Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie Nelson

Sunday, June 9th, 2019
photo: Wall McNamee

One of country’s greatest crossover artists, the Red Headed Stranger (and his distinctively nasal voice) has scored hits like “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on both the country charts and the Top 40 in the Seventies and Eighties.

“I look at it all just being American music, sound and whatever, and if you like it, you like it,” Nelson once said. “It don’t need a name to be enjoyable.” He ought to know, too, since he also penned some of country’s all-time greatest hits, including Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” over a decade before he was world famous.

But for all his pop appeal, he has lived the outlaw life that Johnny Cash mostly only sang about: He smokes marijuana, he infamously dodged the I.R.S. and he still spends more time out on the open road, touring, than musicians a quarter of his age. “Country music has given a lot more to me than I’ve given to it,” he once said. “I get to do what I want to do, live the life I want to live.” K.G.

Willie Nelson, long may you run

Sunday, May 26th, 2019
by:  James Beaty

A few weeks ago I mentioned how Paul McCartney recently spoke about people sometimes asking him when he’s retiring.

McCartney, who is 76, said when he later ran into Willie Nelson — who McCartney said “is even older than I am” — he asked Willie when he expected to retire.

McCartney said Nelson, who is 85, replied by asking “Retire from what?” That’s all the encouragement McCartney needed.

During the past few weeks, both McCartney and Willie have released new albums — and they’ve both shot up the Billboard album charts.

McCartney’s new album “Egypt Station” debuted at the number one spot on the Billboard Top 200 upon its release.

Willie’s new album of Frank Sinatra’s songs titled “My Way” debuted at number 2 on Billboard’s Jazz Album charts when released two weeks ago and has since remained in locked in the number 2 position because another couple of artists have kept a lock on the number 1 spot for the past couple of weeks — 92-year-old Tony Bennett, whose new duet album with Diana Krall, titled “Love Is Here to Stay,” debuted at the top spot and so far hasn’t budged.

Not to worry though. Willie’s “My Way” debuted in the top 40 of Billboard Top 200 chart, which covers all genres, peaking at the number 36 position. “My Way” is not listed on Billboard’s Country Music Charts. Go figure.

Bennett and Willie are followed on the Billboard Jazz Album charts by Paul Simon, who is 76 and recently completed his Homeward Bound Farewell Tour.

Simon’s not the only musician of his era to say they’re ready to quit the road. Both Elton John, 71, and Joan Baez, 77, are currently in the midst of farewell tours. That’s not the case with Baez’s former companion, Bob Dylan, who at 77 keeps up a relentless touring schedule, with concert stops scheduled for Tulsa and Thackerville, Oklahoma, on Oct. 12 and 13.

Baez has said Dylan doesn’t have to worry about the condition of his throat like she does. How do you know, Joan? No telling how hard he’s worked to achieve that sandpaper and gravel sound. (I’ve never known of Dylan canceling a concert because of a raspy, sore throat, though. No problem— just keep singing).

Speaking of concerts, both McCartney and Willie are well-known road warriors — especially Willie, who is constantly on the road again.

Both are also in the midst of current tours — with McCartney performing last night, Oct. 5, during his Freshen Up Tour as headliner for the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas. He’s returning for what is billed as Weekend 2 for another concert next Friday, Oct. 12, before embarking for Japan at the end of the month and then playing selected European dates in December, including a homecoming date in his native Liverpool.

He’s set to return to the U.S. on May 23, 2019, with a kickoff concert in New Orleans. (Alas, no Oklahoma dates are included at this point).

Although Willie is strongly identified with Austin, he won’t be able to join his buddy McCartney onstage next weekend. That’s because Willie is kicking off another tour on Oct. 12 that includes a concert date in Nevada and a swing across California.

Willie’s fans in the Sooner State can rejoice, however, because his tour includes a Nov. 24 concert at WinStar World Casino Resort in Thackerville — the tour’s last stop before he winds it up with four dates in Texas — including a three-night stint in Austin performing with his son, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, a band which often includes another son, Micah Nelson.

So while some of their contemporaries are going into self-proclaimed retirements, I’ll congratulate and encourage Willie, McCartney, Bennett, Dylan and all those who keep on keepin’ on with the title of a Neil Young song.

“Long May You Run.”

Willie Nelson Busted at 61 (Star Magazine May 24, 1994)

Friday, May 24th, 2019

Star Magazine
by Alex Burton
May 24, 1994

Willie Nelson was arrested in Hewitt, Texas, on May 10, after police found him asleep in the back of his Mercedes and discovered a bag of marijuana in his car.

Nelson, 61, claims he was returning home after a poker game when he pulled off the road due to bad weather.

“I played all night and was driving back to Austin,” says Nelson.  It was foggy, so I pulled to the side of the road to sleep, and the policemen found me.”

A Hewitt police report says officers “saw a man lying in the back seat who appeared to be asleep.  While looking in the vehicle, officers observed a hand-rolled cigarrette in the ashtray.”

“The officers tapped on the window.  The subject sat up, opened the door and identified himself as Willie Nelson.”

The report adds, “The officers believed the cigarette in the ashtray to be marijuana, and Mr. Nelson was placed under arrest for possession of marijuana under 2 ounces.”

“Mr. Nelson advised the officers there was additional marijuana in the vehicle.  A bag was found which contained a substance believed to be marijuana.”

Nelson was taken to the McLennan County Jail in Waco and held for two hours before posting bail.

“Mr. Nelson was turned over to the booking officers there.  Standard procedure is to fingerprint and photograph the individual and collect the person’s property,” says Hewitt Police Lt. Wilbert Wachtendorf.

“After his release, he returned to the station here in Hewitt, and retrieved his car, credit cards and cash.

“I was in the station when Mr. Nelson returned.  He actually shook the hands of the two arresting officers.  He was in good spirits, and seemed to be a nice individual.”

The charge against Nelsion is a Class B misdemeanor and the case will be referred to the local district attorney.

People Magazine, “Inside Country Music” (May 21, 1984)

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

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

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

The drastic change – that is to say, the commercial change — began early in 1976 with Wanted:  the Outlaws.  That was the first Nashville album to go platinum.  And it was strictly a patch job designed to pick up a few extra bucks with a handful of songs already in the can.  Jerry Bradley, then running RCA in Nashville, had a keen eye for packaging a concept.  He saw that Willie Nelson had abandoned Nashville for  Texas, and that Willie’s buddy, Waylon Jennings, was wearing not only leather and long hair but a fierce spirit of musical independence that was drawing a new, young multiclass audience. 

For the Outlaws album, Bradley put together some cuts by Willie, Waylon, Jessi Colter (Waylon’s wife) and Tompall Glaser, fronting the package with an album cover that looked like a Wild West wanted poster.  The songs were not among any of the artist’s finest work, but the album’s image was perfect.  After years of country stars singing syrup and looking like mannequins, here were some mavericks daring to get down and dirty, if need be. 

The surprise was that the music had not changed — Willie had always sung eclectic country blues and Waylon had played a hard, rock-tinged sound ever since his stint in Buddy Holly’s band — but that the audience had.  It was a weird mix of hippies and rednecks, stumbling over this “progressive country” after rejecting the soft country and soft rock that were the alternatives.  The outlaw phenomenon took off, and amazing thins happened. Urban cowboys sprang up all over the pace.  This was not such a country-to-pop crossover hit as a Certified New Thing.  Utopia reigned as rednecks grew their hair long and hippies cut there’s short, and everybody danced arm-in-arm with honky-tonks everywhere.

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


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

“As long as I have my guitar, I’ll be fine” (Texas Monthly, May 1991)

Sunday, May 19th, 2019
by: Robert Draper
May 1991

Last November, while Internal Revenue Service officers in Austin made plans to auction off nearly everything he owned, Willie Nelson golfed in Hawaii. After flying to California to spend Christmas with relatives, Willie drove the long, leisurely road to Texas, stopping first to play poker with his pals in Hillsboro before arriving in Austin, where he jammed at the Broken Spoke, taped a television show with Jerry Jeff Walker, and got ready to shoot the TV movie Another Pair of Aces . With friends on the set he shared his favorite new joke: “What’s the difference between an IRS agent and a whore? A whore will quit f-ing you after you’re dead.” To folks in a hotel elevator who asked him for an autograph, Willie grinned and said, “Only if you don’t work for the IRS.” By the time he saw fit to saunter into the federal building on January 7 and meet his persecutors, anyone who didn’t write for the National Enquirer could see that Willie wasn’t going to commit suicide over this one.

Aboard his touring bus, Honeysuckle Rose II, surrounded by a gaggle of followers, Willie spoke of his $16.7 million tax debts as if it were just another busted guitar string. He would fix the matter, he explained, with Who’ll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes, a collection of old recordings that he intended to release and market through an 800-number promotion scheme. “I think that if we give it enough publicity, there’s no limit to what we could sell,” said Willie as his followers listened intently. “Within four or five months, the whole debt could be wiped out. We’d take a negative thing and turn it into a positive thing for everybody.”

It was a classic Willie Nelson brainstorm, elegant in its simplicity and so wonderfully expressive of the belief that to any question—including a financial question—music was the answer. It was also a foolish notion. Neither Willie nor his managers had bothered to figure out just how many copies he would have to sell to relieve his debt. Nor did anyone seem willing to ask whether Willie Nelson, in today’s market, could achieve such sales. When I later relayed the IRS Tapes plan to an old friend of Willie’s, he shook his head and said, “That’s just crazy. Even Michael Jackson in his heyday couldn’t raise that kind of profit.”

But no one on the bus voiced that sentiment. Willie’s followers merely sat there, saying nothing, adrift in their leader’s calm but compelling melody, and roused only when my questions suggested skepticism, at which times they would stare at me darkly. O ye of little faith, their scowls seemed to say, just as their awed reaction to Willie’s solution recalled all the old bumper sticker slogans: “In Willie We Trust,” “Where There’s a Willie There’s a Way.” Willie needed their faith now. For all his public buoyancy, privately Willie Hugh Nelson was an angry and worried man. Until he could satisfy his debt, his money and his property belonged to the IRS. The dozens who depended on him—including practically everyone in the bus that afternoon—were now out of work and stood to lose their homes as well. Willie had heard somewhere that an IRS agent had been assigned to sit on one musician’s tour bus and shadow his every movement. “I’m not about to let that happen,” he told a friend, but the prospect obviously unnerved him.

