Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Willie on Weed (High Times, October 2005)

Friday, October 23rd, 2020

Willie on Weed
High Times Magazine
October 2005
by Richard Cusick

When it comes to grass, Willie’s fans divide into three distinct camps:  stoners like myself who view Willie Nelson as a sterling example of humanity; politically conservative country folks who dislike the pot thing but cry in their beers whenever he sings “Crazy”; and finally, fans who don’t smoke and don’t care, but remain mildly amused by Shotgun Willie’s outlaw ways.  So, unlike most marijuana activists, Nelson doesn’t preach merely to the converted.  Arguably, on the strength of his art and his living example, he’s helped change more minds about marijuana than any other American.

“They’re watching me,” Nelson acknowledges.  “I’m like the canary in the coal mine.  As long as I can remember the words to my songs and do a good show, they say:  “Well, it may not be affecting them so much.”

And so, despite incessant interview request, HIGH TIMES has always been treated like a red-headed stranger by the managers, press agents, record companies, road managers and assorted family members who get paid to look out for Willie Nelson’s best interests.  Frankly, I don’t think the man himself gave a shit one way or the other.  We were all waiting for the right moment to make it happen.  The release of Willie’s long-delayed reggae CD, Countryman, turned out to be the right moment.  One look at the cover art proved that.  There are actually two covers:  “One for Wal-Mart,” Willie noted, and one for every fan of the singer’s favorite plant — with a big pot leaf commanding the center.

It’s the hottest day of the year.  The temperature on the field of Prince Geroge’s Stadium in Bowie, MD, reaches triple digits, but the Bob Dylan – Willie Nelson show has attracted a particular rugged type of music fan willing to roast for hours in the sun to secure a good seat on the general admission lawn.  I’m scheduled to meet with the American music legend for an hour and a half, but a family member’s illness delays Willie by nearly an hour.  How to stuff 30 years worth of interview into 30 minutes?  My strategy involves breaking the ice by bringing the musician’s old friend Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, along for the ride.  Willie has been a member of NORML’s advisory board for 22 years, and so I assumed their reputations would precede me…

The familiar sound of his guitar floats softly from a state-of-the-art sound system shelved above our heads on board one of the world’s most widely travelled and legendary tour buses.  A copy of Bob Dylan’s autobiography sits on the soft brown-leather couch in the front, while Willie holds court from a corner booth.  We will talk for the next 40 minutes without interruption — save for one very unusualy exception.

HT:  You’ve done reggae songs before, but Countryman is your first full-blown reggae album.  How did that happen?

WN:  Ten years ago, I went to see Chris Blackwell when he was the head of Island Records in Jamaica, and we talked about putting out a reggae album, Chris loved the idea, but I also played him a CD I produced called Spirit, and he said, “I love Spirit.  Let’s put that out now and y’all go finish the reggae and then we’ll put it out.”

But they had a shakeup, and he left the label.  So for 10 years it kinda laid there, until the good folks after at Lost Highway picked it up and ran with it.

Keith Stroup:  Does the title Countryman refer to the ganja growers up in the mountians?

WN:  Yeah.  That’s right.

HT:  I’ve always thought reggae and country gospel are very similar, not in sound so much as in spirit.

WN:  The way the musicians tell me, reggae took off – Peter Tosh, Toots and those guys — was that reggae came basically from country music, from listening to the radio in the United States and hearing WSM play ’em some Grand Old Opry.  When they told me that, I started thinking about how country songs just naturally lend themselves to a reggae rhythm.

HT:  Does marijuana help your songwriting?

WN:  I wrote most of my good songs before I ever heard of marijuana or used it, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t slow down your writing.

HT:  Really?

WN:  Well, if you’re hungry or on edge and you’re writing, you could always just sit down and smoke a little joint and not worry about it.  But some things you need to worry about.

HT:  So taking that edge off sometimes isn’t a good thing.

WN:  Yeah.  You need that age.

(Bob Dylan quielty enters the front of the bus — Yes, really.)

WN:  Hey! Bob! (rising from booth)  C’mere.  (A brief hug and Willie returns to the corner booth.)Â

Bob Dylan:  They gotcha trapped.

HT:  We got him now.

BD:  I’ll come back.

WN:  All right.

(exit Bob Dylan)

HT:  You know, I named my daughter after than man!

WN:  You did?

HT:  We figured the name works for either a boy or a girl.

WN:  Yeah, that’s true.  Well, he’s a good guy.  Believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve seen him this tour.  We’ve been out two weeks.  He was gonna play some chess.  He asked me if I want to play some chess, so we can do it tomorrow or the next day.

HT:  I believe we were talking about songwriting.

WN:  I started writing songs a long time before I started smoking.  Well, I started smoking cigarettes when I was 4.  I started smoking something when I was 4.  Cedar bark, Grapevines, Cotton leaves, Coffee leaves.  I even tried Black Drop one time.

HT:  Black Drop?

WN:  It was an old laxative in powder form.  Cedar bark, I smoked that.  And then I used to raise hens, so I would trade a dozen eggs for a pack of cigarettes back in those days.  About 18 cents, I think.  About 18 or 20 cents for a pack of cigarettes.  Lucky Strikes.  Camels.

HT:  In your autobiography, you said that marijuana got you off cigarettes and drinking.

