This interview ran in the Houston Chronicle on March 21, 1993
by: Rick Mitchell
In western movies, there’s often a scene where the hero wakes up from a daze after being pistol-whipped or hit over the back of the head with a bottle. He shakes the cobwebs from his brain, checks to make sure his body parts still work and reaches for a hit of something stiff to kill the lingering pain.
Then he reloads, mounts up and rides off to finish the job he started, more resolute than ever.
If ever a hero had a right to feel dazed, it’s Willie Nelson.
Two and a half years ago, the Internal Revenue Service seized all of Nelson’s property and announced plans to auction it off to satisfy Nelson’s $16.7 million tax debt – most of it accrued in penalties and interest from a failed tax shelter in the early ’80s.
Nelson quickly worked out a deal with the IRS to release the album “Who’ll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes,” with proceeds going to his tax debt. The album received rave reviews, but the Austin telemarketing company handling mail-order sales went out of business a few months later, and fans were unable to find the album in stores.
“It was like Murphy’s Law, ” Nelson said.
On Christmas Day 1991 Nelson suffered a far crueler blow. His son, Billy, committed suicide at age 33. While Nelson managed to maintain his serenity in the face of his financial woes, the loss of his son brought him to his knees. He still can’t discuss the subject.
Nelson spent much of last year playing at a theater in Branson, Mo., where by most accounts he was miserable. It was beginning to look as if the old outlaw might live out his last days on an allowance from Uncle Sam, performing for busloads of retirees in Branson and dreaming restlessly of the good times gone by.
As his 60th birthday looms April 30, Shotgun Willie is back in the saddle and on the road again. After reviewing the financial figures, the IRS has agreed to a massive reduction of his debt.
Nelson still owes $5.4 million, to be paid off over the next few years.
On Tuesday, Columbia Records will release Nelson’s new album, “Across the Borderline.” Produced by Don Was and featuring guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Sinead O’Connor and others, the album is being hailed as his best work since “Stardust,” some 15 years ago.
CBS is planning a special on Nelson’s life, to be filmed in Austin and aired shortly after his birthday. Nelson also is involved in planning Farm Aid VI, to be held in Ames, Iowa, on April 24.
But even with everything else going on, Nelson has not forgotten where he came from.
On March 28, he will return to his old haunts of Hillsboro to perform a benefit concert for the restoration of the historic Hill County Courthouse, which was devastated by fire Jan. 1.
The concert is called “Blaze to Glory With Willie” and will be held on the town square in front of the burned building. The statewide advisory committee for the event includes such notable Hill County natives as Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Houstonian Dr. Red Duke.
“There’s more people than I ever dreamed of that have connections to that courthouse,” Nelson said in an interview at his Pedernales Studio and Country Club in Spicewood. He’s in the process of re-acquiring the Spicewood property, which a friend bought at the IRS auction and held for him.
“A courthouse has a different meaning than other buildings, ” Nelson said. “It’s where all the family records are kept. It’s like a church, or a temple.”
Nelson was born and reared in Abbott, about 10 miles south of Hillsboro. Some of his earliest musical memories are of accompanying his grandparents to the Wednesday night gospel meetings at the Hill County Courthouse.
“My grandparents were gospel singers,” he said. “They would meet there with other gospel singers in the area. They had all their gospel hymn books. That’s where I really got turned on to that type of music. Country music I heard on the radio, along with all other types of music.”
While country music became his great love, his experience singing gospel left a lasting impression. He has never lost the ability to impart a spiritual dimension to secular lyrics, from “The Healing Hands of Time” to “Always on My Mind.”
When he grew a little older, Nelson would ride the Waco-Dallas trolley from Abbott up to Hillsboro every Saturday.
“Child’s fare was 20 cents round trip,” he recalled. “I’d take nine cents to get in the movie and another nickel for popcorn, and I had the weekend made. Ten-cent hamburgers, too.”
Most Saturday afternoons also included a visit to the courthouse. “That’s where the public restrooms were, ” he explained.
Nelson’s nonchalance about material possessions has been compared to that of a Zen monk. Even in the darkest times of the last two years, he never lost his sense of humor.
As his fellow songwriter and compadre Kris Kristofferson once put it, “He wears the world like a loose garment.”
