Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie Nelson: man, myth, music legend

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

by: Greg Archer

Man, myth, country music legend Willie Nelson descends upon Santa Cruz. The story you’ve been waiting for.

Willie Nelson is a bona fide music legend, yes. And that’s a very good thing. Willie Nelson also happens to be coming to Santa Cruz, which is, perhaps, even a better thing. Let’s face it: if there’s anybody Cruzans love to embrace with arms wide open, it’s a creative beast with liberal leanings who advocates the legalization of marijuana. The last time Nelson performed here, back in 2012, he attracted a huge crowd.

As most people already know, the pop country patriarch has led a colorful existence. Nelson’s six-decade career and collection of more than 200 albums to his credit are but two of the things that make the Texas singer-songwriter iconic. He also happens to be a resilient performer—that voice, those hands on the guitar. Few showmen have managed to capture the heart and spirit of a tale as effectively as Nelson has over the years.

But after the publication of his latest bestselling memoir, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road,” last year, as well as the studio release of Let’s Face The Music and Dance in April of this year, Nelson seems to be on a new roll. The album has been well received and his multi-city concert tour continues to pack in throngs of devotees. There’s also buzz over the September release of yet another album,


which comprises newly recorded duets between Nelson and a dream list of


cover poster

contemporary pop-county female crooners. It’s dubbed To All The Girls and it was mostly recorded in Nashville. A quick glimpse of the talent he’s working with on it makes one’s eyes widen in anticipation: Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn and—what’s this?—Mavis Staples. It’s the artist’s third full-length album of new music to be released in just 16 months and it celebrates a milestone year for Nelson—he turned 80 in April—and the work is loaded with classic songs from the American country, pop and gospel canons.

Truth is, Nelson doesn’t really need to do anything to keep his celebrity or his integrity in high orbit. The 10-time Grammy-winner has been inducted in into several music halls of fame and also garnered a Kennedy Center honoree in 1998. In 2000, he earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and every step along the way, his musings about life, love, survival, turning points, dreams, wishes, and all the highs and lows in between, have left an indelible imprint on the hearts and minds of the souls who’ve gravitated toward his words, his music, his work.

All of this comes to mind when Nelson’s upcoming appearance at the Santa Cruz Civic on Aug. 20 became more than a blip on my radar. Why not interview the man, I thought.

Good idea.

Nothing really came of my efforts. Well, I did give it my all, but Nelson rarely grants interviews, so it was a long shot anyway. Still, now the man was on my brain—he of Texan roots, political fervor and “outlaw country” fame; he of deep thought, Farm Aid, and costarring gigs inElectric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose; he of “Crazy,” of “On The Road Again,” of the mega hit duet “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

He of animal activism, of guitar strumming and pot possession.

My growing intrigue surprised even me. Hey—I’m blond, I’m Polish, I dig disco. Why ponder Willie?

Actually, why not?

If it’s true, and everything happens for a reason, then perhaps there was a very good reason why Willie Nelson kept popping up in my mental inbox. Perhaps there was something to learn from the man. Did I need to talk to him to do that? No, not necessarily. (Yes … it would have been nice—and hey, I’m still available for a drink after the show, by the way.) I’m creative. I’m enterprising. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. If I can survive childhood, puberty and the cancellation of ABC’s Happy Endings, surely I could discover another way to absorb the full Willie.

But how?

Through his music? His words?

Perhaps. But first, it only seems appropriate to do one thing first: Smoke something good. (For the art of it all; for journalistic integrity, for Mr. Nelson.)

So now, I ask that you, dear reader … yes, you, passionate person who has already exhibited such bravura by reading more than three paragraphs in a day and age when modern media is forcing you not to do so … bear with me as I kindly take flame to—(do I have to spell it out for you here?)—and light up.

On A Roll

Something haunts me about Willie Nelson’s memoir, which was released last year. It’s the title: “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road.” Actually, the title doesn’t bother me. It’s the concept—having your remains rolled up into a joint and smoked by your pals.

Imagine that. No, really, I mean it: Imagine it.

Now, imagine having had that very same idea, oh, like a decade ago. Yes, that’s right; yours truly boasted a secret craving to be cremated and have a few of his remains sprinkled into a joint. Originally, I thought it would be a nice idea to have one’s friends absorb a little bit of one’s spirit and essence. After all, wouldn’t I be all the wiser if I could inhale some of the good juju from my comrades? But then my mood swing era began—circa 2001—and the idea of having my dearest pals inhale my lingering threads seemed a bit abusive … for how would I ever know if they’d be absorbing the best parts of me—and not the more “questionable” aspects?

Back to Nelson’s book—he’s the author of more than a dozen, by the way, having spawned the bestsellers: “The Facts of Life and other Dirty Jokes” and “The Tao of Willie,” among others.  “Roll Me Up …” is a bountiful read filled with tales and anecdotes about Nelson’s grandest endeavors, greatest influences and all of the things that matter to him most. It also celebrates Nelson’s friends, family and colleagues from whom he’s either drawn love or inspiration. In fact, the book’s soul is anchored around Nelson’s family and community and the entire gang has something to share here.

Fitting? Yes. Nelson keeps his peeps close by—on concert tours and beyond. His band, after all, is called Willie Nelson and Family. Sister Bobbie in on piano; daughter Amy on back-up vocals; and longtime cohorts Mickey Raphael (on harmonica; see sidebar), Paul English (on drums) and Billy English (percussion).

The book is insightful, too. Sure enough, Nelson …

(Oh dear, I fear I’m being entirely too formal here.)

Sure enough Willie doesn’t avoid controversial subjects either. He freely shares his thoughts on the government and corporations, and in between boldly suggests that it’s more than good to explore where our attitudes and apathy actually take us.

So, with Willie’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” playing on Pandora, I turn to the page 114 in the book, which features a note and the song after which the book is named.

    He writes:

THE NEXT SONG IS ON MY NEW RECORD. I PLUG MY MUSIC ANY TIME I can. I know it’s commercialism at its lowest forum … Bite me, again. It’s beginning to feel good.

…Well take me out and build a roaring fire
And roll me in the flames for ’bout an hour
And then pull me out and twist me up
And point me towards the sky
And roll me up and smoke me when I die.

Inhale Nation

It’s hard to prove, but I suspect you can count on one hand the number of people who don’t know anything about Nelson’s stance on marijuana. He is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and has often claimed that pot is not a drug, but rather an herb infused with natural properties and he has been a strong advocate for legalizing marijuana. Although he’s been arrested several times for pot possession, it hasn’t deterred Nelson. It wasn’t that long ago that he launched Willie Nelson’s Teapot Party. Its motto is “we lean a little to the left;” and of marijuana, Nelson is quoted online as saying, “Tax it, regulate it and legalize it.” The group’s Facebook page now boasts more than 100,000 Likes.

I must pause …

cover Nelson3“Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” is playing on Pandora. It’s Willie’s famous duet with Waylon Jennings from 35 years ago.  It hit No. 1 on the Country charts, climbed the Billboard Hot 100 and nabbed a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a duo. The line “Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold” stands out for me so I make a mental note of it before turning back to the book, my search for some life lessons in full swing.

In the memoir, Willie explains that he started the Teapot Party after he was busted for pot in 2010. Apparently, the organization now has reps in every state. He claims that on a few occasions, the group has even backed some politicians who share some of their ideals, mainly that marijuana should be legalized, taxed, regulated the “same way we do alcohol and tobacco.”

“If we legalized drugs in this country, and treated abuse as the disease it is, and offered medical treatment for these addicts, it would make much more sense than putting them in prison, and we should leave the marijuana users alone but tax them,” he writes. “It’s already been proven that taxing and regulating marijuana makes more sense than sending young people to prison for smoking a God-given herb that has never been proven to be fatal to anybody.”

