His face became famous in the way of a few other faces: John Wayne, Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong. It represented not just a catalog of songs but a way of being in the world.

By the mid-1970s, he’d become that rarest of stars — an icon admired by even bigger icons. Bob Dylan recalls meeting Willie and his sidekick, English, at film director Sam Peckinpah’s house in Mexico in 1972. Willie and English “had driven down there in an old blue Mercedes 300 from Texas,” Dylan said. “We were sitting around in the living room, and Willie played some of his songs: ‘Night Life,’ ‘Hello Walls,’ ‘Crazy’ — all the great ones. I thought these were the most perfect songs that ever had a right to be written. I thought he was a genius then, and I think the same thing now.”


photo:  Janis Tillerson

I’ve listened to Willie Nelson all my life but fell in love with him in 1992. It happened in a bar in New York City called the Lion’s Head. One night, I happened to play his version of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on the jukebox. It’s a Fred Rose song, unspeakably sad, the story of a man mourning his wife and looking forward to meeting her in the next world. It carries echoes of the oldest American music. It’s an intimate hillbilly whine. Willie recorded it in 1975 for Red Headed Stranger, one of his first million-selling albums. It was among the breakthrough songs that took Willie from Nashville 1960 into the 1970s and beyond. He found his mature style on that song, realized that he could sing anything and make it new. I’d get drunk on the sort of drinks I figured Willie would order — tequila, beer — line up my quarters and play the song till the men at the rail begged me to stop. When you are 22 and lonely and far from home, you feel sorry for yourself in a way that is the essence of country music. His voice was humorous and sad and full of wisdom; I knew he’d understand everything. If I ever did get to meet Willie Nelson, I promised myself I’d ask him the secret of life.

I caught up with Willie on his tour bus 26 years later; it was in March, just before he went onstage at the Peace Center in Greenville, S.C. He was sitting at a small table in back. Looking over his shoulder was Annie, his fourth wife. A makeup artist who met her husband in 1986 on the set of his made-for-TV movie Stagecoach, Ann Marie D’Angelo has been by Willie’s side through his health scares, pot busts, tax problems — “through thick and thin,” he’s said. “You can’t ask for anything more than that!” She travels with him and looks after his health — got him into bicycling, organic foods and living as if he intends to last. “Annie and I have been married since 1991 and found a way to make it work,” Willie has said. They have two adult children, Lukas and Micah, good musicians who often perform with Willie and their Aunt Bobbie. Willie was married three times before and had five other kids. In 1991, his oldest son, Billy, died at age 33. It’s something Willie never talks about, but it can be heard between every note of his most wrenching songs.

When we met, Willie was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. He’s always looked like Willie — it’s one of those rare things you can count on — but looks the most like Willie now, in the middle of his ninth decade. His eyes are mischievous. One braid hangs down his chest; the other, down his back. His smile is wry, amused. When he laughs, he tilts back his head and stares at the ceiling. In short, Willie Nelson looks exactly like you want Willie Nelson to look.

I’d heard he does not like to talk, that he lets silence fill the gap between him and his interrogator, but I did not find that. Then again, I didn’t ask him dicey questions about politics or marriages. Instead, we talked about what he has loved: Hank Williams and Django Reinhardt, the highway when you are sober and the highway when you are drunk, the last bit of beer in the bottle, the last hour of night in the day.

Like Elvis, for example: “Did you know him?”

“Yeah, I met him a couple of times,” Willie said. “He did ‘Always on My Mind’ and ‘Night Life.’ ”

“Why did he have such a hard time?” I asked, meaning the isolation and the jumpsuits, the Memphis Mafia, pill addiction and early death.

“Well, it ain’t easy,” Willie said. “Once you think it’s easy, you’re in trouble.” To achieve fame, he added, “you’ve got to want it. And then, when you get it, you’ve got to still want it. A lot of people, when they get it, say: ‘Wait a minute, this is too much.’ ”

Willie once said that singing the same sad songs night after night had, in the past, driven him to the bottle. Why, though? I’ve always found that listening to sad music made me feel better.

“Whenever me or George Jones or whoever is singing those sad songs, there’s people out there that can relate to it, and that’s good,” he told me. “The problem can be that getting in that emotional state to sing that sad song to make all those people happy, you’re really putting yourself in a negative situation where you want to drink more.”

Whenever I asked about influences, the conversation turned to Hank Williams. Willie looked over my head when talking about Hank, as if he could see him out there, in his sequined Nudie (Cohn) suit. “He was an incredible writer, sang with so much feeling,” Willie said. “He was a sick man from the time he was born till he died, a sick man. He had a bad back and was always on some kind of pain medications or alcohol or whatever it took to get him up to the show. And he had a hard life. Died at 29. But nobody wrote better songs than Hank. It was the simplicity, melody and a line anybody could understand.”

photo:  LeAnn Muller

This led to talk of the old days, when the highway turned to dirt as soon as you left town.

“What was Nashville like in the ’60s?” I asked.

