Archive for the ‘Magazines’ Category

Country Rhythms (September 1981) (UK)

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

[Thanks so much  to Phil Weisman for gifting me this great magazine from the UK.  The country music magazines always have the best photos.]

Country Rhythms
September 1981

It takes three buses and two trucks to move Willie Nelson and his band and crew around the country for the over 250 performances that Willie gives each year.  But for all it grueling aspects, life on the road never loses that sense of freedom and adventure so important to country musicians like Willie Nelson, who spent much of their early lives yearning to escape from backgrounds of poverty and rural isolation.

These photographs by Michael Abramson, courtesy of Columbia Records, tell the story of Willie’s magic caravan better than worlds could ever do.

Willie Nelson, Connie Nelson and daughters Amy and Paula



As unspoiled by his fantastic success as any one could possibly be, Willie Nelson is always available t his fans after a show.  Although he values his privacy, Willie knows how important it is to maintain personal contact with the people to whom he means so much.


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Trigger and Shakey Graves

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016


photo:  Gary Miller
by: Andy Langer

Screech. Scratch.

Screech. Scratch.

This is not the chorus Alejandro Rose-Garcia, a.k.a. Shakey Graves, expected to fill the room the first time he met Willie Nelson. And he never dreamed those sounds would come from carving his name into Trigger, Willie’s famously battered and autographed Martin N-20 classical guitar. But, indeed, earlier this month, at Willie’s recording studio in Pedernales, Willie handed Rose-Garcia to Trigger and told him, “Go ahead. Take that ballpoint and scratch your name in there.” And so he did.

“Obviously, I’m not worthy,” says Rose-Garcia, a born-and-raised Austinite who supported his critically acclaimed 2014 album, And The War Came, with an almost non-stop two-year run of high-profile festival gigs and sold-out headlining shows in mid-size clubs and theaters across the country. “I’m still trying to process it.”

Rose-Garcia met Willie October 3 as a guest host of Other Voices, an Irish television show often compared to Austin City Limits that recorded a series of episodes last week in Austin at Arlyn Studios and utilized a swath of acts playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival, including Mumford And Sons, Cage The Elephant, and Margo Price. The show’s session with Willie was the only one taped outside of Aryln.

Rose-Garcia says that for as many times as he’d seen pictures of Trigger, he’d never noticed the autographs until Willie handed him the guitar to inspect. But indeed, the signatures carved into the wood are a storied part of a storied guitar. Willie’s been collecting autographs on Trigger for the better part of four decades, ever since Leon Russell asked Willie to sign his guitar. Flattered Russell had asked him, Willie figured a swap was in order and had Russell sign Trigger at the same time. From there the collection grew. As Texas Monthly’s own Michael Hall wrote in a December 2012 profile of Willie’s guitar:

Some were famous musicians—Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson—and others were members of Willie’s band or crew: Paul English, Poodie, Budrock Prewitt, and Tune’n Tom, a.k.a. Tom Hawkins, who had become the guitar’s caretaker on the road, changing strings every three or four gigs and tuning it up. Some signed the guitar in Magic Marker or Sharpie, and their names were soon lost in the blood, sweat, and beers of the nightlife. Others scratched them in with a ballpoint pen but didn’t push deep enough, and their names too slowly faded. Soon Willie lost track of exactly who had signed his guitar.

“I know how it felt when Leon asked,” Willie said backstage last Thursday night at Austin City Limits’ Hall of Fame event. “So I try to pass that feeling along when I meet someone who I think would appreciate it. And Trigger knows I’m not going to hand him to nobody that’s gonna hurt him.”

John Selmen, Willie’s road manager, says prior to Rose-Garcia, the last time somebody signed Trigger was at a April 2013 celebration of Willie’s eightieth birthday. Just before taping CMT Crossroads: Willie Nelson & Friends From Third Man Records at Jack White’s record shop in Nashville, Willie asked both White and singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson to etch their names into the guitar. White’s signature is clearly visible at the very bottom of Trigger’s front side. Rose-Garcia’s now sits above and a few inches to the right—a place Willie chose for him.

Last week, we spoke to Rose-Garcia about the autograph he’d never dreamed of signing:

When did you know you’d be interviewing Willie?

I was in Los Angeles closing a round of shows with Gary Clark Jr. The Greek Theater was our last gig with Gary and my last night of touring for a while. I was supposed to go home after and get back to the drawing board. So it was kind of an emotional night, to end things at the Greek Theater playing with a dude I went to high school with in Austin [both Rose-Garcia and Clark went to Austin High School, a few grades apart]. Meanwhile my manager is there and says the Other Voices people hit us up and someone else was supposed to interview Willie Nelson but had some travel problems and got stuck in Europe. “Can you fly back early?” he asked. I said yes without hesitation.

So I land back in Austin at 1 p.m. the next day, and I’m supposed to start working for Other Voices at 2 p.m. I talked to the director and he said Willie is recording an album right now out at his home studio and we’re not even sure if he’ll talk to us. Nobody likes being busted in on when they’re recording. That’s sacred time. So there was a lot of doubt it would happen. But if it did, I figured I’d ask some questions about Ireland [where Other Voices is broadcast] and get out of there. I was down to fly by the seat of my pants.

Once you’re at Willie’s, he indeed agrees to stop the session and play some songs for the show?

Exactly. And it’s beautiful. Willie is just sitting there, smoking and playing music. His band are all in isolation booths. From our vantage point, the only person you can see in the room and hear is Willie- we’re only hearing his side of the songs. I’ve seen him play live only once—at Luck, on his property—and this time I’m in his space. And from ten feet away I watched him play “Always on My Mind.” It really shook me up. It was a really surreal experience. I love Willie. But I’m not a Willie Nelson historian. I have some albums I really love. But I’ve never gone down the well too far.

Is that because you grew up in Austin? Is it almost a rejection because it’s so expected that Willie would be the soundtrack of your life?

It’s not that at all. It’s that I don’t have to work too hard to listen to Willie Nelson. I feel like if you were from a different place and sought it out, you’d be more encyclopedic. But I have a good grasp on it. I love what he does and what he represents. But then he played “Always On My Mind” and my brain started turning. That song was written before I was born. And Willie’s version is from 1982. To me, it’s always just sort of existed. And it’s never been humanized in that way for me. And here, I’m watching him as an 83-year-old man working in a studio—something I also do for a living—sitting with headphones, a vape pen and a cup of coffee. And people are freaking out around him and he’s completely unphased by it. And here is this song I’ve heard so often in my life, but I’m really listening to it for the first time because he’s right here and I was only hearing his track. It freaked me out. I welled up. And while I’m still dealing with that, my mind and emotions reeling, they pull out a folding chair and put me in a seat next time him. I’ve never interviewed anyone in my life and didn’t know where to start.

He’s good with small talk. And jokes.