No doubt this month’s recent speech in San Francisco by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about revamping “mandatory minimum” sentences on small-time drug offenses intrigued Willie. Holder noted that prosecutors in his Department of Justice would no longer seek the harshest possible charges in “low-level” narcotics cases, charges that, thus far, have spawned lengthy minimum sentences and tend to overcrowd prisons with “nonviolent offenders.”

Could Lesson No. 1 be: Don’t Send Young People to Prison For Smoking a God-given Herb?

You know, I must confess, I am not much of a pot smoker. In fact, I’m not a pot smoker—at all. I only came up with the idea for this article. Oh, people have done their best to encourage me to smoke pot. Oh, yes they have.

“Really, Greg, with all of your mood swings, I don’t see why you don’t get a medical marijuana card and call it a day?”

Or … “You just need to chill.”

Chill? Easy for them to say.

As if being a Sagittarius with a Scorpio Moon, Scorpio Rising, Scorpio in Neptune and Scorpio in Venus who was birthed from the loins of a Polish immigrant who barely escaped Stalin’s wrath is such a wonderful biochemically-balanced walk in the park.

I digress.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with questioning the esoteric fabrics of one’s inner being and the Universe to boot. And it isn’t always fun and games. (Well, it is, but on a much deeper level, and really, it would take too long to explain it here … for the day is progressing and the world must be Tweeted about and there are kids to pick up from day care, after all, so why get into that now when I’m beginning to feel really really good … We can wait for the likes of Deepak Chopra to come to town to chat about these deeper topics. But we don’t have Deepak Chopra coming to town so we’ll have to push aside the craving to consume quantum soup and stay on track.)

Willie Nelson. The lessons.

There’s more to learn. But what, exactly?

By the way, if you could all see how quickly I am typing right now, you’d be impressed. God knows—I am.

And no, it has nothing to do with being “high.” Who knows if I really am. (I never said what I brought that flame to, after all. LOL.) Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to water down the flow of the prose with something as inane as a Text-cronym. (Really, at some point we’re all going to look back on the LOLs we’ve texted and be utterly ashamed that we’ve participated in the deadening of our brain cells.)

Wait a second … I could have made that point much better, considering the circumstances.

Back to Willie.

But first, more about me.

Truth is: I’m typically high on life. Aren’t you? I mean, my goodness, it’s so rich and delicious. You know, I’ve often said—and feel free to quote me on this—that “Life is like one big, fat, juicy peach … and that you have to take a big bite out of it and let the juice dribble down your chin.” I mean, really, what are we here for if we’re not supposed to surpass our own previous incarnations and expectations of ourselves; move further beyond what we think we think we can do?

Grow, damnit, grow!

Willie has. I mean, look at the man—he with all his hit singles, his legions of fans, and countless musings about life.

For a guy born in the Depression era, he didn’t settle for doing just fine. He paved his own way, created a stallion out of his music— that embraceable hybrid of jazz, pop, blues, rock and folk—and rode it all the way to Country Town. This, from a guy who is said to have toured with the Bohemian Polka as lead singer and guitar player when he was in high school. This is a man who made his way into Ray Price’s band in the early ’60s and recorded his first album  … And Then I Wrote by 1962. He’s the dude whose singles “On The Road Again,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Blue Skies,” “Always on my Mind” and “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got the Time,” sold millions. He’s the fella that owns the bio-diesel brand Willie Nelson Biodiesel—or BioWillie—which is made from vegetable oil. He’s the animal rights advocate who fiercely campaigned for the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Taking things a prairie further, he also went on to warn consumers about the cruel and illegal living conditions of calves that were raised to produce milk for various dairy products.

Not to be left out: LGBT rights.

Nelson has been a supporter of LGBT civil rights for some time … for it was back in 2006 that he launched on iTunes that quirky-cool version of Ned Sublette’s “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other.” He’s also the guy that boldly went on to tell Texas Monthly this year that, regarding same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act, that, “We’ll look back and say it was crazy that we ever even argued about this.”

Willie—free, unconventional and full of heart?

Yes, methinks, yes.

Learning Lessons

Page 87. Willie’s thought of the day: “If there is no solution, there is no problem.”

He writes … “if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s I don’t know nothin’ for sure.”

And on the following page: “I housebroke my dog. Every time he shit on the floor I would rub his nose in it, then throw him out the window. Now when he shits on the floor, he rubs his nose in it and jumps right out the window.”

And later still: “I shouldn’t have a problem writing this book: I’m so opinionated that I can give you my opinion on almost anything, anytime, and I’m glad to do it because I’m just an asshole. But they say opinions are like assholes: everybody has one. … I guess. ‘While in all your knowing, know yourself first.’ I’m not sure who said that. It was either Billy Joe Shaver or Jesus.”

I’m tempted to share Willie’s passage on passing gas on an airplane—and how medicinal and healing he claims his gas is—but really, let’s fact it: We’ve already slid so far down such a slippery slope here I fear none of us will walk away from this having learned a damn thing. (Although “Don’t Smoke and Write!” immediately comes to mind.)

You know, I’ve shared with people that the Universe often strums three magical words for us to listen to whenever we’re in need of assistance or guidance.

There’s “Let it go.”

There’s “Get over it … !”

And my personal favorite: “Don’t freak out!”

Maybe that’s the magic Willie holds and shares: Not freaking out. Somehow, as he’s moved creatively during his eight decades of living, the guy has managed to allow art to imitate life—and vice versa. He’s become a living, breathing country music song, something fluid, something with refrains and crescendos, with twangs and chords, and even when life and love get messy—as he croons about so deeply in the song “Three Days”—you still get the sense that, despite the woes, the guy’s country grace has the ability to keep him—and his fans—coming back for more.

That’s art. That’s Willie.

And that’s a wrap.

Willie Nelson’s Magic Guitar

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Sun Magazine
Country music’s megastar Willie Nelson is beloved by fans for both his unique musical sounds and his action-packed movies, but much of his energy and excitement on stage comes from the magical power of his golden-toned guitar.

So says noted Chicago area psychic Joseph DeLouise who explains Nelson’s guitar is a tremendous reservoir of creativity because of the autographs of all the country music greats who have signed the instrument.

It’s those high energy signatures, as much as Nelson’s innate talent, that give the star much of his magnetism.

This metaphysical instrument, named Trigger, Jr., is an acoustic Martin N-20 Classic made of rosewood, spruce and ebony which retailed for $475 when the performer purchased it back in 1969.

The star remarks that Trigger Jr. wasn’t his first guitar.  “The Baldwin company gave me a guitar with a pickup on it,” relates Nelson.  A pickup is a device to electrically amplify the instrument.

“I dropped the Baldwin one day and busted it.  So I had the Baldwin pickup put in this Martin Classic.”  The tone knocked me out when I first heart it.

“I’ve tried putting other Baldwin pickups in Martins, but I can’t get an equal sound,” he explains.

According to Nelson, Leon Russell told him having somebody sign your guitar was a good insurance policy.

“I had Leon sign it, and as I traveled around, I got everyone else I worked with to autograph it,” the singer smiles.

Nelson says he has so many names on the instrument now he can’t even remember everybody who has signed it.  The all star crew includes such big guns as Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Rita Coolidge.  DeLouise explains that the signatures contain the energy of the stars they belong to, and this energy is transmitted to Nelson everytime he picks up his instrument.

“Nelson is a metaphysial genius,” says DeLouise. “By having fellow performers sign the guitar, Nelson taps into their greatness.  Their talent and their energy becomes part of Nelson’s talent and energy.

DeLousie claims Trigger, Jr., is so powerful that if you placed the guitar in a museum, people walking by it would feel the energy.

“There is no way Willie can have a bad day or perform an off concert when he uses that guitar,” states DeLouise.  “All he has to do is run his fingers over some of those names.”