“As long as I got my guitar, I’ll be fine,” Willie has often said, referring to Trigger, the legendary retooled Martin six-string he rescued from his burning Tennessee ranch house in the late sixties. Willie’s attachment to his old guitar was a bond that bordered on spiritual. “When Trigger goes, I’ll quit,” he has been heard to say. But what if the feds came after Trigger? They had done it before, he’d read somewhere—taken an entertainer’s guitar and auctioned it off for $45,000. It was one possibility that truly worried him. Two weeks before the IRS raid, Willie began to sense that negotiations with the agency were faltering. He asked the person he trusted most—his eldest daughter, Lana—to remove Trigger from the studio and personally deliver it to him in Hawaii. Lana did so, and Trigger was now in Willie’s hands—but for how long? Willie could manage without his recording studio, his golf course, and his Hill Country acreage. Without Trigger, though, all bets would be off.

How did Willie Nelson get into this mess? Three villains are commonly cited: the IRS; Neil Reshen, the manager during the mid-seventies who, according to Willie, left the Nelson organization in financial shambles; and Price-Waterhouse, the Big Six accounting firm that from 1980 through 1983 guided Willie’s money into several disastrous investments. All three have been sued or are currently being sued by Willie’s attorneys.

Amid the finger-pointing and the brief-filing, one curiously overlooked fact remains. Bad management and lousy investments notwithstanding, Willie Nelson had a golden opportunity to end the tax crisis several months ago, but he couldn’t pull it off. On June 6, 1990, Willie’s attorneys negotiated a settlement with the IRS. A tax order was signed that day, ordering the man with the greatest earning power of any country and western entertainer who has ever lived to come up with a mere $6 million.

But Willie couldn’t. He didn’t have six million. “He didn’t have one million,” said Lana Nelson. “He probably didn’t have thirty thousand.”

Short and wiry like her father but with her late mother’s dark Indian features, Lana has handled the family books for more than a decade. Stoically, she has done her father’s bidding, writing check after check, watching her inheritance dry up. And she has watched numerous financial managers try to halt the flow of reckless spending—to little effect. “Sometimes he’s his own worst enemy and simply will not take their financial advice,” said Lana.

The revelations of Willie’s da ughter aren’t altogether shocking. After all, Willie Nelson’s whole life has been testimony to the belief that a man should live for the moment, take what comes, and never look back. Financial planning? Never. “It’s more fun if we don’t,” he has assured one of his attorneys. Money? Spend it now. And Willie spent and spent. But his is not the familiar story of the eighties, of greed that has backfired. It’s instead a story of generosity to a major fault.

Infidelity, a poor record as a father, an affection for outlaws, and an unrepentant fondness for marijuana—Willie Nelson has his vices. But they aren’t what did him in. Rather, Willie fell prey to his own loyalties, which became greater than his pocketbook could bear. “You can’t buy a ticket,” Willie would say, to the never-ending joyride aboard the Nelson bus. Familial devotion was the price of admission. But implicit was the understanding that the devotion would be rewarded. You could stay on the bus forever. Willie would pay for the gas.

And Willie paid and paid.

Tim O’Connor was working the cash register at his Austin nightclub, Castle Creek, twenty years ago, when Willie Nelson strolled in and invited the 27-year-old barroom brawler to join his extended family. The proposition actually began with, “I’d like to play your joint,” but things got thick over a whiskey bottle. By the end of that evening, recalled O’Connor, “I’d already felt a deep sense of loyalty toward Willie.”

Loyalty was hard to come by in those days for Willie Nelson, who had just relocated to Austin after suffering a decade’s worth of disappointments in Nashville. He was a 38-year-old man on a downhill slope: a once-great songwriter who hadn’t penned a Top 10 single in ten years; a singer whose off-meter style rubbed his Nashville employers the wrong way (“That ain’t singin’,” they’d say, “that’s talkin’!”); a performer who lived a dissolute road life, while back home his marriages wasted away. The Abbot native was on his third marriage now, to the former Connie Koepke. They had a two-year-old daughter, plus children from Willie’s first marriage. Feeding all those mouths shouldn’t have been that difficult, since Willie continued to draw sizable royalty checks for such timeless classics as “Crazy” and “Hello Walls.” But he had fallen into the habit of immediately converting those earnings into hotel suites and booze and waking up the next morning broke again.

Willie was a lousy provider, much like his own parents, who had both left him before his third birthday to be raised by his paternal grandparents. Since those hard early days, he had never gotten a handle on the orthodox responsibilities of being a husband and father. But he deeply believed in trust and unconditional loyalty and yearned for others to have faith in those rare gifts. In that sense, Willie Nelson was a family man through and through.

Tim O’Connor learned this shortly after he had left his nightclub to join Willie’s road crew in 1971. One night O’Connor got frustrated with the unsteady routine of life on the road and demanded of his boss, “What the hell do you want me to be?”

Standing out in the rain, Willie Nelson told his newest roadie something he would always remember. “There’s three things I never want you to be. Cold, wet, and hungry.” O’Connor replied that he would thereafter follow Willie, into hell if necessary.

Hell is where Willie found most of his family. They were tough guys who had eaten their share of ground glass and seen both ends of a rifle-like drummer Paul English, who had made his cash off the whorehouse circuit in Fort Worth before joining Willie’s band; and promoter Larry Trader, who had been spilling whiskey with Willie since the early Nashville days. There was an indisputably wayward nature to these roadhouse warriors. It’s possible that they were unaware of how passionately they wished to believe in something until they found themselves believing passionately in Willie.

And so they slogged along together from one gig to the next, Willie and his Family, driving through the night until they ran out of gas, taking showers at truck stops, and enduring the cruel indifference of the road. Willie lived as the rest of them did, like peons. He wouldn’t forget the loyalty of men like Bo Franks, a radio ad salesman who quit his job to tour the country with Willie’s band and to sell Willie Nelson T-shirts out of his 1971 Malibu. “Several times throughout the seventies,” said Franks, “Willie had the opportunity to sell out my contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars. One fellow was particularly aggressive. Willie finally told him, ‘Where were you when we were sleeping in cars?’”

“Those were great times,” said Tim O’Connor, a sentiment echoed by Franks and other early cohorts. Willie’s Family was small then; the camaraderie was rich, their ambitions simple. The rewards, moreover, were slowly accumulating. In 1972 Willie ended his longtime association with RCA Records and signed with rhythm and blues producer Jerry Wexler and the new country division of the New York-based Atlantic label. His first Atlantic album, Shotgun Willie (which included the Nelson dance hall staple “Whiskey River,” written by Johnny Bush), was promoted aggressively and outsold all of his RCA records combined, but it still didn’t burn up the country charts. Willie’s next release, Phases And Stages , surpassed Shotgun Willie in sales.

The sound was catching on, and so was the persona. The man who once wore gaudy rhinestone-and-glitter Nudie suits as one of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys and then took to wearing a poncho after seeing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly now wore jeans and T-shirts and hair past his shoulders. While playing at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972, Willie squinted through the lights and saw more hippies than rednecks dancing to his music. A year later, he hosted his first Fourth of July Picnic, in Dripping Springs, and immediately became the patron saint of progressive country music. The succeeding picnics in College Station, Liberty Hill, and Gonzales were Woodstocklike affairs that drew upwards of 75,000 fans, as well as curious reporters from the national press. But Willie still wasn’t pulling in big bucks. Shortly after the first Picnic, he and Kris Kristofferson went for a drive. “I made a million bucks last year,” Kristofferson was grumbling, “and I paid three hundred thousand in taxes.” He turned to Willie. “You pay that much?”

Willie laughed. “When I make a million, I’ll let you know,” he answered.

By 1975 he was on his way. After Atlantic Records’ country division dissolved, Willie signed with CBS Records. With reluctance, the company released Red Headed Stranger , a concept album recorded in two days that featured a somber 1945 ballad by Fred Rose called “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The song rose to number one on the Billboard pop chart. That year Willie reported $581,000 in income. In 1978 Willie confounded CBS executives by recording Stardust, a collection of pop standards from the thirties and forties. Stardust went triple platinum, and Willie’s total earnings climbed to $2.1 million. All of a sudden he was the king of country, a Grammy perennial, and the highest-grossing concert act in America. For the first time in his life, Willie Nelson was making more money than he could possibly blow in one night.

Some of what followed Willie Nelson’s arrival is a story we’ve heard time and again, a story we’ve come to expect from entertainers who hit the big time. Property in the Texas Hill Country, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, Alabama, and Tennessee. Expensive cars, a private jet. Movie and endorsement deals. Photo opportunities with everyone from Prince Charles to Andy Warhol. Rumors of infidelity, hanging out with the First Family, messed-up kids. Drugs. With an eye cocked toward the wretched excesses, we could imagine what would come next. We were fully prepared to believe the worst about this latest in a long line of heroes gone grotesque with glamour.

But instead, there were numerous stories of how Willie Nelson spread his newfound wealth, and most of them were true. Stories about the houses and cars he bought for his friends and family. About how he began letting each roadie get his own hotel room. About how he returned every favor “in spades, with interest,” said Bo Franks: a $38,000 bull for Faron Young to cover a $500 loan in 1961; a nightclub with Larry Butler, who loaned Willie $50 in 1958. About how Tim O’Connor once asked Willie to cosign a bank loan for $50,000—and then gasped as Willie returned from his bedroom with a $50,000 royalty check that he happened to have lying around and signed it over to his former roadie. About how Paul English, who had gone into hock for Willie and lost a wife to suicide just as the hard years were ending, became recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest-paid sideman drummer.

Though now making millions, Willie kept little of it for himself—perhaps only 10 percent of his annual income, according to Lana Nelson. His touring luggage was still a single small bag containing two pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts, and a shaving kit. It’s true that rich friends gave Willie a $15,000 Rolex and a $5,000 pair of cowboy boots. It’s also true that he gave the gifts away, along with practically everything else, prompting the popular refrain among his Family: “What can you give him for his birthday that he won’t give away?” His most valued gift, music, he gave away constantly, playing more than one hundred benefits over the past dozen years, according to Nelson’s management. A few of these events received media attention, such as the three Farm-Aid benefits staged in the mid-eighties to bring financial relief and public awareness to the nations’ imperiled small farmers. But the vast majority were staged quickly and quietly, and always because someone—a Phoenix Indian school, a Texas air base, a maximum-security prison-had asked, “Willie, could you play for us?”

As Willie’s generosity spread beyond the Family, so did the news of it. When crew members talk about the crush of Willie-seekers outside concert arenas, they don’t talk about people asking for autographs and sex. No, these total strangers wanted money—money for wheelchairs, iron lungs, funerals. Willie had a standard reply: “Will a personal check do?”