“Nashville’s always Nashville,” he said. “It’s where you take your goods to sell, and if you’ve got anything good, cool. If you don’t, they’ll let you know pretty quick. One thing about having a country hit is you can live on it forever. There are people who always like Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Moving On,’ and every time he toured, they’d want to hear that.”

In the ’80s, Frank Sinatra once opened for Willie at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and they appeared together in a TV spot for NASA. Willie considered Sinatra a close friend. These two icons could not seem more different, and yet both were utterly unique vocalists who reinvented their genres.

“Do you feel like you learned anything from Sinatra?”

“I learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank,” Willie said. “He didn’t worry about behind the beat or in front of the beat, or whatever — he could sing it either way, and that’s the feel you have to have.”

I asked about Frank’s work in the ’70s, when he turned out all those weak pop songs. I wondered if, after you get to the top, it’s easy to lose your way.

“You’ve got these guys over here saying you ought to do this and those guys over there saying you ought to do that,” Willie responded. “Next thing, you don’t know what to do.”

Willie was almost out of time. In a few minutes he’d have to head out onstage, where he’d summon all the ghosts, play all the hits. The audience would be older than it had been once, but you could tell the fans did not feel that age when Willie ran through “Whiskey River” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time.” It’s the sort of music that makes you wish you were back at the beginning, when the road seemed like it would go on forever.

I stood and he stood, and we shook hands. I felt warmth pass from him to me. I told him what “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” had meant to me when I was 22. He nodded like he already knew. Then, before he could slip away, I asked him the secret of life.

“It’s simple,” Willie said. Do what you want to do. “If I don’t want to do it, forget it. But if I do want to do it, get out of my goddamn way.”

Rich Cohen is the author of 13 books, the most recent of which is The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.

 

Willie Nelson talks about Texas, Touring and Taxes (Country Weekly) (June 2000)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

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Country Weekly
June 13, 2000

“This is your cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, gravy soppin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eating, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson. Stay tuned.”

Brown eyes crinkling with laughter, Willie is reciting his 1954 radio mantra as he unwinds on his famous Honeysuckle Rose tour bus.

”When I was a Texas deejay, that on-air intro made it hard for listeners to mix me up with anyone else,” he tacks on with a chuckle. Talk about your understatement. As Willie has rolled down life’s highway doing things his way and no one else’s, not one soul has ever mistaken his distinctive nasal-tinged Texas twang for anyone else’s. Not even the ones who, early on, loved his songwriting and hated his voice, declaring he’d never make it as singer.

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In a recording career spanning five decades and more than 100 albums, Wille made history with Red Headed Stranger, the ground-breaking Old Westconcept album his record company originally “didn’t get”—but the rest of the world did—andWanted: The Outlaws, the first country album to sell a million copies. His collection of pop standards, Stardust, was on the Billboard charts for an incredible 11 years!

Willie’s sang with just about everybody: Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, George Jones, Leon Russell and Lefty Frizzell. And, as part of the Highwaymen, he recorded and toured with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

Whether you know him as a singer, songwriter, actor, champion of American farmers, the fella who elevated Fourth of July picnics to an art form, or the industrious chap who recorded The IRS Tapes/Who’ll Buy My Memories album to pay off back taxes, Willie has always been as unique as a fingerprint.

So how does it feel to be a musical icon? ”I have to go look it up,” he says, deflecting the compliment with whimsey. “I forget what it means every time.”

Even though his face reflects the chiseled character usually embossed on a nickel, Willie is completely unassuming. He’s just plain ol’ Willie, still the kid from Abbott, Texas, who made it out of the cotton fields. It’s clear he’s as comfortable hanging out with cowboys as with kings. He’s certainly done it all.

Along the way, Willie’s kept grounded by creating two worlds. One is the bus adorned with the “Comanche At Sunset” mural that’s parked this steamy night outside Fort Worth’s famous mega-honky tonk Billy Bob’s Texas, where the bandana-wearing songman has just slap-dab wore out a wall-to-wall crowd with a rollicking two-hour concert. The bus lets him live out every word of “On The Road Again,” the anthem he wrote on the back of an airline barf bag.

The other carefully-crafted universe is Willie World, his ranch house, golf course, studio and replica of a 1880s western town outside Austin. He’s dubbed the replica as Luck, Texas. It’s been the backdrop for numerous films and videos. “Either you’re in Luck,” Willie drawls, “or you’re out of Luck.”

Willie feels equally comfortable in both worlds, where he and his extended family of road warriors can live and play. “I’ve been fortunate to find people who are easy to travel with and easy live with,” he explains, adding, “and who can also play great music.”

Willie’s loyalty is legendary. He has employees who’ve been with him for more than 40 years. Until a few months ago, the “newest” member of his Family Band was a 27-year veteran. When the crew’s bus recently wracked up 1 million miles on the road, it did so with the same driver for every mile.