According to DeLouise, most successful people use a metaphysical technique similar to this one to help achieve their goals.

It’s the same idea as trying to touch somebody who is famous or wanting a photograph of somebody great.  By having that part of the person whom you admire in your possession, some of that person’s magic rubs off on you.

Willie Nelson, the early years

Thursday, December 11th, 2014


Willie and the Wheel

Monday, December 8th, 2014






Paul English: The man behind Willie Nelson (Oxford American: Southern Music Issue)

Thursday, December 4th, 2014


Order your copy here:

The Oxford American is proud to release the 16th annual Southern Music Issue, which honors the profound musical history of TEXAS in 160 pages of writing and art, along with a 25-song CD compilation.

The cover features a stunning portrait of Guy and Susanna Clark taken in 1975 by iconic Nashville photographer Jim McGuire. Guy Clark’s song “My Favorite Picture of You,” the title track from his Grammy-winning 2013 album—written for his wife just a year before she died in 2012—is a highlight of the CD.

Along with Clark, the Texas compilation features music that best exemplifies the state’s rich, diverse sounds and traditions. Artists showcased on the album include Ray Price and Bob WillsBilly Joe Shaver and James McMurtryBuddy Holly and Waylon JenningsLee Ann WomackOrnette ColemanSarah JaroszFreddy FenderWillie NelsonBarbara LynnJohnny Winter, and others.

In the magazine: Tamara Saviano on the poetry of Guy Clark; Joe Nick Patoski profiles Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer, Paul “The Devil” EnglishAmanda Petrusich remembers Houston hip-hop genius DJ ScrewDom Flemons interviews Arhoolie Records founder Chris StrachwitzRachel Monroe tries on Roy Orbison’s glasses; Michelle García searches for the birth of Tejano music; Margaret Moser pays tribute to the Austin music scene; Tom MaxwellCynthia Shearer, and Nathan Salsburg profile Texas folklorists and the musicians they recorded—and much more. The issue also presents new poetry by John PochNaomi Shihab Nye, and David Tomas Martinez, and short fiction by Bret Anthony Johnston.

The Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue has generated high praise during its years of publication. The Houston Chronicle described it as “the single best music-related magazine of any given year,” while the Boston Globe simply termed the issue “a welcome fix.” Chris Issak called it “a great, great magazine . . . like getting four years of Rolling Stone all in the same magazine.” In December of 2012, New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote that the Music Issue CDs “practically belong in the Smithsonian.”

The Texas Music Issue was funded, in part, by a successful kickstarter campaign that raised $53,757 from 1,008 individuals.

Willie Nelson (Parade Magazine)

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

by: Isabelle Raphael

Now 80, Willie Nelson is still at it, touring on his fancy bus, playing to sold-out clubs and stadiums. “Since I was a kid, music was what I wanted to do,” Willie Nelson told PARADE in 2010. “I thought I could make it by my own talents. That’s what I wanted to prove.”

The Texas-born star also opened up about his love of country music.

“A lot of country music is sad,” he said. “I think most art comes out of poverty and hard times. It applies to music. Three chords and the truth—that’s what a country song is. There is a lot of heartache in the world.”

“Anybody can be unhappy,” he added. “We can all be hurt. You don’t have to be poor to need something or somebody. Rednecks, hippies, misfits—we’re all the same. Gay or straight? So what? It doesn’t matter to me. We have to be concerned about other people, regardless.”

Willie Nelson in Austin Fit Magazine (November 2012)

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

November 2012

The November issue of Austin Fit Magazine profiles Willie Nelson, longtime supporter of Farm Aid. In this piece exclusive to CultureMap, Austin Fit explores the history of Farm Aid and musicians.

The songs of John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and Neil Young have made their way from A-tracks to CD players to today’s iPhone. Most would be surprised to know that those same names that appear on your shuffle playlist appear on the list of names of board members for an organization that is fighting for the family farmer in America. The four renowned recording artists are leaders for Farm Aid, whose slogan reads “Keep America Growing!”

Farm Aid’s mission is simple: keep family farmers on their land. This nonprofit organization assists farmers struggling economically by connecting them to local and regional markets to get family food into the grocery stores and families’ cabinets in urban neighborhoods. Along with this focus on family farming is the Good Food Movement, which promotes the use of “direct sales” through farmers’ markets, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) and farm stands. Through it all is the common thread of making good choices — for farms, in our food and the country’s agriculture policies — that build a better, healthier future.

27 years ago, in 1985, Nelson, Mellencamp and Young organized the first Farm Aid concert to raise awareness about the danger family farms were facing at the hands of factory farms. Today, local farmers are feeling the danger even more, with upwards of 80 percent of farms in certain agricultural markets owned by private companies. “We all see what’s happening with agriculture, what’s happening to our small towns,” John Mellencamp stated for the organization. “They are going out of business, and that’s a direct result of the farm problem.”

According to the group’s website, the movement has gone so far as to provide workers from the organization to participate in protests outside of factory farms. In addition, the group provides a hotline for support services for farm families in times of crisis. More recently, the Farmer Resource Network has been developed for families in difficult financial situations across the country. Another stride taken towards factory farms and the privatization of the market is education in the area of hormones and genetically modified food more widely produced by the corporate sector of farming.

“If we lose the family farm, we lose the caretakers of our land,” Dave Matthews told his audience in a short clip about the company’s mission. “It’s something worth fighting for because I think we’ll lose a lot more than the family farmer if we lose the family farmer.”

Every year, thousands of farmers are pushed off their land by the growing economic pressures of an industry that has created too much competition for a family farmer to survive without help. Through market strengthening, education and personal assistance to thousands of Americans, Farm Aid is working alongside the good food movement to get high quality produce straight from local farmers to schools, local stores and into the pantries of a wider market.

“It’s not about how big the food is, or how shiny it is,” Neil Young said in a video made for the Farm Aid website. “It’s about where it came from, and how it was grown.”

Last year’s concert featured a variety of high caliber bands, such as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jamey Johnson, Kenny Chesney and Jack Johnson, alongside the veteran fundraisers and founding members. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews also graced the stage for Farm Aid’s Benefit Concert.

The appearance of such widely recognized performers speaks to the growing respect Farm Aid is gaining nationwide. Nelson, who has been a part of the company since its beginnings, describes his involvement simply: “There’s a new food movement sweeping across the country and Farm Aid is doing all we can to promote that movement.”

Read more about Willie Nelson’s views on fitness, food and fuel (among other topics), in Austin Fit Magazine’s November cover story, Willie Nelson Talks Food, Fuel, and, yes, Hemp by Melanie P. Moore, at

Willie Nelson, King of Country Music (Newsweek 8/14/78)

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

August 14, 1978
King of Country Music: Willie Nelson
by Pete Axthelm

His rough, red-bearded face has been lined by years of tequila nights and Bloody Mary mornings, but the clear eyes sparkle as if each song, each cheer and each success is happening to Willie Nelson for the very first time. Surrounded by a merry band of pickers and pranksters, he travels the hard miles and one-night stands; but like the cowboys he celebrates in songs, Nelson can seem pensive and alone in the wildest of crowds. Willie has always carried himself with a kind of fierce innocense, defying those who would corrupt or label him. And now, to his whimsical delight, it is all paying off. At 45, the old outlaw has become music’s “in” phenomenon. The night life, Willie Nelson'[s life, has become a good life indeed.

Twenty years after he wrote “The Night Life” and other country classics — only to have them recorded by others because his own haunting, unusual voice was deemed unsuitable by record executives — Willie is now singing not only his own hits but ones that he didn’t even write himself. His new “Stardust” album, an evocative country-blues treatment of ten old standards, has topped the country charts for two months — after supplanting a wonderful No. 1 album that Willie did with his outlaw friend Waylon Jennings. His Western epic, “Red Headed Stranger,” remains on the charts three years after it smashed all the old rules about what a country musical album was supposed to be. With his hard-edged poetry and intensely personal blend of country, rock and gospel sounds, Willie has crossed over to the pop charts and reached out to enbrace a widening audience of good old boys, young rockers and almost anyone else who can see beyond narrow categories onto a brand of music that sometimes seems very close to magic.