WN:  Yeah.  I knew I was killing myself with cigarettes, and I knew I was really putting myself in danger with drinking so much, so somewhere along the way I decided.  “Wait a minute!  You know, do what you can do.”  In the early years, I drank all the time.  Mainly before pot.  Up until then, I was into whiskey and uppers.  You know, that’s the deal.  Truck drivers had the bennies when they made those LA turnaounds, and all that stuff was going around.  All the guitar players had it.

HT:  Fred Lockwood.  He was the first guy to ever turn you on to pot?

WN:  Yeah. A Fort Worth musician.  That’s right.

HT:  Fred Lockwood was not only the first person to give you a joint, as I understand it, he’s always the guy who gave you the line.  “I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure do Regret It.”

WN:  There was two.  There was Fred Lockwood and there was Ace Lockwood.  They were brothers.  Fred was the one who gave me the line, “I Gotta Get Drunk and I sure Do Regret It” and his brother Ace went and gave me a itty bitty little snuff can full of pot one time.

HT:  So that was your first ime around the block?

WN:  I played a club there, and we played together.  These guys were musicians, so we went over to their house, and Fred and I were playing dominoes.  That was the first time I ever smoked it.  I think I smoked it about six months before I ever got high.  And then, all of a sudden:  “Oh yeah –that’s what that is.”

HT:  Willie, you’re a musician known for making political stands.  Not every musician does that.

WN:  I’ve let my beliefs be known and they turned out to be political.  I didn’t start out taking any political stands — just taking stands.

HT:  You just think a certain way and…

KS…groups like NORML start using you politically.

HT:  You’ve also been out front about your use of cannabis for a long time.  Have you taken a lot of flak for it over your career.

WN:  Zero that I know of.

HT:  It’s amazing how you get buy.

WN:  Well, I got busted.

HT:  750,000 people got busted for marijuana last year.

KS:  Yeah, but none of them got busted because they slept on the side of the highway and then raised the “hand-rolled cigarette defense.” Which I don’t believe has worked for anybody else — wasn’t that it?

WN:  You can’t assume that a rolled-up cigarette in an ashtray, looking through the window, is a marijuana cigarette.

KS:  In Texas, in particular!  I think of that as the Willie Nelson Defense.

WN:  I thought it was brilliant.

KS:  I did, too.

HT:  I hope you don’t mind my blazing, but I’m about to see Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan play.

WN:  You’ve gotta get there.

HT:  Well, I know you recommend moderation.

WN:  Moderation is always the key, even for pot.  You can over-do pot.  And it’s not for the kids… After they get 18, 21 years old, they’re going to try whatever they’re gonna try…

HT:  What’s the difference smoking pot 50 years ago and now?

WN:  It costs more money.

HT:  People say it’s better now, but I don’t remember not getting high 25 years ago.

WN:  No, I don’t either.  You know, it’s kind of like sex — there’s none bad, but there’s just some that’s better.  I think our tolerance is pretty good, too.

HT:  I ususlaly stop for a month every year or so.

KS:  I usualy stop for a few days every now and then — because I run out.

WN:  I intentionally let myself run out every now and then.

KS:  A couple of days into that, I usually say, “Let me rethink that decision.”

WN:  Either that or one of the guys’ll bring me one and say, “Here, don’t you think it’s time?

Willie Nelson Folklore

Friday, October 23rd, 2020

www.tasteofcountry.com

Read entire article, see lots more pictures here.

Willie Nelson folklore is different from most tall tales involving country music outlaws, because all the stories are supported by the singer’s own commentary.

Take the time he allegedly ran back into a burning house to save his marijuana. That’s crazy, right?

“By the time I got there, it was burning real good,” Nelson told People in 1980, confirming the story. “But I had this pound of Colombian grass inside. I wasn’t being brave running in there to get my dope — I was trying to keep the firemen from finding it and turning me over to the police.”

Texas Hill Country outlines Shotgun Willie Story: Remember How Willie Nelson Became ‘Shotgun Willie’? |

Willie Nelson and Gospel Music

Thursday, October 22nd, 2020


Photo of Abbott Methodist Church, by Monique Claus

www.thetablet.org
by: John Alexander

Willie Nelson’s love of inspirational songs dates back to his childhood in Abbott, Texas, and “Amazing Grace,” a hymn he first heard in church as a young boy. Nelson and his sister Bobbie were raised by their paternal grandparents, Alfred and Nancy Nelson, who helped instill in Nelson a love for the gospel songs they would sing together in church on Sundays.

The country music icon would return to those comforting hymns throughout his life and record over half a dozen albums of spiritual music. He would also write his inspirational songs along the way.

Nelson first found success as one of Nashville’s fi nest songwriters composing hits such as “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Night Life” for Ray Price…

The rest of this article can be found exclusively in the October 24 printed version of The Tablet. You can receive future editions of the paper in your mailbox at a discounted rate by subscribing here.

Thank you for supporting Catholic journalism.

Willie Nelson, Still on the Road: An Icon Turns 75

Saturday, October 17th, 2020

Country Music (October 1980)

Saturday, October 10th, 2020

by Bob Allen

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

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

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

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

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

“Hhhheeeeyyyy Willieeee!!!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Monthly, “One By Willie” podcast

Saturday, October 10th, 2020
photo: Micah Nelson

www.TexasMonthly.com
by: John Spong

Read article here.

In our inaugural episode of “One by Willie,” a podcast celebrating the life and music of Willie Nelson, Grammy-nominated Americana singer-songwriter Margo Price takes a look at Willie’s number-one country hit from 1980, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” With senior editor John Spong, she explores the difference between writing a sad song and feeling the need to just sit and listen to one. From there, she goes on to describe what it was like to record a duet with Willie one of her own sad songs—and relays a dirty joke she learned from Willie himself. 