And Trigger, the Martin guitar in which he’s worn a hole with his pick, has been his faithful sidekick for 35 years. When his home outside Nashville caught fire in 1970, Willie rushed passed firefighters to rescue a guitar case from the blaze. The case contained his beloved Trigger and a load of marijuana. “Stress medicine,” Willie clarifies.

Though the multiple-Grammy winner will perform more than 200 dates this year in every corner of the United States and Europe, he keeps coming back to the state he loves. “I can be on the bus sound asleep in the middle of the night and I know when we cross into Texas,” he confides. “I wake up with the incredibly good feeling of ’Well, we’re back.’

”And I still love Abbott. I head back as often as I can to play poker with the guys there. ”Then when the bus pulls onto the road leading up to my Austin ranch, a peace floods over me. My house there, like the ones I have in Hawaii and Abbott, are my ’hospital zones.’ That’s where I go to heal and get ready for life’s next battle.”

As Willie pours another cup of coffee, the conversation shifts to country music’s current battle.

”It always goes through phases,” he declares. “Right now it’s going through a slow period where everyone sounds a lot alike and the music is watered down. But somebody different will come along and wake ’em up.” Is there anyone out there giving country its wake-up call?

”There are a few stepping out,” ventures Willie. “Pat Green is a tremendous Texas singer-songwriter who’s been overlooked. There are others out there being overlooked. Pretty soon you’ll start hearing about them. Then—boom!—they’ll be the traditional stars of tomorrow. They’ll be the Kris Kristoffersons and Billy Joe Shavers.”

Willie says new songs will also rise to the top, but not as many as before. This October marks 25 years since “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” soared to No. 1. “If you look at all the No. 1 songs through the years, there are some that last and others that don’t. The percentage of really good songs was better in past years.

”Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “Songwriters today are good, but I don’t think you could come up with a group to match Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne—those guys turned out songs that’ll last forever.” And though he doesn’t admit it, so did Willie. Besides his own hits, he penned “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Night Life” for Ray Price and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young.

Later this year, Willie hits another milestone. On September 16, he and his fourth wife, Annie, will celebrate their 9th anniversary. “We’re going to have one—I hope we celebrate,” he quips. “Just kiddin’, Annie,” he deadpans. He’s candid about what’s kept the marriage together.

”The fact I’m gone a lot, probably,” he offers. “We’re always glad to see each other, and that helps. I always hate to leave, and that helps. We have two great boys, Lukas, 11, and Micah, 10, we’re raising, and they keep me comin’ back home.”

Stroking his beard, he admits, “It’s a day-to-day challenge to always try to do the right thing. I’m not talking about adultery—it’s a little late in my life to worry about that. I’m talking about being there for Annie and the boys when they need me and being there when I need them.” He pulls a drawing from the front of the refrigerator and proudly holds it up. It’s the sketch of a cow. “Micah did the artwork for the cover of the new Milk Cow Blues album that comes out in August. He’s very artistic.”

Willie just crossed another milestone, his 67th birthday, on April 30.

”I feel great—everything’s working,” he declares with a boisterous laugh. “I still do yoga, runing and breathing exercises. And I’ve done tai kwon do for a long time. Now my whole family’s doing it. Annie and the boys are black belt candidates. So I have to keep up—out of self defense!”

”I’m mellower and more moderate now. I’ve learned to savor things. I haven’t quit a lot of things, but I’ve sure slowed down.”

Maybe so, but not in his music. To reach new audiences, he’s agreed to be one of the opening acts on the red-hot Dixie Chicks’ just-launched Fly tour. And he recently released a trio of CDs: Night & Day is his first instrumental album; Honky Tonk Heroes showcases himself, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver; and It Could Have Been Tonight, a double-CD live album recorded during last year’s tour.

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In addition to this summer’s Milk Cow Blues, featuring Willie and such blues greats as B.B. King, there’s Willie’s tribute to Hank Williams, Memories Of Hank, coming later in the year. Along with Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb, Hank had been one of the country crooners flowing out of the Nelson family radio when Willie was a scrawny kid working the cotton fields. One day, he recalls, his fingers were aching and bloody from jabs by the razor-edged cotton bolls. His shirt was drowning in sweat as the thermometer pumped past 100 degrees.

Suddenly, a flash of light from the nearby highway caught his eyes. It was sunlight glancing off a Cadillac barreling down the asphalt. Squinting, he watched it disappear over a hill. His dreams were hitched to the Caddy’s bumper. ”Seeing those fancy cars,” he says, “I knew there had to be a better deal than picking cotton.” Willie says these words with the same certainty that even a broken clock proclaims the time correctly twice a day. “And I hoped that deal involved music.”

Hallelujah for country music, it did.

Willie Nelson in Parade Magazine (6/27/10)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

Parade Magazine
Sunday, June 27, 2010
By Dotson Rader

‘Since I was a kid, music was what I wanted to do,” Willie Nelson says. “I thought I could make it by my own talents. That’s what I wanted to prove.”
It is a hot, sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, and Willie sits at a table in his tour bus, the Honey-suckle Rose IV. Fitted out like a two-bedroom yacht on wheels, the vehicle is powered by biodiesel from his own alternative-fuel company, Biowillie.