In 1979 Willie Nelson purchased the defunct Pedernales Country Club, a 76-acre expanse of rolling hills in the village of Briarcliff, near Lake Travis and across the road from the ranch, nearly 700 acres where Willie had his movie set and a 5,400-square-foot cabin built. He converted the clubhouse into the Pedernales Recording Studio and spent hours on the beautifully situated nine-hole golf course. But the Briarcliff spread wasn’t so much an indulgence of Willie’s as it was a haven for his loyal Family. There, everyone who had stuck by Willie during the hard days got a slice of the pie. Larry Trader became the club’s full-time golf pro. The other plum job, that of managing the new studio, was awarded to a short, straight-haired, waifish-looking young woman who had left her job in New York in the early seventies to follow the Willie entourage from gig to gig, helping out wherever help was needed. Her name was Jody Fischer.

Fischer’s real job was to oversee the paradise at Briarcliff—to allot free studio time for Willie’s music buddies, to see to it that guests were comfortable, and to assist Lana Nelson in fulfilling the various charity requests that crossed her desk. Willie paid Fischer a salary and provided a car and a house near the golf course. Fischer’s neighbors included stage manager Poodie Locke, tour bus driver Gator Moore, pilot Marty Morris, lighting director Buddy Prewitt, bodyguard Billy Cooper, Willie’s half-brother, Willie’s nephew, Larry Trader’s brother, and a few musicians who didn’t play in Willie’s band but whom Willie was fond of all the same. Near the country club, in a

cabin situated in Willie’s Pedernales Fishing Camp, lived Ben Dorsey, a bent and bearded old fellow who claimed to have been John Wayne’s valet during the filming of The Alamo . Dorsey didn’t really have a job, but like Fischer and much of the rest of the entourage, he lived rent-free, courtesy of Willie.

For Willie’s Family, life wasn’t half bad. Every day was golfing day, the jamming at the studio lasted all night, and the bills went straight to the offices of Willie’s managers in Danbury, Connecticut. Fischer and Lana Nelson published a gossipy community newspaper, the Pedernales Poo-Poo . Up the road from the golf course, Willie built an $800,000 western movie set, where Red-Headed Stranger was filmed and where Willie’s cohorts frolicked. “We’d get drunk,” said Poodie Locke a little dreamily “and we’d ride horses through there—like kids! It was a fantasy: wind’s blowing, a quart of tequila in you, the Texas sky.…How many people can play cowboys like that?”

By the end of the seventies, Willie Nelson’s camp began to resemble the coterie of a heavyweight boxer. Around the faithful nucleus grew layers and layers of business advisers and attorneys and court jesters and con artists. More than once Lana tried to tell her daddy that some of the people on his payroll were taking him for a ride—even some of the old loyalists, who now realized that they could chisel here and there and ol’ Willie would never notice. “His immediate reaction, “ said Lana, “would be to turn around and give that person everything he asks for, just to prove me wrong, to prove he’s not making a mistake. And maybe I am wrong—or it appears I’m wrong. He doesn’t want to admit that someone has taken advantage of him, because it hurts his feelings, and he doesn’t want to deal with that hurt.”

Or perhaps, as Gator Moore suggested, “He doesn’t mind being conned.” No one could say for sure what Willie felt about these matters, and no one felt comfortable trying. This was one family that didn’t second-guess its patriarch. There were no doubters on the bus.

The fame, the fortune, the utopia on the Pedernales—all had come at a price years before. That price was Neil Reshen, a bullying new York entertainment manager who had secured Willie’s contract with Atlantic and, later, the seven-figure CBS/Lone Star Records contract that gave Willie full artistic control over his product and a custom label for his friends. Reshen’s clients included Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, fiercely independent talents whose quests for artistic freedom necessitated an equally fearless agent. Waylon Jennings, who first signed with Reshen in 1972, persuaded Willie the same day to sign on as well. In a 1975 interview, Jennings likened Reshen to “a mad dog on a leash.” Willie, in the same interview, said that Reshen was “probably the most hated and most effective manager that I know.”

With Reshen browbeating promoters and threatening to audit the record company, Willie and Family went places in a hurry. “Where we suddenly were was where we’d never been,” said Poodie Locke. “The most we’d made was a $5,000 New Year’s date. The next thing you know, it’s $10,000, then $25,000. Then we were going to Europe. I figured, ‘This guy’s taking care of us.’”

Someone had to mind the store, in any event, and it couldn’t be Willie. “I can’t be sure that taxes are paid and records are kept and also write songs and play music,” he said. “At some point you have to trust somebody. And that’s always dangerous.”

With Neil Reshen, it was disastrous. Jody Fischer, who was Reshen’s associate before leaving to become part of the Nelson entourage, said her former boss was someone who, “given the choice between telling the truth and telling a lie, even if the outcome was absolutely the same, would usually choose to tell a lie.” (“I absolutely deny that,” replied Reshen, “but I could be lying.”) In a 1980 suit, Willie said he was given the impression that Reshen was both a lawyer and a CPA, neither of which was true. What Reshen didn’t tell Willie was that he had pleaded guilty to embezzling stock from a Los Angeles bank. Nor, for that matter, did Reshen say that he wasn’t paying Willie’s taxes—Reshen’s responsibility, according to Willie, though Reshen has consistently denied this.

Willie had never been on the best of terms with the taxman. He had been hit for unpaid taxes for 1967, 1968, and 1969 and had been slapped with state and federal tax liens throughout the early seventies. Not that this was surprising at a time when, according to Tim O’Connor, “we collected the box office with a pistol and carried the dollars in a briefcase.” Back then, the road was meaner and the stakes smaller.

But now the numbers were very, very big. Of particular interest tthe dollars in a briefcase.” Back then, the road was meaner and the stakes smaller.

But now the numbers were very, very big. Of particular interest to the IRS were Willie’s Fourth of July Picnics, which drew tens of thousands of dollars in gate receipts. Perhaps, as Willie claimed, “That was when a lot of money changed hands. There weren’t the profits there that the IRS thought there were.” But the money had to have gone somewhere, and Willie couldn’t prove that it hadn’t gone to him. Besides, said IRS officers, showing Willie aerial photographs: There are 70,000 people here; why are there only 20,000 receipts? “They just weren’t aware of what really happens at those things,” said Willie, “where if you get one out of hundred to pay, you’re fortunate.”

After becoming convinced that Reshen was damaging his reputation and siphoning off more than the agent’s share of the profits, Willie fired him in 1978 and promoted his assistant, Mark Rothbaum. Like Reshen, Rothbaum was a sharp resourceful New York businessman. But more important, Willie felt he could trust Rothbaum, for he

had proven his loyalty the hard way. On August 22, 1977, the police had intercepted a package containing several grams of cocaine, which was on its way to a Nashville studio where Waylon Jennings was recording. Mark Rothbaum pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine, did time in 1978, then went straight to work for Willie Nelson—”a sign of the faith and loyalty Willie felt for this man,” said Tim O’Connor.

In 1979, Rothbaum and Willie met with representatives of Price-Waterhouse, the internationally famous accounting firm. By then, it had been discovered that all of Willie’s financial records for the period of 1975 through 1978 had been destroyed. The IRS wanted $2 million for those tax years, and soon they would want more. The meeting therefore focused on a central subject: How do we keep Willie out of tax trouble?

After the meeting, Price-Waterhouse partner Herb Haschke wrote in a letter to Rothbaum: “One fact of business life which Willie cannot escape is that without tax-oriented investments, he will pay substantial amounts of income to the IRS every year.” In a 1990 lawsuit, Willie would claim that Haschke urged him to defer taxable income by investing in government securities issued by First Western Government Securities, a San Francisco-based firm.

Financial planning, of course, had no place in Willie’s worldview. His belief that you should spend your way through life and die a pauper kept him forever at odds with his moneymen. “Willie’s sense of responsibility about his wealth was not what I thought it should be,” said Harvey Corn, an Austin accountant who briefly did business with Willie after Reshen was fired. “I wasn’t at the time concerned with paying his tax bills. I was concerned, though, about the intelligent management of the considerable amount of money that he was making, with particularly his young daughters in mind. The fact is that Willie just didn’t see the world that way. He wasn’t worried about providing $20 million trust funds for his kids. You just couldn’t get his attention. You’d be talking to him, and then he’d just drift off and start picking on a song. You got the message after a while.”

The Reshen-era skirmish with the IRS persuaded Willie that he would have to modify his thinking somewhat. But the Price-Waterhouse proposal seemed a little dubious to him—especially because he would have to borrow money from a bank to invest in First Western. If he was going to borrow, why not just use the money to pay his $2 million in back taxes? “I couldn’t see it at the time,” said Willie, “and I argued with the professionals around me that this is not making sense.”

Nonetheless, on December 22, 1980, Willie invested $30,00 in a margin account portfolio of First Western forward contracts. The next year, Willie’s suit alleged, Haschke recommended in a letter that Willie make an additional investment to shelter his income despite the fact that Price-Waterhouse had learned that other First Western investors had been questioned by the IRS in 1981. Willie put in another $165,000, and Rothbaum himself invested a total of $43,440.

Later, Jan Smith, one of the Price-Waterhouse representatives who handled Willie’s account, admitted, “There’s a lot about First Western that’s known that wasn’t known in 1980.” The suit alleged that in telephone conversations in August and September of 1980, Price-Waterhouse partner John Walsh assured one of Willie’s lawyers that he had personally visited First Western’s operations in San Francisco and found them legitimate. Yet by 1983, the IRS began a serious probe of First Western, especially its practice of determining margins on the basis of the tax loss requested.

Recognizing that, Haschke suggested that Willie and Rothbaum abandon First Western and consider investing in cattle and cattle feed. The plan was simple: Buy cattle and feed at the end of the tax year, deduct the cost of the feed, and then sell the fattened cattle for a profit that would cover the cost of both the livestock and the feed. And, said Haschke, the plan was risk-free, since Willie and Rothbaum could hedge against a drop in cattle prices by selling cattle futures.

It sounded too good to be true—and it was. The bottom fell out of the cattle market in 1984, and Willie and Rothbaum lost $2 million between them. They later alleged in the suit that Haschke did not advise them to sell futures—that while cattle prices plummeted, Haschke couldn’t be reached. To make matters even worse, the IRS ultimately disallowed Willie’s $3 million deduction for cattle feed on the grounds that only $64,000 of the feed was actually consumed in 1983.

Things continued to get worse for Willie. On October 15, 1984, an IRS Notice of Deficiency was issued to Willie and Connie Nelson and to the Willie Nelson Music company in the amount of $2.2 million. The notice said that Willie still owed money from the Reshen years: more than $25,000 for royalties, some $360,000 in income, and $720,000 to cover business expenses that had been disallowed. Willie’s attorneys contested the matter in tax court, to no avail.

