Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

The Mystic Willie

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

country music

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, “Django and Jimmie” (Rolling Stone Interview June 2015)

Friday, June 15th, 2018

blackhats

www.RollingStone.com
by:  Patrick Doyle

“Hello, I know you!” Merle Haggard says as he emerges from the bedroom of his tour bus. He’s talking to Willie Nelson, who’s sitting in the bus’s cramped front quarters. Standing nearby, Nelson’s wife, Annie, asks the pair if they’ll sign a couple of acoustic guitars for a charity run by Matthew McConaughey, a friend of the family. “Absolutely not,” Haggard says with a smile. Later, when Annie takes a photo of the two signing the guitars, Nelson grins and gives the camera the finger.

It’s a perfect Saturday night in South Texas, where Haggard, 78, and Nelson, 82, are playing the last of three sold-out shows together at New Braunfels’ Whitewater Amphitheater. Haggard is about to play a set, during which Nelson will join him on “Okie From Muskogee,” “Pancho and Lefty” and a handful of other songs. Backstage, Nelson family members catch up; his rail-thin 90-year-old roadie Ben Dorcy (who was once John Wayne’s assistant) ambles around, smoking a pipe. Directly behind the stage, locals ride down the Guadalupe River in inner tubes, stopping on the bank to listen to the show. “We’ll get somebody out there to sell them tickets,” Nelson jokes.

Sitting side by side on the bus, Nelson and Haggard look like they could be a grizzled Mount Rushmore of country music. “It’s a mutual-admiration society with us,” says Nelson. “Merle’s one of the best. There’s not anyone out there that can beat him. Maybe Kris Kristofferson. But then you start running out of names.”

Haggard and Nelson are about to release a new LP, Django and Jimmie. (The title is a tribute to Nelson’s and Haggard’s respective heroes, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers.)

One of the best songs is “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” an ode to their late friend and a meditation on mortality. “There’s a thousand good stories about John,” says Nelson. Haggard tells one, about the time Cash thought it would be hilarious to dynamite a broken-down car he encountered on the side of the road. “He hooks it all up, hits the plunger and blows it up. And he said, ‘Now, when that guy goes to tell his old lady his car blew up, he won’t be lying!’?” Nelson cackles, adding, “John used to say, ‘I always get my best thinking done when June is talking.’?”

“I didn’t know anything about marijuana,” Haggard says. “It’s fantastic.”

Nelson and Haggard met at a poker game at Nelson’s Nashville house in 1964, when both were struggling songwriters. (Neither would have major success until they left Nashville behind; Nelson for Austin, Haggard for Bakersfield, California.) They didn’t become close until the late Seventies, when they were playing casinos in Reno. “We’d play a couple of long shows a day, then spend all night long jamming,” says Haggard.

In 1982, they recorded Pancho & Lefty together at Nelson’s ranch near Austin, where they’d stay awake for days — “We were living pretty hard in that time period,” Nelson has said — playing golf and then recording all night (Haggard barely remembers singing his famous verse on “Pancho and Lefty”). At the time, they were fasting on a master-cleanse regimen of cayenne pepper and lemon juice. “I think Willie went 10 days,” says Haggard. “I went seven.”

“I still ain’t got over it,” says Nelson. “Still hungry.” Adds Haggard, “You’re still high!”

These days, they share a love of conspiracy theories (both are devoted fans of paranormal-obsessed radio host Art Bell) and making music with their children (Haggard’s son Ben plays guitar in his band; Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah frequently join their father onstage). “It’s as good as it gets, to have your kids up there playing,” says Nelson. “And they’re good!”

On the new album, the two cover Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).” The track was recorded before Dylan criticized Haggard and other artists in a widely publicized MusicCares speech in February: “Merle Haggard didn’t think much of my songs, but Buck Owens did,” Dylan said. “Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody’s blessing — you figure it out.” Dylan later apologized.

Haggard (who toured with Dylan in 2005) thinks Dylan was talking about the Merle Haggard of the Sixties — the guy who took shots at hippies, weed and premarital sex in 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee.”

“I didn’t misunderstand Bob,” says Haggard. “I know what he meant. He figured I was lumping him in with hippies [in the Sixties]. The lack of respect for the American military hurt my feelings at the time. But I never lumped Bob Dylan in with the hippies. What made him great was the fact that every body liked him. And I’ll tell you one thing, the goddamn hippies have got no exclusive on Bob Dylan!” He pauses. “Bob likes to box — I’d like to get in the ring with his ass, and give him somebody to hit.”

In fact, these days Merle Haggard is far more liberal than the man in his classic songs. For one thing, he loves pot. “I didn’t know anything about marijuana back then,” he says. “It’s one of the most fantastic things in the world.” Did he and Nelson smoke in the studio? “Are you kidding me?” Haggard says with a laugh.

Soon, the conversation devolves to jokes. “You know what you call a guitar player without a girlfriend?” Nelson asks. “Homeless.”

Next, they talk current events, Nelson explaining the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit to Haggard. (“They stole more than they were supposed to,” he says. Haggard nods.) Asked if either has any thoughts about communicating with fans through social media, they shake their heads. “Just so long as somebody else can do it,” says Nelson. “That’s why I didn’t learn to play steel guitar.”

“What was that little girl that played steel in Asleep at the Wheel?” says Haggard. “Cindy Cashdollar. Everybody was trying to look up her dress.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” deadpans Nelson. “I think I had the wrong angle.”

By now, Haggard is supposed to be onstage; his son has been extending his three-song warm-up set for several minutes, telling the crowd his father will be out soon. These co-headline dates sold so well that Nelson says there will be more: “In fact, I was talking to some folks today — I was gonna see what they thought of making us do a tour of it when it comes out.”

