Willie Nelson: The Vibes of Texas are Upon Us
Ask Willie Nelson, the guru of country music, about his brief career as a pig farmer, and the usually sublime Nelson explodes into embarrassed laughter. “You heard about that, did you?” he says when the laughter subsides. “Yes, I tried that. I really did. I lost a fortune on pigs. Had the fattest pigs in town — or the country, I should say. Paid 25 cents a pound for ’em, fattened ’em up for six months, and when I sold ’em, I got 17 cents a pound. Lost my ass and all its fixtures. But I later found out from the old-timers that you can’t just raise hogs one year and expect to make a killing and get out. You’ve got to stay with it.”
[Thanks so much to Phil Weisman, from Illinois, for sending me this magazine. I love magazines, especially from overseas. They are rare, and the interviews are always interesting. ]
The same rule applies to the music business, of course. But not long after his pig fiasco, some 10 years ago, Nelson sold his farm outside Nashville, where he’d gone in vain to establish himself as a singer as well as a songwriter, and returned to his native Texas. To some in Music city, it might have looked as if Nelson had given commercial stardom about as much chance as he did pig farming. But Nelson was committed to his own kind of music — simple but strong songs wrapped around his own soft baritone and acoustic guitar, rather than around the prevalent “Nashville sound” of layers of strings, singers — and syrup. instead of compromising his music, Nelson remembered the pig farming rule and decided to “stay with it,” although returning to Texas surely meant the end of his dream of national stardom.
But there, something extraordinary happened. By blending his own songs — “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Hello Walls,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” — with traditional Texas, Mexican, blues, rock and even the old pop and country standards, Willie Nelson bridged the gap not only between country and pop, but between cultures. His concerts attracted a curious mixture of hippies and rednecks, youngsters and oldsters, conservatives and liberals. And soon people everywhere were talking about a revival of Texas music, and about the birth of something they called the “Austin sound.” What they were taking about mostly was Willie Nelson.
And they are still talking, far after most careers have seen their peak. “I’ve thought about that. I’ve wondered, ‘Well, am I peaking yet?'” says Nelson, 46 years old and looking every dusty mile of it, stretched out on his bus before a show. “So far, I don’t think we have peaked,” he continues. “I think everything just seems to be getting a little bit better every day.”
Indeed. Willie the Youth Hero is about to become Willie the Movie Star. His debut film, The Electric Horseman, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, is due out in December. By the time it gets into the theaters, another movie, Sad Songs and Waltzes, which Nelson describes as “just an ol’ movie about a guy with a band on the road.” will have started production in Texas. Still another, The Songwriter, is due to get off the ground in 1980. And better yet, a film version of Nelson’s classic concept album, Red Headed Stranger, is now in the planning stages and Willie is holding out for Redford tn the title role. But if Nelson is happy about all that, he is most excited about the fact that Newsweek columnist Pete Axthelm is writing the story of his life, to be both a book and a movie.
How does acting compare to Nelson’s usual line of work? “It’s really easier,” he replies, setting his Adidas shod feet up on the cushion opposite him. “You’ve got more time to do what you have to do. The only thing about it is you never know how good you did until later. In fact, I still don’t know how good I did. Well, actually,’ he adds, looking sheepish, “I thought I was good.” The laughter rolls again. ‘”I mean, what I was doing wasn’t that hard, and there wasn’t really that much to do. They let you be yourself. In fact, they encourage it. The only thing about making movies is that they last from 10 to 12 weeks, and during that time, I don’t play as much music, of course, and I miss it. But when we start this next one, I’m planning on playing on weekends. I’m still trying to play 200 nights a year, and I’d go crazy not playing for three months.”
From the pace he sets when he’s not before the camera, some might say Nelson has already crossed that fine line. He has “four or five album projects going on in my head,” and several he’s working on now, including a collection of the songs of Kris Kristofferson. He’s thinking about a Christmas album, and a Son of Stardust LP, after his phenomenally successful album of pop standards. Early summer saw the release of his duet album with Leon Russell, with whom he toured for several months, and another album, with country giant George Jones, is ready to go. In between all that, he managed to play Las Vegas and put in an appearance at the White House, where he and Charley Pride presented President Carter — who shows up from time to time at Willie’s concerts, sporting a backstage pass — with a special award from the Country Music Association.
