Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie Nelson in Easyriders, (December 1979)

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER:  Why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER:  As you did, too — right?

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

ER:  Were you good at it?

WN:  Yeah, I was good at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER:  Thank you, Willie.

WN:  Thank you.

Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly (December 2005)

Monday, December 13th, 2021

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

by Evan Smith
Texas Monthly
December 2005

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

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

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

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

ES:  What’s your earliest memory of Abbott?

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

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

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

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

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

ES:  Big house or small house?

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

ES:  Did it take?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ES:  Do you remember when that first night was?

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

ES:  How did you get the gig?

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

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

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

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

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

ES:  Do you remember the first song you learned?

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

ES:  How old were you?

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

ES:  And your grandfather gave you your first guitar?

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

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

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

ES:  And the name of the band was?

WN:  Bud Flether and the Texans.

ES:  Why not Willie Nelson and the Texans?

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

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

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

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

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

ES:  What do you like about what you do?

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

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

WN:  Almost all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WN:  Born in ’33.

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

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

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

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

ES:  How’s your golf game?

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

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

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

ES:  Probably the same with chess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Nelson going strong (and fans can’t get enough)

Sunday, November 28th, 2021

www.americansongwriter.com
by: JOE VITAGLIANO

At 88 years old, Willie Nelson is still going strong… and music fans around the world still can’t get enough.

A fixture of pop culture’s landscape since he helped lay the foundation of modern country music in the late 1950s—penning hits for the likes of Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Faron Young, and more—Nelson has become a “living legend” of sorts. Then, moving to Texas after becoming disillusioned with the Nashville scene in the early ‘70s, he forged a style and sound that remains beloved by folks from all walks of life—hippies, hillbillies, blue collars, and white collars, all alike… and now, you can even add “digital-age Zoomers” to that list of admirers.

That’s because Nelson’s work has a certain timeless quality that’s continued to resonate through all these years. Still touring, he frequently sells out multi-thousand-seater venues, often holding his own as the lone guitarist on stage (in fact, the only other harmony instrument in the group is usually piano, which is played by his 90-year-old sister, Bobbie Nelson). Beyond that, his records still do well too—with 5.6 million monthly listeners, his top tracks alone have accumulated hundreds of millions of streams… and that’s not even counting all the folks who listen to his songs on old CDs, vinyl records, and downloaded tracks from the pre-streaming days.

All this combined, it’s clear that there’s something about Willie Nelson that just makes him loveable… and maybe one of the biggest factors playing into that is his songs themselves. 

Tunes like “Always On My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” both capture a sense of love, passion, loss, and longing that, in a way, speaks to the currents of American culture at large. With unabashed candidness and sentimentality, Nelson embraces the image of the rugged country man while conveying an emotional and powerful sense of humanity. To that end, the dual nuance and simplicity of the tunes make them nothing short of works of brilliance. 

On the flip side, songs like “On The Road Again” or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” accomplish the same feat, but from an entirely different angle. Embracing the rowdy, honky-tonkin’ tradition of his Texas roots, his more upbeat tunes have an air of inimitable humor, while still carrying a deeper meaning—a celebration of sorts of the culture from which he hails. 

And while Nelson is obviously a world-class songwriter, when he covers someone else’s tune, he can transform it into a wholly new entity, straddling the context of the original composition and his own canon of tune-smithing (as demonstrated by “Mamas,” “Blue Eyes” and “Always On My Mind”). Another one of his most beloved cuts is his version of “Rainbow Connection,” which came about as a tribute to Nelson’s own daughter, Amy.

Amy Nelson isn’t the only Nelson kid in the public eye, however—in fact, his sons, Lukas and Micah, are often the first to come to mind when thinking about Nelson’s grand musical family (in part thanks to their appearances at the majority of Nelson’s high-level shows). Lukas, 32, has made waves in Americana circles as the frontman and songwriter for Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real; Micah, 31, has made a name for himself as a proprietor of psych-y, alt-country with his project, Particle Kid. Both boys have joined their dad on stage numerous times over the years, mostly filling in the guitar parts with blazing solos and tasteful rhythm playing. 

With his dynasty of talented kin lined up and ready to carry the torch onward, it’s clear that Nelson’s legacy will continue to reverberate for years and years to come… but that’s not slowing him down while he’s still here. Playing shows and still recording new records, he hasn’t stopped pursuing his craft… and he hasn’t stopped his legendary use of cannabis either (though he did quit smoking in 2019).