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Willie Nelson, landlord in Austin

Friday, October 9th, 2020
Photo: Scott Newton

www.TexasMonthly.com
by: John Spong

Read entire article here: Texas Monthly

This essay is part of a special project devoted to Willie Nelson where you’ll find more essays about the Red Headed Stranger, our new podcast “One by Willie,” and ranking of his 143 albums. Learn more about the special issue, too.

Most Willie Nelson fans know at least a little about his idyllic Hill Country world headquarters, home to his ranch, his golf course, his recording studio, and his Old West movie set, Luck, Texas. But lesser known in the lore is Willie World’s gritty urban prototype, a sprawling fourteen-acre complex Willie owned for much of the eighties in the heart of Austin’s city limits.

The property ran along South Congress Avenue near the now-famous Continental Club, barely a half mile south of what was then called Town Lake, stretching east from the intersection at Academy Drive. He’d bought it on the cheap, in 1977, when the strip was a no-man’s-land, light-years away from the tony tourist spot it is now; back then its main commerce was gun shops and streetwalkers. It was the perfect place for an outlaw to build an empire.

The anchor of the property was the Austin Opry House, a 1,700-seat hall run by the complex’s co-owner, Tim O’Connor. A onetime Willie capo who was bumped up to sweat-equity partner when Willie acquired the vast parcel of land, O’Connor was a music promoter from the old school, a gun-carrying hard case who turned the Opry House into Austin’s best eighties-era concert venue, a foundation for the Live Music Capital of the World moniker that the city would adopt in the nineties. The property also featured some empty South Congress storefronts, a roomy bar and grill favored by bikers and stray-dog guitar pickers, and, perhaps weirdly, some 230 flophouse apartments known unofficially as the Willie Arms. Many of the units were in two-story limestone-and-shingle structures that actually looked like apartment buildings, others were in dingy red-roofed bungalows ringed by live oaks, and all were occupied by exactly the kind of people you’d expect. Willie’s road crew—men with names like Poodie and Snake—had places to crash when Willie left the road. The Opry House staff got gratis abodes. Broke musicians dug the $65-a-month rent. Everyone there was a hippie, a misfit, or both, and none were afraid of a little dope. Some made their living off it.

Read entire article here: Texas Monthly

Willie on Weed (High Times, Oct. 2005)

Monday, October 5th, 2020

Willie on Weed
High Times Magazine
October 2005
by Richard Cusick

When it comes to grass, Willie’s fans divide into three distinct camps:  stoners like myself who view Willie Nelson as a sterling example of humanity; politically conservative country folks who dislike the pot thing but cry in their beers whenever he sings “Crazy”; and finally, fans who don’t smoke and don’t care, but remain mildly amused by Shotgun Willie’s outlaw ways.  So, unlike most marijuana activists, Nelson doesn’t preach merely to the converted.  Arguably, on the strength of his art and his living example, he’s helped change more minds about marijuana than any other American.

“They’re watching me,” Nelson acknowledges.  “I’m like the canary in the coal mine.  As long as I can remember the words to my songs and do a good show, they say:  “Well, it may not be affecting them so much.”

And so, despite incessant interview request, HIGH TIMES has always been treated like a red-headed stranger by the managers, press agents, record companies, road managers and assorted family members who get paid to look out for Willie Nelson’s best interests.  Frankly, I don’t think the man himself gave a shit one way or the other.  We were all waiting for the right moment to make it happen.  The release of Willie’s long-delayed reggae CD, Countryman, turned out to be the right moment.  One look at the cover art proved that.  There are actually two covers:  “One for Wal-Mart,” Willie noted, and one for every fan of the singer’s favorite plant — with a big pot leaf commanding the center.

It’s the hottest day of the year.  The temperature on the field of Prince Geroge’s Stadium in Bowie, MD, reaches triple digits, but the Bob Dylan – Willie Nelson show has attracted a particular rugged type of music fan willing to roast for hours in the sun to secure a good seat on the general admission lawn.  I’m scheduled to meet with the American music legend for an hour and a half, but a family member’s illness delays Willie by nearly an hour.  How to stuff 30 years worth of interview into 30 minutes?  My strategy involves breaking the ice by bringing the musician’s old friend Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, along for the ride.  Willie has been a member of NORML’s advisory board for 22 years, and so I assumed their reputations would precede me…

The familiar sound of his guitar floats softly from a state-of-the-art sound system shelved above our heads on board one of the world’s most widely travelled and legendary tour buses.  A copy of Bob Dylan’s autobiography sits on the soft brown-leather couch in the front, while Willie holds court from a corner booth.  We will talk for the next 40 minutes without interruption — save for one very unusualy exception.

HT:  You’ve done reggae songs before, but Countryman is your first full-blown reggae album.  How did that happen?

WN:  Ten years ago, I went to see Chris Blackwell when he was the head of Island Records in Jamaica, and we talked about putting out a reggae album, Chris loved the idea, but I also played him a CD I produced called Spirit, and he said, “I love Spirit.  Let’s put that out now and y’all go finish the reggae and then we’ll put it out.”

But they had a shakeup, and he left the label.  So for 10 years it kinda laid there, until the good folks after at Lost Highway picked it up and ran with it.

Keith Stroup:  Does the title Countryman refer to the ganja growers up in the mountians?