“The nice thing about what’s happening now,” says Nelson, “is that I’m doing pretty much what I’ve been trying to do for 25 years. During a lot of those years, I wondered if anybody out there was listening. But now, the word seems to have gotten around about me.”

The message began to get out about 1973, when Nelson threw a Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas, and 50,000 of his friends showed up. Soon he was being hailed as a great synthesizer who could bring together rock groups and country stars, as well as hippie and red neck fans. Nelson’s music is described in catchall phrases like progressive country and redneck rock. But when ever the trend spotters thought they had him pinned down, Willie slipped away.

Just when people began to call him an avant-garde poet, this country genious turned back to old-time melodies like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Georgia (On My Mind) — and merely became more popular than ever.

Despite such apparent contradictions. Nelson is not really an elusive person. To know him, the trick is to keep listening. “I’ve come as close to keeping a real diary as anybody,” he says. “I just disguised it as a bunch of songs.”

My front tracks are bound for a cold water well
And my back tracks are covered with snow
And sometimes it’s heaven,
And sometimes it’s hell
And sometimes I don’t even know

Nelson sings of not only highs and lows but the confused moments in between. In the wreckage of his first marriage, he stared at the walls of a Nashville garage, while the rain hit the lone window like tears. The result was the ode “Hello Walls,” with the conclusion: “We must all pull together/Or else I’ll lose my mind/Cause I’ve got a feeling she’ll be gone a long, long time.”

Many of Nelson’s early songs dealt with pain and loss, but must were different from traditionally sudsy Nashville fare. Like a Greek dramatist, Willie sought wisdom through suffering and often it arrived in the form of brilliant insights like those in his thematic album about divorce, “Phases and Stages.” A later album, “Red Headed Stranger,” highlighted the stern frontier morality that can transform melodrama into something remarkably akin to tragedy.

Willie isn’t writing much these days. After all the early years of playing in Texas honky-honks behind chicken-wire fences put up to keep the drunks from hurling bottles at the band, he is reveling in the huge crowds that turn out during his tours. Unlike many performers, most notably the reclusive Jennings, Willie loves audiences — and his obvious enthusiasum infuses his concerts with tremendous energy. “I get restless when I don’t pay,” he says. “If I had a choice, I’d play four hours a night, seven nights a week. The playing is the fun, the writing is the work. To write, reflects the present state of Willie’s heaven-and-hell existence: “Life don’t owe me a living,” the song goes, “But a Lear and limo will do.”

Out in the land of Learjets and limousines, Nelson is a hot property. United Artists is planning a motion picture called, “The Songwriter,” inspired by Willie and written by his good friend, novelist-screenwriter Edwin (Bud) Shrake. Universal is planning a Western based on “Red Headed Stranger,” and there are long-range plans for a book and a movie about Nelson’s life. Willie will write the movie sound A Beverly Hills bartender put it in less Hollywood terms: “He’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen out here since the right-hand turn on red.”

The Full Nelson (by Joe Nick Patoski)

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

The Full Nelson

by Joe Nick Patoski

He’s the country music outlaw who stages the annual Farm Aid concerts, survived a public battle with the internal Revenue Service and made “On the Road Again” a national anthem. Back home, he’s just Willie, no last name necessary — the most beloved man in Texas (sorry, Mr. President).  But no matter how little or how much anyone knows about 69-eyar-old Willie Nelson (below, in 1994), they’re about to learn a whole lot more when Willie Nelson:  Still is Still Moving kicks off the 17th season of American Masters (PBS, October 2, check TV Guide listings).

“Willie is an intensively private and reticent person,” says producer director Steve Cantor.  “It took a while, but it turned out to be something intimate and personal, in a way he hasn’t opened up before.”  Having a lens pointed at his face was hardly unusual for the road warrior, who sleeps on his tour bus even when he’s not touring.  His longtime tour manager, David Anderson, and Nelson’s daughter, Lana, have been shooting behind-the-scenes footage for years, some of which is woven into Cantor’s 90-minute documentary, allowing him to capture parts of Nelson’s life rarely seen in public.  In one scene Nelson plays chess with the blind entertainer Ray Charles, who soundly beats him at the game.  “Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Nelson says.  “He kicked my ass.”

Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, “Songwriter”

Sunday, November 30th, 2014


Thanks, Phil Weisman, for sending this picture.

Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton

Saturday, November 29th, 2014
by: Stephen L. Betts

Something to be thankful for this (and every) Thanksgiving: that country music gave us musicians like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. A bonus? The time those two icons performed together for a 1983 TV special that also featured Kris Kristofferson and Brenda Lee, both of whom had appeared alongside Parton and Nelson on a 1982 double album called The Winning Hand. Coincidentally, Johnny Cash — who wrote the liner notes for The Winning Hand — also hosted the syndicated TV event.

In the mid Sixties, Parton, Nelson, Kristofferson and Lee were all signed to Monument Records in Nashville, a label whose roster (at one time or another) also included Roy Orbison, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely and Ray Stevens. In 1982, with Parton and Nelson at the height of their popularity, the label released a collection that included previously unreleased songs by the two songwriters, as well as songs by Lee and Kristofferson. Many of those songs were edited together to create duets for the artists, including two by Willie and Dolly: “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby” and “Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way).” In spite of the similar title, the latter tune was not a cover of the 1970 hit by Ray Stevens, “Everything Is Beautiful,” but rather an unreleased tune Parton had written and recorded for Monument around 1967.

In the above clip, Parton (with a whole lot of hair piled on her head) is dressed in an off-the-shoulder top and long denim shirt. She holds hands with a small boy as they walk onto the set, where children are painting with watercolors. Meanwhile, Nelson – pre-pigtails – strolls onto the set during the second half of the verse, holding the hand of a little girl. He’s also decked out in denim, with his signature red bandanna around his head (and a blue one around his neck). There’s even a patented Dolly ad-lib at the end of the performance, which marked the very first time the two musicians had actually sung “Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way)” together.

“Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way)” marked Parton’s first chart duet with someone other than Porter Wagoner. The tune was a Top Ten country hit in 1982, and The Winning Hand reached the Top Five on the album chart. Monument Records was later revived by Sony Music in the late Nineties and was home to the Dixie Chicks, among other country acts.

“Wanted the Outlaws” makes musical history in 1976

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

by: Stephen Betts

Waylon Jennings once famously said he “couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers,” yet with an album of previously released material, he did help country music reach a milestone heretofore reserved for pop and rock albums. On this day in 1976, Wanted! The Outlaws, an LP on which Jennings was featured alongside his wife Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, became country music’s first platinum-certified LP, signifying sales of one million.

Although Jennings had begun the transformation from slick Countrypolitan to renegade with the 1972 album Ladies Love Outlaws, this compilation, released on RCA, gave an official name to a country-music movement reserved for artists outside the mainstream. Raucous, rebellious and decidedly uninterested in the blend of pop and country that was storming the charts at the time (and continues to do so today), the Outlaw Movement was also spurred on by such landmark events as the 1976 debut of the long-running PBS series Austin City Limits.

“Their music didn’t conform to the country norm of songs of divorce and alcohol and life’s other miseries,” wrote Chet Flippo in the Wanted! liner notes. At the time, Flippo was New York bureau chief for Rolling Stone. He would become senior editor a year later.

On the original LP, Jennings performed “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” among others, while his wife’s contributions included “You Mean to Say” and a duet with Jennings on the Elvis Presley hit “Suspicious Minds.” Glaser’s 1975 hit “Put Another Log on the Fire” was also included, as was a “live” version of Nelson and Jennings doing “Good Hearted Woman.” The song became a Number One hit for the pair.