On May 20, 1988, Willie received a second Notice of Deficiency, this time for the years 1980 through 1982. Because of the disallowed tax shelters, he now owed more than $1.5 million for each of those years, plus millions more in interest and penalties. The mess had started during the Neil Reshen years, but the advice of Price-Waterhouse had led Willie Hugh Nelson to the edge of financial ruin. He sought the counsel of Jay Goldberg, a New York attorney whose clients included Donald Trump and the late Armand Hammer. Goldberg saw his chance to help Willie in 1990, when the U.S. Tax Court held that First Western Government Securities had engaged in fraud by creating tax deductions without regard to the possibilities of profit—a scheme, the court held, that “no reasonable person would have expected . . . to work.” On August 15, 1990, Willie’s lawyers filed a RICO lawsuit

against Price-Waterhouse.

But it came too late for Willie. The IRS was quickly closing in.

It’s true that the IRS was legally empowered to seize the properties of Willie Nelson. It’s equally true that the action was drastic, a show of force that garnered enormous publicity, capturing the attention of middle Americans who might feel the urge to fudge on their taxes now and again. Perhaps the IRS was making an example of Willie Nelson. Had that crossed Willie’s mind?

“Sure it has,” he said, grinning. “But I have no facts.”

To hear Willie’s Family tell it, the seizure was a full-blown federal conspiracy. The feds regarded Willie as an outlaw, they say, a pot-smoking liberal whose Farm-Aid benefits embarrassed the government into canceling scheduled aid cutbacks. Only a few weeks before the seizure, Willie was in Kentucky, driving a bus with the word “Hempmobile” painted on it, in support of a fringe gubernatorial candidate who advocated the legalization of marijuana. That broke the camel’s back, say the loyalists. The last flaunting of Willie Nelson’s reckless spirit persuaded the feds to break Willie, once and for all.

But there is a far less hysterical explanation for the seizure of Willie’s property: The IRS took action not out of malice but because it had little choice.

By the spring of 1990, according to attorney Jay Goldberg, Willie’s tax tab had escalated to $32 million. When Goldberg successfully negotiated that sum down to $6 million in taxes, plus $9 million in interest and penalties to be held in abeyance, the message from the IRS was clear: Willie had to ante up a significant sum, say, $2 million, by September 6, ninety days after the June 6 tax order.

After electing not to pursue bankruptcy, the Nelson organization began to scurry around for cash. It was like chasing leaves in a hurricane, for Willie’s money flew in all directions. He continued to support his adult children from his first marriage (Lana, Billy, and Susan), plus two daughters from his marriage to Connie who was now divorcing him—an endeavor that carried heavy financial overtones. In the meantime, Willie had a new girlfriend, Annie D’Angelo, and had fathered two children by her. Then there was the extended Family, itself multiplying daily.

As Willie’s beneficiaries had proliferated, the entertainer’s earning power had declined steadily. According to Pollstar, a concert industry publication, Willie was the seventh highest-grossing touring act in 1985, taking in $14.5 million. In 1986, he was twenty-second, at $10.1 million; in 1987, twenty-seventh, at $7.7 million; and in 1989, forty-sixth, at $4.7 million. Excluding his performances with Highwayman (also featuring Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash), Willie’s concert earnings last year sank to a mere $3.3 million. And those were gross earnings, not net. “He had more expenses going out than he had concerts coming in,” confirmed Lana Nelson. “We’ve been living hand-to-mouth for the last couple of years.”

Record sales were equally discouraging. Since “Always on My Mind” had topped the charts in 1982, the old Nashville renegade had been supplanted by sexier turks like Dwight Yoakum, George Strait, and Randy Travis. His annual artist royalties hovered in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range—a fine income for anyone not supporting an entire community. In the meantime, Willie owed CBS Records more than $3 million in recoupable advances.

In August 1990, at the behest of his advisers, Willie Nelson sold his publishing company, Willie Nelson Music. All of his songs and the royalties they earned now belong to a company called Fuji Pacific. The notion of selling one’s music catalog in order to pay the taxman would horrify most songwriters. But the financial security that steady royalty checks had brought meant nothing to Willie, and he had already proved that he could live with himself after selling his hits for dirt. After all, he had pawned off two of his earliest classics, “Night Life” and “Family Bible,” for $150 and $50, respectively, in the fifties.

Willie Nelson Music had been earning about $225,000 annually in publishing royalties. Willie’s financial managers were therefore pleased with the Fuji Pacific offer, which totaled $2.27 million. Such a sum might have satisfied the IRS for a time. Unfortunately, $480,000 of the deal went to the tax agency to satisfy an entirely different tax claim concerning Willie Nelson Music. About $1.2 million went to pay off Nashville bank loans for which the publishing company had served as collateral. Another $360,000 went to Paul English, who owned 20 percent of Willie Nelson Music. At the end of it all, after the pot was split and all dealmakers were paid, Willie Nelson had sold off his birthright for a negative $35,000.

In the meantime, the IRS deadline of September 6 came and went. Admitted Jay Goldberg: “There were no substantial payments made.”

Many offered to help. Tim O’Connor suggested a Fourth of July fundraiser, but Willie—a man used to giving but never to receiving—quietly discouraged the idea. Others didn’t ask permission to declare themselves Willie benefactors. James White hosted a Willie-Aid benefit at his Broken Spoke in Austin, promising “very special surprise guests” and not volunteering the information that Willie had nothing to do with the concert—he was holed up in Hawaii and would not be among the night’s surprises. A West Lake Hills barber named Jim Hataway took it upon himself to establish a bank account for those who wished to contribute to Willie’s tax fund. Hataway didn’t know Willie, but he had shaken his hand once and was willing to talk at length to any reporter about the kind of guy Willie Nelson was. Sincerely intended or not, the effect of such schemes was to confuse rather than inspire the public. Was Willie behind all this? Was he trying to get fans to pay his taxes for him? In the end, IRS Tapes may not make a dent in his tax debt and in the end, Willie may not care. “Willie just didn’t want to be the object of any

charity,” said Larry Goldfein, Willie’s current financial adviser, and if nothing else, the recording proves that sentiment.

For now, the spread is safe. The IRS placed the Briarcliff property on the auction block at the end of January, but aside from the sale of a few souvenirs, no one had offered the minimum bid. Meanwhile, an Arkansas attorney representing several foreclosed farmers bought Willie’s ranch house, where Lana resides, and pledged to return it to the Nelson family. On March 5, former University of Texas football coach and longtime Willie crony, Darrell Royal, purchased the Pedernales Recording Studio, the country club, and the pro shop for a total price of $117,375 (its appraised value was more than $1 million). Royal didn’t say what he would do with all the property nor did he have to. Willie had told me during our conversation on the bus, “I have friends who’ve offered to buy the property for me and save it until I can afford to get it back from them. I was assured of all that months ago.”

In the first week of April, Goldfein (an adjunct professor of tax law at New York University and an ex-IRS attorney) persuaded the IRS to cut Willie some slack. Under this new agreement, 75 percent of the net earnings from IRS Tapes will be earmarked for tax repayment, with the other 25 percent to cover Willie’s legal fees for the Price-Waterhouse lawsuit. Willie will be allowed, according to Goldfein, “a very liberal sharing of the proceeds” earned on the road. The full band will be able to tour, and the IRS won’t send an agent along to tour with them. The show will go on. But the IRS will receive a full account, every month, of how the money is being parceled out. That means the party’s over.

A few, though not all, of Willie’s Family members have started to get this message. “I’m pretty frustrated personally by the outer layers of bark and moss that have grown around Willie’s tree,” said Tim O’Connor. “And I think it’s burdened the tree. As far as I’m concerned, this is a great shakedown. Everybody should give the man some room to breathe for once.”

They talk about that over in Briarcliff—about the changes: a smaller roster, maybe a few old hands cut loose, or maybe the whole Willie community gradually disintegrating. “This is a test for everyone involved to see how we can react to a crisis,” said Lana Nelson. “As for me, this isn’t the brokest I’ve been. I remember as a child how I’d sit in the middle of a room and watch my mother and my daddy packing things with the midnight moving company. We’d move every month, when the rent came due.

“As for Daddy—what’s wrong with him just going on the road with his guitar? You know, he hasn’t cleaned house in seven years or so. And one thing he talks about is that everything happens for the best, no matter what. If he listens to himself, then maybe the positive side he’ll see is: ‘I won’t have all this responsibility to keep all these people on my payroll.’

“Then he can start small again.” Lana laughed, just slightly exasperated. “And it’ll take him another twenty years to build it all up again. See, he’ll be the same. He’ll still be generous. He’ll still want to give more than he actually has.”

Jody Fischer still aches inside with the memory of the day the IRS came to find out just what Willie had. “Where’s the fleet of cars?” the agents demanded of her last November. “Where’s the vault?” From behind her desk, the small dark-haired woman with the plaintive face could only gape. They weren’t making any sense. This had to be some other Willie Nelson.

“We know all about Willie Nelson,” one of them had told her, waving a stack of government documents for effect. What Jody Fischer wanted to say in response was what anyone—not just those in Willie’s Family, but anyone with ears—would say: that any man who makes Willie Nelson’s kind of music will never be remembered for his tax liabilities. But the words just wouldn’t leave her heart. Faith can be such a clumsy language.

Willie Nelson, “Ride Me Back Home”

Sunday, May 5th, 2019
by: Patrick Doyle

Watch Willie Nelson Pay Tribute to Horses in ‘Ride Me Back Home’

Nelson, who has more than 60 horses on his Texas property, says he was immediately moved by his friend Sonny Throckmorton’s song
by: Patrick Doyle

Willie Nelson turned 86 yesterday, announced a tour and appeared on the cover of our cannabis issue. The story is timed to Nelson’s new album Ride Me Back Home, out June 21st, which features new songs and covers of everyone from Guy Clark to Billy Joel.

On Tuesday, Nelson released a new video for “Ride Me Back Home,” a song co-written by his friend Sonny Throckmorton, a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member.

The song is a tribute to horses who have seen better days (“Now they don’t need you/There’s no one to feed you/There’s fences where you used to roam/I wish I could gather up all of your brothers and you would just ride me back home”). It immediately moved Nelson, who has more than 60 rescue horses on his property outside Austin, Texas. “I’ve bought a lot of horses that were gonna be slaughtered,” Nelson said.

“It’s a good story,” Nelson added of the song, which Throckmorton actually wrote thinking about Willie’s horses. “I heard it and I said it fits exactly the same thing I’m doing. It just seemed natural.” Nelson last paid tribute to the animals in 2012’s “A Horse Called Music,” with Merle Haggard.

“Sonny lives right by Willie’s Luck studio,” Nelson’s producer/co-writer Buddy Cannon said. “He said he wrote that song because he was over there and saw Willie’s horses. I don’t even know if Willie knows that or not.”