He turns to Haggard. “We ought to do whatever we can get — as many days as we need to,” Nelson says with a smile. “Because I know it’s a good record. I think it might sell a couple.”

Willie Nelson, Cowboy Grace (No Depression, June 2012)

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

breathe

www.nodepression.com
by: Doug Heselgrave

It’s the middle of the afternoon and for the past few hours Willie Nelson has been talking to reporters about his new album, ‘Heroes.’ For a writer, it’s not the ideal situation, and as I bided my time in the middle of the queue, I worried that by the time it was my turn to speak to Willie, he’d be burned out and his answers would be perfunctory and clichéd. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I went away from our conversation realizing how little I really understood about this singer and songwriter that I’d been listening to for most of my life.

Over the years, the red headed stranger has slowly metamorphosized into a grey haired icon who has become as synonymous with American culture as Mickey Mouse or the Titanic. He’s been called one of the most recognizable people on the world, and millions of folks who never listen to country music know about his stance on marijuana, biofuel and the dangers of factory farming. For many, Willie Nelson represents a way of life that has all but disappeared, so it’s not surprising that for the last four decades or so, his fans have created myths, images and expectations around him that have all but obscured the man behind them.

If any of this bothers Willie in any way, it’s certainly wasn’t evident when we spoke. Serene and imperturbable, open and empty of expectations, it was almost unnerving how utterly present Willie is in conversation. At this stage in his life, he certainly doesn’t need to talk to anyone if he doesn’t want to, but from the beginning to the end of our chat, he exhibited a Bodhisattva-like calm that goes beyond any explanation that all the pot he’s smoked could account for. So, when I asked him about his new album, ‘Heroes’, not surprisingly his first comments deflected attention away from himself and onto everyone else who contributed to the record.

“You know Doug, there were really a lot of great moments in putting this album together. Buddy Cannon, the producer, got such great talent together. There were such wonderful musicians who worked on this album, and that’s really the key to every good record. All those musicians on there were just incredible. They played each song with exactly the right amount of feeling and emotion. A lot of the success of this album goes to those musicians. I can’t thank them enough for what they did.”

He paused a moment, obviously lost in a private reverie before resurfacing with “so many great memories. So many great songs.” Picking up the thread, he continued, “A lot of the songs on this one came from Buddy and Luke, so I can’t really take credit except for the songs I wrote myself I guess. ‘Heroes’ was one of those songs. I wrote it for and about Billy Joe Shaver. He’s one of my favorites and just a beautiful singer still”

Like Slim, the cowboy Buddha in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the quality of silence between Willie’s sentences resonated as deeply as anything he says, and like that character he is secure in his own ego and reluctant, even after repeated attempts, to aggrandize himself, preferring to see himself as a conduit or a catalyst for the music rather than ‘anything special.’ In a culture defined by celebrity worship, where fragile egos live and die by what is written and said about them, Willie Nelson is a survivor who reminds us that of all the paths through stardom, the road less travelled is the one that leads to humility.

As we began to talk about the songs on ‘Heroes’, I remarked that the most interesting aspect of the record for me was just how good his son, Lukas’ songs have become. Willie’s voice became warmer as I’d obviously brought up a subject close to his heart. “Oh yeah, I’m proud of Lukas. I’m so proud of all of my children. He and Micah – both of my sons – are on the album in different places. As for Lukas, ‘Sound of Your Memory’ is a good song. I really like that one and ‘No Place To Fly.’ I think they’re some of his best compositions”

‘Sound Of Your Memory’, especially, sounds like a great, lost Willie Nelson song, and I wondered aloud if he had ever taken any part in writing any of his son’s music. “ No, but when he writes something he sings it to me and I’ve always liked everything he’s written. He’s never written anything bad, but of course some of them are better than others. He’s just naturally a good writer. The song, ‘Just Breathe’ by Eddie Vedder is one that Luke brought in. It might be my favorite on the album. I think it’s a great song that just builds a great story. Now, you know, I’ve noticed over the past few years that Luke’s band, Promise Of The Real, is just full of a lot of young guys that are just incredible musicians. You could put them in with any band out there – Dylan or any of those guys – and they could hold their own. There are a lot of great young musicians out there that really know what they’re doing and I wanted some of them to play on this album. It makes me feel good.”

When I remarked that there were a lot of older players of his generation like Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price singing on the album, too, and wondered if that was a conscious choice, Willie may have thought I was over-analyzing his process and preferred instead to reminisce about his time with Ray Price. “ Well, I do know that Ray Price and I go way back. Those are some good memories. I played bass with him in the early sixties. We were on the road for a while. He and I were good buddies and we enjoyed being on the road together riding on the bus. He’s still the best country singer out there. He really is.”

We spent a few minutes discussing some of his song choices for ‘Heroes’, and I admitted to being baffled by why he had chosen to record ‘The Scientist’ a pop song originally sung by ColdPlay. I told Willie that it was a song that I couldn’t stand when it was on the radio, and I was interested in what he heard in it, and how he was able to unearth the beautiful melody that was so deeply embedded in the original. He laughed for several seconds before saying, “Well, you know I always rewrite every song I sing so that it suits me!” “But,” he continued, “I liked the idea of a commercial first of all which was for the small family farmers against the big corporate farmers. I’m just glad that there was a song and a video and a commercial that talked about that, and I was glad to sing the song because I thought it fit the whole thing perfectly.”