He was so easygoing. And so funny. We talked a little about Ireland. The show is taped in Dingle, and we laughed about it being where the berries come from. I think he might have sensed my nervousness, and he asked, “Do you pick?” I said, “Um. I do. A little bit?” With no hesitation he hands me Trigger. I genuinely didn’t feel the urge to touch it. At all. That’s his. But recently, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic guitar, the SRV1, on display at the Texas State History Museum. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t care about it. But it’s similar to Trigger in that people have carved their initials in it—it’s a gnarly guitar. A guitar like that at some point stops being a guitar and becomes an artifact. This is that person’s life in a guitar. SRV1 took my breath away. And Trigger was obviously the same thing. I thought to myself, I’m not going to play a song. I don’t even want to handle it. I played really tentatively. And he asked, “What did you say your name was?” I said, “I’m Alejandro. But I play music as Shakey Graves. It’s a little confusing. I played your Fourth of July picnic.” Maybe it rang a bell. Maybe it didn’t. Right about then, I flipped Trigger up and took a minute to look at it. I saw the signatures all over it. So I pointed it out and said,”This is crazy. It feels like a lover’s lane—like Jesse + Francine = Love Forever.” And without hesitation he asks, “Does anyone have a ball point pen.” The room got real quiet real quick.

What’s going on in your head?

Part of me is thinking, ‘please let this go down. Do I have anything in my pocket? Am I maybe carrying a knife?’ I kind of see where this going, but it’s also not really believable A gentleman in the back—a photographer—threw out a ball point pen, Willie caught it, and he turns to me and says, “Scratch your name on in.” And in my head, I’m saying ‘What? No.’ I hesitated and he said, “Find yourself a good spot.” And then he pointed out a piece of real estate. I tried to be ginger and he said, “No. Really get in there. Your really have to scratch at it.” So I drew this little signature I’ve been doing before I was really a musician—a skull with an arrow through it with heart on the end of the arrow. And drew a little S and a G by its side. I said, “You like making people nervous, don’t you?” He laughed.

And yet your name is on Trigger. Forever.

Right after it happened I felt like I was in a car accident—my ears kind of popped. I went outside and couldn’t really fathom what just happened. Freddy, Willie’s nephew and one of the reasons Other Voices was in Austin, told me that kind of thing simply does not happen. He said over and over, “Did you just sign Trigger?”

And you know that at some point Trigger is headed to the Smithsonian. With your name etched in it.

What’s beautiful about the whole things is how illustrative it is of Willie’s generous spirit. And in my own personal sense, I’d really love to have a reason that my name is on that guitar. It makes me want to write something or create something that’s as lasting and enduring as my signature on Trigger. I’d like to be more than a local scratch-mark. But even if I am, I’ve made it, baby. I’d be fine with that.


Willie Nelson — a Real Man and his Music (Scene Magazine) (August 10, 1975)

Thursday, October 13th, 2016


Willie Nelson — A Real Man and His Music
Dallas Morning News
Scene Magazine
August 10, 1975
by Bob St. John

“I live one day at a time.
I dream one dream at a time.
Yesterday’s gone; and tomorrow is blind
And I live one day at at time” — Willie Nelson

You could call it a crowd or an audience.  No matter, really, because the man and his fans are not bound by tags and labels and names that categorize them.  The drifters are there, the denim crowd (real and dyed), the dreamers, the rednecks, the intellectuals who do not have stiff rods for backbones, and the suburbanites who have escaped the backyard tempo of flip-top beers and philosophical martinis.

“Willie!” somebody says, and everybody is picking it up. “Hello, Willie!” And the man, Willie Nelson, smiles and shakes hands which reach for him, and chats briefly as he moves across the floor, between tables.  You see, Willie Nelson is touchable and touches.  He is real.  He has run the gauntlet of life’s deepest emotions and survived.  And his fans, in him, have survived.

Now he is on the stage, talking to members of his group, his band.  Blue lights, piercing, find him through the smoke-covered room with its beer smells, perfume — expensive and cheap.  Now he has his guitar, worn like it’s owner, and the people begin shouting, stomping and cheering.

And he begins.  “Well, it’s a Bloody Mary morning, baby left me without warning, sometime in the night.  So I’m flying down to Houston, with forgetting her the nature of my flight.   As we taxi towards the runway, with the smog and haze reminding me of how I feel.   Just a country boy who’s learning that the pitfalls of the city are extremely real.”

A man in jeans, a cowboy hat, gets up and walks toward the stage and Willie leans down and shakes hands.   A young girl runs up and Willie takes her hand, leans over and she kisses him on the cheek.   “All the night life and the parties, temptations decide the order of the day.  Well, it’s a Bloody Mary morning and I’m leaving baby somewhere in L.A…”

It is a loud, fast, foot-stomping song.  But soon he will do something slower, sad, ballad-like.  He will do them all.  This is the Willie Nelson experience.  On this night he went on at 10 and though the show is supposed to last a couple of hours, he sings and picks until almost 2 a.m.  Willie is like that.  He’s the only entertainer I’ve ever met who has been known to wear out audiences.


The people love it.  So does Willie.  Willie Nelson is not like so many top performers who give the impression they’re doing what they do as a favor to you, after you pay your money.   Many seem to be looking for the quickest, most painless exit from the stage as they look blankly at the same faces in another town, another place.  Willie Nelson enjoys himself.

Willie sings in a strong, clear baritone which can become very mellow and, at times, subtle.  He has a person-to-person style, and his voice strikes chords in you if you have been lonely, happy, deserted, sad or under the compulsion of wanderlust.  Some of his songs are fun, happy, some sad and haunting.  Often when I listen to his lyrics and music I find in them a correlation to a truly good novel.  You can read his song for a good story but, looking deeper, you find something more profound, allegorical.  In one recent album, “Phases and Stages,” he takes a poignant look at the breakup of a marriage, one side of the album being form the woman’s viewpoint and the other from the man’s.  Each is his own way goes through the stages of feeling hopeless and depressed, then becomes philosophical and, finally, rebounds.  There are many different type songs, different eats, in the album, but together they paint a complete picture.

For years Willie was a word-of-mouth legend.  Now, more than anybody, he is the catalyst of the current movement in music, a blending fo pop, country, rock, even some blues.  It has been called “progressive country,” though Willie doesn’t care for that particular designation.

“I hate music labels,” willie was saying as we sat on the sofa of his office in the Willie Nelson Music Co. in Austin.  “A label is just one man’s opinion and that doesn’t make it right.  That’s this…this is that  (he laughs).  Labels put a bind on something, corner it and keep it from branching out.”

Willie was dressed as he often is, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes with no socks.  His hair, shoulder length, was bothering him so he pulled off a piece of recording tape and tied it around his head, Indian style.  Everybody is completely loose in the Willie Nelson Music Co., which publishes some of his music, and there seems to be a great deal of confusion, though it all produces success.  I had the impression you might open a filing cabinet and find a potential hit song scribbled on a piece of paper, or maybe you’d find a piece of pizza.  The office and the people who work for and with Willie reflect him.