But Nelson says his hang-loose attitude is more Texan than Buddhist.
“It comes from running into situations where you either had to laugh or cry,” he said. “I was raised around a lot of people who had a great sense of humor. Those people in Hill County, they didn’t worry about a lot of things. So I sort of grew up with that attitude. Money wasn’t a big deal because nobody had any, so what difference did it make?”
Nelson moved away from Hill County after graduating from high school, but he’s maintained close friendships there. He offered to do the courthouse benefit concert while visiting Zeke Varner, an old friend from Hillsboro, a few days after the fire.
“I knew that they were going to need some help, ” Nelson said. “I told Zeke that the best way to do it would be to close off downtown to do a concert right on the courthouse square. He said, “I doubt they’ll let us do that.’
“Sure enough, they felt it was a great idea.”
“Don’t Give Up’
Although he seems to have reached a peaceful accommodation with life’s travails, that “loose garment” hasn’t always fit Nelson so well. In his younger years, he did a lot of moving around Texas, living in Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
During the ’60s, he spent a frustrating decade in Nashville, Tenn. He gained respect as a songwriter for hits such as Ray Price’s “Night Life” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” But the Nashville establishment never took him seriously as a singer because of his unique voice and idiosyncratic phrasing.
At one point, Nelson gave up on the music business. He bought a little spread outside Nashville and decided to try his hand at pig farming. When the farm burned down, Nelson came home to Texas.
It wasn’t long afterward, in 1975, that he had his career breakthrough with the album “Red Headed Stranger.”
“I did a lot of negative thinking in my earlier years, ”
Nelson said. “Like they say, ‘A hard head makes a sore ass.’
“Somewhere along the way, I turned the negative around to start thinking positive. But I drank a lot, too. That had a lot to do with my negative approach.”
Nelson agrees that “Across the Borderline” is among the best albums of his career – possibly his best. But he defends much of his work of the ’80s as critically and commercially overlooked.
“Honestly, I felt I reached a point where I was producing too much, ” he said. “I was recording more albums than the company could sell. I did duet albums with Faron Young, Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow – all my heroes. It’s something I wanted to do, and the fact that I had a studio here made it easy to invite the guys down.”
Nelson said the rapid recording pace and constant touring took a toll on his songwriting.
“At some point, I saw a lot of good material going by the wayside, ” he said. “I saw a lot of albums that I was putting out that weren’t selling as much as I thought they should, and I was going through a lot of good material. That’s why this new album is as good as it is, because we did take a long time looking for new material.”
Nelson said producer Was was responsible for introducing him to many of the songs on “Across the Borderline” and encouraging him to stretch his artistic range. The hardest songs for him were Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” (done as a duet with O’Connor) and Simon’s “American Tune.”
“That’s a very classic melody there, ” he said of the latter. “It’s difficult for a hillbilly singer to sing.”
On the other hand, songs like Lyle Lovett’s “Farther Down the Line” and Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” sound as though they might have been written by Nelson himself. He’s already introduced the Lovett tune into his regular concert repertoire.
“I love that song, ” he said. “I like to sing it every night.”
Of the three songs on the album that Nelson wrote, “She’s Not for You” is the only one that had previously been recorded (for a long-out-of-print RCA album in the ’60s).
“Valentine” was written for Nelson’s 2-year-old son, Luke, his seventh child, one of two by his fourth wife, the former Annie D’Angelo. “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” the album’s closer, is Nelson’s declaration of renewed purpose. He’s on his feet again and ready to ride.
There has been a nearly complete turnover on the country chart since Nelson’s last huge hit, “Always on My Mind,” 10 years ago. A new generation of country stars has emerged, making it difficult for old-timers such as Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Waylon Jennings to crack radio playlists.
But Nelson isn’t worried about conforming to commercial trends. His greatest work – from “Phases and Stages” and “Red Headed Stranger” to “Stardust” and “Across the Borderline” – has transcended marketing categories.
“There has to be an audience for something good,” he said simply. “There’s ‘supposed’ to be. I think this album is so good – it incorporates so much talent and so many good songs – everything points to a hit. I just think this album is a home run.”
If life imitates the movies one more time, it will be.