As our conversation began to naturally wind down, I realized that I hadn’t asked him about ‘Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die’, his duet with Snoop Dog that celebrates everyone’s favorite weed. Willie laughed and offered, “I thought I’d written it, but just the other day I came to find out that there was another song with the same idea around. There were I don’t know how many writers on it and I just don’t know. You can have part of it if you want!” Once we’d stopped laughing, he continued, “But, it’s a song that was a natural I thought and the timing was right.”

Still, I remembered how Walmart refused to sell his ‘Country Man’ album in its original format because of the marijuana leaves on the cover, and I wondered if he felt a song like that would alienate a portion of his audience.

“No, in fact I close my show with the song every night and it’s a great sing along. It was funny to see, but we had an 84 year-old lady celebrating her birthday in the house last night. She was right down on the front row and she was standing up and singing right along with ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die’”

With visions of Keith Richards snorting up his father’s ashes mixed with cocaine, I asked him what kind of high he think I’d get if I had the chance to roll him up and smoke him when he died, and Willie didn’t skip a beat before answering, “Oh, I don’t know, but I’d go and get a shot real quick. There’s no telling what you’d catch! Don’t take any chances out there!”

We shot the breeze for a few minutes as our time together drew to a close, but just before moving on, Willie offered, “Doug, I am a lucky man and I have to tell you, thinking about this record, and the time I spent making it, it was just as good as it gets to have my kids in there with me. What more could you want?”

Amen.

But no one can be

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

Willie Nelson Fans

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Janis from Texas drove me all over Austin after a show, in the middle of the night, to get our hands on the Life Magazine with Willie Nelson’s photo.   It was worth it.  Janis is the best.

Willie Nelson, American Icon (AARP) (June, July 2018)

Friday, June 1st, 2018

www.prnewswire.com

LOS ANGELES, May 31, 2018 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The first in a series of “American Icon” exclusive interviews, Willie Nelson reflects on his life’s trajectory from small-town Texas to the country music mecca of Nashville, the friends he made along the way and his focus on only the essential things in life.  With a rich, varied, textured life well-lived and career spanning over 50 years, he is one of the biggest stars in country music. The outspoken musical legend has also endured his share of heartache, from the tragic death of a son to three failed marriages. Even with a 32 million dollar IRS tax bill and drug busts weighing him down, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps and carried on.   

When questioned about his secret to life in an intimate interview with AARP The Magazine (ATM), Nelson says, “It’s simple. Do what you want to do. If I don’t want to do it, forget it. But if I do want to do it, get out of my goddamn way.”

Nelson’s words are a testament to such a life that includes smoking a joint on the White House roof during the Carter administration, organizing the Farm Aid benefit concert and winning the admiration and respect of luminaries, including Bob Dylan.

In a fitting tribute, Dylan recalled, “Willie played some of his songs: ‘Night Life,’ “Hello Walls,’ ‘Crazy,’… I thought these were the most perfect songs that ever had a right to be written. I thought he was a genius then, and I think the same thing now.”

Nelson continues to write and perform. His latest album, ‘Last Man Standing,’ features all new original songs. He’s presently at work on a collection of Sinatra tunes, including ‘My Way.’

When questioned about getting old in AARP The Magazine (ATM), Nelson says, “I don’t think my attitude has changed. I’m still doing what I want to do, and I suggest everybody do the same.”

The following are excerpts from AARP The Magazine‘s June/July 2018 cover story featuring Willie Nelson, available in homes starting June and available online now at www.aarp.org/magazine/.

Selections from the Willie Nelson cover story in AARP The Magazine’s June/July issue:

On creative influences:

“He (Hank Williams) was an incredible writer, sang with so much feeling… and he had a hard life. Died at 29. But nobody wrote better songs than Hank. It was the simplicity, melody and a line anybody could understand.”

On working with Frank Sinatra:

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

On life with his wife, Ann Marie D’Angelo:

“Annie and I have been married since 1991 and found a way to make it work.” “Through thick and thin. You can’t ask for anything more than that!”

On his beginnings with music:

“I started when I was 5 or 6. I had one of those old Sears & Roebuck guitars with the strings high off the neck – your fingers literally would bleed. When they healed up, though, they were pretty tough.”

http://www.aarp.org

The Willie Nelson Charisma (Buddy, June 1975)

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Buddy Magazine
June 1975
by Mike Rhyner

Who is this Willie Nelson and why is he hosting those giant music festivals?

What is this Willie Nelson charisma that has caused the redneck to make peace with the hippie?That can get the cowboys to sit down in the dust and share a beer and a joint with a longhair? That can make an outdoor festival in Texas in July the naiton’s largest annual music event?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that question. You have to experience for yourself the excitement of the Willie Nelson performance. The energy of the crowd, generated by the man with the gut-string guitar with a hole worn right through the top of it from years of hard picken’.

Willie himself doesn’t understand it.  He just rolls with the punches, although it does give him a few anxious moments.  Like a few weekends ago at an outdoor concert in Dallas when a young lady, sans shirt, was hoisted above the heads of the crowd and demanded a kiss from Willie.  When he obliged she grabbed his guitar strap and wouldn’t let go.  Rather than be pulled off the 10-foot tall stage, Willie and some stagehands pulled her up and escorted her down the back steps.  After regaining his composure, Willie returned to sing for a few more hours.

Willie’s nationally famous outdoor country music spectacular, the Willie Nelson Third Annual Fourth of July Picnic, will happen this year at Liberty Hill, Texas, about 30 miles north of Austin on a green country slope where the South Gabriel River winds into the Texas hill country.

The site is more accessible than the site of the historic 1st Annual Picnic near Dripping Springs nad is covered with trees, two ponds and the winding fork of the San Gabriel River.