Willie Nelson on the cover of the Rolling Stone (again)

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019
by: Patrick Doyle

The High Life

Sixty-five years after he smoked his first joint, Willie Nelson is America’s most legendary stoner and a walking testament to the power of weed. It may have even saved his life

Willie Nelson is sitting on a couch at his home, a modest cabin that overlooks his 700 acres of gorgeous Texas Hill Country, when he reaches into his sweatshirt and produces a small, square vaporizer, takes a hit and exhales slowly. “Wanna puff?” he asks.

Nelson’s wife, Annie, setting down a cup of coffee on a DVD case working as a coaster in front of him, speaks up. “Careful with that, babe,” she says. “You have to sing tonight.”

Nelson says he stays high “pretty much all the time.” (“At least I wait 10 minutes in the morning,” Keith Richards has said.) His routine, Annie says, is to “take a couple of hits off the vape and then, an hour or two later, he might want a piece of chocolate. That keeps it going. So not a ton [of pot]?.?.?.?but he is Willie Nelson.” Annie recently bought Nelson an expensive version of a gravity bong — a fixture of high school house parties, which can shoot an entire bowl of weed into your lungs in one hit. “You can use ice water, which helps cool it off,” Annie says. “And no paper really helps.”

In addition to being the world’s most legendary country artist, Willie Nelson might also be the world’s most legendary stoner. Before Snoop or Cheech and Chong or Woody Harrelson, there was Willie. He has been jailed for weed, and made into a punchline for weed. But look at him now: Still playing 100 shows a year, still writing songs, still curious about the world. “I’m kind of the canary in the mine, if people are wondering what happens if you smoke that shit a long time,” he says. “You know, if I start jerking or shaking or something, don’t give me no more weed. But as long as I’m all right?.?.?.”

Years before weed became legal, he spoke about the medical benefits and economic potential of weed if it were taxed and the profits were put toward education. “It’s nice to watch it being accepted — knowing you were right all the time about it: that it was not a killer drug,” says Nelson. “It’s a medicine.”

He pauses for a second, before telling a joke he’s told a thousand times. “I don’t know anybody that’s ever died from smoking pot. Had a friend of mine that said a bale fell on him and hurt him pretty bad, though.”

Nelson’s house is a cedar log cabin, 35 miles from Austin, with a sweeping panoramic view of Hill Country. He picked the spot in the late Seventies, laying four rocks where he wanted the foundation built. Down a dirt road, there’s an Old West town he had built for his 1986 film Red Headed Stranger. His golf course, Pedernales Cut ’N Putt (“No shoes, no shirt, no problem”), is nearby. Tonight Nelson will play a benefit for 300 Farm Aid donors; tomorrow, 3,000 people will come here, to Nelson’s Luck Ranch, for the Luck Reunion, an annual concert held during South by Southwest. A rainstorm last night tore up the property, and a crew has been working furiously to get things ready. None of this seems to bother Nelson, who just woke up. “Oh, it’s fun,” he says when asked if he minds all the excitement. (“Willie expects everything to go OK,” says his friend Steve Earle. “He’s pretty serene, so everybody else just does better than to create drama around him. That organization kind of works that way.”)

Sitting with Nelson, you get used to long silences. “Oh, pickin’ a little,” he says when asked about what he’s been up to. He also just finished an album, Ride Me Back Home. The first song is about the 60 horses on his property, which Nelson bought at auction and saved from slaughterhouses. Nelson had showed me some of the horses when I visited five years ago. “Billy Boy is still here,” he says. “We lost Roll Em Up Jack. Wilhelmena the mule is gone. Uh, rattlesnake got her. Babe, you got any of that CBD coffee?”

Nelson is talking about Willie’s Remedy, the coffee that is sold by his cannabis company, Willie’s Reserve. The idea for a weed business started a few years ago; Nelson had bronchitis and he couldn’t smoke, so Annie started making him weed chocolates. The recipe took some perfecting — Nelson kept eating too many and getting too high, so she had to lower the dosages to five milligrams. She lent some to a friend, and big business came knocking. They were skeptical — “We don’t want to become the Wal-Mart of cannabis,” says Annie, who headed the negotiations. They wanted to keep in line with Nelson’s Farm Aid organization, supporting family farmers. Willie’s Reserve is now available in six states, and it’s proving “fairly lucrative,” Nelson says. It hasn’t been easy — since the drug is still federally prohibited, “the regulations change like chameleons,” says Annie. “The edibles are actually harder [to produce legally] than the flower. You have to have specific kitchens. You have to have specific licenses that take years to get.”

Nelson’s official title is “CTO: chief tasting officer.” The company even had business cards made up. He explains: “If I find something that’s really good, I say, ‘This is really good.’?” Despite 65 years of pot use, Nelson is not a connoisseur; he shrugs when asked for his favorite Willie’s Reserve strains. His famous stash, he says — the weed that he used to keep in a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox on his bus — is a bunch of random kinds that have been given to him by fans or thrown onto the stage. Willie’s Reserve VP Elizabeth Hogan has been trying for years to figure out what kind of weed Nelson likes. The response, Hogan says, is usually “?‘I claim ’em all’?” or “?‘Pot’s like sex — it’s all good, some is great.’?” (“He’s kind of a sativa dude,” says Annie. “He’s already funny, so it just makes him funnier.”)

Pot has been Nelson’s exclusive drug of choice since around 1978, when he gave up cigarettes and whiskey. He’d had pneumonia four times, and his hangovers had gotten nasty. Plus, he could be a mean drunk. “I had a pack of 20 Chesterfields, and I threw ’em all away and rolled up 20 fat joints, stuck ’em in there,” he says. “I haven’t smoked a cigarette since. I haven’t drank that much either, because one will make me want the other — I smoke a cigarette, I wanna drink a whiskey. Drink a whiskey, want a cigarette. That’s me. I can’t speak for nobody else.”

He has no doubt where he’d be without pot: “I wouldn’t be alive. It saved my life, really. 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.”

Nelson uses the phrase “delete and fast-forward” a lot. It’s the title of a recent song of his, and it means forgive, forget and move on — a way to get through painful times. Weed, he says, helps him delete and fast-forward. “You don’t dwell on shit a lot. The short-term thing they talk about is probably true, but it’s probably good for you.”

What do you mean, the short-term thing?
They say people who smoke pot have a short-term memory. Maybe that’s good, you know?
Because [otherwise] you start remembering a lot of negative things that you’re not supposed to remember. And the next thing you know, you’re back drinking whiskey.
So weed helps you forget about stuff you don’t wanna think about.
Yeah. What’s more important is, there’s nothing I can do about what happened a while ago. Nothing I can do about what’s going to happen in a minute. Right now? I can try to pretty much control everything.
Are there times you don’t remember stuff that you wish you had remembered because you were high?
Oh, probably. But I forgot it.

Nelson smoked his first joint in 1954. He was living in Fort Worth, working as a musician and a part-time radio DJ, and had been watching the Senate’s Joseph McCarthy hearings in a bar one night when a local musician named Fred Lockwood invited Nelson outside to “blow tea.” Nelson was anxious about trying it — “The U.S. government?.?.?.?said I would go crazy and stick up a bank and?.?.?.?murder innocent people,” he wrote in 1988’s Willie: An Autobiography. Nelson thought it was a better idea to hold on to the joint, pull over later that night on his drive home and smoke it. But nothing happened.

It took me about six months to get high,” he says. He was drinking a lot of Jack Daniel’s and smoking a lot of cigarettes, “so who knows what gets you high or drunk.” But he kept trying, and one night he was onstage in Fort Worth when “I finally realized I’m getting a little buzz off it,” he says.

Nelson suspects he’d had pot as a kid — his cousin had shared a doctor-prescribed “asthma cigarette” when they were fishing one day. Cannabis was sometimes available at drugstores and dance halls before FDR essentially outlawed it in 1937; Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testified that cannabis had spread from the Southwest U.S. to become a “national menace.” With Mexico just across the border, it was easier to find weed in Texas than anywhere else in the country. But “if you had so much as a seed, you got 20 years,” recalls Nelson’s friend Johnny Bush. Bush remembers a friend named Hank who worked as a cameraman in San Antonio. A police officer found a joint in Hank’s pocket. “He got 20 years,” Bush says, “and he served every day of it.”

If you ask Nelson’s friends about some of the pot-smoking pioneers of country music, one name always comes up: JR “Chat the Cat” Chatwell, a prominent Western-swing fiddler who turned every musician he could on to weed. He’d been smoking since the 1920s, and even recorded a song about it, 1941’s “Mary Jane,” with his band the Modern Mountaineers (“Pretty little girl named Mary Jane’s got me under her finger/I don’t mind my being there ’cause that’s where I want to linger”). Chat drove to Laredo and the border to buy his “cheese,” and even smoked it onstage. He turned Texas bandleader Doug Sahm on to pot and its sophisticated varieties in San Antonio in the late 1950s. Years later, Sahm showed up at the Rolling Stone San Francisco offices with a briefcase full of different strains of weed, Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner said, an entirely new concept at the time.

Other musicians were more discreet. In the early Sixties, Nelson toured as a bass player for Ray Price, the slick, Nudie-­suit-wearing country crooner. “I went to his hotel room one time and noticed he had a towel under the door,” Nelson says. “I said, ‘You motherfucker’ — so we quit hiding from each other.” He called the weed they were smoking back then “Mexican dirt weed.” You could get a “lid,” a tobacco can containing about an ounce, for between $10 and $20.

On the road, pot was a tool to counteract other substances. Bush recalls he and Nelson taking “bennies” (Benzedrine, an early amphetamine) to make drives sometimes as long as 500 miles between gigs, where “you’d tie the trailer to the car, put four musicians in there,” Bush says. “You’d be on a benny high and you had no appetite. Then you smoked a little, and then all of a sudden your appetite came back and you could sleep. It was a cycle.”

Nelson had his own cycle. “I used to drink a lot,” he says. “And that brings on negative thinking. You start thinking about everything that’s wrong and then you better drink another or take another shot so it gets better. And it don’t get better.” Nelson spent most of the Sixties in Nashville, writing hits for other artists, like “Crazy” and “Night Life.” But he wanted to break through on his own. A despondent Nelson famously got drunk and laid down in the middle of the city’s main strip, not caring if he got run over. Then there was the time his second wife, Shirley, got a hospital bill in the mail for the birth of his daughter, whom he had with his soon-to-be third wife, Connie. His sister Bobbie attributes his dark times to drinking: “We don’t hold our alcohol well. I might be able to drink a little wine myself, but Willie can’t drink.”

“With him, the dark side would come out,” Bush says. “His eyes are brown, and they’d go dark brown, you know. It wasn’t a physical mean, he would just get a little sarcastic.”