One of Willie’s daughters, Lana, works in his office.  When we walked in she jumped up and hugged his neck.   Paul English, behind a desk in another room, is Willie’s drummer and longtime friend.  After they greeted each other warmly, Paul began explaining a life insurance policy to Willie, who was putting on a tape of his new album, “The Red Headed Stranger.”  Between phones ringing, conversations going on from all directions, I caught parts of the album.  I heard enough of it to know he was doing something a little different.

University of Texas athletic director-coach Darrell Royal knows more about country-and-western music than anybody I know.  Friends in the field say he’s a self-made expert.  “Willie stays ahead,” says Royal, a close friend of Willie.  “In recent years people are getting into what they’re calling progressive country.  Willie was doing that 10 years ago.  By the time people get into what he’s doing, he’s already gone on to something else.  Willie stays a few years ahead of everybody.”

An extremely tall blond young lady with sharp features, a long, somewhat bent nose, was sitting in a corner of Willie’s office, which I learned is also an undesignated lounge area.  She was staring at the wall.  Near her a short, portly man was staring at the floor.  While Willie talked over the telephone to his lawyer in new York I went toward them, looked at the woman, who was pretty but deadpan, and said, “Hello, how are you?”  She looked right thorough me, then stared at the wall again.

When Willie got off the phone, the man got up and started telling Willie his problems, about his ex-wife and children.  Willie listened sympathetically.  I went into another room and Gene McCoslin, who used to manage KNOK radio station in Dallas and now works for Willie, told me the pair were entertainers.  Willie had brought them from Las Vegas and put them on stage in Houston, using his band behind them.  They had flopped and indicated to the band they felt the crowd might not like them.  “Hell,” said English later, “I wasn’t worried about whether they liked them or not.  I was worried about getting killed by irate fans.”

“I still think they are good,” said Willie.  “The timing just wasn’t right.”  Jody Payne, his guitarist, came in and greeted Willie like a long, lost friend.  Later Willie was talking about his group — English, Payne, bass player Bea Spears, Mickey Raphael on the harmonica and Willie’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, on the piano.  “The thing we have going for us is that we like each other,” said Willie.  “We sincerely like each other.”

Word was out.  Willie was in town, at his office.  The place became Austin terminal.  Willie left the door open.

I watched him.  His face is worn, somewhat craggy and surrounded by brownish-red hair and a beard, salted with white.  Lines around his brown eyes show that he has both cried and laughed a lot.  If possible, his face seems both younger and older than his 42 years.

“I really do believe you have to suffer and feel things deeply to write about them,” he was saying.  “I’ve got a lot to write about because, well, a lot has happened to me.  Some of the best stuff I’ve written came easiest.  Usually, the harder I work on something the less I’m pleased.  There are no really new ideas.  Anything original is something you do different, maybe saying the same thing in a different way.”

Short years ago Willie Nelson wasn’t as big an entertainer and didn’t seem to get much credit as a writer.  Continually, I find people surprised to learn that Willie wrote this or that old standby.  His song “Funny How Time Slips Away” was recorded by 80 artists, including Bing Crosby.  He has written other classics in the industry such as “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “One Day at a Time,” “Night Life,” “The Party’s Over,” “My Own Peculiar way” and “I’ll Walk Alone.”  “Bloody Mary Morning” is one of his recent songs which seems most likely to become a standard.

His songs have been recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Frank Sinatra, perry Como, Aretha Franklin, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lawrence Welk, Stevie Wonder, Ray Price, Harry James, Patsy Cline, Al Green and Eydie Gorme.  The music is adaptable to many styles, many versions, but the definitive recordings of Willie’s song are done by Willie, who understands them best.


“I like all kinds of people, all kinds of crowds,” he continued when I go thim away from all the people.  “I like to see them all laid back and listening to our music.  I do try to be touchable.  A lot of guys hire bodyguards.  This was especially true during the era of the big stars.  But it’s bull.  Nobody needs them. People who come to see and hear you aren’t going to hurt you.  They’re your friends.”

“You know, I don’t think there’s much difference in people.  They’re the same, though maybe in different wrappings.”


I told him something he already knew, that his cult, his followers, come from all groups.  “I think some of the young people listen and enjoy our kind of music and so do dads and mammas,” he added.  “I hope maybe we can help them find out their parents aren’t so bad and help the parents find out all the kids aren’t Charels Mansons.  (He paused, looked out the back door of his office, which was open.)  Kids are a heckuva lot smarter than we were.  I think they were just born with more sense.”

His wife, Connie, phoned and he talked softly to her.  Willie has three kids — Lana, Billy and Susie — by a previous marriage.  He and Connie, a pretty blond, have been marrried for some five years and have two small children,  Paula and Amy.  “One time we were playing at a place called Cut and Shoot, Texas,” said Willie.  “Connie was a fan.  She and a girl friend came to see us play.  She sat at the band table and I saw her and said, ‘I want her.’  One of the guys went over and got her.  She’s a beautiful woman.”

“Willie and Connie had just gotten back from Hawaii.  “We were just sitting around the house,” explained Willie, “and she asked when we might go to Hawaii.  I said, ‘How about tomorrow?’  We went for a week to get into the sun.  We got burned the first day and it rained the next four.  Rain didn’t matter.  We were too sunburned to get out anyway.  No, I don’t like to plan things.  Most plans don’t work out.  I just like to get up and do things.”

The Nelsons did live on a 44-acre ranch outside Austin.  But, even for Willie, the curious got to be too much.  When they found out where he lived they continually came out — friends, strangers, everybody.  “Some,” he said, “would come by and stay for two days.  So we made another snap decision, to sell the house and move into the city.”

We drove to his new house, on a quiet, residential street lined with trees.  Odd, I though, how you can live in the country and be surrounded and yet find more privacy in the city, crowded with people.  I told him it was a nice house.  “I think I might just stay a couple of days,” I added, and he laughed.

It goes against his grain for Willie to be the superstar that he is becoming.  He had tremendous reviews after playing at the Trouboudour in Los Angeles.  On learning Willie was in town, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney attended his performance there.  After hearing Willie in New York, critic Loraine Alterman wrote in the New York Times he did “country music that can move even those of us who think we despise it.”

“I don’t want to be a superstar because I don’t like the way they have to live,” said Willie.  “I wouldn’t want to be like, say, an Elvis Presley.  Besides, I’m basically lazy.  I just need enough money to get by, to exist.  I don’t like tours.  You have to be gone too long.  Now we have it down to where we work five, six days a month.  And we like it around here — Austin, Dallas, Houston, places close.  No, I don’t worry about exposure.  Hell, I’m overexposed now.

“People who work all the time, they get to where you dread the next day coming, dread being there.  When I entertain I enjoy it.  I enjoy people and don’t want to work so much that I get caught up in it and forget that.  I also want to live a life, be myself, not somebody else.  I like freedom.”