Appearing this year with Willie and his Family are the Pointer sister, the Charlie Daniel Band, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Billy Swan, Donnie Fritts, Doug Sahm, Billy C., Milton Carroll, Alex Harvey, Delbert McClinton, Johnny Bush, Floyd Tillman, and like all Willie Nelson performances, especially the Picnic, there will probably be a few artists appear unannounced. Leon Russell was onstage at sunup at Dripping Springs singing gospel songs to the early arrivals and last year John Sebastian and David Carradine spent the Forth in front of Texas picnic freaks.

Willie Nelson featured in AARP’s Magazine, “American Icon” series (June, July)

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

An Intimate Portrait of American Icon Willie Nelson in June/July Issue of AARP The Magazine 

AARP The Magazine kicks off its “American Icon” series with Willie Nelson, an exclusive on his roots in life, music and the secret of life  

LOS ANGELES, CA—The first in a series of “American Icon” exclusive interviews, Willie Nelson reflects on his life’s trajectory from small-town Texas to the country music mecca of Nashville, the friends he made along the way and his focus on only the essential things in life.  With a rich, varied, textured life well-lived and career spanning over 50 years, he is one of the biggest stars in country music. The outspoken musical legend has also endured his share of heartache, from the tragic death of a son to three failed marriages. Even with a 32 million dollar IRS tax bill and drug busts weighing him down, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps and carried on.

When questioned about his secret to life in an intimate interview with AARP The Magazine (ATM), Nelson says, “It’s simple. Do what you want to do. If I don’t want to do it, forget it. But if I do want to do it, get out of my goddamn way.” 

Nelson’s words are a testament to such a life that includes smoking a joint on the White House roof during the Carter administration, organizing the Farm Aid benefit concert and winning the admiration and respect of luminaries, including Bob Dylan.

In a fitting tribute, Dylan recalled, “Willie played some of his songs: ‘Night Life,’ “Hello Walls,’ ‘Crazy,’… I thought these were the most perfect songs that ever had a right to be written. I thought he was a genius then, and I think the same thing now.”

Nelson continues to write and perform. His latest album, ‘Last Man Standing,’ features all new original songs. He’s presently at work on a collection of Sinatra tunes, including ‘My Way.’

When questioned about getting old in AARP The Magazine (ATM), Nelson says, “I don’t think my attitude has changed. I’m still doing what I want to do, and I suggest everybody do the same.”

The following are excerpts from AARP The Magazine’s June/July 2018 cover story featuring Willie Nelson, available in homes starting June and available online now at www.aarp.org/magazine/.

Selections from the Willie Nelson cover story in AARP The Magazine’s June/July issue:

On creative influences:

“He (Hank Williams) was an incredible writer, sang with so much feeling… and he had a hard life. Died at 29. But nobody wrote better songs than Hank. It was the simplicity, melody and a line anybody could understand.”

On working with Frank Sinatra:

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

On life with his wife, Ann Marie D’Angelo:

“Annie and I have been married since 1991 and found a way to make it work.” “Through thick and thin. You can’t ask for anything more than that!”

On his beginnings with music:

“I started when I was 5 or 6. I had one of those old Sears & Roebuck guitars with the strings high off the neck – your fingers literally would bleed. When they healed up, though, they were pretty tough.”


About AARP The Magazine

With more than 38 million readers, AARP The Magazine is the nation’s largest circulation magazine – and the definitive lifestyle publication – for Americans 50 and older. AARP The Magazine delivers targeted content in three demographic versions – for readers age 50 to 59, 60 to 69 and 70-plus – including health and fitness features, financial guidance, consumer information and tips, celebrity interviews, and book and movie reviews. AARP has been publishing a magazine for members since its founding in 1958. AARP The Magazine is published bimonthly in print and continually online. Learn more at www.aarp.org/magazine/.

About AARP

AARP is the nation’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering people 50 and older to choose how they live as they age. With a nationwide presence and nearly 38 million members, AARP strengthens communities and advocates for what matters most to families: health security, financial stability and personal fulfillment. AARP also produces the nation’s largest circulation publications: AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. To learn more, visit www.aarp.org or follow @AARP and @AARPadvocates on social media.

Willie Nelson is on cover of “Freedom Leaf” Magazine (May 2015)

Monday, May 28th, 2018

freedomleaf

freedom2

Willie Nelson is featured in the May 2015 edition of Freedom Leaf, the new magazine of the Marijuana Legalization Company.   The issue includes a preview of Willie Nelson’s new book, “It’s a Long Story:  My Life”

From their website:  www.freedomleaf.com

Freedom Leaf, The Marijuana Legalization Company™ is a multi-media, “movement marketing” business. We cover the latest news, art, fashion, lifestyle, entertainment and the cannabis industry in our print magazine, through social media and on our website.

Our publications are designed to empower a network of activists in the US and around the world. As a result, our brands will be rightly identified with the success of the drive to end marijuana prohibition. We support the two leading non-profits working towards our common goal: NORML; the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and SSDP, Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

We send free copies of our print magazine to the NORML and SSDP chapter network around the country in almost every state that they deliver into the community. Soon we will offer a retail line of “Hemp Inspired™” clothing, apparel and lifestyle products and services. Our publications and products are designed by and for the activists, and other Like-minded individuals making it possible for those involved in this movement to build a career in freedom, marketing Freedom Leaf products and services.

Along with direct fundraising we donate a portion of all of our advertising sales, event sales and other revenues to NORML and SSDP.