Nelson’s true adventures in drugs started when he moved to Austin in 1971. He grew his hair out and started playing shows that united hippies and conservative cowboys. “When Willie Nelson moved back to Texas, I stopped getting my ass kicked so much,” says Earle. “I had long hair and cowboy boots, and people took offense to that. Willie moves back, and all of a sudden, within a year or two, I’m standing out in the cow pasture listening to the same bands with the same guys that used to kick my ass. My hobby in high school became turning cowboys on to LSD, and they were so grateful.”

“I’m an experimental sort of fellow,” Nelson wrote in his 1988 autobiography. In the Seventies, he experimented with hallucinogens. “In the fairly short period of time that I used it, acid taught me several profound things,” Nelson wrote. “One was that I must not take acid and try to play a show.” Two hours before a show, he took 1,500 micrograms of LSD: “I seemed to be standing in chocolate pudding,” he wrote. “My fingers began turning into claws on the guitar. I felt like I looked like a werewolf.” Today he says hallucinogens are “not for me. I need to think. And some of those things, I can’t think on them.”

Nelson has been busted for pot several times, though none of the arrests led to serious jail time. After a 2010 bust in Sierra Blanca, Texas, when Border Patrol seized six ounces from him, the county attorney suggested Nelson sing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” at the courthouse as punishment. But Nelson’s most remarkable bust story came in 1977. He and songwriter Hank Cochran had a couple of days off tour, so they headed to the Bahamas. The trip got off to a rocky start when the airline lost their luggage, but they went to Cochran’s boat anyway. After two days, they decided to pick up their bags at the airport. A customs agent was waiting with Nelson’s suitcase. The agent held up a bag of weed he’d found in a pair of Nelson’s jeans. He was thrown in jail. “I got deported. They said, ‘Don’t come back.’?” Has he? Nelson gives a look and pauses for several seconds. “Fuck, no!”

Nelson’s next stop was the White House. Before the arrest, he had been invited by Jimmy Carter, for whom Nelson had performed during his campaign. Nelson was photographed arriving on the back lawn wearing tennis shoes and a bandanna. “Oh, he laughed about it,” he says of Carter’s reaction to his Bahamas bust. “Why not?”

That night, after singing in the Rose Garden, Nelson went to sleep with his wife, Connie, in the Lincoln Bedroom. Then one of the president’s sons knocked on his door.

“Chip Carter took me down into the bottom of the White House, where the bowling alley is,” Nelson says. Then they went up to the roof and smoked a joint. Nelson remembers Carter explaining the surrounding view — the Washington Monument, the string of lights on Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s really pretty nice up there,” Nelson says.

On a Saturday afternoon in Austin, a couple of dozen people pack into the Lazy Daze coffee and smoke shop, which today has become a pop-up shop selling Willie’s Reserve products. A video is shown of some of Willie’s Reserve growers — including Tina Gordon, a San Francisco drummer who started growing in California’s Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis-producing region in the U.S. “I feel like Willie Nelson and what he stands for really resonates,” she says. “It’s a combination of embracing the natural world?.?.?.?and ‘stick it to the Man,’ and I love that.” We also hear from Johnny Casali, who took over his parents’ farm, which included cannabis plants, then got sentenced to 10 years after a neighbor turned him in. Now he’s back to work, growing weed for Nelson.

Nelson knows he’s one of the lucky ones — he gets angry when he thinks about all the people in prison for it. Forty percent of all drug arrests are for pot, with blacks four times more likely to get busted than whites. “A lot of it is because people get in there who don’t even have the bail money to get out,” he says. “Let those guys out and start working and paying taxes.”

Nelson is talking in his bunkhouse, a one-floor wood-paneled space across the driveway from the house. Donald Trump is on MSNBC. Nelson picks up his remote, but it’s old and janky, and the button doesn’t really work. “It’s hard to turn him off,” Nelson says.

This is where Nelson comes to hang out at night by himself. A round poker table sits in the middle of the room. (“You don’t wanna play poker with him,” says Earle. “He’s not afraid to lose, so he’s not afraid to bet, and it’s hard to beat a guy like that.”) Behind it, there’s a small portable closet stacked with cowboy hats. There’s a tub full of golf balls, and a cupboard full of guns. Across the room from that is a shelf containing Nelson’s black belts for martial arts. Nelson will sometimes stay here until five in the morning, drinking coffee, watching the news or a Western, coming up with songs.

He often has his SiriusXM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, turned on. He hears a lot of old friends on it: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Ray Price. Nelson released a song about those friends, “Last Man Standing,” in 2017. Then he immediately stopped performing it. “I don’t like going to that place mentally.” Mortality is his least-favorite subject. He didn’t go to the funerals of close friends like Jennings and Roger Miller, and he makes a habit of avoiding sadness at all costs. He seems to think that’s another reason he’s survived: “When you put a negative thought into your mind and body, it literally poisons your system.”

I ask him what he thinks his legacy is. Nelson stares back intensely. He asks me to repeat the question twice more before it becomes clear he just doesn’t want to answer. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I think there’s already [a legacy] out there that people have made up their minds already. I think.”

Nelson wrote a new song last night. It’s called “God Is Love.” He speaks a verse of it, making eye contact with me the entire time: “Take these words of wisdom with you everywhere you go/Tell all the religions in the world, and through them the truth shall flow/But God is love, and love is God, that’s all you need to know.”

Nelson says he doesn’t see God as a “big guy in the sky, making all the decisions.” “I think God is love, period. There’s love in everything out there — trees, grass, air, water. Love is the one thing that runs through every living thing. Everybody loves something: The grass loves the water. That’s the one thing that we all have in common, that we all love and like to be loved. That’s God.”

The next day, Nelson teaches the song to his band in his Pedernales recording studio, an unmarked building on his golf course. The space has a lot of history. One day in 1982, Nelson woke up Merle Haggard, who’d passed out after being up for five days, and brought him here to record his famous last verse to their duet “Pancho and Lefty.” Nelson gave the band members just a few days notice for today’s session. They had no idea he was going to cut nearly an entire gospel album in one sitting.

Nelson shows up a little cranky — he’d come from a photo shoot, one of his least-favorite things on the planet. When his microphone isn’t immediately ready to go, he snaps at the engineer. But soon he warms up. Nelson in the studio is completely different from Nelson onstage, where he can sometimes coast. Sitting on a stool, he tears through take after take, songs he learned as a kid in church and early classics of his own, like “Family Bible.” He works hard to figure out advanced chord structures, giving instructions like “Let’s get that diminished in there” and “Modulate up a tone.” When someone makes a mistake, Nelson usually blames himself.

“Everybody unhappy?” Nelson says midway through, getting laughs from the control room. He asks what time it is: 9 p.m. “Oh, it’s early,” he says. “We wouldn’t even be [onstage] yet. Let’s see what else we can do.”

“He’s not fucking around today,” says the engineer.

Close to midnight, Nelson comes into the control room to hang with his son Lukas. Willie is sweaty, vibrant, and looks younger than this morning. The engineer’s microphone mistake is long forgotten, and Nelson reaches into his pocket and takes out a generous wad of $20 bills, handing them over as a tip.

After a while, Nelson gets up. “I’m gonna see if the little lady wants to drive me home,” he says. Some of the songs aren’t perfect. “We’re coming back in to fix ’em later.” He takes a hit from his vape pen and exhales. “Not sure what year that’ll be.”

Willie Nelson in Rolling Stone

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

Why Willie Nelson’s Still Cool, by Joe Nick Patoski (Texas Monthly, April 2003)

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Why Willie’s Still Cool
by Joe Nick Patoski
A Texas Monthly Magazine Tribute to Willie!
April 2003

Ever since I was a kid, when his grinning visage first flickered at me over the black-and-white on Channel 11 live from Panther Hall, in Fort Worth, Willie Nelson has been a fixture in my life. I swear I heard him introducing 45’s when he was a disc jockey on KCNC-AM, my first exposure to country and western music. Like him, I saw the neon Stars and Stripes that once flew over the Tarrant County courthouse at night. Like him, I was moved by the blind couple who sold pencils in front of Leonards Department Store downtown (Willie paid tribute to them by writing “Pretty Paper,” the best Texas Christmas song ever). Growing up in Texas back then, you couldn’t help but hear Faron Young’s recording of “Hello Walls” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” jukebox staples that never went away; Willie wrote the lyrics of both songs. When I finally met him fact to face in the offices of KOKE-FM, in Austin, the station that revolutionized radio by playing a brand new mix of music called progressive country. I remember thinking that he was unlike any musician — any person, for that matter — I’d ever seen or heard.

Who’d have guessed that after all these records, picnics, scandals, and road miles later, he’d still be so much in his prime? At a time when his peers have either hightailed it to Branson or are being wheeled out onstage to show they’re still alive, Willie’s till Willie — on the road again, on the bus again, worthy of tribute songs and accolades and whatever else you can throw at him.

Which raises the question: What keeps him going? What makes Willie Willie, who turns seventy on April 30, more of an icon that ever? Everyone has his opinion. Willie surely has his own. Here’s mine.

He’s a family man. Four marriages and what can be charitably described as an unconventional lifestyle explain why a lot of people thing Willie and family values don’t go together.  They’re wrong. He’s the epitome of family. It’s not just that he’s a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather or that his sister plays piano in his band or that his eldest daughter goes out on the road with him and writes the band’s official Web site diary (  Not for nothing is his band called Willie Nelson and Family; they’ve stayed together longer than most blood relations. His steadfast followers are likewise called family. To them, he’s more than a star; he’s a combination of daddy, patron, sage, boss man, fearless leaders, beloved outlaw, and benevolent shepherd tending his flock.

He’s a uniter, not a divider. The original cosmic cowboy came to Austin and brought rednecks and freaks together, mainly because he’s a little of both (he was the first hippie I ever saw wearing a diamond pinkie ring). His audience today is the face of America, bringing together folks who’d never darken the same door — from baby boomers to yahoos, academics to convicts — and making them want to stay all night and a little longer.

He’s the Teflon Troubadour. From unpaid bar tabs and pistol down payments to high-dollar lawsuits and high-profile tax hassles, he has nimbly stepped around buckets of excrement without getting any on him in a manner unrivaled this side of Ronald Reagan. Think about it: In just ten years he seamlessly segued from IRS target to A-plus patriot, leading the likes of Tome Cruise and Julia Roberts in a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the nationally televised post-9/11 telethon.