Today, about the only other place Nelson and Pride see each other is a at golf tournaments. But years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, the two met in far less genteel surroundings — and performed to far less receptive audiences. When Pride had but one country single on the market, Nelson took him on a package tour. The first stop out — in Louisiana — Pride was refused registration in the hotel. At the show that night, Nelson gave Pride a 10-minute build-up, telling the audience what a big star they were about to see. Then he brought him out on stage — and kissed him full on the mouth. “I think them folks were so hot to lynch old Willie for puttin’ em on that they clean forgot that Charlie was black,” Nelson’s drummer, Paul English, was to tell a reporter years later. But “by the end of the tour, Willie was using him to close the show. He made Charley a star before he’d even cut an album.”
Mention it to Nelson and the trademark orange beard breaks for a smile. “Yeah, it was a little bit scary back in those days,” he admits. “And I guess it was the first time that a black kid had ever crawled up in front of thousands of white people and started singin’ country songs. That took a lot of nerve on his part, too.”
Nelson knows a lot about nerve. Not too many years before, he was playing places so mean that the owners had to string chicken wire across the bandstand to keep the musicians safe from flying beer bottles. That, of course, was before Willie cultivated the legion of fans that were “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Willie” T-Shirts and turn out 80,000 strong at his picnics every Fourth of July.
A lot of people have wondered which came first with Nelson and the Austin sound. Was the town already a hotbed for a new breed of musicians, or did Willie’s success make it so?
“All the ingredients were there,” he answers. “I just happened to stumble onto an audience, really. I saw that there were a lot of young people that liked country music, and I started looking for the young crowds because I enjoyed that energy. So we started seeking each other out, I guess.”
“But back to your question — I don’t believe in the Austin myth. I don’t believe the Nashville myth or the New York myth. I think there are good musicians all over the world making music. If they stop in Nashville, they’re not going to sound any different than if they stop in Austin. Now, there might be some towns where good musicians gather more than they do in other towns. Austin is that place, for sure. There’s probably more good bands playing live music in Austin than in any other city in the country. The climate is good, the attitude of the people is good, and then it’s just a nice place to go.”
Contrary to what other’s say about a growing deterioration of the “let’s-get-together-and-pick-and-be-friends” feeling in Austin, Nelson says the town “hasn’t changed much over the years. there’s more people down there now. But it’ s like Nashville and every other place — it’s grown.”
Nashville has grown particularly in its tolerance of country/rock and pop in the last few years, and especially in its attitude toward Willie Nelson. Where Nelson was once branded an “outlaw” for his approach to music, his lifestyle and dress (no Nudie suits for him), Nashville now welcomes him with open arms.
Of course, record sales have a lot to do with it. Wanted: The Outlaws, the album Nelson cut in 1976 with his pals Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, was the first country album to “go platinum’ selling more than one million copies. Even Nashville is willing to let bygones be bygones in a situation like that. So much so that by the next CMA awards, Willie and Waylon were the toast of the town.
“That was a big evening,” Willie says, remembering. “I just enjoyed it.” that’s all? Just “enjoyed” it? Didn’t he really just revel in it? “Yeah,” he says, laughing again. “It was nice. It was real nice.” “They threw a big party for us. We played all night long, I think, at two or three different places.”
Suddenly, “outlaw” had new status. Everybody wanted to know ol Willie and ol’ Waylon, and be an outlaw, too, if he could. Of course, Nelson had had supporters in Nashville all along, among them Tom T. Hall, who wrote “Come on Back to Nashville” (Ode to the Outlaws)” for Nelson, Jennings and Roger Miller. The first time he ever heard of Willie Nelson, it was 1961, and Hall had just gotten out of the Army. “I was sitting one night listening to the juke box, and I heard Faron Young singing “Hello, Walls'” Hall remember. “I went over and watched the record turning around and around, and it said, “‘Willie nelson’ in little letters under the titles. I said, ‘There’s a new writer in Nashville, and boy, that sonofabitch can write songs.'”
Nelson laughs uproariously. “Well,” he says finally, “you know all songwriters are sonofabitches. You hear ’em say, ‘That sonofabitch can really write songs,’ or, ‘That sonofabitch can’t write.” He laughs again. “It’s kind of a brotherhood term, I think. At least I hope it is. I think everybody likes to be liked. I like people and there’s no reason for people not to like me, really. I don’t give ’em any reason. Try not to.”