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

Friday, May 25th, 2018

poor

www.texasmonthly.com
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 featured in “Legends of Country”

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

Willie Nelson is featured in the July issue of Legends of Country, on stands now.  Willie should be on the cover and the magazine should be about Willie, but still, it has ice article on him and tons of pictures of artists.

Sometimes the word “legendary” gets tossed around too freely, heaped upon undeserving subjects whenever they do something merely remarkable or moderately successful  It’s the kind of overuse that, over time, detracts from the power of a word

Here, however, we’re talking a close look at the true, undisputed legends of country music – the stars who inspire awe with the mere mention of their names.

Some of them laid the music’s stylistic foundation, while others broke cultural and social barriers.  Some wrote timeless songs, others ruled at the cash registers.  Some have passed away and some are still recording and touring at the top of their game.

Regardless of their impact, one thing is for certain — the music of a legend never dies.”

Legends of Country

Country music has taken the world by storm — and so have its incredibly talented, charismatic artists.

In the special collectors’ issue, Legends of Country, take a behind-the-scenes look at the lives and careers of such greats as George Strait, Reba McEntire and Johnny Cash, and learn the remarkable stories of how these legends got their start and climbed their way to the top.

Also in these pages: everything fans could want to know about country’s modern-day superstars, including a sneak peak into Carrie Underwood’s private world and the real scoop on Florida Georgia Line’s sudden rise to fame.

Featuring more than 100 rare photos, this issue also reveals the surprising true stories behind country music fans’ all-time favorite songs — like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” — and celebrates the most promising up-and-comers as they head for country music superstardom.

Legends of Country is on newsstands now or you can buy it here!

Willie Nelson in Rolling Stone, again

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

www.RollingStone.com
by:  Patrick Doyle

As he reaches his 85th year, Nelson is writing, touring and smoking more than ever. His band and family members weigh in on what drives the Red Headed Stranger.

“What else we got?” Willie Nelson asks. He’s sitting with his famous battered guitar Trigger at his recording studio, located on the Cut ‘N Putt golf course he owns in Spicewood, Texas. He’s deep into a session of Frank Sinatra covers for a future tribute album. Nelson’s producer Buddy Cannon has given him plenty of chances to call it a day (especially because the singer was up until 4 a.m. playing poker), but Nelson keeps asking the control room to cue up more tracks. At one point, last night’s poker guests – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – pop in, but even they can’t distract Nelson. “We’ll let you focus, Willie,” Harrelson says with a smile, leaving the room.

From the signature ballad he wrote for Patsy Cline to his love letter to life on the road.

Nelson remains focused as he reaches his 85th birthday, which he celebrates on April 29th. He’s still sharp: “Sometimes I forget lyrics to new songs or whatever, but normally I can remember them pretty good,” he says. During a break from recording, he says the Sinatra release is actually a ways off; before that, he will release an album of new songs, Last Man Standing, his 19th new album of the last decade, and the continuation of his most prolific writing kick since the Seventies. After Last Man Standing, he will reissue his 1973 gospel album The Troublemaker, with songs, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which still close his live show.

I want to re-release that one before the Sinatra album, to give me a chance to finish it,” he says. Nelson also still maintains a touring schedule that puts younger acts to shame, playing about 100 dates a year, two weeks on, two weeks off. The reason for the workload is simple. “I just enjoy playing,” he explains, “whether it’s on the stage, here in the studio, or wherever.”

The new song “Last Man Standing” is a tongue-in-cheek rocker about Nelson’s conflicted feelings about his status as country’s elder statesman: “I don’t want to be the last man standing / On second thought, maybe I do / If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line and decide after thinking it through.” “I was thinking about Merle, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Cash – all those guys gone on,” he explains. “You kind of wonder [about death]. I’ve been around a long time.”

Nelson’s influence is often overlooked because of his image as a weed-smoking cowboy caricature – the guy who shows up in Austin Powers or admitting to Larry King that he’s stoned on the air. But he’s a lot more than that. He is the most unique and versatile country artist of all time – a cowboy singer with jazz phrasing, playing Django Reinhardt guitar licks on a beat-up classical guitar. In the same way Miles Davis is considered the quintessential jazz artist because he explored almost every iteration of the genre over 50 years, Nelson has seen through every chapter of country music – first as a radio host and honky-tonk bandleader in the Forties and Fifties, then as a slick crooner in Sixties countrypolitan Nashville, then as the face of the outlaw country movement, something that happened after Nelson moved back home to Texas, grew his hair out and stopped caring about the charts. Nelson shook his career up once again by recording the first standards album, Stardust, against his label’s wishes. It went quintuple platinum.

Nelson’s pace is only surprising because just a few months ago he was questioning whether he would play in public again at all. In January, he walked offstage in California and canceled two months of dates, retreating to his place in Maui. Fans feared the worst. “I had the flu for, like, three weeks,” he says. “And that wasn’t no fun. I was a little uncertain about coming back and whether I could still do a show – it had been so long.”

The first show back was in St. Augustine, Florida on February 27th. The band didn’t know what to expect. “Willie came out of the gate just smoking,” says his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. “We were all a bit nervous coming back out after so much time off, but the first night felt like we had never stopped playing. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ye of little faith.’ He blew us all away and all we had to do was hold on.” Asked what was going through his mind, Nelson is less sentimental: “I was just trying to remember ‘Whiskey River,’” he says with a smile. “We did it then; we did three or four more good shows shows in a row, so I got my confidence back.”