He’s loyal. It works in the White House. It works in the Mafia. And it works in Willie’s world, where the operating rule of thumb is Darrell Royal’s “Dance with the one who brung ya.” Following the first Willie Nelson Picnic, in Dripping Springs, he severed ties with the hippie crew from the Armadillo World Headquarters who’d helped put on the show after hearing one of them complain about his pal’s toting firearms backstage. “If my friends aren’t good enough for you,” Willie told them, “then I’m not good enough for you either.”

He’s an activist without being overly political. He championed small, independent farmers by starting Farm Aid, a no-brainer fit of inspired populism that pays back the culture he was part of growing up in Abbott. On almost the opposite end of the spectrum, he has had a thirty-year relationship with NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), making a public service announcement here and there. And he’s even raised money to rebuild the fire-damaged Hill County courthouse in Hillsboro. yes, he lends his name to causes, bu the causes don’t define him: his Williness transcends all controversy.

He’s a jack-of-all-trades. No one slides in and out of so many musical skins. He’s country as all-get-out, but he’s also a folkie for the ages, a great gospel artist (look no further than Family bible and Healing Hands of Time), a connoisseur of pop standards (Stardust is one of the best-selling albums of all time), and an organic-rocker who can take a jam on on a trip farther out than even . The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead may have preceded him in their two-drummer setup, but only Willie Nelson’s band has sported two bass players as well. Reggae?  Been there (though the album has yet to be released). Sentimental schmultz? Done that (“On teh Sunny Side of the Street?) Dance times? Yes, thsoe were disco whistles you heard on a recent single, “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me).” He has sung credible duets with Julio Iglesias, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Little Joe, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt; B. B. King, Kid Rock, and Nora Jones.  Now that’s versatility.

He’s an extraordinary talent. He can jump from genre to genre so effortlessly because he’s so gifted musically — the greatest all-around Texas player born in the twentieth century. He writes songs that have   As a singer, he’s surpassed only by Sinatra.  He’s an American original, right up there with Hank, Miles, and Elvis.

He’s a crossover dream. unlike Mariah Carey and Madonna, he has managed to transition form music to movies (Honeysuckle Rose, Wag the Dog) and television (the edgy detective series Monk) without being ridiculed — mainly because he’s smart enough to play a version of himself, if not the real thing, and act naturally. What you see is what you get.

He’s Ours. Willie is Texas and Texas is Willie, pure and simple, no one represents the brand like he does. The spiritual descendant of Bob Willis, who blazed trails by welding together seemingly incompatible styles to invent western swing. Willie is responsible for birthing this think called Texas Music and taking Texas to the world. Bonus points for making red-bandanna headbands, braids and running shoe symbols of Texas culture.

He’s cool. He has lived a thousand lives and died a thousand deaths, having been wrongly written off more times than any other cat in showbiz. While he could be resting on laurels that include a discography ofmore than two hundred albums, he’s plahying 145 nights ayear, cranking out sets in excess of two hours, while on the side pitching booze (Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight Bourbon), financial services (Frost Bank), and blue jeans (the Gap) in television commercials and on a billboard overlooking Broadway.

Wilie and blue jeans? Could there be a more perect match? It isn’t so much that the was made for them as they were made for him. And you can’t get any cooler than that.

[Joe Nick Patoski is author “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life,” among many other great documentaries on Texas music and history.  His latest is The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America”.

Willie Nelson CMT Insider Interview (4/23/2010)

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019


Even when his albums centered around pop standards, blues, jazz and reggae, Willie Nelson has always put his unique country spin on the music. With his new album, Country Music, he chose to delve deep into the kind of music he grew up hearing and playing.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, Country Music was recorded in Nashville with a band of local musicians that included Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Ronnie McCoury. The song selection includes new arrangements of traditional material and covers of songs popularized by Porter Wagoner (“Satisfied Mind”), Hank Williams (“House of Gold”), Ernest Tubb (“Seaman’s Blues”), Merle Travis (“I Am a Pilgrim”) and Al Dexter (“Pistol Packin’ Mama”).

During a recent interview, CMT Insider talked to the Country Music Hall of Fame member about the album and if there was a reason it had a specific release date of April 20 — also referred to by some as 4/20 or “Pot Day.”

Where did the idea for this album country music come from?

Nelson: My idea of country music is basically what this album has on it. It’s fiddles, steels, mandolins, and it just seems like a natural title. And underneath Country Music, I was tempted to say, “Lest we forget this is country music.”

What was the criteria for this album?

Well, T Bone Burnett produced it, and if you’ve got a good producer like that, you kind of just let him have the ball and run with it. And that’s what I did. He brought all the songs to the session except for “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and all the musicians, he called them all together. He’s really the best at doing things like that.

I’ve read that you said three takes are enough if you’ve got the right people in the studio. Did you feel like you had that there?

Oh, yeah. And a lot of times, the first take is the best, so the second and third are just insurance.

A lot of people are saying Country Music is similar to yourStardust album because these songs are standards. Do you agree with that?

I do. It’s a Stardust in its own right. All of these songs are the same type of standard songs in the country music as theStardust album were in pop. So, yeah, there is definitely a connection.

Is there a song on this album that means the most to you personally?

They’re all really good songs that I grew up singing — “Satisfied Mind,” “Dark as a Dungeon.” You know, these days the mining songs are very special to me because of all the tragedies with all these mines. But all of these songs are very good songs.

The traditional song, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” was one you hadn’t even heard before.

No, I hadn’t heard that. T Bone brought some good things to the session, but I had never heard that one. He brought a Bob Willssong I had never heard. I thought I’d heard all the Bob Wills songs, but “Gotta Walk Alone” is an obscure Bob Wills song that I had never heard.

You included Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” on the album and have said it helped get you through some hard times. What is it about his songs that have the power to heal?

Well, songs like “House of Gold” … it’s just pure Hank Williams. No one sings those like Hank did, but I sure love to try.

Is there a type of music that you wouldn’t touch these days?

Oh, I don’t know. There are probably lots of different things. … I’m just now aware yet.

You had carpal tunnel surgery a few years back. How is your hand doing?

The hand’s doing better. I’ve got a rotator cuff that’s torn, and it’s cutting down on my golf but … .

There was a lot of speculation about your reasons for releasing the album on 4/20. Is this a coincidence?

Well, you know, I wasn’t even aware of a 4/20 kind of the release date. I never put anything together — because I’m usually kind of slow on things like that — but I think it’s funny.

A district attorney in North Carolina is planning to prosecute some of your band members for possession of moonshine and marijuana. That’s kind of got to be disappointing.

Well, yeah it’s very disappointing. … To have a little moonshine, in North Carolina, I thought they put that in baby bottles. I didn’t know that was a problem.

We’ve been hearing rumors that you’re going to do a movie with Johnny Knoxville. Is that happening?

We’re certainly talking about one together. And that’d be great. I love Johnny. We’d have a lot of fun.

Anything new to report about your constant touring?

Not really. I’m having fun playing. We played … in Vegas for all the broadcast people, and we had the band from Nashville there. That’s happening a few more times. I think we’re doing it in L.A. and New York. I’m looking forward to it because these guys are very good.

And T Bone will be doing some performances with you, right?

He’s great musician, and any time he’s around, you feel a little better because you feel like he’s got your back. I’m glad to know he’s in the studio or on the stage or anything.

Willie Nelson in Life Magazine (April 2013)

Saturday, April 20th, 2019

Outlaw Country: the Birth of the Music That Changed Texas Forever, Texas Monthly (April 2012)

Friday, April 12th, 2019

Forty years ago, Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and a whole host of Texas misfits grew their hair long, snubbed Nashville, and brought the hippies and rednecks together.  Country Music has never been the same.

by John Spong
Texas Monthly
April 2012

What it was, was a generational shift, and not one that Music Row wanted. In the late sixties, Nashville country music was defined by the string-swelling, countrypolitan gloss of Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell. RCA executive Chet Atkins was a chief architect of the Nashville sound, and when people asked him to define it, he liked to jingle the change in his pockets and say, “It’s the sound of money.” No tweaks to the formula were tolerated. Even Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, two Texas boys with ideas of their own, were forced to fit the mold. They recorded for RCA, and their records sounded exactly the way Atkins wanted.


Monday, April 1st, 2019

Read article and see lots more great photos
by: Turk Pipkin

There’s nothing like the feeling of stepping onto Willie Nelson’s tour bus. Whether you do it once or a hundred times, it’s a thrill to be invited onto Willie’s rolling roadshow. Stories will be told. New songs may be played. Jokes that may or may not be suitable for print will be exchanged. And laughter will definitely ensue.
It’s Saturday night in the Fort Worth Stockyards. A sold- out crowd is already finding their seats just a few steps from Willie’s bus, which is parked behind the world’s largest honky tonk, Billy Bob’s Texas. I’ve come to see an old friend and to hear what might be my 100th Willie concert. Or maybe my 300th—I lost count long ago.

I first met Willie 40 years ago at the door of his bus, though that was about five buses previous. I was his opening act at Auditorium Shores in Austin, and when I left the stage, the promoter told me to go back in front of a rowdy crowd and tell them their headliner might be delayed. Ten thousand strong, they were chanting Willie’s name, and I was afraid to face them again, so I went to the bus and knocked on the door. Willie opened it wide, already a Texas legend and one of the biggest acts in America—his  braided ponytails held in place by his trademark bandana.

“They’re ready for you, sir,” I told him. He gave me a big grin, and said, “Let’s go.”

Though the buses have grown more refined over the decades, they haven’t changed much, and neither has Willie. Soon to turn 86 years old, his braids remain long and strong, and his enthusiasm for entertaining a crowd hasn’t waned. Willie and the bus are still together for more than 100 days a year. He feels at home on the bus and knows that the tour’s three lead drivers, with 100 years of experience between them, will get him safely down the road from one show to the next.

Willie’s and my paths don’t cross as much as they used to, so it feels good when he stands and gives me a hug and a smile.

“How you doing?” Willie asks. “Are we working or having fun?”

“Both,” I tell him. He laughs. And that’s a good start for an interview, especially one with an old friend.

I’ve just arrived from Austin and tell Willie I stopped in his hometown of Abbott, which doesn’t seem to have changed much since he was a skinny red-haired kid nicknamed Booger Red.

“You have two new Grammy nominations,” I say. “You’ve recorded a hundred studio albums, and you’re still recording and touring hard. You’ve come a long ways from Abbott.”

“Yep,” Willie says with a smile. “About 60 miles!”

We both laugh. It’s a good line, partially because he really has come far, even while staying true to who he was before the awards and adoring crowds.

I tell him I checked out the Methodist Church that he and his sister, Bobbie, rescued, and the West Volunteer Fire Department’s new firetrucks that Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic funded after the West fertilizer plant explosion. I even swung by the Hill County Courthouse, rebuilt after a fire with the proceeds of a Willie Nelson concert, then rededicated with another Willie show on the town square.