“Willie does what he wants when he wants regarding smoking—there are numerous ways of consumption, he has not given up cannabis,” his publicist, Elaine Schock, told USA Today. In the same article, Nelson is quoted talking about how marijuana helped save his life: “I wouldn’t have lived 85 years if I’d have kept drinking and smoking like I was when I was 30, 40 years old. I think that weed kept me from wanting to kill people. And probably kept a lot of people from wanting to kill me, too—out there drunk, running around.” 

And who knows—with his smoking days behind him and more musical projects ahead, Nelson could have a whole lot more time to continue growing his already massive legacy. At 95, Tony Bennett is still a household name and recently earned 6 Grammy nominations for his latest record with Lady Gaga. 

What’s definitely clear, though, is that there’s only one Willie Nelson, and no matter what, he will be a treasured icon of American music forever. 


Read article here.

Vintage Guitar Magazine (November 2017)

Sunday, November 14th, 2021

www.VintageGuitar
by: Ward

Mark Erlewine’s 40 Years with Willie Nelson’s Trigger

For a decade, Willie Nelson chased fame as a performer in the Nashville mold of the ’60s – hair coifed, striding to center stage at the Grand Ole Opry in sport coat and tie. Nelson had become one of country music’s most valued songwriters; Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is a Willie song, as are Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” – a 1961 hit for Billy Walker but also recorded by Elvis Presley, George Jones, The Supremes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, and even as a duet by Linda Ronstadt and Homer Simpson.

photo: Lyn Goldsmith

In 1970, Nelson – 37 years old, freshly divorced, financially drained by tours, weary of culturally conservative Nashville, and having watched a fire destroy his house – moved back to his native state of Texas and a year later “retired” from music in a contract dispute with RCA.

In ’72, though, he moved from the small town of Bandera to Austin, where a new musical movement was taking shape. That August, he played the Armadillo World Headquarters club, a converted armory that had opened as a concert hall run by hippies who welcomed all types of music. Nelson was arguably the highest-profile player it had seen to that point, and his performance provided a considerable boost to the club – and the cause.

The effect was mutual. The appearance rejuvenated Nelson professionally and spiritually as he became one of the town’s musical “outlaws.” A counterculture version of country music, outlaw country used rhythms, instrumentation, and lyrical sensibilities that borrowed far more from rockabilly, honky tonk, and folk than Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers. Earthy and honest, it also countered Nashville’s glitzy “product” piloted by producers like Chet Atkins.

But even before fellow outlaws Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser, and Kris Kristofferson were helping forge the path, an oddly repurposed guitar was helping Nelson forge his unique sound.

For years, Fender and Gibson had been giving guitars to Nelson – Strats, Teles, 335s, etc. – but things changed when, before a gig in Houston in 1969, a rep for piano maker Baldwin (which had also bought Gretsch in a decidedly late rush to become a player in the “guitar boom”) gave him one of its 800C acoustic/electric classicals and C1 Custom amp. A devout fan of guitarist Django Reinhardt, Nelson had taken to emulating the Gypsy-jazzer’s sound and style, and the Baldwin pairing – marketed for its ability to produce true acoustic tone – fit the bill.

The magic of Baldwin’s Prismatone pickup lies in a ceramic sensor under each string. Regarded as perhaps the best pickup of its kind ever made, it offers a full, warm tone that rarely feeds back.

After a couple years of bonding, tragedy struck when a fan (lore has it, inebriated) at a show in the San Antonio suburb of Helotes stepped on the guitar while it was laying in its case. Two members of Nelson’s band drove the guitar to Nashville for a once-over by pedal-steel ace and guitar repairman Shot Jackson, owner of Sho-Bud Music. After Jackson deemed the Baldwin crushed beyond repair, Nelson asked for advice on a replacement. With only minor modification, Jackson said the Prismatone would fit on a $475 Martin N-20 hanging in his shop, enabling Willie to keep using the Baldwin amp through its proprietary stereo cord. The installation set Nelson back an additional $275.

In their 47 years together, Nelson and Trigger have performed more than 10,000 concerts on stages around the world and recorded nearly 70 studio albums (beginning with My Own Peculiar Way  and including Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust) featuring an unequaled range of material – pop, country, Western swing, reggae, along with singer/songwriter gems like “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain.” Along the way, the guitar has been autographed by more than 100 artists who’ve shared stages with them, beginning with Leon Russell and including Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Gene Autry.

These days, they tour two weeks at a stretch and by the end of any given year play about 150 shows.