The tour wrapped at the Luck Reunion, a mini-festival at Nelson’s home, a mock old-West town he had built for the 1986 movie the Red Headed Stranger. After a day that included Kurt Vile and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nelson’s ’94 pickup could be seen snaking down his long dirt driveway, past fields of horses, pulling up next to the stage. Nelson strapped on Trigger and led an audience through singalongs like “Crazy,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” (I wondered if Nelson had any reservations about opening his home to 3,000 fans, and he laughed. “Nah, that’s cool,” he says. “It’s a good place to play because it’s close to the house.”) Nelson noted that a lot of young faces had probably never seen him play before. He also had fun because he was joined by his kids, Lukas and Micah. “There’s no better feeling,” he says, “than having kids working with you and doing a good job.”

Kevin Smith, the band’s newest member, learned this lesson when he joined mid-tour, after the death of longtime bassist Bee Spears in 2011. A seasoned Austin bass player, Smith was “just jobbing around town” when Raphael called him at 8 a.m. one day, asking him to play the gig that night. “They weren’t terribly kind to me – they just did their regular thing,” Smith says. “And it went well and Willie walked past me and slapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Way to go.’ And that was pretty great.”

Other variables can affect Nelson’s performances too. He recently started his own cannabis company, Willie’s Reserve. Since he considers himself the “CTO” (Chief Tasting Officer), Nelson was trying out several strains before a show. This may be why, Raphael says, Nelson unknowingly re-started his set toward the end of a show. “We were three quarters into the show and he does ‘Stay all Night,’ which might have been the second song,” says Raphael. “He just lost his place. Then he does that by rote, so he did, like, the first 15 minutes of the show again. I didn’t tell him till he asked me. He said, ‘Have we done, ‘Good Hearted Woman?’ ‘Yeah.’ I don’t say anything unless he asks me.”

“He’s also 85,” says Raphael. “I’m surprised he remembers what he does without the dope.”

Mortality has always been one of Nelson’s least-favorite subjects. “He doesn’t talk about it at all,” says Raphael. “He didn’t go to Roger Miller’s funeral. He didn’t go to Waylon’s funeral. We just don’t talk about death around him, especially because a lot of his friends are punching out.”

So it was surprising when, during the sessions for Last Man Standing, Nelson introduced a new song, “Something You Get Through.” Nelson had sung about death jokingly on recent albums – on last year’s great “Still Not Dead” (“I woke up still not dead again today / the Internet said I had passed away”) or on another new song, “Bad Breath” (“Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” “Bad Breath”prompted critic Steven Hyden to observe, “Apparently, someone dared Willie to write a perfect, heartbreaking lyric about halitosis.”) Still, Raphael was unprepared for “Something You Get Through,” which begins:

“When you lose the one you love / You think your world has ended / You think your world will be a waste of life / Without them in it / You feel there’s no way to go on / Life is just a sad, sad song / But love is bigger than us all / The end is not the end at all / It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through.”

“I got chills,” says Raphael. “I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be a classic. I don’t care about any of the others.” Raphael left the studio, both to give Nelson space and because Raphael was raw from the losing of his longtime girlfriend to cancer. The lyric – “It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through” – was just the latest example of what Raphael sees as Nelson’s gift: “That’s his genius. That’s why he can write ‘Night Life and I can’t. I knew ‘Night life ain’t no good life but it’s my life.’ But I didn’t write it. He just sees things that are just there. You often can’t see the forest for the trees – sometimes things are so blatantly obvious and you miss them. He just knows how to look and see things.”

Willie Nelson turns 85: A Visit With the King of Night Life

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

www.RollingStone.com
by:  Patrick Doyle

As he reaches his 85th year, Nelson is writing, touring and smoking more than ever. His band and family members weigh in on what drives the Red Headed Stranger.

“What else we got?” Willie Nelson asks. He’s sitting with his famous battered guitar Trigger at his recording studio, located on the Cut ‘N Putt golf course he owns in Spicewood, Texas. He’s deep into a session of Frank Sinatra covers for a future tribute album. Nelson’s producer Buddy Cannon has given him plenty of chances to call it a day (especially because the singer was up until 4 a.m. playing poker), but Nelson keeps asking the control room to cue up more tracks. At one point, last night’s poker guests – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – pop in, but even they can’t distract Nelson. “We’ll let you focus, Willie,” Harrelson says with a smile, leaving the room.

From the signature ballad he wrote for Patsy Cline to his love letter to life on the road.

Nelson remains focused as he reaches his 85th birthday, which he celebrates on April 29th. He’s still sharp: “Sometimes I forget lyrics to new songs or whatever, but normally I can remember them pretty good,” he says. During a break from recording, he says the Sinatra release is actually a ways off; before that, he will release an album of new songs, Last Man Standing, his 19th new album of the last decade, and the continuation of his most prolific writing kick since the Seventies. After Last Man Standing, he will reissue his 1973 gospel album The Troublemaker, with songs, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which still close his live show.

I want to re-release that one before the Sinatra album, to give me a chance to finish it,” he says. Nelson also still maintains a touring schedule that puts younger acts to shame, playing about 100 dates a year, two weeks on, two weeks off. The reason for the workload is simple. “I just enjoy playing,” he explains, “whether it’s on the stage, here in the studio, or wherever.”

The new song “Last Man Standing” is a tongue-in-cheek rocker about Nelson’s conflicted feelings about his status as country’s elder statesman: “I don’t want to be the last man standing / On second thought, maybe I do / If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line and decide after thinking it through.” “I was thinking about Merle, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Cash – all those guys gone on,” he explains. “You kind of wonder [about death]. I’ve been around a long time.”