“When I was about 12,” he says, “I had my first paying gig—$8 to play rhythm guitar in a polka band. Pretty soon, I ended up playing in all the bars within driving distance of Abbott, Tex.”

Abbott is the rural town in east–central Texas where Willie grew up dirt-poor during the Depression. By 6, he was writing songs and playing the guitar. Now 77, he’s still at it, touring on his fancy bus 200 days a year, playing to sold-out clubs and stadiums. This month, he and wife Annie, 50, will travel to Austin, Tex., for the annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic. The picnic is his Woodstock, with a hillbilly twang.

“I started it in 1973 to bring together different kinds of people, and that’s still what we do,” Willie says. It’s gotten bigger over the years, attracting rock bands, folk singers, rappers, and country stars who perform before as many as 20,000 music lovers of all ages, beliefs, and races. The event, just like the man himself, is a uniquely, magnificently American phenomenon. “It’s people drinking beer, smoking pot, and finding out that they have things in common and don’t really hate each other,” Willie says. “Music gives people a chance to enjoy something together.”
He sits with his elbows on the table, mellow and relaxed. He smiles a lot, and his deeply lined face is dominated by serene brown eyes. “A lot of country music is sad,” he notes softly. “I think most art comes out of poverty and hard times. It applies to music. Three chords and the truth—that’s what a country song is. There is a lot of heartache in the world.”

Willie has known his share of it. Three failed marriages, a son who committed suicide, troubles with the IRS, drug busts. “Anybody can be unhappy,” he says. “We can all be hurt. You don’t have to be poor to need something or somebody. Rednecks, hippies, misfits—we’re all the same. Gay or straight? So what? It doesn’t matter to me. We have to be concerned about other people, regardless.”
He is famously dedicated to helping others, giving away his own time and money, raising millions of dollars for small farmers and victims of natural disasters, war, and AIDS. Among his efforts are Farm Aid and the Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute. He is known as a soft touch. “I don’t like seeing anybody treated unfairly,” he says. “It sticks in my craw. I hold on to the values from my childhood.”
His was a tough and unpromising childhood. “I was 6 months old and my sister Bobbie was 3 years old when my parents divorced and gave us to my grandparents,” he recalls. (Bobbie, 79, his only sibling, plays piano in his band.) “I have no anger about my parents. They did us a favor. My grandparents were very reliable Christian people who gave us a good raising.”

At 2, Willie began going into the hot, unforgiving cotton fields with his grandmother. “I was too young to pick, so I’d ride on her sack,” he says. “She’d pull me on it, picking cotton, filling it up, making me a soft bed to ride on. The sack would start out empty, and before the morning was out, there would be 60, 70 pounds of cotton in it. Then, still just a little bitty kid, I got old enough to pull my own sack. As I got older, the sacks got bigger.”
When he was 6, his granddad died, and the family’s financial situation worsened. His grandmother took a job for $18 a week as a cook at the school cafeteria. “I worked there, too, carrying out the garbage to pay for me and Bobbie’s lunches.” Still, he recalls, “It wasn’t humiliating. Nobody else had anything to speak of in Abbott. I don’t remember ever going hungry.”

Willie was a good student and athlete, a popular kid, but he felt the pull of music and the tug of faraway places. “I saw Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies every weekend,” he says. “They were my heroes. Riding my horse, shooting my gun, singing my songs, playing my guitar—that’s what I wanted to do.”

Following high school graduation, Willie joined the Air Force. The Korean War was on, and he was broke. “I joined because I knew that for four years, I wouldn’t starve to death,” he explains. “A lot of people joined up for that reason. I don’t think things have changed much in the world since.”
Willie served nine months before receiving a medical discharge due to back injuries. At 19, he married Martha Matthews, a beautiful 16-year-old. “I was always a sucker for long-black-haired women,” he admits. They quarreled, brawled, drank heavily, and had two daughters, Lana and Susie, and a son, Billy. Willie tried college but left after a year. He kept writing songs and playing music and also worked as a radio DJ, a door-to-door salesman, and a plumber. After 10 contentious years, his marriage collapsed.

In 1960, Willie went to Nashville and experienced his first big success—as a songwriter. He wrote “Crazy,” “Pretty Paper,” “Hello Walls,” and hundreds more, becoming one of America’s best composers of popular song. Overall, he has recorded over 300 albums that have sold more than 50 million copies and performed with the full range of the nation’s musical talent, from Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, and Merle Haggard to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dyla-n, Dolly Parton, Norah Jones, and Snoop Dogg. His newest CD, Country Music, is hauntingly beautiful.

Willie married singer Shirley Collie in 1963, but the next year he began an affair with Connie Koepke, who was just two years out of high school. He and Collie divorced, and he wed Koepke in 1971. Their 16-year marriage produced daughters Amy and Paula and brought him and his family back to his home state. “I really felt like I needed to be in Texas,” he says, “playing to the people that were and still are my base.”