Once Willie was playing in this place and a big fight started.  People and chairs were crashing everywhere but Willie just kept on playing.  Willie’s cool.  “I tell you how cool he is,” said English.  “We used to travel around in this old bus.  One day we were moving on down this freeway and Willie and some of the guys were playing card in the back.  Suddenly, the universal joint fell out and cut the brake lining.  The driver yelled back he couldn’t stop the bus.  Everybody was in apanic.   ‘What we going to do, Willie’ somebody asked.  Willie never looked up.  ‘Deal,’ he said.”

At Willie’s office that day, a number of things were going on at once, but the big plans were for his annual Fourth of July picnic.  This generally referred to as the “Woodstock” of country music.   It’s an all-day singing and picking session in which some of the top names in the industry visit their friend Willie Nelson.  Two years ago in Dripping Springs they stopped counting the people at 50,000.  Last year in College Station it drew near 100,000, and this year estimates of the number who attended ran as high as 95,000.

For his latest picnic Willie had rented a 500-acre site 30 miles northwest of Austin near the hamlet of Liberty Hill.  He hopes to keep the picnic there.   It ahs plenty of parking room, trees for shade and it’s bisected by the San Gabriel River.  Willie drove a group of us out to the site and, as we were heading toward the soft, rollling hills, Willie was saiyng, “I like all kinds of music.  Just all kinds.  I also play a little golf, and I guess my other pastime is thinking.  I think a lot.”

I remembered a story Royal told about once when they were playing golf in Brownville.  Willie was in the trees and couldn’t get a cart near where his ball had stopped.  He yelled at Royal, on the fairway, to toss him a two-iron.  Royal slung the club.  Willie lost sight of it as it came down through the trees.  It hit him right on the head.  “Willie, you okay”? yelled Royal.  Willie’s voice came out from the trees.  “I don’t know yet.  I might be dead.”

Our drive through the countryside was pleasant.  Bluebonnets carpeted both sides of the raod and we passed through a small town which seemed, as do many small towns in texas, to have stopped in a time long passed.  Willie was raised in such a town, Abbott, which is just off Interstate 35 some 30 miles north of Waco.  I had visited there earlier.

Farm road 1242 cuts under the main highway and runs through what is downtown Abbott, a small, bunched group of buildings, many boarded up and closed.  Chruches seem to be on every corner.  They are far from boarded up.  “See that spot over there,” said Jimmy Bruce, a parttime clerk in the post office.  “Willie used to live in a hosue right over there.  I was a neighbor.  Yeah, he was a pretty good kid.  He comes back here sometimes and plays benefits.

“When he was here the Hill County sheriff came out and gave them a little trouble.  They were afraid he might attract the wrong kind of crowd.  Some folks around here talk about Willie, but I liked him.  Yes sir, I did.”

Willie was raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced.  The old folks were very religious, the firs and brimstone kind.  His grandfatehr, a blacksmith, died when Willie was six, leavin ghim in the care of his grandmoter, a music teacher.  “Times were hard during the Depression, but we grew our own food and had a cow for milk,” Willie once told me.

Back then, summer nights were still, lazy, with outdoor smells and sounds of crickets and sometimes frogs.  Willie would rest on his bed near a window and listen to revivals and church services at the tabernacle nearby.  “I also did a lot of listening on the radio,” he said.  “I’d catch the Grand Ol’ Opry and the rhythm and blues program from New Orleans.  My granddad had taught me a few chords on the guitar before he died.  So I bought me a $6 guitar and a chord book.  I taught myself to play by putting my fingers on those black dots in the book.  My sister Bobbie was the real musician.  My grandmother gave her piano lessons and I can remember them practicing beside a kerosene lamp.

“The first time I performed in public I was about five.  My grandmother dressed me up in a sailor suit and took me to one of those all-day picnics.  You know, singing and eating and praying, and praying some more.  So I got up to recite this poem.  My nose started bleeding.  There I was reading the poem and holding one side of my nose with my hand.  I think everyone was glad when I sat down.  I know I was.”

Willie and Bobbie would entertain at school.  When he was 12 he joined his first band, a Bohemian polkia band, which was formed by his brother-in-law, Bud Fletcher.  Willie played the guitar and sange, Bobbie was on the piano, the high school football coach played the trombone and Willie’s father, a musician who’d come back into town during is travels, the fiddle.  “Bobbie was the only one who was any good,” said Willie.  “We never played the same place twice.  We usually played on a percentage and I remember one night we cleared 81 cents each.”

But Willie had begun to jog down lyrics on scraps of paper, and he also was entertaining at a nearby beer drinking establishment, the Night Owl, managed by a big, robust woman named Margie Lundy.  The original Night Owl burned a few years ago.  The new place, on the same site, is smaller.  Margie has been handling it all ehrself, since her husband died a few years ago.  “Yessiree, I kept it going, though it’s not easy,” she was saying.

Traffic in the Willie Nelson Music Co. was winding down.  The blonde entertainer was gone.  As I left I kept thinking:  Willie is there, among people, touchable.  He is somebody, yet has control because inside he is not trying to play a part, to be anybody but himself.  He is one of us.  And Willie is… well, Willie is Willie.

Willie Nelson: It’s a Long Story, My Life

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

by: K. Shapiro

Marijuana is obviously having its most major moment. And with it comes an entirely new culture — one where it’s more acceptable than ever to wear weed on your sleeve. Here at The Cannabist, we are setting out to shine a light on those who define the style of cannabis culture — past or present, real or fictional. We’re looking to those who embody the spirit of what marijuana means, through art, music, fashion and film.

It is our honor to start this series on weed icons with the original outlaw, Willie Hugh Nelson (b. April 29, 1933; Abbot, Texas). In a recent Rolling Stone profile, Patrick Doyle dubbed him “one of America’s greatest songwriters, a hero from Texas to San Francisco, a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” We will also add that he’s a stoner’s stoner.

Willie Nelson’s new memoir goes on sale Tuesday, May 5.

In the book, Nelson also reflects on finding inspiration in the counterculture of the 1960s — the time when he first experienced and soon adopted the hippie lifestyle.

“I liked that (the kids) had courage to look and act any damn way they pleased,” he writes. “The new world represented by the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane was new only in appearance. (It) appealed to me because it was bold and creative and said to the world, ‘To hell with what you think. I’ll dress any way I please.’”

And he always has. Nelson’s signature style is anti-establishment, anti-fashion even. A black hat, bolo tie, cowboy boots (now New Balance), T-shirt and a bandana headband are all a part of Nelson’s enduring look. Oh, and the braids. Hell, they fetched $37,000 at auction in 2014. When classic cowboy is matched with rockstar authenticity — it’s inimitable. He doesn’t try, and he doesn’t have to. He’s just that fucking cool.

High fashion too, looks good on Nelson. Designer John Varvatos, who has a deep connection to music, celebrated Nelson’s style in his fall/winter 2013 advertising campaign featuring the star alongside his sons Lukas and Micah.