Wanted! The Outlaws received a 20th-anniversary CD reissue in 1996 featuring 10 bonus tracks, but it’s those original 11 songs that helped make country music history.


Willie Nelson Story, by Malcolm Jones

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

by:  Malcolm Jones

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

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

photo: Anna Webber

Somewhere along the line, he ceased being famous as a singer or a songwriter or an activist and simply became famous. You may not care for his songs. You may not give a damn about farmers or marijuana. But the chances that you live in this country and don’t know Willie Nelson are somewhere between slim and none. Like Louis Armstrong—and almost no one else, really—he is a musician whose appeal transcends genre, race, age, or fashion, a stranger to no one, and if you had to put a face on American music, that face would be Willie Nelson’s.


Read the entire article, see more photos at the Daily Beast. 

At this point it gets a little trickier. Which Willie Nelson do you know? Is it Willie, the “good timing man” who has graced thousands of stages? The “outlaw” who along with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings taught Nashville how to reach a new generation of young listeners more comfortable with long hair and jeans than Nudie suits and beehive hairdos? Or is it the avuncular apostle of pot? The farmers’ friend or the proponent of biodiesel fuel? Animal-rights and LGBT advocate? Or the man so honorable that rather than declare bankruptcy he worked to pay off the $16.7 million he owed the IRS in back taxes? Or is it Willie Nelson, the exquisite vocal stylist who can navigate from honky-tonk weepers to the intricate verbal acrobatics of a Rodgers and Hart ballad without missing a beat (he may toy with the beat, sing behind it, ahead of it, or take it halfway to Mars, but he never misses). Or is it Willie Nelson, the peerless songwriter who once wrote “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” all in one road trip from Texas to Tennessee? Like Walt Whitman, Willie Nelson contains multitudes.

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

THE STOCKY man who stands to greet me in the bus’s kitchen certainly looks familiar: black jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, and the once-red hair now gone to silver but still long enough to make two chest-length braids. And there is no mistaking that piercing pair of dark brown eyes that know more than they will ever tell, or the still-boyish drawl that has purred out of countless jukeboxes, record players, car radios, and concert halls and is now asking if I want some coffee.

We sit facing each other in a small but comfortable booth. A laptop lies on the table between us, and behind his head is a bulletin board covered in photographs of children and grandchildren. Up close, the famous face looks like a well-creased map of rough country, and the unwavering gaze appears less intimidating and maybe even secretly amused, as though to say, there’s nothing you can ask me that I haven’t been asked a dozen times or more, but let’s do this anyway.

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

David Gahr/GettyNelson in the recording studio with his sister, Bobbie, who plays piano in his band, and drummer Paul English.

The family didn’t have a record player, but they did have a Philco radio. “I grew up listening to all kinds of music,” he says. “I’d hear blues, I’d hear country, I’d hear Western swing, and I could see how it all fit together.” Before he got the guitar, Willie wrote poems, but as soon as he learned to form a few chords, he started writing his own songs. His early influences included Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne, and Ted Daffan. “They’re some great songwriters.” But the king of them all, for Willie and most every other music lover in the American Southwest, was Bob Wills, the fiddle-playing bandleader whose Texas Playboys set the standard for big-band excellence for most of three decades.


“A lot of the Bob Wills stuff was for the Texas dance halls, the California dance halls, the Oklahoma dance halls, and it was very popular dance music,” says Willie, who got a chance to study his idol up close when he, just 16, helped his brother-in-law book Wills for a local dance (his career as a booking agent ended almost as soon as it began when someone ran off with the money from the ticket sales). Willie still remembers how tightly Wills kept things moving from one song to the next so people never had a chance to leave the dance floor, and how he would simply point to a musician when he wanted a solo. Two hours later, watching Willie run his own show inside the Capitol Theater, I thought back to what he had said about Wills, and I was struck by how much of it plainly stuck with him. You don’t think of the scruffy man who practically invented outlaw country as a disciplinarian, but no one puts on a tighter show.

When I suggested that these days people seem to have forsaken dancing for just sitting and listening to concerts, Willie shakes his head. “They still dance a helluva lot in Texas!” he says with a laugh. “They haven’t quit down there. They didn’t get the word.” But is there a difference playing for people who are dancing? “Yeah, you feel close to the crowd. They feel part of you. There’s something about working a beer joint that brings you right to the people. I love it and always have.”

What’s the weirdest place you have ever played, I asked him.  “I don’t know,” he says, looking genuinely puzzled. “I don’t know what weird is.”

WHEN WILLIE was a teenager, there wasn’t much difference between the people in the audience and the musicians on the bandstand, many of whom had taken to music as the fastest way out of the cotton patch. “And you were probably going with a waitress in the beer joint,” he chuckles. The thing is, you could hear that shared experience in the songs and the voices that sang them. It’s a sound, Willie agreed, that’s been mostly scrubbed out of modern country.

With the instincts of a true gentleman, he politely declined all invitations to criticize what passes for country on most radio stations these days (“I don’t get a chance to listen to local radio a lot, so I don’t know what they’re playing”). But now that SiriusXM radio has given him his own channel, Willie’s Roadhouse, we have a very good idea of what he thinks a country music station should sound like, which turns out to be more Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell but not too many of the modern “hat acts.” Even contemporary artists sound traditional on the Roadhouse. “I like to think that on our channel we play all kinds of music, and one way or another we pull it together,” he says. “We play a little Vern Gosdin, a little Dolly, then we’ll do some Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, some Merle Haggard, Texas swing. We pretty well cover it. It may not be for every ear, but nothing is.”

Nor would he be inveigled into carping about the Nashville establishment. Later, on stage, he’d sing “Me & Paul,” his autobiographical song about road life with his longtime drummer Paul English that hilariously and somewhat bitterly encapsulates his odd-man-out status with the country establishment back in the ’60s (“Nashville was the roughest”). But in the privacy of his bus, he is downright diplomatic when the subject comes up. “Nashville was a different town back then,” he says. “It’s changed a lot now. A lot of people are thinking more progressive now. It’s all coming together, so it’s all good.”

WILLIE NEVER made it in Nashville as a singer. But as a songwriter he became a superstar. He had spent the ’50s bumming around, playing Texas honky-tonks and taking the occasional deejay job (and selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door-to-door). But ever since he cobbled together his first book of songs at age 12 (with a hand-drawn cover adorned in cursive script resembling a cowboy’s lariat), he has been dead serious about songwriting. He had his first big success in 1960 when Claude Gray had a hit with “Family Bible,” a good but rather pious song by Willie standards that gave no hint of the complex, open-a-vein material that soon followed and made him one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters.

Ask him today to name his favorites in his own catalog, and he’ll deflect, as though he doesn’t want to be rude, even to a song: “It’s kinda like kids,” he says. “You can’t hardly separate one from the other. If you took the time to write it, put a melody to it, sing it, record it, whatever, then it’s important.” But when he does relent and starts listing favorites (“Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life,” “Pretty Paper,” “On the Road Again”), they’re almost all songs made famous by other singers and the songs that cemented his reputation as one of the best writers ever to cross the Nashville city limits.