His fourth wife, Annie D’Angelo, entered his life as the make-up artist on the set of the 1986 film Stagecoach, co-starring Johnny Cash. (Willie has made 31 movies, few of them memorable.) He and Annie wed in 1991. Their marriage works, because, “well, I now understand a lot more than I did,” Willie says. “I’m not easy to live with. I’m pretty temperamental, you know. I’ve been used to doing things my own way for so long that I’m not interested in any suggestions. There was friction with my other wives. But it seems like Annie and I did okay with each other. It takes a special person to live with me.

“I’ve got great wives, great kids, great grandkids,” he boasts. “Both my sons, Micah and Lukas, are doing well.” (Jacob Micah, 20, and Lukas Autry, 21, are his children with Annie.) “Micah’s at college and has a band, The Reflectables. Lukas has a band, too, The Promise of Real.” Willie chuckles at those names. “Lukas has opened for Bob Dylan and B.B. King, so he’s doing really well.  He’s also opened for me a few times, and he will again.”
Beyond aging, the reason Willie offers for his being easier to live with is his cutting down on liquor while increasing his intake of cannabis. He is an outspoken proponent of marijuana and strongly opposes hard drugs like meth and cocaine.
“Legalize weed,” he declares. “It’s 50% of what’s causing the problems along the border with the drug cartels. A lot of people who sell it want to keep it illegal because that’s where the money is. The cartels are now in hundreds of our cities, growing and selling weed. Legalize it, and it would stop all that immediately.

“There are many bands that are not here anymore because of the drugs and alcohol,” he adds. “I know a lot of singers who have ruined their careers drinking and drugging.”

Willie and his family have also suffered through the devastating consequences of drug addiction. His son Billy hanged himself on Christmas Day, 1991, at 33. He had been in and out of rehab for substance abuse, and his death was the worst event of Willie’s life. I ask about Billy.
“Death is not the ending of anything,” Willie says quietly. “I believe all of us are only energy that becomes matter. When the matter goes away, the energy still exists. You can’t destroy it.It never dies. It manifests itself somewhere else.” He pauses. “We are never alone. Even by ourselves, we are not alone. Death is just a door opening to somewhere else. Someday we’ll know what that door opens to.”

Willie smiles at me, looking impossibly tranquil, even beatific. “I believe that,” he affirms. “I really do.”

Willie Nelson’s 33rd Annual Farm Aid Concert in Hartford

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

www.Billboard.com

The annual benefit takes place Sept. 22 amid a new family farm crisis. Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff also join Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.

With farmers in New England and other regions facing a deepening financial crisis, Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid organization announced Monday (June 25) that the annual benefit for family farmers will play Connecticut for the first time on Sept. 22 at the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford — and Chris Stapleton will join Farm Aid’s all-star lineup for the first time.

Chris Stapleton — who won Grammy Awards in February for best country album (From a Room: Volume 1), best country solo performance (“Either Way”) and best country song (“Broken Halos”) — will share the Hartford bill with returning Farm Aid performers Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. Particle Kid will also perform and other acts will be announced.

This year’s performers will join Farm Aid’s guiding foursome of Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, who will perform an acoustic set with Tim Reynolds. Matthews has been on tour this summer with the Dave Matthews Band behind the group’s latest album, Come Tomorrow, which debuted at No. 1 this month on the Billboard 200.

Neil Young performs during  2017 Farm Aid on Sept. 16, 2017 in Burgettstown, Penn.

Read More

Neil Young at Farm Aid: ‘America is Already Great’

Tickets for Farm Aid 2018 will go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. ET through Live Nation and by phone at at (800) 745-3000. A limited number of pre-sale tickets will be sold beginning at 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday at farmaid.org/festival.

Now in its 33rd year, Farm Aid is the longest-running concert for a cause in pop music history. Mellencamp was once challenged by someone who asked: “Are you guys still doing that?” He retorted: “Are you still eating?”

Farm Aid, through its annual concerts, has raised more than $53 million for grants to help family farmers and to advocate on their behalf. Across more than three decades, led by Nelson, Farm Aid has sought to to fight corporate control of America’s farmland, shape national farming policy, and promote the Good Food Movement.

FarmAid-30-Willie-Nelson-Neil-Young-Dave-Matthews-John-Mellencamp-Billboard-650.jpg” alt=”Farm Aid, headlined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Dave Matthews and john Mellencamp, is the music industry’s longest-running concert for a cause.  ” />

How Willie Nelson Created Music’s Longest Running Concert For A Cause

But as Farm Aid 2018 approaches, the economic circumstances for family farmers are similar to the conditions that led Nelson to stage the first benefit in 1985. Net farm income has dropped 53 percent since 2013 and median farm income is likely to run $1,316 in the red in 2018, according to studies cited by Farm Aid.

“Family farmers are the backbone of our country,” said Nelson in a statement. “But today, they are endangered. Whether we live in cities like Hartford or the rural areas of New England, each of us has the power to create positive, lasting change in our farm and food system and strengthen farm families to help them stay on the land for generations to come.”

Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young adds: “Good food and good farms.  That’s why we’re here.  We really do care.”

Connecticut is home to 6,000 farms and agriculture contributes up to $4 billion to the state’s economy, while farming and food production generate 21,000 jobs in the state annually. Hartford County, where this year’s concert will take place, represents a rare bright spot in the country, gaining more than 100 farms since 2007.

But dairy farmers in Connecticut, like their counterparts elsewhere, are suffering the economic impact of four years of dropping milk prices. (Margo Price, whose 2016 debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was inspired by the loss of her family’s farm, expertly weighed in on milk pricing during a Farm Aid workshop at the 2017 concert.)

After a dairy farmer in New York State took his life in January, The New York Times reported, “Agri-Mark, a large cooperative that bought milk from the farmer, sent its 550 members in the state a list of suicide and mental health hotlines — along with the news that milk prices would drop even lower this year.”

Farm Aid supporters tour Braddock Farms

In the face of ongoing struggle for family farmers, Farm Aid each year serves as an annual gathering of activists focused on food issues, environmentalism and social-justice battles. Many farmers and activists travel to the event to network, share strategies, listen to the music and eat family farm food on a menu that Farm Aid has trademarked “Homegrown Concessions.” With composting practiced backstage and promoted to the audience, the concert aims for zero waste.

To expand its fundraising reach, Farm Aid has again partnered with IfOnly to offer one-of-a-kind fan experiences at Farm Aid 2018. Among the items offered this year are: a behind-the-scenes backstage tour, plus deluxe amenities and tickets within the first eight rows; photo pit packages for Nelson, Young, Mellencamp, Matthews, Simpson and Rateliff & the Nightsweats, along with VIP amenities and tickets; premium seats in the first two rows for the pre-show press event attended by Farm Aid’s four board members; a custom Epiphone guitar signed by Nelson; and retro Farm Aid T-shirts, signed by Nelson and Matthews. People can purchase and bid on these special offerings starting June 25 at ifonly.com/FarmAid.

Farm Aid’s support of family farmers extends to its policy of accepting sponsorship only from companies that share its mission. It is supported by partnerships with Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Patagonia Workwear, New Belgium Brewery, Horizon Organic and Pete and Gerry’s Organic.

Farm Aid will be posting updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and festivalgoers are encouraged to use the hashtags #FarmAid2018 and #Road2FarmAid to post festival discussions on social media.

Willie Nelson” Mellowest Man Alive (Rolling Stone, Dec. 25, 2008)

Monday, June 25th, 2018

www.rollingstone.com
by: Vanessa Grigoriadis
December 25, 2008

In the 100-degree heat of a Texas afternoon, hundreds of Willie Nelson fans make a pilgrimage to see their prophet, priest and king, in a particularly unassuming spot — Carl’s Corner, an interstate truck stop on a dusty plateau between Austin and Dallas. The stop, and the town to which it belongs (pop. 134), is presided over by Carl himself, a wheezy, unkempt Santa Claus with nine fingers — a rattlesnake has the 10th — and a knack for schemes to separate truckers from dollars. He tried a swimming pool, 24-hour restaurant, wedding chapel and strip club before turning to his good friend Willie Nelson, who had a notion that might work — and also help save the planet: a biodiesel station. Two years and several million dollars later, a large stainless-steel plant run by Pacif­ic Biodiesel rises mightily behind a new wood-paneled juke joint, to supply the 14 gleaming pumps in front with 8,000 gal­lons of biodiesel per day. The stop is now named Willie’s Place.

In the typical Willie way, the scene is chaotic at today’s 10 hours of concerts by Willie and friends — including Ray Price, Johnny Bush and David Allan Coe — with cowboys patting pockets for drink tickets and bum-rushing a bullet supper. Yel­low caution tape has been run around all the pumps, which, it turns out, aren’t yet hooked up to biodiesel. “Oh, they’ll get around to putting it in those pumps for folks eventually,” says Willie, grinning a bit. Though his face is deeply creased, his brown eyes a little cloudy and his beard and eyebrows completely white, the cos­mic cowboy-Buddhist is dressed today like a kid at play: black T-shirt with the sleeves cut oil, worn black slacks and gray New Balance sneakers. Age has made him even mellower than he used to be, say bandmates. He’s become almost pathologically attached to surrounding himself with pos­itive vibes, but there’s a hitch: Willie likes to stir up trouble. In fact, the more things that go wrong, the happier he is.

“A lot of Willie’s life operates on the chaos theory, which doesn’t often happen in entertainment — or happen artfully in entertainment,” says Joe Nick Patoski, au­thor of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, a biog­raphy of Willie. “He’s a lot more complex a person than people give him credit for, and it’s a complex world around him. But he’s been very good about sailing above it all by sticking to what he does.”