The task of keeping Trigger ready to ride has, for the last 40 years, fallen on Austin-based luthier/repairman Mark Erlewine, whose love for music started one day in 1958 when he and his brother took their pooled pennies to Moe’s Records and Candy store in Downers Grove, Illinois, to buy the Everly Brothers “Wake Up Little Suzy.” The rest of the summer was spent singing along and playing air guitar.

The boys’ father, John, worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and in 1961 moved the family to Brussels, Belgium. The cultural shift didn’t damper his sons’ love of music; instead of the Everlys, they listened to Cliff Richard and The Shadows, and later, The Beatles.

“There was music dribbling in from the U.S. – The Ventures, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and more,” said Erlewine. “And by the time we got back to the States in ’64, I was into soul and R&B like the Four Tops, psychedelic stuff like Jefferson Airplane and Jimmy Hendrix, along with urban blues by Johnny Winter, John Mayall, and Junior Wells.

Photo: Dianne Erlewine.

Having stuck with piano and clarinet lessons since age seven, at 14 his parents let Mark start learning guitar on a rented Stella archtop. Though it was the sort of instrument that discouraged many a beginner – poorly constructed, with cheap tuners and nearly unplayable string height – it spurred his knack to tinker.

“It was so hard to play that I was pretty much forced to lower the bridge and nut slots,” he said. “That sparked my interest in guitar work.”

Within a couple years, he’d bought a new Martin D-18 that stayed with him through high school. At 21, he jumped to pedal-steel and has played it since, including for years in traditional country and Western-swing bands. Today, he plays mostly in church and for benefits.

We recently spoke with Erlewine to get the details on the path that led to his place as a revered builder and tech.

Because Vintage Guitar readers are so familiar with your cousin, Dan, through his “Guitar Rx” column, we should describe the role he has played in your life.

Dan and I got to know each other as kids, when our families spent a few summers at our grandmother’s cabin in rural Indiana. Those were such great times, and I remember having so much fun running around and playing in the river with my five cousins including Dan and his brother, Michael, who were several years older than me.

Years later, when they formed The Prime Movers and started hanging with heavy-hitter musicians, their lives became a source of fascination for me; I looked forward to hearing about their exploits.

Beyond the experience with that cheap Stella, what spurred your interest in working on guitars?

It was born out of simply trying to find my way. I’d decided college wasn’t for me, so at 19 I moved to Ann Arbor to spend time with Michael, Dan, and their brothers Stephen, Phillip, and Tom. I went to work in their family’s store, Circle Books, and did odd jobs until I approached Dan about doing an apprenticeship. My father was a woodworker and I learned a lot from him, but when I started working on guitars, I felt like I’d found something I was good at, and enjoyed.

I apprenticed under Dan for about a year, then we became partners. After a couple years, he went back to work at Herb David’s music store, so I bought out his interest in the shop. In ’74, I moved it to Austin after my friend, James Machin, had moved there for a job and told me I needed to experience the “hippie country music mecca” – Armadillo World Headquarters, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, ZZ Top, and others.

What were those early days like in Austin?

I rented shop space on Guadalupe Street, by the University of Texas, and spent a few nights on the floor before finding a place to live. I’d plaster the street with small posters about my services. Part of my motivation for moving to Austin was that Gibson had approached me about starting a warranty service for them in the Southwest; Dan and I had friends in the repair shop at their factory in Kalamazoo. After I set that up, Martin, Fender, and Ovation asked me to do factory authorization work, which helped build my business.

Who were some of your first clients?

Initially, it was local players like B.W. Stevenson and Doug Sahm. When Albert King started playing the Armadillo, and later, Antones, I’d be called to do maintenance on Lucy, the Flying V copy that Dan had built for Albert while I was an apprentice with him; my role back then with Dan was mostly grunt work like sanding and rough shaping, but he let me help on Lucy and other guitars he made for Jerry Garcia and Otis Rush.

After “Austin City Limits” started filming up the street from my shop, I started seeing more high-profile players who needed quick fixes.

When were you introduced to Willie Nelson?

Poodie Locke, the road manager for B.W. Stevenson, had me keeping B.W.’s guitar in working order. When Willie hired Poodie, he started bringing Trigger for me to fix. In 1977, I was invited to meet Willie at a backstage bar in the Austin Opry, where he and the Family were holding court during a week-long stint. That was when he told me, “As long as this guitar keeps going, I’ll keep going.”