WN:  Yeah.  That’s right.

HT:  I’ve always thought reggae and country gospel are very similar, not in sound so much as in spirit.

WN:  The way the musicians tell me, reggae took off – Peter Tosh, Toots and those guys — was that reggae came basically from country music, from listening to the radio in the United States and hearing WSM play ’em some Grand Old Opry.  When they told me that, I started thinking about how country songs just naturally lend themselves to a reggae rhythm.

HT:  Does marijuana help your songwriting?

WN:  I wrote most of my good songs before I ever heard of marijuana or used it, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t slow down your writing.

HT:  Really?

WN:  Well, if you’re hungry or on edge and you’re writing, you could always just sit down and smoke a little joint and not worry about it.  But some things you need to worry about.

HT:  So taking that edge off sometimes isn’t a good thing.

WN:  Yeah.  You need that age.

(Bob Dylan quielty enters the front of the bus — Yes, really.)

WN:  Hey! Bob! (rising from booth)  C’mere.  (A brief hug and Willie returns to the corner booth.)Â

Bob Dylan:  They gotcha trapped.

HT:  We got him now.

BD:  I’ll come back.

WN:  All right.

(exit Bob Dylan)

HT:  You know, I named my daughter after than man!

WN:  You did?

HT:  We figured the name works for either a boy or a girl.

WN:  Yeah, that’s true.  Well, he’s a good guy.  Believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve seen him this tour.  We’ve been out two weeks.  He was gonna play some chess.  He asked me if I want to play some chess, so we can do it tomorrow or the next day.

HT:  I believe we were talking about songwriting.

WN:  I started writing songs a long time before I started smoking.  Well, I started smoking cigarettes when I was 4.  I started smoking something when I was 4.  Cedar bark, Grapevines, Cotton leaves, Coffee leaves.  I even tried Black Drop one time.

HT:  Black Drop?

WN:  It was an old laxative in powder form.  Cedar bark, I smoked that.  And then I used to raise hens, so I would trade a dozen eggs for a pack of cigarettes back in those days.  About 18 cents, I think.  About 18 or 20 cents for a pack of cigarettes.  Lucky Strikes.  Camels.

HT:  In your autobiography, you said that marijuana got you off cigarettes and drinking.

WN:  Yeah.  I knew I was killing myself with cigarettes, and I knew I was really putting myself in danger with drinking so much, so somewhere along the way I decided.  “Wait a minute!  You know, do what you can do.”  In the early years, I drank all the time.  Mainly before pot.  Up until then, I was into whiskey and uppers.  You know, that’s the deal.  Truck drivers had the bennies when they made those LA turnaounds, and all that stuff was going around.  All the guitar players had it.

HT:  Fred Lockwood.  He was the first guy to ever turn you on to pot?

WN:  Yeah. A Fort Worth musician.  That’s right.

HT:  Fred Lockwood was not only the first person to give you a joint, as I understand it, he’s always the guy who gave you the line.  “I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure do Regret It.”

WN:  There was two.  There was Fred Lockwood and there was Ace Lockwood.  They were brothers.  Fred was the one who gave me the line, “I Gotta Get Drunk and I sure Do Regret It” and his brother Ace went and gave me a itty bitty little snuff can full of pot one time.

HT:  So that was your first ime around the block?

WN:  I played a club there, and we played together.  These guys were musicians, so we went over to their house, and Fred and I were playing dominoes.  That was the first time I ever smoked it.  I think I smoked it about six months before I ever got high.  And then, all of a sudden:  “Oh yeah –that’s what that is.”

HT:  Willie, you’re a musician known for making political stands.  Not every musician does that.

WN:  I’ve let my beliefs be known and they turned out to be political.  I didn’t start out taking any political stands — just taking stands.

HT:  You just think a certain way and…

KS…groups like NORML start using you politically.

HT:  You’ve also been out front about your use of cannabis for a long time.  Have you taken a lot of flak for it over your career.

WN:  Zero that I know of.

HT:  It’s amazing how you get buy.

WN:  Well, I got busted.

HT:  750,000 people got busted for marijuana last year.

KS:  Yeah, but none of them got busted because they slept on the side of the highway and then raised the “hand-rolled cigarette defense.” Which I don’t believe has worked for anybody else — wasn’t that it?

WN:  You can’t assume that a rolled-up cigarette in an ashtray, looking through the window, is a marijuana cigarette.

KS:  In Texas, in particular!  I think of that as the Willie Nelson Defense.

WN:  I thought it was brilliant.

KS:  I did, too.

HT:  I hope you don’t mind my blazing, but I’m about to see Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan play.

WN:  You’ve gotta get there.

HT:  Well, I know you recommend moderation.

WN:  Moderation is always the key, even for pot.  You can over-do pot.  And it’s not for the kids… After they get 18, 21 years old, they’re going to try whatever they’re gonna try…

HT:  What’s the difference smoking pot 50 years ago and now?

WN:  It costs more money.

HT:  People say it’s better now, but I don’t remember not getting high 25 years ago.

WN:  No, I don’t either.  You know, it’s kind of like sex — there’s none bad, but there’s just some that’s better.  I think our tolerance is pretty good, too.

HT:  I ususlaly stop for a month every year or so.

KS:  I usualy stop for a few days every now and then — because I run out.

WN:  I intentionally let myself run out every now and then.

KS:  A couple of days into that, I usually say, “Let me rethink that decision.”