What he does, first and foremost, is work. Willie, who has sold more than 50 million albums in his lifetime, has been busy with many projects this year: In ad­dition to lending his support to causes like Myanmar relief, he has kept up his long-term work with Farm Aid and equine-rescue outfit Habitat for Hors­es; a collaboration with Wynton Marsalis; a co-authored Western novel; as well as an appearance in the 2008 Toby Keith film Beer for My Horses, a cameo in Snoop Dogg’s song “My Medicine” and a new song for an upcoming film, Tennessee, with Mariah Carey. In February, he is releasing an album of Western swing songs with Asleep at the Wheel. In fact, he’d like to rerecord a lot of his own work. “There’s songs that I’ve had, good songs, that never got their due,” he says, nodding his head firmly. In March, Naked Willie, an album of Willie’s recordings on RCA from 1966 to 1970, without the strings and schmaltz, produced by his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, will be released. “For the album cover,” says Raphael, “Willie took a picture of himself with his iPhone while he was in the bubble bath, and sent it to me.”

Yes, Willie has an iPhone.

The hardest work of all — or the most fun — is touring. At 75, Willie travels about 200 days a year with the “Family Band,” a group that includes his 77-year-old sis­ter, Bobbie, a pianist. Though he gets the occasional bout of heatstroke, he tries to stay in shape on the road: He bikes, prac­tices yoga and bowls on his Wii with his teenage sons, Lukas and Micah, a guitar­ist and a percussionist who tour with him in the summer.

“I’ve heard that lots of senior-citizens centers are getting Wiis, because it really does work,” Willie says, eyes glittering with excitement. He leans in. “You know, most 75-year-olds already decided to hang it up a long time ago. I would never be in that mind-set, because I enjoy what I’m doing. As long as I’m healthy, I’ll never leave the road — well, if people stopped showing up, that might be a reason to quit it. But I’m watching people like B.B. King, or Ernest Tubb, who toured until he died. I’m not ready to quit.” He juts his chin for­ward. “I’m not ready to die, either.”

We’re talking on Willie’s bus. Where else would we be? He rarely leaves it, unless he needs to go onstage: It’s his “submarine,” as he has called it, a darkly tinted bubble from which he watches the world drift by or invites it in. When he’s at home on his ranch in Austin and his wife, Annie, isn’t in town — she has made their other home, in Maui, Hawaii, her primary residence, an arrangement that suits both of them fine — he prefers to sleep on the bus, the rear end of which has a psychedelic portrait of his face morphing into an eagle. The bus is spick-and-span throughout, with black leather seats and mahogany built-ins, and a few personal touches: photos of his grandkids tacked on a corkboard, bum­per stickers like “Make Levees, Not War” on the fridge. His daughter Lana, 55, makes eggs for her father at midnight as they roll into a new town, and he takes naps a cou­ple of times a day back in his bunk.

Willie Nelson, who has sold more than 50 million albums in his lifetime, has been busy with many projects this year: In addition to lending his support to causes like Myanmar relief, he has kept up his long-term work with Farm Aid and equine-rescue outfit Habitat for Horses; a collaboration with Wynton Marsalis; a co-authored Western novel; as well as an appearance in the 2008 Toby Keith film Beer for My Horses, a cameo in Snoop Dogg’s song “My Medicine” and a new song for an upcoming film, Tennessee, with Mariah Carey. In February, he is releasing an album of Western swing songs with Asleep at the Wheel. In fact, he’d like to rerecord a lot of his own work.

“There’s songs that I’ve had, good songs, that never got their due,” he says, nodding his head firmly. In March, Naked Willie, an album of Willie’s recordings on RCA from 1966 to 1970, without the strings and schmaltz, produced by his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, will be released. “For the album cover,” says Raphael, “Willie took a picture of himself with his iPhone while he was in the bubble bath, and sent it to me.”

“These days, I don’t have many dreams,” Willie says. “That’s a side effect of smoking pot — a bad one, or a good one, depending on what your dreams are.” Another side ef­fect: saying yes to almost everything. “He’s high, so everything sounds good to him,” says Raphael. If something sounds bad, he tries to forget that he heard it. “Willie never lies,” adds drummer Paul English, whose first job was playing with Willie in 1956 (he swears it will be his last one, too). “If I ask him something and he doesn’t answer, I never bring it up again. That’s his way of saying no.”

The kitchen nook is where Willie re­ceives friends, with XM classic country on the dial and his favorite things on the countertop. Not only does he have an iPhone, but he’s brought along two Mac PowerBooks, to check e-mail and surf the Net for left-leaning conspiracy theories (he is not sure that 9/11 wasn’t an inside job). Each of the computers has long, heavy scratch­es in the titanium, because fellow travelers have been known to throw them when ex­periencing technical difficulties. The real test of a star musician’s character is the cohesiveness of his band, and Willie has kept them close — he’s fired only two members in 30 years. He’s become more involved with his biological family as well, committed to maintaining a tight unit with his cur­rent wife and teenage sons. “Every morn­ing, Willie looks in the mirror and says, ‘Open your heart and give love a chance,’” says Turk Pipkin, an old friend and co­author of The Tao of Willie. “It’s nothing that he’s shy about, and it’s served him well.” In return, those around him give him fealty and protection on the road — they know the best medicine for his advancing age is music. “Willie has so much creativity, and it hurts to hold it in,” says Raphael.