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

No one alive knows more about songwriting than Willie Nelson, but he would be the first to tell you that he can’t explain it. “It’s just a thought process where you hear a good line and you think, well, maybe I’ll take that line and try to write a song. Or it could be a melody that you look for a line to put to it. Works both ways for me.” But either way, it’s a mystery: “You wonder where it comes from.” As for trying to teach someone how to write a song, “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

The distinctive thing about his songs is their deceptively easygoing ability to balance the specific and universal. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is written from the point of view of a songwriter (“I’m writing a song all about you/a true song as real as my tears/But you’ve no need to fear it/’cause no one will hear it/’cause sad songs and waltzes/aren’t selling this year”). But it doesn’t matter that most of us who hear that tune aren’t songwriters; the sadness at the core of that lyric could pierce the heart of anyone done wrong by love. Sometimes the transaction is more personal. In “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” a frustrated father calls out to a teenager slipping past the bonds of parental control. I first heard the song when my kids were just becoming teens, and what I loved about the lyrics was that no lessons were imparted, just the vivid ache of helplessness that any parent feels at the loss of childhood. The best of Willie’s songs, certainly the ballads, work similar magic, articulating emotions we’ve all felt but couldn’t find the words for.


Rob Verhorst/GettyNelson played with country heavyweights Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson as part of the Highwaymen from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.

AFTER HIS Ridgetop farmhouse burned down two days before Christmas in 1970, Willie moved back to Texas. “When I went to Nashville, things were already starting to click in Texas. I was drawing crowds there. And then when I got to Nashville, I kind of got stymied, because I was trying to play for the whole world. So I thought, I’ll just go on back to Texas and play there a while. And it was a good decision.” There would be one more move to Nashville, but by the early ’70s, Willie was ensconced in the Lone Star State, where he encountered an entirely new audience: young longhairs bred on rock and roll and the blues were turning up at his shows, and when Willie helped host the first annual Dripping Springs Reunion music festival in 1972, a precursor of his famous Fourth of July picnic concerts, the audience was equal parts Texas country folks and Woodstock nation, and nobody got beat up.

In 1975 he recorded Red Headed Stranger, a concept album conceived and largely written on a road trip from Colorado to Texas (Willie, typically modest, sees nothing in that feat to boast about: “It’s not that unusual, really, because when you start writing, you think of one and then think of another. I wrote a couple of concept albums that way. One song led to another”). The antithesis of the string-drenched countrypolitan sounds emanating from Nashville, the album was so raw, so sparely produced (studio costs: $4,000) that Columbia Records thought he was handing them a demo. But they came around in a hurry when “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was released as a single and gave the singer his first No. 1 hit on the country charts. The album went on to sell more than 2 million copies. When he wanted to release Stardust, a collection of some of his favorite standards, the record company wasn’t sure about that one either, until it shot to No. 1. It lingered on the charts for more than 10 years. By 2002 it had sold more than 5 million copies.

It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but when success finally found Nelson, it stuck. His 1982 album, Always on My Mind, was the No. 1 country album of the year and remained on the charts for almost five years. Willie took up acting and had starring roles in The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose (for which he wrote “On the Road Again”). And where he had once played concert halls and clubs small enough to make steady eye contact with his audience, suddenly he was playing arenas, a new and not entirely comfortable experience. As he writes in Willie, his 1988 autobiography, “I do a number of big concerts at night in arenas or at outdoor picnics—by big I mean crowds of 100,000—and I have to work those shows by feel. I can see nothing but a wide deep-purple canyon blinking with the fire of thousands of cigarettes.”


Charles Rex Arbogast/APNelson sings with Sheryl Crow in his upcoming album, “To All the Girls …,” a compliation of duets with female artists.

THAT WAS 25 years ago, and he’s been a constant on everybody’s radar ever since. Thinking again of that clothing ad that for its effect depends on you knowing who Willie Nelson is without being told, I ask him if he ever wished for anonymity, if fame ever got in his way.

“Well,” he says slowly, smiling as he fingers one of his braids, “I dress kinda funny for anonymity. But, no, I don’t mind.”

So fame is not as corrosive as they say?

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I thought that was what we all looked for growing up. Some people when they get it say they don’t want it, but I still like it.

“It’s nice to know people are going to come and hear you sing and hear you play. That’s sort of the mystique of the whole thing. People work all day, and then they get in their car and they drive somewhere to go hear somebody sing, and applaud and sing along with ’em. And there’s a therapy there, an exchange, an energy exchange that takes place between the audience and the performer, and it’s pretty magical really, to both the audience and the entertainer.

“There was this guy I read about in India who woke up every morning, and he’d run out on the streets and start clapping his hands and running down the street, and everybody’d jump out and join him, and the next thing you know, there’d be hundreds of people running down the road. So they’re putting on their own little concert every morning.” The braided pied piper clearly relates.

Repeatedly, when he talks about performing, the concept of serving comes up. “It’s not about me,” he insists. Consequently, he’s careful about espousing causes on stage: “I can promote Farm Aid OK, because I believe in the cause, so it’s not a big stretch for me to do that. But there are probably several things that I wouldn’t want to talk about. And people come for the music. If they want preaching, they’ll go to church.” Maybe so, though many in his audiences would doubtless happily worship at the First Church of Willie: the crowd in Port Chester was nearly all white, but other than that the only common denominator was a fierce addiction among young and old to the music of Willie Nelson—these veterans knew the words to nearly every song.

Since the ’70s, Willie has opened nearly every set with his pal Johnny Bush’s classic, “Whiskey River.” “After that, who knows,” he says. There is no set list, but every show features a generous helping of his hits (“I know what they come to hear, and if we know what they like, it’d be kinda dumb not to play it”). But he always tosses in a few country classics like “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” a couple or three Hank Williams tunes, some gospel, maybe even some gypsy swing. This is big-tent music, a stylistic amalgam that’s purely Willie but also a pretty good short course in American music. The show is also a chance for Willie to do what he has been doing since he was a kid: sell songs. “We have some new songs out that we’ll plug in here and there,” he says. “Then there’s this duet album [with 18 female vocalists] coming out next month, To All the Girls … We started doing a couple of those.”


Listening to Willie work his way through familiar material like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Good Hearted Woman” in Port Chester, I was struck by the fact that while he must have played and sung these songs thousands of times, he somehow still finds a way to invest them with a freshness and emotional depth that makes you believe that he is playing them for the first time. It’s as if he’s saying, you may have heard this one before, but you haven’t heard it this way yet. And you haven’t.

There’s no loafing on a Willie Nelson stage. The Family band that backs him up includes blood kin (sister Bobbie has lately been joined by various Nelson sons and daughters) and performers like English, who has been in the band so long that he might as well be family. But don’t equate family with amateurism. “First of all, they gotta be good musicians,” Nelson says. And to play with Willie, they’d better be. Given his eccentric way with a vocal or guitar solo, anyone who’s not a crack musician would be well and truly lost after half a dozen bars of any song.

Over the years, Willie has lost some of the edge on his voice, a diminishment you hardly notice thanks to his impeccable phrasing. But time has only burnished his guitar playing. In the set I heard, he performed a slashing but dexterously lyrical version of the Django Reinhardt instrumental “Nuages.” The gypsy guitar genius has long been an idol for Willie, and if Willie isn’t quite as good as Reinhardt (who is?), you’d like to think that Reinhardt would nonetheless be touched by the love that came soaring through that song the other night.

Willie has been a Reinhardt addict for so long, he can’t remember quite when it started. The peerless Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble “gave me an old Django tape a long time ago. I listened to it, and I realized that this was the music I’d been listening to by other people. My dad played that kind of rhythm guitar, and someone else played that kind of fiddle. And then Bob Wills and all those guys took what Django did and enlarged on it. I had a lot of friends back there who loved Django music, so I got a chance to play it.” Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Reinhardt’s virtuosity was that he managed with only two working fingers on his fretting hand (he lost the use of the other fingers when he was badly burned in a fire). So when someone in the Little Willies, Norah Jones’s country band, called Willie “Django with one finger,” Willie was over the moon. “That was the best compliment I ever had,” he says with a huge grin.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/GettyThe Family band sometimes includes Nelson’s sons and daughters. Here, he plays with son Lukas at a Farm Aid concert.