WN:  Either that or one of the guys’ll bring me one and say, “Here, don’t you think it’s time?

Bringing It All Back Home

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

www.TexasMonthly.com
by: Al Reinert

This night life ain’t no good life, But it’s my life.” *

Willie Nelson wrote “Night Life” more than fifteen years ago—before he’d even moved to Nashville let alone returned—and sold it for $150. Of all the songs he’s written—literally hundreds, including some great ones—it’s probably been recorded by the most performers, more than seventy at last count, ranging from B.?B. King to Rusty Draper to Frank Sinatra. A classic barroom lament, the sadly proud confession of a loner’s desperation, it touches everyone who’s ever clung to night in despair of the day.

Aretha Franklin’s version, Willie’s personal favorite, has a desolate uptown sound, bluesy yet brave, an affirmation reeking of pain and expensive gin. You can almost see her, all satin and ice, standing haughtily in the middle of Lenox Avenue and praying to the streetlights. Willie sings it from the roadhouse parking lot, empty gravel by the highway’s edge, wailing back at the neon challenge. He’s more defiant but less confident, his voice raw and a little dangerous, too many straight shots of bad liquor. In their different ways, you can tell, both performers have been there.

Willie, in fact, had been there all his life. Born a mere gospel shout south of Waco in 1933, raised by grandparents and assorted aunts, he played his first dance hall at the age of ten in a band with his sister Bobbie on piano and the local football coach on trumpet. It’s been night life ever since. He peddled Bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door, pumped gas, joined the Air Force, scrubbed floors, disc-jockeyed, and dishwashed: the days, then, the days were barren and demeaning, forgettable failures one after another, a life to be denied. It wasn’t till the sun flared out and the neon flickered up, with Bob Wills calling everyone to “Dance all night, dance a little longer,” that life truly began.

By the mid-fifties Willie was living in Fort Worth and playing for beer or occasional whiskey in Jacksboro Highway honky-tonks. A regular Sunset Boulevard for rednecks, the Jacksboro strip is a single frenzied, five-mile-long barfight behind a facade of honky-tonks. Located just outside the city limits, far afield of law and property, it was a place where, in the years Willie Nelson was around, the management put chicken-wire fences in front of the stage so performers wouldn’t get hit by flying beer bottles. This was night life with a vengeance.

As the man said, though, it was his life—and he reveled in it. Aside from minimal aerial security he wanted his audiences as raucous and alive as he was, maybe even a shade reckless, as he also was. Willie Nelson was pure, unrefined redneck, and the honky-tonk is the vital focus of redneck culture—what the saloon was to an earlier Texas—the center of energy because of the very tensions it excites. If the honky-tonk world seems darkly colored with loneliness and loss—if it oftentimes ain’t no good life—then it’s only the moonlit image of the larger culture. And if anyone wanted to dance all night, then Willie was ready.

He started to write in the early Sixties, sold his first song, “Family Bible,” for $50, and saw Patsy Cline make it a huge success. He quickly followed with “Night Life,” a hit for Ray Price, then it was off to Nashville in a battered old ’41 Buick. In the next ten years Willie Nelson wrote some of the finest music in the country repertoire—“Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Yesterday’s Wine”—and commanded yearly royalties in six figures and a niche in the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

The crowd at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic in Gonzales in 1976.

His songs for the most part were typical country numbers on typical country themes, plaintive evocations of daily sorrows and sorry days, as simple and disquieting as classical tragedy. But subtleties emerge: there was never any pity in a Willie Nelson song, none of the banal hand-wringing so common to Nashville music; there might be anger, grief, confusion, even defeat, but never the surrender that pity implies. Nor is there any blame, another cheap refuge for small minds and bad art; Willie Nelson was, is, forever will be a rank male chauvinist, yet even his most painful divorce songs refuse to throw stones. He is a songwriter of grace, sensitivity, and compassion, qualities as rare in that profession as in any other.

He is not what you’d call sophisticated, either in his lyrics, his melodies, or his ideas, but sophistication has never been a hallmark of the country tradition—or, for that matter, of American art in general. On the surface Willie’s styling is relentlessly ordinary and everyday like a Japanese haiku, but the real measure of his songs is the truth of perception and the depth of our recognition. Any metaphor, however commonplace, that can vault cultures with a single insight, that can intersect Lenox Avenue with the Jacksboro Highway, is nothing less than powerful art.

It was Willie’s flawless misfortune, though, to arrive in Nashville just when the Snopeses took over and the grits turned to mush. Hankering after the torpid but lucrative pop market, country music abandoned honky-tonks for Harrah’s in Tahoe: it became “easy listening music,” shallow vocals floated in vanilla arrangements, all strings and no sting.

Willie’s songs made the transition of course. They seemed to work everywhere—not even Andy Williams could ruin a song like “Funny How Time Slips Away”—but Willie himself never made it. He was just too rowdy and real to ever make a credible nightclub act. Over a dozen Willie Nelson albums were released during his Nashville years, usually showcases for new songs, and they all disappeared as soon as a few “stars” had covered the tunes. He’d had a modest hit when he first got to town, his own “The Party’s Over,” but that was the only one. And it was a dozen years before he’d have another.

Willie casting his footprints and handprints during an in-store appearance promoting Red Headed Stranger at Peaches Records, in Atlanta, on October 28, 1975.

And all the while it was on the road, restlessly migrating to the next inevitable honky-tonk in a long stoned blur of neon BEER signs, freeze-frames in the night life. There were bad debts, deals, dreams, failed promises and marriages, and lots of folks who wanted to dance all night.