Nelson’s influence is often overlooked because of his image as a weed-smoking cowboy caricature – the guy who shows up in Austin Powers or admitting to Larry King that he’s stoned on the air. But he’s a lot more than that. He is the most unique and versatile country artist of all time – a cowboy singer with jazz phrasing, playing Django Reinhardt guitar licks on a beat-up classical guitar. In the same way Miles Davis is considered the quintessential jazz artist because he explored almost every iteration of the genre over 50 years, Nelson has seen through every chapter of country music – first as a radio host and honky-tonk bandleader in the Forties and Fifties, then as a slick crooner in Sixties countrypolitan Nashville, then as the face of the outlaw country movement, something that happened after Nelson moved back home to Texas, grew his hair out and stopped caring about the charts. Nelson shook his career up once again by recording the first standards album, Stardust, against his label’s wishes. It went quintuple platinum.

Nelson’s pace is only surprising because just a few months ago he was questioning whether he would play in public again at all. In January, he walked offstage in California and canceled two months of dates, retreating to his place in Maui. Fans feared the worst. “I had the flu for, like, three weeks,” he says. “And that wasn’t no fun. I was a little uncertain about coming back and whether I could still do a show – it had been so long.”

The first show back was in St. Augustine, Florida on February 27th. The band didn’t know what to expect. “Willie came out of the gate just smoking,” says his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. “We were all a bit nervous coming back out after so much time off, but the first night felt like we had never stopped playing. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ye of little faith.’ He blew us all away and all we had to do was hold on.” Asked what was going through his mind, Nelson is less sentimental: “I was just trying to remember ‘Whiskey River,’” he says with a smile. “We did it then; we did three or four more good shows shows in a row, so I got my confidence back.”

The tour wrapped at the Luck Reunion, a mini-festival at Nelson’s home, a mock old-West town he had built for the 1986 movie the Red Headed Stranger. After a day that included Kurt Vile and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nelson’s ’94 pickup could be seen snaking down his long dirt driveway, past fields of horses, pulling up next to the stage. Nelson strapped on Trigger and led an audience through singalongs like “Crazy,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” (I wondered if Nelson had any reservations about opening his home to 3,000 fans, and he laughed. “Nah, that’s cool,” he says. “It’s a good place to play because it’s close to the house.”) Nelson noted that a lot of young faces had probably never seen him play before. He also had fun because he was joined by his kids, Lukas and Micah. “There’s no better feeling,” he says, “than having kids working with you and doing a good job.”

By his own quick math, Mickey Raphael has played more than 5,400 shows with Nelson since he joined 45 years ago. The harmonica player is essentially the bandleader, and the biggest piece of advice he gives to musicians sitting is, “You have to watch him.” Nelson does not technically have a set list – though he always starts with “Whiskey River” and ends with a gospel medley – and he will routinely cut songs short, extend solos, or even repeat songs if he feels like it. “Every night is a gamble, like walking a high wire without a net,” Nelson says. Adds Raphael, ”If you’re reading a chart or singing or playing it by rote – you’re screwed.”

Kevin Smith, the band’s newest member, learned this lesson when he joined mid-tour, after the death of longtime bassist Bee Spears in 2011. A seasoned Austin bass player, Smith was “just jobbing around town” when Raphael called him at 8 a.m. one day, asking him to play the gig that night. “They weren’t terribly kind to me – they just did their regular thing,” Smith says. “And it went well and Willie walked past me and slapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Way to go.’ And that was pretty great.”

Other variables can affect Nelson’s performances too. He recently started his own cannabis company, Willie’s Reserve. Since he considers himself the “CTO” (Chief Tasting Officer), Nelson was trying out several strains before a show. This may be why, Raphael says, Nelson unknowingly re-started his set toward the end of a show. “We were three quarters into the show and he does ‘Stay all Night,’ which might have been the second song,” says Raphael. “He just lost his place. Then he does that by rote, so he did, like, the first 15 minutes of the show again. I didn’t tell him till he asked me. He said, ‘Have we done, ‘Good Hearted Woman?’ ‘Yeah.’ I don’t say anything unless he asks me.”

“He’s also 85,” says Raphael. “I’m surprised he remembers what he does without the dope.”

Mortality has always been one of Nelson’s least-favorite subjects. “He doesn’t talk about it at all,” says Raphael. “He didn’t go to Roger Miller’s funeral. He didn’t go to Waylon’s funeral. We just don’t talk about death around him, especially because a lot of his friends are punching out.”

So it was surprising when, during the sessions for Last Man Standing, Nelson introduced a new song, “Something You Get Through.” Nelson had sung about death jokingly on recent albums – on last year’s great “Still Not Dead” (“I woke up still not dead again today / the Internet said I had passed away”) or on another new song, “Bad Breath” (“Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” “Bad Breath”prompted critic Steven Hyden to observe, “Apparently, someone dared Willie to write a perfect, heartbreaking lyric about halitosis.”) Still, Raphael was unprepared for “Something You Get Through,” which begins:

“When you lose the one you love / You think your world has ended / You think your world will be a waste of life / Without them in it / You feel there’s no way to go on / Life is just a sad, sad song / But love is bigger than us all / The end is not the end at all / It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through.”

“I got chills,” says Raphael. “I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be a classic. I don’t care about any of the others.” Raphael left the studio, both to give Nelson space and because Raphael was raw from the losing of his longtime girlfriend to cancer. The lyric – “It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through” – was just the latest example of what Raphael sees as Nelson’s gift: “That’s his genius. That’s why he can write ‘Night Life and I can’t. I knew ‘Night life ain’t no good life but it’s my life.’ But I didn’t write it. He just sees things that are just there. You often can’t see the forest for the trees – sometimes things are so blatantly obvious and you miss them. He just knows how to look and see things.”