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

A better word for Willie would be indefatigable. When he’s not playing music, he’s playing chess, checkers, dominoes, or poker, or running, riding his bike, or playing golf (the only time he gets a little coy is when I ask for his handicap: “My driver and my putter and maybe my sand wedge,” he deadpans). So he would not agree with Mark Twain that golf is “a good walk spoiled”? “Some days it is,” he admits. “But then you hit one good one, make one good long putt, and it’s a nice day.”

Watch him work a stage for close to two hours—which he finishes at the lip of the stage, shaking every hand he can reach and signing anything anyone puts in his hand—and you understand that his claims of exercising every day are the simple truth. Men half his age would have trouble keeping up. And along with the running and biking and golfing, “I’m a second-degree black-belt tae kwon do,” he says with some pride. “I can practice all my forms right here on the bus going 80 miles an hour down the highway.”

Chad Batka/CorbisNelson has played his guitar Trigger so long and so hard that he’s worn another hole in the top below the sound hole.

The most important words in that last sentence are “down the highway.” How apt that Huckleberry Finn is Willie’s favorite novel, for like Twain’s hero, he can never shake the urge to “light out for the territory,” in Willie’s case, just about every day. “You know that commercial that’s out right now that says a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest? That’s very true. Very true.” Bearing in mind that Huck is a fictional character and Willie is flesh and blood, is it too much to suggest that both embody what we want in our heroes—the uniquely American home brew of guts, youthful spirit, wiliness, honesty, freewheeling humor, and no taste at all for cant or hypocrisy?

What keeps Willie more earthbound—but makes him, if anything, more admirable—is the unpoetic fact that he’s responsible for the 40-some people on his payroll, including a road crew of 22. If he doesn’t work, they don’t get paid. “I think about that,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m probably still here. And that’s good. I need another reason.” Leave it to Willie to fashion a blessing out of obligation.

Throughout the interview, he rarely breaks eye contact, never loses focus, dodges no questions, no matter how impertinent, and never fidgets, aside from a little restless-leg syndrome that shakes the table now and then. To call him calm would be an understatement. And yet I know that he has not had an easy life, that he has been through four marriages, lost his grandfather when he was 6 and a son to suicide, and more recently endured the deaths of two bandmates with whom he’d been playing for more than half his life. Then there are those songs, some of them joyful but just as many that took the full measure of human sadness and heartache. How exactly, I wondered, did all that square with the almost surreally unflappable man sitting across the table from me?

Finally, I just say outright, “You seem pretty serene, based on my 40 minutes in here. Were you always that way?” That makes him laugh. “No. I used to drink a lot. Had a hot temper. Red hair and part Indian and all that horseshit. I used every excuse I had to get into trouble. Once I quit drinking, I managed to stay out of fights pretty good.”

photo: Leonard Freed
MagnumWhen asked for his golf handicap, Nelson lists “my driver and my putter and maybe my sand wedge.”

Willie says he quit drinking and smoking sometime between age 30 and 35. “I had a pack of Chesterfields, and I was smoking pot and cigarettes, and my lungs were killing me, and I said, well, I ain’t getting high on these goddam cigarettes. So I took the cigarettes and threw ’em away and rolled about 20 fat joints and stuck ’em in the pack. When I wanted a cigarette, I lit a joint. And I haven’t smoked since. Very good way to quit. Cigarettes and alcohol killed a whole bunch of friends of mine.”

Pressing my luck, and hoping he won’t think that I’ve come just to write his obituary, I ask if there was ever a point at which he confronted his own mortality and pondered what he had left to do.

He pauses before answering that one. “I don’t know that there’s ever one moment or one second when I did that,” he says. “Or maybe there’s not a second when I’m not thinking about it. I’m always thinking about the next record or show, but mainly for my own entertainment. But, yeah, there are things I haven’t done. I’m really looking forward to this duet album coming out. After that I’ll figure out what the next one will be. Might be an album of new songs that I’ve written. I’ve got a few stacked up over there. And I’ll be going to Nashville in a couple of weeks to do some more recording, and when I get enough done of my own original stuff, I might put it out.

“I don’t really think about … I know some day I’ll move on. Everybody does. But I don’t worry about it. I like where I am now. Everything’s fine. And there’s nothing I can do about anything that’s happened. The only thing I have any control over is what’s happening right now. So I don’t worry about a while ago or after a while.”

Night has fallen while we’ve been talking. Now it’s time for him to go to work.

Raelynn Nelson featured in Rolling Stone Country Magazine

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

by:  Marissa R. Moss

Raelyn, growing up in a family so synonymous with country music, was there a point where you wanted to rebel?

Nelson: No. It’s just always been around, and that’s just what was and what is. I love it. Old country just feeds my soul.

Raelyn, do you have conversations with Willie about how to survive in the industry here?

Nelson: He doesn’t not like Nashville, but he got out of here because it wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and let him be him. So that’s what he told me when we were sitting around on the bus. He said, “Keep doing this. Keep going, keep putting your music out yourself.” He’s kind of against people taking his money for his songs, you know?

If you could score a major-label deal, would you want it?

Nelson: I don’t really aspire to get a label deal — my grandpa said, “Don’t give away your music, just put it out on your own,” so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not saying never. But now, it’s not the one thing on my mind.

Well, speaking of other people’s songs, what did you listen to growing up?

Nelson: Papa Willie, Loretta, and Patsy [Cline] and Waylon [Jennings].

photo: Butch Worrell


Country’s New Generation
by:  Marissa R. Moss

Tuesday evening at storied Nashville club , Exit/In Rolling Stone Country will present it’s inaugural showcase, as three must-hear acts on the fall installment of our  Artists You Need to Know feature — Margo and the Pricetags, Cale Tyson and Raelyn Nelson Band, led by Willie Nelson’s ukulele-wielding granddaughter — take the stage for a night of traditional country with a capital T.
We assembled Price, Tyson and Nelson, along with Nelson’s bandmate Jonathan Bright, in a West Nashville coffee shop for a roundtable discussion about the good, the bad and the ugly that come with playing music that’s unmistakably country but not exactly the breed currently played on the radio — Price and Tyson are much more about lap steel than pop beats, more salty tears and less shiny trucks. And though her band flirts with a distinctly garage sound, “Papa Willie” exposed Nelson early to the genre’s most vital founding fathers, embedding it not only in her blood but her brain.

But just because their music may touch more on Tammy Wynette than Tim McGraw, it doesn’t mean this trio is always content with being plagued by words like “throwback,” “vintage” or “whiskey-soaked,” either. Though their music can be called traditional, they certainly have no designs on simply recreating the past. (more…)

Willie Nelson at Home in Texas (McCalls, March 1988)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

img815 by you.

May 1988
by Teresa Taylor Von-Frederick

When he’s not performing on the road to sell-out crowds, there are only two places you might look for Willie Nelson — and hope to find him.  One is in the Colorado mountains, resting and recuperating from hard travel, in the romantic three-story Swiss chalet he owns there; the other is a 775 acre ranch outside Austin, Texas, where I visited him recently.

Here, Willie is surrounded by the rivers, hills and the down-home country folk of his childhood, very close to the place where his ma and pa, along with his grandparents, raised him.  It’s where he feels most at home in the world, consequently, where he’s most himself  No wonder friends like Kris Kristofferson and his longtime producer, Chips Moman, enjoy visiting the ranch, sometimes for weeks at a time.

“There’s another house, too,” Willie tells me.  He loves houses, perhaps because he travels so much.  “It’s less than a block from the place where I was born.  In fact, we’re restoring it — an old house on the edge of town.”

A gentle light shimmers in his eyes as Nelson remembers his grandfather.  “He died when I was six years old.  He was a blacksmith near Abbott, Texas.  It was my grandfather who bought me my first Stella guitar when I was five.  I learned how to play dominoes and guitar early — that was what we used to do.”