It’s been rough and rocky traveling
But I’m finally standing upright on the ground,
After taking several readings
I’m surprised to find my mind’s still fairly sound,
I guess Nashville was the roughest
But I know I’ve said the same about them all.
We received our education
In the cities of the nation,
Me and Paul 
**

I met Willie Nelson on a Saturday afternoon in March 1970 when I wandered into Roy Evans’ living room in Austin and found this quiet little man perched on the back of an armchair, his feet on the cushion, strumming an apparently prehistoric guitar. He was wearing gabardine slacks, a tacky yellow Robert Hall’s shirt, and seemed terribly shy. I’d been told he was a “famous country songwriter,” which didn’t impress me—I was a graduate student then, very young and superior—but I liked him from the moment we shook hands and he smiled at me: it’s what everybody first responds to in Willie, that tremendously embracing smile. His hair was still pretty short in those days, no beard yet either, and his face was plain bad luck and lumps. He looked to be the quintessential cedar-chopper except, I noticed, for the tiny gold ring piercing his left ear.

His home in Nashville had burned down a few months earlier, the only things rescued with a mad dash into the flames being his guitar and his dope stash. Willie was passing the winter on a deserted Bandera dude ranch with his family and The Family, his odd coalition of flunkies and friends. He did a lot of writing that winter, some of the best he’d ever done, including the sharply introspective roadsong “Me and Paul,” about himself and his twenty-year sidekick, soulmate, and drummer, Paul English. Drawn irresistibly and practically nightly to Hill Country dance halls and honky-tonks, he was slowly rediscovering Texas, taking some readings, finding himself.

He found himself in Roy Evans’ living room because Evans, then the state AFL-CIO president, had recruited his old buddy Willie to play a benefit concert for Ralph Yarborough, the labor-backed U.S. senator who was campaigning for reelection. And I was there to help promote the benefit. I’d never heard of Willie Nelson, but Evans assured me his fans were legion within the ranks of organized labor.

This was a somewhat exaggerated claim, I suspected, but it proved sufficiently accurate to surprise me. George Meany couldn’t have attracted a better crowd. None of the union members had to pay, however, and since not much of anyone else came, the benefit was sort of a loser. There definitely weren’t any “hippies” in attendance, not with all those hard hats around. The hottest single on the country charts that winter was “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s cheap broadside against dope-taking, free-loving, flag-burning hippies. Virtually a redneck anthem, the song was everything a Willie Nelson song was not: petty, self-righteous, strident, the musical version of a Spiro Agnew speech. Though in certain respects a more talented musician than Willie, Haggard lacked all those personal graces that make the difference between talent and art. Without the sensitivity to achieve insight he relied instead on posturing and pretense, his song such a parody of itself that barely six years later it’s already become a nostalgia item, and probably an embarrassment. Willie’s songs, by contrast, invariably carry the same power of perception as they did when they were written.

But what really struck me about Willie Nelson, that first time I heard him, was that he’s one helluva guitar-picker. Not a virtuoso in the manner of Chet Atkins, say, or numerous other Nashville technicians, he’s rather a stylist possessing an original, identifiable signature. Closer to blues than standard country, more fluid and less rhythmic, it’s a richly intoned sound with a faint upbeat embellishment, almost a flamenco trill, a hint of anomalous whimsy like the ring in his ear. Willie was still pretty much of a honky-tonker back then, but his concert generated all the energy and intensity of the best rock ’n’ roll with generally greater spontaneity, and it trashed all my smug illusions about country music.

They were obsolete illusions in any case. The official Nashville brand of country music was quickly fading into pale, languid stupor, suitable for funerals or the Johnny Carson show. When Willie went back that summer he attempted to stir up some excitement, or at least some trouble, but Nashville keeps its stars on short leashes and his kept getting jerked. Johnny Carson just wasn’t Willie’s idea of night life, so after a fruitless, frustrating year he decided to quit Nashville entirely—about the most radical decision you can make in the country music business—and moved to Austin where his sister Bobbie lived.

Playing around Texas he began to notice occasional, presumably audacious longhairs infiltrating his familiar honky-tonk crowds and became intrigued. He looked around some more, played for and with some of them, and sent word back to his fellow Nashville troublemakers that these kids might have the makings of a fair country audience. An unlikely alliance was about to be joined.

The basic cultural distinction between rednecks and hippies, Willie once observed, is that “whiskey makes you feel like fightin’, and marijuana makes you feel like listenin’ to music.” And so long as that’s all there was to it, Willie figured he could handle things: he was a recognized authority, after all, on the whiskey-and-fightin’ scene, and he’d been fairly well acquainted with the marijuana scene ever since helping his folks plant it in the cornfields south of Waco. It was merely one more approach to all-night dancing, and that was OK by Willie. He even started letting his hair grow.

And when he showed up in New York to record an album for his new label, he brought his road band along with him. It was the customary practice for a rock ’n’ roll band but a brash departure for a country singer, whose backup support virtually always is provided by studio musicians. It was the first album Willie ever enjoyed any degree of personal control over, and it came out sounding more raucous and rowdy, more like his live performance than any recording he’d done before. The album was Shotgun Willie and it was a runaway hit.

Willie in a recording session with backing vocalists Larry Gatlin, Sammi Smith, Doug Sahm, and Dee Moeller in New York City in February 1973.