“Abbott and Hill County are where I grew up,” Willie reminds me. “I had a lot of fun there. And a lot of friends. I still do.”

Willie still plays poker and dominoes with some of those friends, and I can testify firsthand that you can get your pockets cleaned in those games. I’m fairly good around a gaming table, good enough to recognize how great Willie is at poker, chess, checkers, and dominoes

“Which game are you the best at?” I ask.

“Dominoes. By far,” he says immediately. “When I was young, a lot of old men from Abbott sat around playing dominoes every day, and when they got up for a break, they’d set me down in their spot. If I messed up, they’d really chew my ass out!”

Willie’s wife, Annie, seated on one of the bus’ sofas, joins in on the laughs. Annie has been his dedicated companion and partner since they met while shooting a Western movie in the ’80s. Willie’s parallel career in movies has had a focus on Westerns, and from early classics like Red Headed Stranger and Barbarosa, it was clear Willie really knew his way around a horse.

“Did you ride horses when you were a kid?” I ask.

“I have a picture of me about 2 years old riding a milk cow,” he says. “I’d ride anything that would stand still long enough for me to jump on it. One time when I was really young and dumb, I was riding this calf, and I thought if I tied my hands and feet together, he can’t throw me off. Wrong. He dragged me around town for a while!”

Willie and Annie once rescued a herd of American paint horses who were destined for a slaughterhouse. The idea was to save their lives, then find them new homes, but I’ve noticed that many of those beautiful black and white paints are still living happily at the Nelsons’ ranch and Western movie town outside of Austin, a place Willie calls Luck, Texas.

“If you’re not here,” he likes to say, “you’re out of Luck!”

I mention that I’d seen the couple’s son, Lukas, play a couple of nights before. Lukas and his band Promise of the Real had one of the best albums of 2018, and Lukas played Bradley Cooper’s bandleader in the
Oscar-nominated movie A Star is Born. What you don’t see on screen is that Lukas also taught Cooper how to sing, played Cooper’s guitar parts, and wrote or co-wrote seven songs in the movie, some with Lady Gaga. When he’s not touring with his own band or Willie, Lukas and his brother, Micah, are front and center for Neil Young’s tours. “The best band I’ve ever had,” says Neil, which is saying a lot.

“I know you’re proud of those boys,” I tell Willie.

“I’m lucky enough to have family that also plays music, and they’re all pretty good,” Willie says. “It’s about as good as it gets when you get your kids up on stage with you and you can be proud of them at the same time.”

Having seen the patience with which Willie teaches a guitar lick to one of his kids, I point out that the kids are not good by luck; they learned a lot from their dad.

“I inherited a lot of my talent,” Willie says modestly. “I’m sure they did, too.”

For Willie, getting to hear their music and play with his boys, and with his daughters, Amy and Paula, is better than taking credit.

The results of their joint creations are often spectacular. Nashville’s Buddy Cannon, who produced the album Willie & the Boys with Willie, Lukas, and Micah, remarked that sometimes their harmonies are so perfect they sound like one voice.


Click the image above to view the slideshow.

Wanting to see Willie’s entrance, I make my way inside Billy Bob’s, an enormous night club with the best seats at long picnic tables stretching out from the stage and additional viewing tiers stretching to the back bars. Surveying the crowd, I see plenty of families spanning from teenagers to great grandparents. Going to a Willie concert is a family affair.

When the stage lights dim, Willie walks out to cheers and a standing ovation, and launches straight into “Whiskey River,” which brings an even louder roar from the crowd. The mood is electric, and Willie barely pauses between songs on a 90-minute set of hit after hit. His Family band is smaller than in the old days—the passing of guitarist Jody Payne and bassist Bee Spears in 2013 and 2011, respectively, were deep-felt losses, but Willie was able to move forward with a smaller group that’s as tight as ever. Willie’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, then a few months shy of her 88th birthday, wows the crowd on every piano solo.

“He wears a lot of hats: mentor, guitar god, friend, father figure.”

Consider this: Willie and Bobbie have been playing together for eight decades, with hardly a break since the 1970s, and she is as much a part of Willie’s live sound as his famous acoustic guitar, Trigger, or Mickey Raphael’s distinctive harmonica.

Mickey, who began playing harmonica for Willie at 22, is a perfect example of why everyone in the group is called “family.”

“Willie is the same guy now as when I first started in 1973,” Mickey tells me.

“And who is that?” I ask.

“He wears a lot of hats: mentor, guitar god, friend, father figure,” Mickey says. “That all means he’s just Willie.”

The show moves at a rapid pace. Willie doesn’t stop to chat and only takes enough time between songs to kick things into the next gear.

Taking off his straw cowboy hat, Willie spins it dexterously into the audience, sailing it 20 feet deep and bringing another big cheer. A few minutes later I walk past the guy who caught it, and he’s holding the hat in his hand like a holy relic, a look on his face like he’s achieved nirvana. And in a way, I guess he has.

Willie once told me that if an audience is slow to warm up, he likes to win them over one by one. Watch close and you’ll see him looking people in the eye, giving each one a tiny smile, a wink, a nod. I’ve had more people than I can count tell me that Willie singled them out with some special recognition during a show.

How many winks and how many waves, I wonder. How many hats and bandanas? How many $100 tips in some roadside cafe?

A few years back, I was Willie’s co-author on a best-selling book called The Tao of Willie (or the “Toe of Willie” as he liked to pronounce it). For a year or two after the book was published, strangers would tell me their stories of how Willie’s generosity saved the day for them at some low point in their lives. Those recipients all became lifelong Willie fans, buying albums and going to shows for years to come, so the generosity seems to have worked for everyone involved.

The show flies by—one for Waylon, two for Hank, then “Bloody Mary Morning” for the fans who’ve been with him since 1974 when he turned country music upside down with his album Phases and Stages, a cycle of concept songs that tell a husband and wife’s contrasting perspectives of divorce. With that album and Red Headed Stranger following in 1975, Willie changed country music from three chords and a tired suit to a world that had room for artists like Townes Van Zandt and Charley Pride.


In the ’70s, Willie basically integrated country music clubs in Texas and Louisiana by hiring Charley Pride as his opening act. One night at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Willie introduced Charley to an audience whose applause fell quiet when a black man walked to the mic. Going back on stage, Willie kissed Charley right on the lips. “That shut ‘em up,” Willie told me. “And they loved his music.”

Charley was soon one of the biggest acts in country music, ultimately garnering 29 No. 1 country hits. He calls his tours with Willie “a watershed” in his career. Still friends with Willie, he came from his home in Dallas to say hi and see the show at Billy Bob’s.

Charley’s admiration for Willie is seconded by just about every other musician in Texas. When Willie moved back to Texas from Nashville in the early ’70s, his shows at Armadillo World Headquarters, Willie’s Fourth of July Picnics, and almost everywhere he played had two audiences: rednecks and hippies—two groups that didn’t get along.

“They all got together and listened to music, drank a little beer, and did other things,” Willie says, “and they realized they didn’t hate each other after all.”

“Are we divided like that again in America?” I ask him.

“Not as much as people think,” Willie tells me.

Willie in front of his statue at Austin City Limits. Photo: Turk Pipkin


Offstage, Willie has never been shy about politics. He’s dedicated a fair amount of his life to Farm Aid’s support of America’s family farmers; he’s supported Native American causes, and has had friendships with a number of governors and presidents, going all the way back to Jimmy Carter. But you won’t hear any of that at his shows.

“We don’t do politics during the show,” Willie reminds me. “The people come to hear my music. And that’s what we do.”

Willie has slowly cut down from 200 shows a year to closer to 100, which is still more than most acts half his age. Lots of big names command huge ticket prices by playing only a few shows a year, but if you want to play for lots of fans all over the country, then you just keep going “On The Road Again” (an anthem Willie wrote in five minutes on an airplane barf bag after producer Sydney Pollack suggested their movie Honeysuckle Rose needed a song about life on the road).

Two nights after the Billy Bob’s show, Willie was playing one of the bigger shows of his year, a taping of Austin City Limits, the longest-
running music show in television history. Guess who was the star performer at that first taping 44 years ago? Now he’s back, playing in The Moody Theater that was built on his legend.

There was an excited crowd for the ACL taping, but when Willie came onstage it was cold in the theatre, and he was wearing a jacket. For a song or two, his voice wasn’t as strong as at Billy Bob’s. But I still saw him looking into the crowd from person to person, and before long, he was warmed up, taking off the jacket, and singing in full Willie form. The crowd knew it too, and their spirits rose with him.

His guitar solos on “Night Life” are always incredible, but at ACL his hands seemed to find some new inspiration; likewise for his playing on “Angel Flying Too Close the Ground” and Django Reinhart’s jazz classic, “Nuages.”

The audience knew they were seeing something special. In a way, they all seemed to have that same look of joy as the guy at Billy Bob’s who caught Willie’s hat. It was, without a doubt, a room filled with love. When the house lights came on the crowd filtered out, but a couple in front of me stood together holding hands for a long while, watching the spot where Willie walked offstage, not wanting to let the moment go.

Willie Nelson is defined by music and by time—both his decades-spanning career and his ability to make the most of every moment. And he is defined by love, not just love for his family or his fans, but by the universal concept—that living from one’s heart is the best use of our lives.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without Willie Nelson. Despite the frequent internet rumors that his health is failing, Willie shows no signs of surrendering to time. Instead, he responds with a funny song like “Still Not Dead Again Today.” Those lyrics are now an anthem all their own: “I woke up still not dead again today. The news said I was gone to my dismay. Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play.”

Not long after New Year’s, I found myself in Luck, literally, where Willie signed a Martin guitar for my wife’s birthday (after playing “Nuages” on it to make sure it was a good one). Then he took out his phone and played recordings of five incredible new songs for us, three of which he’d written in the last week.

“Willie still plays 100 shows a year, more than most acts half his age.”

“When do you write all these songs?” I asked.

“In my dreams,” he said. We laughed, but I don’t think he was kidding.

My favorite of the new songs is called “Come on Time.” Co-written with Buddy Cannon, who is producing his 13th album with Willie, the song sets Willie’s conversation with time to a gentle waltz tempo.

“Time,” Willie sings in a voice still strong but also clearly marked by its passage. “As you pass me by. Why did you put these lines on my face? You sure have put me in my place. Come on time. Looks like you’re winning the race.”

The song was so beautiful, I was practically in tears. After the last notes played, we sat there quietly for a long while. It was time for me to leave, but I didn’t want to go.

Willie Nelson in Texas Highways, by Turk Pipkin

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

Willie Nelson in Country Magazine March 1990

Saturday, March 16th, 2019