And indeed, Nelson’s temperament has been described as “buddah-like.” He is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, saying, “I just can’t be around anything or anybody negative.” Nor will he tolerate hassles or rush to keep himself on schedule. All in all, he seems perpetually “laid back.” In interviews, he appears to be the consummate “nice guy,” refusing to say anything critical about various of his musical peers, and politely skirting the issue on combustible topics.
But there are also reports of a reverse, dark side of his personality, of a temper that has at least once caused him to rip a ringing telephone off the wall. Which is it then, Buddha or Brutus? “Well, those are contradictory reports, I’d say, ” Nelson says between chuckles. “Somebody’s lyin’, he adds, “Or else they’re both right.” But in serious moments, Nelson does contemplate his self-image. “That’s a hard thing to talk about,” he says. “It changes every second. really. Basically, I’m pleased with everything. I like myself O.K. I don’t think there’s anything I’d like to change.”
Except perhaps the constant infringement on his privacy. Last year or so, the ultra-viligent fans forced Nelson to move his wife Connie and their two young daughters off their Austin ranch and retreat to the relative quiet of Evergreen, Colorado. Before they left, they made a last-ditch effort to curtail the fanatics — some of whom come because they believe Nelson has magic powers of healing — by constructing a six-foot-high, three-foot-thick stone wall around the property. Lest the die-hards think Willie was just kidding, a electrified barbed wire fence was strung atop the solid steel gate, just as he had along the wall. For those who like it in words, he posted “No Hunting or Trespassing” and “No Admittance” signs between the barbed wire. And for those with a legitimate message, he put in a closed-circuit television system and a call button with instructions to “Press the button, but do not hold the button down.” From the pictures, it looked more like a military post than the dwelling of a good ol’ boy turned country superstar.
How does anyone hold on to any semblance of normal private life in such a situation? “Well, I don’t know,” he says, running a hand over his face. “Of course, I haven’t had one of those in years. I’ve about forgotten what a private life is. But the kids do it out of love, so I guess that makes it all right. I moved mainly for my wife and family’s benefit, because I wasn’t there that much anyway. I just got ’em out of the line of fire a little bit.”
Years ago, when nelson was paying his dues in honky-tonks, not even his most reckless dreams allowed for success on this grand scale, or at least certainly not the kind of success that reportedly brings him $40,000 a night. “That’s right,” he agrees, shaking his pig-tailed head. “I never thought about it seriously. Of course, I didn’t know what to expect, but there’s no way you could imagine this — ever.”
but if Nelson is a national phenomenon, he is nothing short of Legend in Texas. In years to come, they’ll probably erect a statue to him there. the thought of it embarrasses the ever-humble Nelson, who says would be a waste of time and money. But if they do, he adds, “Tell ’em I’m not in favor of it unless we can approve and design it. It’d require a lot of thought, but there’d have to be a guitar on it, and a girl, and, of course, a horse…”
But not a pig. “Oh, no,” he says, “No pig. But you know, I was raised in a small farming town. (Abbott, Texas, just north of Waco), so I farmed all my life, really, Usually for somebody else. But I raised for the FFA, and back in school, I used to raise one pig at a time, to show. I just never tried to raise as many before as I did in Nashville. Never will again, either.”
Perhaps Nelson just wasn’t cut out for farming. Asked if he remembers the moment when he realized he’d “made it” in music, he hesitates not a minute. “Yeah, he says, “I was 11 years old. I’d been making $2 a day chopping cotton, and I went out one night and made 48 playing music. From that day on, I had it made. that was the turning point. That was it. No more cotton chopping for me.”
“But I couldn’t begin to tell you what it is I do, except exchange energy with the audience,” he continues. “I don’t know why we draw the old ones and the young ones, too, except the people come to be part of a togetherness, to be part of an audience that’s made up of all kinds of people of all ages. And then some people come to hear one thing, and maybe some come to hear something else. I don’t think I could define my style, though. I’m not sure I’d even want to. Bob Dylan said one time that when you start defining something, you destroy it. That sounded real wise to me. Ol Bob’s pretty smart. I think I’ll use that one. Besides, ” he says, staning up as his band plays the first chords of the show, “I’m not gonna question it. I’m just gonna enjoy it.”