Born Willie Hugh Nelson on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Willie has one sibling, an older sister, Bobbie Lee.  “Bobbie and I started out together.  Then she got married, had children, and now we’re back playing music again.  She plays piano in the band.”  He recalls tenderly those “good ol’ days” when he was trying to make a living in the rough-and-tumble clubs around Fort Worth, Texas, first with Bobbie and later by himself.  Times were pretty hard then, and he credits his five children and his current wife, Connie Jean Koepke (whom he met in 1968 at a show in Cut ‘n Shoot, Texas), with sticking by him and encouraging his dream of someday making music that people would want to hear.

But his grandparents, Willie says, were his true, and earliest, inspiration.  They themselves learned music through mail-order courses, and, when he was very young, they deeply involved grandchild Willie in church and gospel music.  They also gave him a lsting feeling for the church itself.

We hike up into the hills were a church stands on one of his acres.  (It appeared as a post-Civil War set in his film Red Headed Stranger.)  Lana, his oldest daughter, who’s 33, comes with us.   Willie grabs the tattered hemp rope hanging from the belfry, and we hear the sound of bells clattering.  “Whenever we can, my children and grandchildren (he has seven) have church up here.  It’s a nice feelin’, havin’ your own church on your own property.  I try to instill sound values in my children as much as possible.  None of them are interested in becoming entertainers.  My son — we call him Wild Bill, although sometimes he’s Mild Bill — goes through changes, but he’s gettin’ better.  He’s thirty years old, lives in Tennessee with his wife and children, and just started farmin’ his own land.”

“That’s one thing Daddy instilled in us,” Lana interjects.  “His spirituality and love and God and human nature.  Daddy always taught us to have good relationships with people.”

Lana, the first child born to Willie and his first wife, Martha Matthews, speaks of her parents with great feeling.  “Daddy was seventeen and my mama was sixteen when they met; she was a car hop serving food at a restaurant.  Daddy is still very close to her, but they were so young!  I was four years old when my daddy wrote a song called Family Bible.  He sold it for fifty dollars to pay for rent and food, and I cried and cried because I thought he just gave it away.  He grabbed me by the hand on the front porch and said, ‘Look out there, honey.  One of these days I’m gonna buy you that land as far as you can see.’  I knew my daddy would be a star.”

Lana has directed and produced Willie’s music videos, including the very first country-and-western video, Poncho and Lefty, which was nominated for an American Video Award.  Today, she still works with her father.  “I know his values and what kind of story he likes to tell.  I also inherited his sense of humor.”

Willie and Connie Nelson

Besides Lana and Billy, Willie has another child, Susie, from his first marriage.  He and Connie, who have been married for 17 years, also have two daughters, Paula Carlene and Amy Lee.  Connie has stayed by his side through all of his struggles and, finally, his success.  “Willie and I try to spend as much quiet time as possible away from everything,” Connie says.  “We like to go to the movies.  Willie likes to ride horses, and I like to ski.  I spend a lot of time in California with our daughters when he’s off performing.”

Willie leans into a char and relaxes by the fireplace.  “Yeah, I enjoy my horses and playing golf,” he concedes., “but I love my music just as much.  Honestly, I have all these guys who are my heroes.  … But when I was struggling, it didn’t matter if there was only one person in the audience.  That was enough for me to get inspired.  I’m still starstruck.”

A while ago, in Illinois, with some of his heroes — Neil Young, Merle Haggard, John Couger Mellencamp — Willie put together a musical cast that included B. B. King, Bob Dylan, Glenn Campbell, Carole King, Billy Joel, George Jones — a stupendous concert to raise money for America’s financially stricken farmers.  Farm Aid became a cultural and historic high point of the ’80s.  Since that first concert Willie helped to sponsor, 14 million dollars have been raised in this nation for farm relief.

“I was brought up on a farm and know a lot about agricultural and farming,” he reveals.  “It’s darn hard work; I couldn’t do it.  But it keeps families together on the farm.  A lot of them who are suffering now don’t have money for their children or for medical emergencies.  There’s hope out there, though.  All kinds of folks are helping us all across the country, Jody Fischer, my assistant works loyally on behalf of Farm Aid.  That’s what life is all about; helping each other, if we can.”

Willie identifies strongly with the poor.  Graciously and proudly, he welcomes those who are troubled in his Texas home — built in a rustic, Ponderosa style reminiscent of a land baron’s mansion of the 1980s.  The interior sports a Western motif complete with shelves of Indian arrowheads and a buffalo skin draped over a beam.  His simple futon bed lies on the floor in front of a huge fireplace.  Willie hops onto it, assuming his favorite yoga position.

“This is the best form of meditation for me,” he explains.”  “Sometimes a song or an idea will come, and I just write it.  I enjoy meditating when I jog and play golf, too.  I’d rather be workin’ than not.  And we can cut ten sides of a record here in one day.  It’s been a real help, havin’ the recording studio on my property.”

Memories of his difficult early years appear in his conversation.  It was nearly 30 years ago, in 1961, that he made the trek to Nashville in a second hand car.  His struggle in the musical world had already gone on for more than a decade; he had attempted to become a party-time hog farmer… and failed at it.  “I was the worst hog farmer you ever saw,” Willie says, laughing.  But by 1985 he was able to release four albums within a single year:  Funny How Time Slips Away (with Faron Young); Highwayman (with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings); Half Nelson, Brand New Heart (with Hank Snow) and Me and Paul (written for and about his friend Paul English)   In 1986, The Promiseland was Willie’s strongest LP in years.  And no sentimentalist can ever forget Willie’s Crazy, recorded by Patsy Cline.  (His newest album, Island in the Sun was released earlier this year.)

Of all contemporary songwriters, he has most effectively observed and interpreted the life around him.  “The master of sadness, the poet of honky-tonks,” he has been called.  His songs elucidate his highest priorities:  love, God, prayer, staying close to his kin.

Willie Nelson and Lana Nelson, at Lana’s wedding.

Lana testifies to that.  “I produced a family album that included all of the significant events in my daddy’s life and some of his song lyrics and family photo. I gave it to him for his forty-seventh birthday.  Boy, was he happy!  He grinned from here to Nashville.”

In the kitchen, Willie messes around with his restaurant-size stove. “You bet I can cook,” he replies, in answer to my question.  “I love to make all kinds of gravies.  And I can eat bacon and eggs any time of the day or night.”  He grabs a soda from the fridge, sit down, takes off his tennis shoes and puts on a pair of cowboy boots.   “How would you like to go up and see my horses now?” he asks.

We walk out the back door that gives him his favorite view of two lakes that come together and travel yet another third of a mile up to his barn.  His two horses, Scout, a large palomino, and Dancer, a sorrell horse with a blazed forehead, timidly run for cover in the barn when we approach.  But as soon as Willie brings out some feed, Scout comes over.  Willie lumps in the hay and sits there feeding Scout, as if he were sitting next to his best friend.  “I ride every day when I’m home,” he tells me.  “I have a lot more horses on the property, but they’re all off somewhere now.”

The sun begins to set, the landscape shaded by tall plains grass, mesquite and scrub oak trees.  I feel as peaceful and calm as Willie, a man who like to take life one day at a time when he’s home.  His friend and colleague, Chips Moman, has joined us for the evening.  “I’d do anything for that man and so would a lot of other people,” Chips says.  “There seems to be nothing he can’t do to please everyone.  And he thrives on the excitement of the road.  He’s performed with the best:  Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt.  He’s now with CBS Records.  We’re a long way form 1964 when he first signed with Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.  But he became fed up with the politics of becoming a star there.  He moved to Texas and He’s been there ever since.”

We climb into his black truck, and he invites us back to visit some more with his family.  After strong coffee and with nighttime creeping up, I take my leave reluctantly.  He thanks me generously for coming down to visit, and I drive off down the wonderful, winding dirt road that’s as serene as the Texas sunset, as serene as Willie Nelson himself.