So, no pressure (laughs)!

While I’m honored to help keep Trigger up and running, I think of Willie as a unique force of nature in the world of music. He’ll outlive us all, one way or another (laughs).

What was the first repair you did to Trigger?

As I recall, it was trying to address the hole he was picking through the top. I started using various braces to shore it up.

What’s the most significant thing you’ve done to it?

Maintaining the top has been much of the focus, but all of the parts have needed work at some time. There’s damage to the body and neck from life on the road, and many of the frets are razor thin, but Willie doesn’t want those fixed. If he can plug it in, tune it, and play it, he’s happy.

Do you see it regularly?

Willie’s crew is charged with keeping it usable on the road, then they bring it in as needed when the band is on break. It most often just needs cleaning and re-sealing the top, and from time to time I have to glue loose parts, replace tuners, or fix the pickup, preamp, or jack.

Is that hole the simple product of a million strums, or is there something about Willie’s style or technique that contributed to it?

Willie loves Django Reinhardt’s music and plays aggressively to get that sound – it’s just from his fingernails and pick hitting the top.

Read article, see more photos at Vintage Guitar site here.

Country Music: Willie Nelson (October 1980)

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

by Bob Allen

After national exposure in a film with Robert Redford, and more recently, in a starring role of his own in Honeysuckle Rose, the quiet days are gone forever for the Red Headed Stranger… but who’s complaining?

Several months from now after the picture of Willie Nelson sitting on a wooden fence in front of a pastoral Texas outdoor scene has appeared as part of the promotional campaign for his recently released feature film, Honeysuckle Rose, only a few people will know where it was really taken: in the parking lot of a non-descript beachfront motel in the suburban outskirts of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But that is the reason why Willie is perched on a small “portable” Hollywood facsimile of a wooden fence on a patch of grass next to a busy dual-lane thoroughfare, in front of a Best Western Motel in this rather early, but very hot Sunday morning in Southern Florida.

The theory is that Willie Nelson doesn’t have time right now, in the middle of a tour, to come to Hollywood for this photo, so instead, Hollywood has come to him: A contingent of photographers and executives have flown in the night before and brought with them the pieces of the ready-to-assemble fence on which Willie is sitting. Later, back on the West Coast, through the wonders of modern photography, the photo of Willie will be touched up slightly; a bucolic scene of hay bales, moo-cows, horses and cowboys and cowgirls will be superimposed over what is now mere asphalt and parked cars. More fence will be stripped in, until it looks like that one little section on which he’s sitting stretches all the way to the Texarkana border.

Even though it’s only about 10:00 a.m., a small crowd quickly gathers. Cars that pass on the busy street honk their horns and the drivers lean precariously out with huge smiles on their faces, giving ol’ Willie the universal power sign of the raised fist.

“Hhhheeeeyyyy Willieeee!!!!!”

Willie smiles quietly at them and returns their acknowledgements with his own clenched and raised fist. It’s obvious he doesn’t mind being recognized like this. In fact, he seems to rather enjoy it.

But still, there’s something slightly incongruous about it all:Â dear old Willie, his slender, well-carried frame perched with a Best Western Motel behind him, cars whizzing by in front of him, and the hot Florida sun beating down causing beads of sweat to form on his brow, and under his freshly pressed cowboy shirt he’s wearing, while his air-conditioned tour bus sits idling a few yards away, ready to whisk him off to his next show, clean across the state in St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast.

Perspiration is also forming in the brows of the two young photographers. One of them appears to b uneasy about something. His camera stops clicking. He looks up at the sun, then looks at the ground and then looks at Willie. He is not happy with Willie’s tennis shoes.

“I think you should have boots on,” he decides after a long pregnant pause.

Willie, whose movements are slow and deliberate anyhow, looks down from his perch at the ground, then looks up at the sun. His eyes narrow into slits and he locks the photographer in a scowl that would send Charles Bronson running for cover.

“What makes ya think that?” he asks ever so softly.

The photographer backs off, throws up his hands in a conciliatory jester, “Well, it’s uh… it’s fine with me… It’s great…. if you’re comfortable with the image.”

“I am.”

Far from ever being replaced by cowboy boots, Willie Nelson’s blue sneakers will probably some day be set in bronze. Because here lately, travelling the road with him, one gets the distinct impression that the whole world is now waiting to embrace him just the way he is — blue jogging shoes and all. To steal an applicable phrase from the late John F. Kennedy, the quiet days are gone forever. When Willie’s on the road anymore, it’s nothing like the tours of earlier years when he could check into a hotel under his own name, and walk around outside the club before the show to kill time. Nowadays, as soon as he signs him name to a room service tab, it’s all over. Word spreads through the hotel that he’s cloistered away on the grounds and a quiet, hushed excitement spreads through the lobby.