He celebrated the album’s release, and also his fortieth birthday, with a full-dress performance at Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin’s answer to Caesar’s Palace, in April 1973. Three months later came Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, and within the year there were landmark albums from Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Michael Murphey, Doug Sahm, Kinky Friedman, and a veritable studio-full of Austin sidemen. It was the beginning of something.

“Well I’m wild and I’m mean,
I’m creatin’ a scene, I’m going crazy.
Well I’m good and I’m bad,
And I’m happy and I’m sad,
And I’m lazy.
I’m quiet and I’m loud
And I’m gatherin’ a crowd . . . ”
 ***

It’s all happened so quickly: “redneck rock,” “progressive country,” “Austin music,” “Texas music”; whatever it is, it sure got here in a hurry. Austin hasn’t had a unifying obsession like this since 1969, when the Longhorns were national champs. Of course there’s a lot of posturing and pretense involved, silly mooning over Outlaws and such, the embarrassments of parody. But there’s also a lot of vitality in Austin right now, and vitality is the essential ingredient for producing new art. And Willie’s in the forefront, the vanguard. His latest single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a 1945 tune reworked from his boyhood band days, recently became the biggest crossover country hit since Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” And The Red-Headed Stranger, the album it came from, won a Grammy for best country album in 1975. The Fourth of July Picnics are front-page news, and the national journals, musical and political, have tried to figure out who Willie is and what his music means. Texas has always provided the cutting edge of country music, nothing new about that, but it took Willie to transcend Nashville and bring it back where he started.

Willie Nelson interview in Entertainment Weekly, (September 18, 1998)

Friday, September 18th, 2020

photo:  Laura Farr

www.ew.com
by:  Jeff Gordinier

Willie Nelson reaches across the table and whispers four soft words: “It’s good for you.” His brown eyes are shining like sunlight on the Rio Grande. His voice is rustling like wind through a wheat field. And between those burlap knuckles of his, well, he’s got a joint as fat as a rope.

It all feels like Luke Skywalker taking the lightsaber from Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can’t say no.

So I don’t. I inhale. Deeply. Which probably isn’t the smartest journalistic strategy in the world, considering that my life’s experience with ganja consists primarily of a couple of pathetic coughing fits in college. The thing is, there’s something so gentle about Willie Nelson, so utterly blissful and reassuring, that climbing into his tour bus feels like stepping into the lost ashram of a Himalayan mystic. Just the sound of his laugh can lower your heart rate. Besides, it’s late in the afternoon, and Willie’s tiny office on the bus, the Honeysuckle Rose II, is already so banked with sweet herbal fog that a plane wouldn’t be cleared for landing. A puff or two won’t make any difference, right?

It’s a busy day, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Willie’s supposed to ride the highway up to Boulder, Colo., to play songs from his haunting new album, Teatro, for radio station KBCO and a packed house at the Fox Theatre. Plus, he’s just been named a Kennedy Center honoree, alongside entertainers like Bill Cosby and Shirley Temple Black, so people keep calling the bus to congratulate him.

If anyone deserves an official blessing from the United States government, why not Willie Nelson? He wrote national anthems like “Crazy” and “Night Life” and “On the Road Again.” He’s saved Nashville from its cheesiest impulses with albums like Red Headed Stranger and Spirit and Stardust. His voice is seared on the American landscape as indelibly as the voices of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. Besides, he’s done a guest spot on King of the Hill. “For me, Willie is what you’d imagine an elder would be like in native mythology,” says Daniel Lanois, Teatro’s producer. “Without saying too much, he projects an aura that just makes you feel good to be around.”

But there’s a fantastic irony here, too, when you think about a bunch of Beltway Babbitts squeezing into their tuxes and clinking their champagne flutes to the original Nashville outlaw, a man who’s wrangled with drug laws and the Internal Revenue Service, who’s crisscrossed miles of conservative highway with his beard and ponytails and beatific smile intact, who’s spent a large portion of his 65 years whispering four soft, subversive words to the stress-battered American people: It’s good for you.

“I was doomed to go to hell by the time I was 7,” Willie is saying, “because I had been told that if you smoke cigarettes and drink beer you’re going to hell. And by 7, I was gone.” Thus resigned to eternal damnation, Willie came up with the only spiritual approach that made sense: There’s nothing to hide, and nothing to get too upset about. “If you get up thinkin’ everything’s gonna be wonderful, you’re gonna find out somethin’ happened that wasn’t that wonderful,” he says. “And if you think everything’s gonna be terrible, then you’re gonna miss what was good. So there is a little bit of Zen in there: You shouldn’t be too elated at the good things, and you shouldn’t be too depressed at the bad things.” Not since Butch Cassidy has somebody so defiant been so laid-back about it.

You can ask Willie anything, good or bad, and he’ll respond with that sagebrush laugh and a flash of those muddy-river eyes. The night in 1970 when he dashed into the flaming eaves of a burning house to rescue a pile of pot? “A guitar and the pot,” he gently corrects me. The night when he walked out of a Nashville bar and stretched his bones in the middle of a busy road? “I was pretty drunk, but I do remember it,” he says. “It was one of those Russian roulette things, you know? You really didn’t give a damn, and yet you did. Just before the truck woulda hit me, I’d have said, ‘Why did I do that?’”

I ask whether it’s true that the first of Willie’s four wives tied him up and beat him purple as punishment for a drunken binge. Willie not only verifies the story, he muses over the method of bondage. “I think there were sheets stitched together, and then jump ropes to secure them,” he says. “Then she packed all of my clothes and left. So when I finally got out of the sheet, all my clothes were gone.”