This may be the case, but Willie can also be difficult. His Texan instinct to trust the most outlandish huckster in the room is problematic: The original biodiesel com­pany that Willie backed is flailing, its stock price trailing for less than a penny these days; at today’s concert, he’s promoting a Wataire machine, a kind of glorified de-humidifier that creates purified drinking water and has a price tag of $1,600. And he himself is covering up many scars — no-account parents who split quickly after his birth, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents in Depression-era Texas; the years he spent in Nashville as a strug­gling songwriter in the Sixties, until he fi­nally broke through in the mid-1970s; a debt of $16.7 million to the IRS in the early Nineties, which he paid off partially by auctioning his homes and possessions; three divorces, not always amicable; and the suicide of a son in 1991. “This is a guy who has really seen the dark side, and peo­ple don’t think that about Willie so much,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who is beginning work on a documentary about Willie, and whose band, the Boxmasters, toured with him this fall. “Willie doesn’t talk about the torture he’s been through. It only shows on his face.”

It’s a heady mix for guys looking for a fa­ther figure and hoping to hang with one of the world’s last pot-smoking icons. Woody Harrelson, Luke and Owen Wilson, and Johnny Knoxville have all become very close to Willie in recent years. When Knoxville appears at a concert the next day, he grabs crew members in big bear hugs. “I thought your granddaugh­ter was a beauty, and then I saw your daughter!” he tells the stage manager. Later, he be­comes choked up while talking about Willie. “I’m from Ten­nessee, and just to meet Wil­lie was an honor for me, but to call him my friend …” he says, then trails off. “It’s an under­statement to say it’s a special friendship for me.”

Harrelson has become a kind of Boswell for Willie’s funniest lines, which he types into his BlackBerry — “If you’re going to have sex with an animal, make sure it’s a horse, because then at least you’ll have a ride home,” for example — and is a regular at his poker games on Maui. “One time, my wife gave me some money to play poker,” says Har­relson. “I said to Willie, ‘Ah, she gave me this money, and I know I should triple it, but instead I’ll come home tonight smell­ing of whiskey, slobbering and broke.’ Willie said, ‘You have that right! As the breadwinner, it’s not only your right — it’s your responsibility! You have the responsibility to be irresponsi­ble!’ That was one of the most freeing things I ever heard in my life. I really needed to hear that.”

Today Willie takes the stage twice in the sweltering heat, sticking to his most popu­lar songs, like “Good Heart­ed Woman” and “Crazy,” rare­ly cracking a smile until the end, when he lifts his Stetson hat in farewell. As the chaos of mixed-up tickets, high school security guards and a mob of fans rages outside the bus, one of Willie’s roadies, Ben Dorcy, climbs on with Ray Price, who has come to sing a few tunes. Neither man is moving par­ticularly quickly: Price is 83, and Dorcy, a former valet for John Wayne who smokes Lon­don Fog in his pipe, is 81. Price gives a kiss to Willie’s wife, a curly-haired hippie chick who is about half as old as anyone in the room, then turns to “Sis­ter Bobbie,” who is drinking coffee out of a china teacup. “Every night, we get our energy from our audiences,” she says. “Maybe it’s what we put out, but they give it back, and that’s the fuel we need to get through the next day.”

Price and Willie sit down at the kitchen nook in front of a big glass ashtray filled with marijuana, for use in Wil­lie’s vaporizer, which was gift­ed to him by a dude Harrelson met on the beach in Maui. “I’ll smoke anything that comes around,” says Willie. “It doesn’t matter to me what type it is. People like to give me it. They feel that I shouldn’t be with­out it. The vaporizer makes it easier on my lungs, because I was coughing and wheezing a lot.” Is he worried about getting busted for possession again? “You think I won’t?” he says, grinning.

Willie tells Price a few jokes — “I’ve got a new song called ‘I Called Her a Bitch, She Called Me a Son of a Bitch, I Think We Might Make It Work This Time,’” he says, laughing — and starts talking politics. He’s excited about President-­elect Obama, who he thinks is a “good guy, with good ideas, and a good change,” he says. “I never did know if we’d be sharp enough to let the right guy in no matter what color he was,” he adds, then cocks his head. “I was talking to my friend Gatewood Gailbraith the other day, and I asked him what he felt about Obama. He goes, ‘It’s like a turtle on a post. You see it, and you think, How’d that get there?’”

Everyone dies laughing, and Price tells Dorcy to grab a bag of peaches that he bought at a nearby farm stand. Dorcy starts toward the door, inch by inch. “Hey, Ben-Ben,” Willie hol­lers. “If you can’t find those peaches, just bring us some doughnuts.”

Then he takes a puff on the vaporizer.

“I’m working on levitating,” he says, letting out a stream of smoke. “You’ll know when I pass by.”