And funny things happen. Like the time on an earlier date of this particular swing through the Southeast when Willie happened to check into the same motel where two busloads of kids from a high school marching band were staying. the students and their instructors got word from the hotel management that Willie was on the premises, and then proceeded to roll out their instruments on the front lawn and play a command performance just for him. Willie was so amused and delighted by it all that he returned the favor by sticking around to pose for snapshots and sign autographs.

Things like that just seem to happen to Willie everywhere he goes these days: give him the key to his city. (He was recently presented the key to one good-sized Southern metropolis by the mayor, only to later pass it on — with equal formality — to the nine-year-old sister of one of his soundmen who had come to see his show.) People line up to get their photos snapped with him and offer him the use of their houses for the weekend. During his stay at the beachside motel in Fort Lauderdale, a large speedboat called the “Hot Lick” was quitely placed at the disposal of Willie and his travelling Family. Several times when he set off to take his daily run down the beach, he was waylaid by well intentioned fans bearing joints and cold cans of beer.

Except for some weird scenes in the parking lot — where crowds inevitably gather around the four tour buses that haul Willie’s Family around the country as soon as they pull in — and backstage, where the “lunatic fringe” sometimes congregate. Much of the adulation for Nelson still remains more of a reasonably calm veneration than a dangerously heated frenzy.

Nelson’s own appraisal of his new role as a latter-day cultural hero is amazingly realistic — almost self-effacing. “It’s a big responsibility to know that maybe just one person might be influenced just a little bit by what I do,” he told me in his usual soft speaking voice one afternoon sitting in his tour bus as it carried him and his band through the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale on the way to a one-nighter at an auditorium in a town somewhere out near the Florida Everglades. “But to think there might be thousands is a little bit scary… especially when I don’t consider myself as that much of someone to pattern their lives after… But,” he adds. “I feel like I’ve made all the mistakes and I hope I’ve learned from them.”

An objective look at the present state of Willie Nelson’s nearly three-decade-long musical career indicates that he’s not only learned from the errors of his ways, but he’s in fact, gone a step further and turned them all into triumphs. For at least the last three years some journalists have been sublety predicting that his career was bound to peak any second now, and that it would be all downhill form there. But, the fact is, it just seems to be gaining more and more momentum — almost by the day.

In fact, throughout Willie’s entire organization, there is a strange new feeling during this late Spring tour. It is a feeling that things had reached a new level that everyone involved is just learning how to deal with. Security is tighter and the whereabouts of Willie at any given time is a well-kept secret. (Some members of his crew even wear t-shirts insisting, “I DON’T KNOW WHERE WILLIE IS!”)

Calculated strategies now have to be developed to get Willie swiftly through the choking backstage crowds and into his bus after the show. there seems to be shades of Elvis Presley everywhere, there are now hulking security men who keep watch over him from the shadows in back of the stage, all through his performances.

The point is, things have changed. Members of the band now find themselves being chased through hotel lobbies by teenage girls, and inside the auditoriums during the shows, there is a tense, restless electricity that just wasn’t there a couple of years ago.

“Goin’ out and openin’ for Willie on a show sure ain’t the easiest thing in the world,” singer/songwriter/comedian Don Bowman, a long-time Willie Nelson sidekick signs as he sits in the air-conditioned comfort of his hotel suite complete with a picture window over-looking the ocean, the morning after one such concert in West Palm Beach. “This tour’s been the wildest of all. It’s like…the crowds… Well, you saw ’em last night, up standin’ on the chairs before he even hit the stage.. The only thing there is to compare it to is Elvis.”

The electricity of his live shows, though, is merely the more obvious evidence of the fact that Willie Willie Nelson is in high gear, and clearly on his way to becoming a household word. He’s walked away with both the Country Music Association’s and the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year awards in recent months, and he’s selling more records than ever before. All of his recent albums, including Willie and Family Life, Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson and One For the Road (with Leon Russell) have reached either gold or platinum (million sales) status. His two most recent, San Antonio Rose (with Ray Price) and the soundtrack from Honeysuckle Rose, both headed right for the top of the country charts. During the mid-summer of this year, he had six different albums simultaneously in the charts.