Willie Nelson, Forever Young (Country Weekly, May 6, 2013)

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

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Country Weekly
May 6, 2013

Willie Nelson can be described in so many ways:  singer, songwriter, activist, author, actor, even the “Red Headed Stranger,” after one of his best-known albums.  You can also call him “youthful” and “relevant”, even as he reaches the milestone age of 80 on April 30.  With a poingnant new album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, a bestselling memoir, Roll me UP and Smoke Me When I DIe:  Musings From the Road, and a full tour schedule, Willie is clearly indicating that he’s not quite done yet.  As he’s often joked about retirement, “All I do is play music and golf.  Which one do you want me to give up?”  In celebration of his big 8-0, we take a look back at the key moments of Willie Nelson’s career.

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Willie Nelson, the king of nightlife

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

photo:  John Doyle

www.Rollingstone.com
by:  Peter Blackstock

As he reaches his 85th year, Nelson is writing, touring and smoking more than ever. His band and family members weigh in on what drives the Red Headed Stranger.

“What else we got?” Willie Nelson asks. He’s sitting with his famous battered guitar Trigger at his recording studio, located on the Cut ‘N Putt golf course he owns in Spicewood, Texas. He’s deep into a session of Frank Sinatra covers for a future tribute album. Nelson’s producer Buddy Cannon has given him plenty of chances to call it a day (especially because the singer was up until 4 a.m. playing poker), but Nelson keeps asking the control room to cue up more tracks. At one point, last night’s poker guests – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – pop in, but even they can’t distract Nelson. “We’ll let you focus, Willie,” Harrelson says with a smile, leaving the roomFrom the signature ballad he wrote for Patsy Cline to his love letter to life on the road

Nelson remains focused as he reaches his 85th birthday, which he celebrates on April 29th. He’s still sharp: “Sometimes I forget lyrics to new songs or whatever, but normally I can remember them pretty good,” he says. During a break from recording, he says the Sinatra release is actually a ways off; before that, he will release an album of new songs, Last Man Standing, his 19th new album of the last decade, and the continuation of his most prolific writing kick since the Seventies. After Last Man Standing, he will reissue his 1973 gospel album The Troublemaker, with songs, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which still close his live show.

I want to re-release that one before the Sinatra album, to give me a chance to finish it,” he says. Nelson also still maintains a touring schedule that puts younger acts to shame, playing about 100 dates a year, two weeks on, two weeks off. The reason for the workload is simple. “I just enjoy playing,” he explains, “whether it’s on the stage, here in the studio, or wherever.”

The new song “Last Man Standing” is a tongue-in-cheek rocker about Nelson’s conflicted feelings about his status as country’s elder statesman: “I don’t want to be the last man standing / On second thought, maybe I do / If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line and decide after thinking it through.” “I was thinking about Merle, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Cash – all those guys gone on,” he explains. “You kind of wonder [about death]. I’ve been around a long time.”

Nelson’s influence is often overlooked because of his image as a weed-smoking cowboy caricature – the guy who shows up in Austin Powers or admitting to Larry King that he’s stoned on the air. But he’s a lot more than that. He is the most unique and versatile country artist of all time – a cowboy singer with jazz phrasing, playing Django Reinhardt guitar licks on a beat-up classical guitar. In the same way Miles Davis is considered the quintessential jazz artist because he explored almost every iteration of the genre over 50 years, Nelson has seen through every chapter of country music – first as a radio host and honky-tonk bandleader in the Forties and Fifties, then as a slick crooner in Sixties countrypolitan Nashville, then as the face of the outlaw country movement, something that happened after Nelson moved back home to Texas, grew his hair out and stopped caring about the charts. Nelson shook his career up once again by recording the first standards album, Stardust, against his label’s wishes. It went quintuple platinum.

None of this is on Nelson’s mind as he sits down to start recording, his cowboy hat resting on his guitar stand, a vape pen and his iPhone on the table next to him. After the room clears out, Nelson’s cursing can be heard in the control room. “Goddamnit,” he says, “I spilled my fucking coffee.”

Nelson’s pace is only surprising because just a few months ago he was questioning whether he would play in public again at all. In January, he walked offstage in California and canceled two months of dates, retreating to his place in Maui. Fans feared the worst. “I had the flu for, like, three weeks,” he says. “And that wasn’t no fun. I was a little uncertain about coming back and whether I could still do a show – it had been so long.”

The first show back was in St. Augustine, Florida on February 27th. The band didn’t know what to expect. “Willie came out of the gate just smoking,” says his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. “We were all a bit nervous coming back out after so much time off, but the first night felt like we had never stopped playing. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ye of little faith.’ He blew us all away and all we had to do was hold on.” Asked what was going through his mind, Nelson is less sentimental: “I was just trying to remember ‘Whiskey River,’” he says with a smile. “We did it then; we did three or four more good shows shows in a row, so I got my confidence back.”

The tour wrapped at the Luck Reunion, a mini-festival at Nelson’s home, a mock old-West town he had built for the 1986 movie the Red Headed Stranger After a day that included Kurt Vile and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nelson’s ’94 pickup could be seen snaking down his long dirt driveway, past fields of horses, pulling up next to the stage. Nelson strapped on Trigger and led an audience through singalongs like “Crazy,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” (I wondered if Nelson had any reservations about opening his home to 3,000 fans, and he laughed. “Nah, that’s cool,” he says. “It’s a good place to play because it’s close to the house.”) Nelson noted that a lot of young faces had probably never seen him play before. He also had fun because he was joined by his kids, Lukas and Micah. “There’s no better feeling,” he says, “than having kids working with you and doing a good job.”