Watch Willie Nelson and family perform:

Soon you can channel the style of the inhaling icon. Plans are in the works to open“Willie’s Reserve” stores in 2016, which will carry his own strains of marijauna as well as like-minded products “reflective of his passion” in each recreationally legal state.

Guess Who?

Thursday, October 6th, 2016


May 22, 2006

This photograph of a tantalizingly familiar face will be forever on your mind!  The picture of this redheaded stranger was snapped in the late ’50’s, just as he started to head out on the road.  Still stumped?  Turn to page 44.

Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson

Friday, September 30th, 2016

(Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

by Michael Corcoran

She had done whatever it took to raise three sons alone after their father died in an automobile accident in 1961. She demonstrated organs for Hammond, taught at J.R. Reed Music on Congress Avenue and at night played elegant solo piano at local lounges and restaurants.

But what Bobbie Nelson really hungered for, especially after her boys had grown up and moved out by the early 1970s, was to play again with her brother Willie. The pair had forged an undeniable musical bond since she was 6 and Willie was 4 and their grandparents showed them the chords to “The Great Speckled Bird.”

Then one day in early 1973, Bobbie got a call from Willie, summoning her to New York to play piano on his gospel album “The Troublemaker.” Willie had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records that gave him the creative control, including choice of session players, that had been denied him in Nashville.

So at age 42, empty-nester Bobbie Nelson took her very first airplane flight and embarked on a glorious musical journey that is still en route. Willie and “Sister Bobbie,” as she’s known in the extended Nelson family, have been musical partners for an incredible 70 years.

“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson said last week from the tour bus he shares with his sister. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there.”

While Brother Willie has become a major music icon, as instantly recognizable as anyone on the planet, Sister Bobbie has happily remained in the shadow, except for the one spotlight turn — usually “Down Yonder” from “Red-Headed Stranger” — she gets at each Willie Nelson and the Family concert. “I’ve always been very shy,” said Bobbie. “I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d always tell him, ‘you sing, Willie, and I’ll play the piano.’ ”

This week, 76-year-old Bobbie stepped out of the background with her first solo album, “Audiobiography,” titled so because it’s the story of her life through the songs she’s played. “I’ve always expressed myself best through music,” she said recently at the Pedernales recording studio owned by her son Freddy Fletcher. “I remember when I got my first piano. I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again.’ ”

Not that there weren’t painfully trying times in the devout Christian’s life. She lost two of her three sons, Michael to leukemia and Randy in a car crash, in a six-month period in 1989. “Me and my three boys grew up together, and we had so much fun … and then to lose two of your three babies, well, it’s something you never get over,” Bobbie said. “It taught me to never take life for granted.” Another reminder came in March, when Bobbie underwent heart surgery to insert a pacemaker.

“I’ve never been so happy as this past April 15,” Bobbie said with a smile as radiant as Willie’s. “That’s when I flew to L.A. and joined up with the band. It’s just the most wonderful therapy in the world to play with Willie.” She said that sometimes when she’s away from Willie for more than a couple weeks, she gets a cold and feels worn down.

“Audiobiography” contains 10 piano instrumentals, bookended by a pair of Willie Nelson originals. It’s just Willie and Bobbie on those two new tunes, just like on their tour bus, where Bobbie slides a keyboard from the bottom of an adjoining bunk and Willie pulls out a guitar whenever inspiration hits. Even after two and a half hours on stage, the brother and sister — whose ages add to 150 — will often play gospel standards or work out new songs on the Honeysuckle Rose IV bus as it hurtles through the deep darkness between gigs.

It will also be just Willie and Bobbie on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” Tuesday and “The Tonight Show” Wednesday, as the younger brother has pledged to promote his sister’s album however he can. “It’s long overdue,” Willie said. “Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”

Bobbie Lee, born on the first day of 1931, and Willie Hugh, born April 30, 1933, were children of the Depression. Their biological parents were a pair of married teenagers who had recently moved from Arkansas to Abbott, a farming community about 70 miles south of Dallas. But Bobbie and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents, whom they called Mama and Daddy.

“Daddy Nelson was the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” Bobbie said. “He had the most gorgeous tenor voice.” A proficient player of stringed instruments, Daddy Nelson taught Willie how to play guitar, while Mama Nelson, who lived to be in her 90s, showed Bobbie how to play piano. “It was just so amazing to us that I could play one part and Willie could play another and together we had a song. We’d look at each other and our eyes would light up.”

After Daddy Nelson died when Willie was 7 and Bobbie was 9, the brother and sister took to tunes, both spiritual and secular, to soothe their sorrow. “Playing music made us realize that there was something bigger out there, something more than human life,” she said.

They played together for hours every day, and on Sundays they played and sang at the Abbott Methodist Church (which Willie bought in July 2006 when he heard prospective buyers had planned to move it to another town). Bobbie, who could read music at age 6, also played at other churches in the area. When she was 16, she met 21-year-old ex-GI Bud Fletcher at a revival at Vaughn Methodist Church, near Hillsboro. The couple married a few months later, while Bobbie was a senior at Abbott High. “I’d kiss my husband goodbye every morning then get on the school bus,” she recalled.

Seeing so much talent in his new bride and the brother she called “Hughtie,” Fletcher organized a western swing dance band around them — Bud Fletcher and the Texans. A non-musician in the beginning, Fletcher took on the role of emcee, adding a Bob Willsian “Ah-HA” to hot solos, introducing band members and pumping up the crowd. He eventually learned to play bass fiddle and then the drums.

“Bud was one of those outgoing guys who could talk to anyone,” Bobbie said. “And he was a fabulous dancer.”

Bobbie became pregnant with Randy when she was 19; by age 23 she had three sons and was still playing in her husband’s band. But too many nights in a roadhouse were wearing Fletcher down. “Bud was a great person and we loved each other very much, but he was having a rough time,” she said. “That’s why, to this day, I hate alcohol. I’m so glad Willie doesn’t drink anymore.”

The young parents of three small boys also had very little money. In 1955, Bud’s parents went to court to get custody of Randy, Michael and Freddy and won. “Bud’s father was the road commissioner of Hill County and had a lot of influence,” Bobbie said. “They tried to portray me as unfit because I played honky tonk piano. It just broke my heart.”

Bobbie said she had a nervous breakdown after losing her children.

“The Fletchers hated the Nelsons,” said Freddy Fletcher. “They looked down on musicians and blamed my mother for getting my father involved, when in reality it was his idea to start a band.”

After she gave up the nightlife, took bookkeeping courses and got a job with the Hammond organ company in Fort Worth, Bobbie got her sons back after a year with their grandparents. She later divorced Fletcher and remarried, but that union ended in divorce after a few years, as did her third and final marriage in the late 1960s.

While Bobbie’s life revolved around her three sons, Willie had hit the jackpot as a Nashville songwriter. In 1961, three of his compositions were big country hits: “Hello Walls” by Faron Young, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Billy Walker.