The father of seven (and grandfather of seven more) waves toward a beautiful woman sitting toward the back of the bus. “This is Lana, my daughter,” he says. “Her mother was the one in that story you asked about.”

“I might’ve been 4 or 5,” says Lana, now 44. “She left us in the car waiting while she hit him with the broom. And she came runnin’ out and threw the broom on the porch and jumped in the car.”

And…how did you feel?

“Well, I hated to see Daddy get beat up with a broom!” she laughs whimsically. “But if my husband came home drunk, I might do the same thing.” “And,” Pop chimes in, “if he’d done it on more than one occasion.”

Willie gave up booze years ago—”To me, alcohol is not positive,” he says–but he’s been smoking weed since 1953, when a fiddle player in Fort Worth first passed him a joint. “It wasn’t a big deal back in the early days in Fort Worth,” Willie insists. “Most of the law enforcement agents were smokin’ pot. They’d bust other people, get the pot, and we’d sit around and smoke it. They realized it was a bad law, but they were makin’ the best of it.”

Texas troopers may be a bit more zealous these days, but whenever there’s a head-on collision between Willie and various statutes and ordinances, it seems like Willie’s the one who comes out unscathed. Four years ago he was arrested when police found him and a joint cuddling in the backseat of a Mercedes; pretty soon the charges were dropped. “There was no cause to give me any problems there that night, because I wasn’t botherin’ nobody,” Willie explains. “When it’s foggy and you’re tired, you pull over and go to sleep. You shouldn’t be harassed by the police department.” Eight years ago the IRS saddled him with a massive burden of back taxes—$32 million—but Willie struck a deal with the feds to whittle down the debt, paid off the rest, and moved on.

It’s been that way since Abbott, the lean Texas town where he baled hay and picked cotton as a kid. “We had no law in Abbott. There was nothing illegal,” he recalls as the Honeysuckle Rose II rolls through the strip malls and cheeseburger troughs of the New West. “I’ve kind of brought Abbott with me.”

In the front of the bus is a TV. CNN is blasting the news that Bill Clinton has bombed outposts in Sudan and Afghanistan—an event of weird significance for one of the stars of Wag the Dog. Willie asks if I want to watch a video. I suggest he might prefer to catch up with the military showdown instead. “The war’s about over, probably,” he laughs. “We’re gonna miss the whole f—in’ war, just goin’ to Boulder.”

Willie may come across as the un-Clinton—he’s inhaled, he’s fooled around, he doesn’t lie about it—but he’s actually quick to forgive Slick Willie his amorous misadventures. “I think any male on the planet will have sympathies for where he’s at,” he says. “Most of us can withstand everything but temptation. And a guy who’s bombarded as much as he is, as president? Most presidents are too old to worry about s— like that!” As for his own battles with temptation on the road, Willie and his crew long ago came up with an official policy: “We leave town early.”

Keeping on the move has always been a Willie trademark. Daniel Lanois is such a sonic perfectionist that it often takes him months to cut an album, but when the Grammy-winning producer of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball hunkered down in an old California movie theater to record Teatro, it took…four days. Which is not to say it feels tossed off: A spooky flamenco hayride of a record, Teatro proves that after 213 albums over the course of four decades, Willie Nelson is hitting another moment of creative fervor. “I’m so used to making records where one has to labor, it sort of caught me by surprise,” Lanois marvels. “Willie really trusts first takes.”

Eventually Willie and I do watch a movie, an upcoming made-for-CBS Western called Outlaw Justice. My critical faculties are fairly warped at this point, but I think Willie and Kris Kristofferson play old gunslingers who team up to avenge the death of a fellow desperado, played by Waylon Jennings.

After a few minutes Willie picks up the phone. “Hey, Waylon,” he says. “I just watched you die again in that movie.”

Maybe it’s the thin Colorado air, but by now the phrase mile-high has taken on a new meaning. Suddenly I have come to believe that Willie Nelson is a great American sage, that sculptors should carve his saintly visage into Mount Rushmore, that Outlaw Justice is a cinematic masterpiece, that…er…uh, dude, could you pass the potato chips?

People Magazine (September 1, 1980)

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020
magazine1

People Magazine
September 1, 1980
by Cheryl McCall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as Merle Haggard was topping the charts with his hippie-baiting Okie from Muscogee, Willie — never a slave to fashion — began sporting long hair, a beard and and earring.  With fellow outlaws like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker, he began forging the gritty Austin sound that finally brought him success as a singer.  Within six months of its release in 1973, the LP Shotgun Willie outsold all his previous albums combined; he was inducted int Nashville’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame; and his first Fourth of July picnic draws 50,000 rockers and rednecks to the little hamlet of Dripping Springs, Texas.  Creative control over his recordings brought Willie a string of hit LPs that hasn’t been broken, and later led to his first movie role — as Robert Redford’s manager in The Electric Horseman.  Five more film commitments await, at a reported $1 million per roll, but Willie insists he’s not going Hollywood.  “I like making movies,” he said, “But it’s confining, and I don’t like to go too long without playing concerts.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Willie Nelson in Texas Monthly

Friday, August 28th, 2020

Good job, Janis from Texas! Prioritizing the Texas Monthlys with Willie Nelson ont he cover. It’s really the only magazine they need to carry this month.

Texas Monthly

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

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

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020
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We should all be this cool

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020