Steve Brooks, artist, featured in Advocate Magazine

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

www.oakcliff.advocatemag.com
by: Rachel Stone

The Lee Park “massacre” launched Steve Brooks’ career.

Brooks, who grew up in Oak Cliff and now lives in Kessler Park, was still a student at what is now the University of North Texas in April 1970 when he made a poster to commemorate the clash between “hippies” and police at an afternoon concert that resulted in dozens of arrests.

His poster caught the attention of Jerry Schultz, the owner of the Gas Pipe, who hired him to make art and advertising for his business. Not long after, a Dallas ad firm hired him as an art director.

“I decided I didn’t need to be a student anymore since they made me an art director,” he says. “But that was short-lived because they went out of business a few months later.”

He eventually finished his degree, but not before landing a job as an artist for Concerts West and launching his own company, S. Brooks Graphics, in the summer of 1971.

Brooks produced hundreds of posters and handbills for concerts at a time when every major rock ’n’ roll outfit had to play Dallas because it was a hub of the vinyl record industry for the whole Southwest.

Concerts West, which still exists as part of AEG, closed its Dallas offices a few years later, but by that time, Willie Nelson was requesting Brooks. He’d seen the Lee Park Massacre poster too. Beginning in 1974, Willie Nelson and The Family became Brooks’ biggest client.

One of the first jobs he did for Willie’s company Me and Paul Productions was a minimalist poster for the Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs, depicting a pair of sneakers with spurs.

Brooks designed Willie’s logos, personal stationery, tour passes, IDs, ads, posters and basically anything that said Willie Nelson on it besides an album cover for years. He spent several months in Austin for the filming of Honeysuckle Rose, and he made all the props with Buck Bonham’s name on it for that 1980 movie, including the bus, T-shirts and posters.

“Those were some of the best times of my life, working on that movie,” he says. 

He traveled to Colorado with The Family band around the same time and painted a teepee for Willie.

“Willie Nelson was awesome,” Brooks says. “He always paid with cash out of his pocket.”

His boss at Me and Paul Productions was Paul English, Willie’s drummer and protector who handled most of the business for some 50 years. English, who lived in Dallas for about 40 years when not on the road, died in February 2020.

“He was a true gentleman,” Brooks says. “I miss him terribly.”

Besides his work for Texas’ quintessential singer, Brooks also made a place for himself in Dallas history with his work in Buddy Magazine and The Iconoclast, two publications founded by Brent Lasalle Stein, aka Stoney Burns.

For the early ’70s alternative newspaper The Iconoclast, Brooks drew, “hippie stuff,” he says. “Black and white cartoons. Sometimes advertisements for clients.”

Buddy started in 1973, and Burns wound up catching hell from the justice system for his journalism, but that is another story. He died in 2011.

Brooks says Buddy, a publication that’s still around, was a great place to work because it was like working for The Rolling Stone of Texas in the ’70s.

“He was a real character,” Brooks says of Burns. “Kind of like a Hunter Thompson, but a lot more tame.”

Musicians and music-industry people came through all the time, “and we threw some really great parties,” he says. “It was good times.”

Brooks is retired now, but he still does some work for the Gas Pipe, which he says has been one of his best clients over the years. He created the logo and signage and all the advertising you’ve ever seen for it.

He has donated some of his work to the UNT libraries, which has a collection under his name. And he supplements his retirement by selling some of his personal stash to serious Willie Nelson collectors.

Brooks graduated from Sunset High School in 1967. He and wife Deborah have an adult son, Bryan. Brooks’ dad, LaVere Brooks, was an architect who designed several homes and commercial buildings in our neighborhood.

He says he owes his career to the Gas Pipe and Willie Nelson, and he’s grateful to them both.

“The two major players in my life as an artist,” he says.

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

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country Rhythms (September 1981) (UK)

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

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

Country Rhythms
September 1981

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

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

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Willie Nelson, Connie Nelson and daughters Amy and Paula

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

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People Magazine (September 1, 1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Willie Nelson and family in Life Magazine (August 1983)

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie and Waylon on Music City News (August 1995)

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie and Poodie

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

Monday, August 2nd, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 8th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you still writing songs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 8th, 2021

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

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

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

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

EH:  Do you ever lose patience with interviewers?

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

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

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

EH:  What DO fans want to know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WN:  Right!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EH:  Will we see another Highwayman tour?

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

EH:  Maybe Sinatra could stand in.

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

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

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