“I was just so proud of him,” Bobbie said. “People got tired of hearing me say ‘my brother Willie wrote that one’ whenever one of his songs came on the radio.”

It was Bobbie, not Willie, who moved to Austin first. She came down from Fort Worth in 1965 to demonstrate a Hammond organ for the El Chico restaurant set to open at the spanking new Hancock Center. Impressed by her interpretations of such standards as “Stardust” and “Laura,” as well as her boogie-woogie and swing numbers, the owners offered Bobbie a job playing nightly. She later opened the Chariot Inn in North Austin and played regularly at the Lakeway Inn.

“When Willie called me (in 1973) to come to New York, I was ready,” Bobbie said. “I was always playing the piano, using music to survive, so I never got rusty.”

Although Willie and producer Arif Mardin had blocked out five days at Atlantic studio, Bobbie would be needed only the first day, when “The Troublemaker” was knocked out in ten hours. The next day, Willie was back with his band to record what would become “Shotgun Willie.” Bobbie had planned to do some shopping and then head home to Austin. “They must’ve missed me,” Bobbie said, “because when I stopped by the studio the next day, Willie asked me to stick around and play the piano some more.” Sister Bobbie has been with the Family ever since.

Willie said there’s an instinctive connection between him and his sister that he doesn’t feel with any other musician. “She knows what I’m going to do even before I do sometimes,” he said with a laugh.

In 1976, Willie bought Bobbie an $85,000 Bosendorfer grand piano like the one she played on “Red Headed Stranger.” But when IRS agents seized Willie’s property in 1990 to help satisfy a $16.7 million tax lien, Bobbie’s piano was among the Pedernales studio contents auctioned off.

Friends of the Nelsons bought the Bosendorfer and gave it back to Bobbie. It’s the piano she plays so exquisitely on “Audiobiography” and all of Willie’s records.

The brother and sister have never had an argument, Bobbie said, even after she was awakened by police in Louisiana in September 2006 and charged, with Willie and three others, with possession of a pound and a half of marijuana and three ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. The prim and proper churchgoer has never used drugs, but since they were found on the bus she was traveling in, Bobbie was cited with the others. “All I knew was that if Willie was going to jail, they’d have to take me to jail, too,” she said. But Willie and company were issued only misdemeanor citations and sent on their way.

In the mid-70s, when “Red Headed Stranger” hit and the parties and groupies got crazy, Bobbie didn’t ride with Willie and the band but flew to gigs and stayed in hotels. But she’s traveled with Willie since 1983 and has learned to tolerate the ever-present illegal perfume.

“I think he smokes (marijuana) too much,” Bobbie said, “but that’s just because I’m worried about his health.” Willie said his sister’s physical well-being is also foremost in his mind. “We were all very concerned (in March), but she has great doctors and they caught the problem early,” he said.

If any two people deserve to live forever, they are Bobbie and Willie Nelson, who have filled the air with beautiful music and helped whomever they could. But one day, one of them will have to go on without the other, a prospect neither Willie nor Bobbie wants to face.

“Every day is so precious,” Bobbie said. “Every time I play with Willie is a gift. We are just so blessed to be still doing what we’re doing after all these years.”

In a small Texas town in the 1930s, a 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother learned the power and magic of making music together. And they’ve been doing it ever since.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmie

Saturday, September 24th, 2016

June 2015
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.”


Thirty One Years of Farm Aid

Saturday, September 17th, 2016
by: Ordan Runtagh

When John Mellencamp took the stage at the first Farm Aid on Sept. 22, 1985, he had no idea that it would become an annual event. Neither did his fellow founding members, Willie Nelson and Neil Young.

Instead, it was to follow in the mold of Live Aid, the colossal one-off charity concert beamed across the globe just a few months before. Where Live Aid had raised awareness and funds to combat the Ethiopian famine crisis, its rural descendant sought to support family farmers who couldn’t compete with massive corporations and subsequently faced bankruptcy.

“We thought we’d do this concert, idealistically believing that it was the right thing to do, and laws would be passed protecting people,” Mellencamp, 64, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We thought that one concert would do it. But then we found out very rapidly that we were entering into an arena that was much more complicated and filled with more political and economical factors than we could have imagined.”

It was Nelson, the irrepressible Texas outlaw and country music icon, who originally conceived of the endeavor. He had been watching Live Aid on his tour bus television when Bob Dylan took the stage. “I hope that some of the money … maybe they can just take a little bit of it, one or two million, maybe – and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks,” Dylan mused to the crowd.

The statement enraged festival organizers, but to Nelson it sounded like a good point. If Live Aid wouldn’t confront the problems happening on American soil, Nelson resolved to create his own concert. He began reaching out to his network of musician friends for help.

While Nelson has vowed to keep the festival going as long as they’re needed, Mellencamp sees the message of Farm Aid catching on with a new generation of consumers.

“There’s a certain percentage of millennials who understand agriculture,” he says. “I see these little farms popping up all over the country. They sell their local agriculture to the families living there. I’m talking about little farms, just several acres. So there are some millennials who are very in touch with agriculture.”

At a time when the fate of our nation – and our planet – looks uncertain, these future problem solvers fill Mellencamp with hope. “I have two sons who are 21 and 22, and I talk to them about things. And they just say, ‘We’ll figure it out.'”

Farm Aid continues on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia. In addition to Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Matthews, performers include Alabama Shakes , Sturgill Simpson and Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real.  For information on how to donate or volunteer with Farm Aid and the Good Food Movement, visit here.

It was during this time that Mellencamp was recording his seminal album, Scarecrow, which perfectly articulated with Nelson’s new cause. With “Small Town” he celebrated – and proudly aligned himself with – rural communities, while “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin'” kept the street-marching spirit of ’60s activism alive. On “Rain on the Scarecrow,” the record’s emotional centerpiece, Mellencamp addressed the farming crisis directly. “The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans,” he sang. “Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed.”

All told, the album was the perfect soundtrack for the changing face of America in the mid ’80s. And it also brought him to Nelson’s attention.

“Willie was playing golf in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where I live,” Mellencamp remembers. “My friend was playing with him and he mentioned casually that he was thinking about doing this concert after what Bob had said at Live Aid. My friend said, ‘Well, John Mellencamp has made a record about this exact topic.’ I think that sparked Willie’s interest, because there was somebody else already ahead of the curve dealing with the farm crisis.”

With Mellencamp and Young signed on as co-founding organizers, the festival came together at lightening speed.

“I think my first conversation with Willie lasted maybe 10 minutes. It was really just two guys saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this, let’s do that.’ ‘Oh yeah, that’s good, that’s good! I’ll help with this, you help with that.’ It was very practical, hands on, grass roots. I’m not quite sure Willie or Neil or I really had any indication of what we were getting into. I think we were naïve about what farming and agriculture meant in world politics.”

The first Farm Aid took place in Champaign, Illinois and featured performers including Billy Joel, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and – naturally – Bob Dylan. A crowd of 80,000 people helped raise $9 million dollars, and there were other victories. The concert sparked major conversations about the state of family farming in the United States, and ultimately led to Congress passing a $4 billion financial assistance package known as the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987.

Despite these triumphs, Nelson, Mellencamp and Young knew it was not enough. Local family farms were still subject to government price regulations that favored the major corporations. Unable to afford expensive lobbyists, the men and women who fed America were left without a voice to defend themselves.

So Farm Aid pressed on, advocating on their behalf. The concerts continued, reaching more and more people annually. Years soon turned to decades. In 2001, long-time ally Dave Matthews signed on as the fourth official member of the Farm Aid Board of Directors. To date, the organization has generated more than $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm-centered system of agriculture. What’s more, it’s gone a long way in helping normalize Community Support Agriculture (CSAs), Farm-to-Table, and organic food movements.

To Mellencamp, it all moves forward thanks to the sheer force of Nelson’s big-hearted will. “I’m proud of Willie for keeping the troops organized and keeping things going. Willie really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for this, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know how you can really argue. It’s the longest running charity of its kind in the world.”

Farm Aid Grows: How John Mellencamp Is Continuing the 31-Year Crusade for Family Farmers| Farm Aid, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young (Musician), Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson and Shania Twain, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”

Monday, September 12th, 2016
by:  Stephen Betts

In 2003, American icon Willie Nelson was the centerpiece of an all-star 70th birthday tribute with performances from Kenny Chesney, Shelby Lynne, Steven Tyler, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Leon Russell, Paul Simon, Wyclef Jean and more. Captured for a CD/DVD set called Live & Kickin’: Willie Nelson and Friends, the event was taped at New York’s Beacon Theatre and features some of Nelson’s most legendary compositions, including “Crazy” and “Night Life,” along with songs by other writers.

One tune heard during the USA Network special, falling into the latter category, was “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a song penned by songwriter-publisher Fred Rose in the Forties and previously performed by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Three decades later, the mournful ballad would become a signature tune for Nelson when he recorded it for his 1975 concept LP,Red Headed Stranger.

Introduced by Nelson’s longtime friend (and fellow songwriting legend) Kris Kristofferson, one of the most affecting performances of the special was country-pop superstar Shania Twain’s rendition of “Blue Eyes,” which the casually attired Canadian – in jeans, a cap and Willie T-shirt – performed while seated next to Nelson, who was standing and playing Trigger, his trusty vintage guitar. In addition to his distinctive jazz-inspired picking, Nelson adds harmony vocals to Twain’s reverent and expressive performance of the song, which became his first Number One country hit as an artist in October 1975.

Twain, who will celebrate her 51st birthday on August 28th, was riding high on the country and pop charts at the time this special was recorded. Up!, her fourth studio LP and third consecutive album to sell more than 10 million copies, was her first to be released in three separate versions for the pop, country and world-music markets. As a bonus during the TV taping, Twain and Nelson teamed for an exuberant performance of one of the singles from Up!, “Forever and for Always,” which (minus Nelson’s contributions) would go on to become a huge crossover hit in the U.S., and a Top Ten single in Twain’s native land, the U.K., Austria, Germany, Ireland and Romania.

Read article here.  

Willie Nelson

Sunday, September 11th, 2016


[Thanks to Phil Weisman for sending me this article.   Name of magazine or date not included, but it’s from the ’80’s, according to the references.]

by Rick Bolsom

Like a very small handful of artists, Willie Nelson has become a virtual weather vane of musical force.  He communicates to his huge and diverse following a distillation of the many musical forms that have shaped him over the years of turmoil and hard work, and now success and hard work.

Once considered a Nashville renegade for wanting to have more than a passing input into his music, Willie fled to Texas in the early ’70’s leaving behind a wealth of songs, an abundance of recordings, and a legion of stories — some true.

In Nashville, acceptance as a songwriter came rather quickly for Willie.  Hank Cochran, a celebrated and respected writer, happened to hear him singing one night in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the famed watering hole that backed up to the Opry  (when it was at the Ryman Auditorium) and a hangout then for writers and artists of the era.  Cochran was impressed enough to sign Nelson with Pamper Music, a publishing company that Cochran wrote for and helped to run.

Recording artists Ray Price was part owner of Pamper and soon hired Willie as a bass player in his road band.  Price also adopted Willie’s “Night Life” as his theme song and became one of Nashville’s first artists to have a major hit with an original Nelson composition.  In 1961, the late Patsy Cline, a leading country artist of the time, had a huge hit with “Crazy” (most recently a hit for Linda Ronstadt).  Faron Young also had an eventual million seller with “Hello Walls.”  In 1961, Willie wrote the classic, “Funny How Time Slips Away” which has been recorded almost 100 times.

Nelson estimates that he’s written more than 800 songs over the course of his career.  A few of the other artists who have recorded his songs are Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Kris Kristofferson, Frank Sinatra, Leon Russell, Ray Charles, Lawrence Welk, Roy Orbison, Doris Day, Andy Williams, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Bing Crosby, Eydie Gome, and Little Anthony and the Imperials, among many.  A list that any songwriter would envy for its diversity as well as great depth.

Willie is accepted by his song-writing peers as one of the world’s most gifted writers.  Chet Atkins refers to him simply as “one of the greatest.”  Tom T. Hall,  a celebrated songwriter in his own right, calls Nelson, “the Shakespeare of country music.”  In 1973, Willie was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Association Hall of Fame.

Nelson does recall and admit that when he had his first taste of song-writing success in the early 1960’s and the money began rolling in for the first time, it was actually somewhat disorienting and somehow seemed to agrevate the emotional conflicts he was facing in his personal life.  “It wasn’t worth anything because of what I was going through emotionally,” he recalled in an interview.  “I started throwing it away with both hands.”

On the strength of his songwriting talents, Willie was able to pursue his ambitions as an artist by landing  a recording contract of his own.  He recorded several albums with Liberty Records and a few years later moved on to RCA. In 1962, he had a Top 10 record with “Touch Me.”   In 1975 ‘blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” became a number one record.

Willie recorded nearly 20 albums for RCA and various other labels during his decade in Nashville.  Unfortunately, the combination of his complex, sophisticated songwriting and his earthy singing style seemed to go against the grain of the mass-produced, slick Nashville sound that enjoyed its greatest vogue in that era.

Nelson’s songwriting royalties continued to provide him with a generous, income that often reached the six-figure mark.   He used some of the money to put together his own band, the Record Men, and even though his records were still not selling, he performed widely throughout Texas  and the Southwest.  He also occasionally appears on the Grad Ole Opry and on Ernest Tubb’s syndicated television show.



The year 1969 was Willie’s last in Nashville.  He recalls that emotionally it wa an all-time low point in his life.  “Hand Cochran and I had been sitting in the basement, writing songs.  That year I went through a divorce and had wrecked four cars.  We were kicking all this around and ended up writing, ‘What can you Do To Me Now.’  The next day my house burned down.”

Within a very short time he relocated to Texas.  “It gave me time to concentrate and get some plan of action,” Willie recalls.  “I knew this was probably my last shot at doin’ things as far as selling records.  When you hit 40, for a picker, it’s getting pretty close.”

Like a phoenix, Nelson rose from the ashes and came back from his Texas base to capture the airwaves, not to mention the hearts of millions of devoted followers.

Ironically, the fundamentals of Nelson’s music have changed very little since his formative years, in the early 1950’s when he was seeking out a living in the rough and tumble bars and dance halls around Ft. Worth, Texas.  His appearances today, of course, draw huge crowds who’ve come t listen and share in the experience.

Throughout his rise to prominence and his successful foray into motion pictures, Nelson has never forgotten or been distracted from his first and last love — writing, singing and performing music.  In the past years his efforts have won him the highest accolades and wealth; yet for all the adulation that has been lavished on him and for all the perquisites that have come with his immense popularity, Willie’s head has not been swayed from the deep-rooted traditions of his musical heritage.  He hasn’t essentially changed or compromised his music to get where he is today, and it is his music on which he will continue to concentrate.

He points out that ultimately, the purpose of his venture into films is music.  “I want to call attention to the singing, to the Music, in these films,” he explains.

Nelson’s visibility has been greatly enhanced with his film ventures, however.  Early in 1980 he appeared in his first major feature film, “The Electric Horseman,” starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.  Willie followed that with Honeysuckle Rose which featured him in his first starring role along with Dyan Cannon, Amy Irving, and Slim Pickins.

Early in 1982, Nelson took a giant step forward and starred in a film in a non-musical role.  He played the title role in “Barbarosa” opposite Gary Busey.

This year will see the release of a major project starring Nelson, along with fellow songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller, in the aptly-titled film “Songwriter.”  The next scheduled project will be the long-awaited screen dramatization of Willie’s 1975 album “Red Headed Stranger”.

For a picker, that’s a hell of a record in the movies.

Unlike many who have achieved success, Nelson’s commitment to music is evidenced by the fact that he still thrives on the excitement of the road and live audiences, and still gets in 200 plus personal appearances a year.

Nelson’s stormy career reads and tells much better than most novels that are on the shelves.  He has been everywhere and possibly seen and done everything within the scope of life.

His early compositions, “Family Bible,” “Night Life”, “Hello Walls” “Crazy,” an don an don, were part of the national growth of country music through the ’60s.  His second career, as a traveling independent artist leading up to the classic “Red Headed Stranger” album, is the stuff of legends.

From “Red Headed Stranger” forward to today, Nelson has singly and in duets with many of the people who befriended, taught, and nurtured him along the way created a body of work that has been instrumental in freeing the boundaries of music for old and new country fans alike.  It is said that the crowd at a Willie Nelson show is like no other crowd in the entertainment business.  But you have to see one to understand it.

Between touring and making films, Nelson lives in Texas and occasionally Colorado.  In Texas, he is the proud owner of a country club, restaurant, a recording studio and the Austin Opry House.

But beneath it all, Willie Nelson continues to pick and sing, let his hair hand down in braids and be Willie, as only he can.

He just keeps getting cooler (Willie Nelson)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016


Thursday, September 1st, 2016


Willie Nelson Interview (by Malcolm Jones)

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

by:  Malcolm Jones

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

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

photo: Anna Webber

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So fame is not as corrosive as they say?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Willie Nelson and Shania Twain, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016
by:  Stephen L. Betts

In 2003, American icon Willie Nelson was the centerpiece of an all-star 70th birthday tribute with performances from Kenny Chesney, Shelby Lynne, Steven Tyler, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Leon Russell, Paul Simon, Wyclef Jean and more. Captured for a CD/DVD set called Live & Kickin’: Willie Nelson and Friends, the event was taped at New York’s Beacon Theatre and features some of Nelson’s most legendary compositions, including “Crazy” and “Night Life,” along with songs by other writers.

One tune heard during the USA Network special, falling into the latter category, was “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a song penned by songwriter-publisher Fred Rose in the Forties and previously performed by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Three decades later, the mournful ballad would become a signature tune for Nelson when he recorded it for his 1975 concept LP, Red Headed Stranger.

Introduced by Nelson’s longtime friend (and fellow songwriting legend) Kris Kristofferson, one of the most affecting performances of the special was country-pop superstar Shania Twain’s rendition of “Blue Eyes,” which the casually attired Canadian – in jeans, a cap and Willie T-shirt – performed while seated next to Nelson, who was standing and playing Trigger, his trusty vintage guitar. In addition to his distinctive jazz-inspired picking, Nelson adds harmony vocals to Twain’s reverent and expressive performance of the song, which became his first Number One country hit as an artist in October 1975.

Twain, who will celebrate her 51st birthday on August 28th, was riding high on the country and pop charts at the time this special was recorded. Up!, her fourth studio LP and third consecutive album to sell more than 10 million copies, was her first to be released in three separate versions for the pop, country and world-music markets. As a bonus during the TV taping, Twain and Nelson teamed for an exuberant performance of one of the singles from Up!, “Forever and for Always,” which (minus Nelson’s contributions) would go on to become a huge crossover hit in the U.S., and a Top Ten single in Twain’s native land, the U.K., Austria, Germany, Ireland and Romania.

My Willie, by Kinky Friedman

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Backstage at any show has its similarities, whether it’s Broadway or the circus or the meanest little honky-tonk in Nacogdoches — the palpable sense of people out there somewhere in the darkness waiting for your performance, or being able to pull a curtain back slightly and experience the actual sight of the audience sitting there waiting to be entertained by someone who, in this case, happens to be you.  Standing alone in the spotlight, up on the high wire without a net, is something Willie Nelson has had to deal with for most of his adult life.

One night at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, I was standing backstage in the near darkness when a voice right behind me almost caused me to drop my cigar into my Dr. Pepper.  It was Willie, “Let me show you something,” he said, and he pulled a curtain back, revealing a cranked-up crowd beginning to get drunk, beginning to grow restless, and packed in tighter than smoked oysters in Hong Kong.  Viewed from our hidden angle, they were a strangely intimidating sight, yet Willie took them in almost like a walk in the trailer park.

“That’s where the real show is,” he said.

“If that’s where the real show is,” I said, “I want my money back.”

“Do you realize,” Willie continued in a soft, soothing, serious voice, “That ninety-nine percent of those people are not with their true first choice?”

“Do you realize,” I said, “that you and I aren’t with our true first choice either?  I mean, a latent homosexual relationship is a nice thing to have going for us, but sooner or later…”

Willie wasn’t listening to my cocktail chatter.  He looked out at the crowd for a moment or two longer and then let the curtain drop from his hand, sending us back into twilight.  “That’s why they play the jukebox,” he said.

Kinky Friedman
September 1997