The first thing you notice when you get on ‘Willie Nelson’s tour bus is a pungent aroma. Parked outside a gigantic casino and performance venue in Thackerville, Okla., Nelson offers NPR’s David Greene a joint, which Greene declines. Nelson says he understands.
At 82, Nelson is still touring the country, still an advocate for legalized marijuana — he’s even started a new company to sell weed in Colorado — and has a new memoir out called It’s A Long Story. The country legend recently spoke to Greene about the mystery of Willie Nelson, how ex-wives are really “additional wives” and why no one can tell him what to do.
“A friend of mine once said, ‘It’s my mouth, I’ll haul coal in it if I want to,’ ” Nelson says. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool. I’ll use that.’ I don’t think anybody should tell me or you or anybody what to do. I think the Bible says it’s not what goes into your mouth that counts; it’s what comes out.”
Producers would tell you your phrasing is off. What does that mean?
It means change producers.
Touché. What does that mean, your phrasing is unique?
If you’ve got to explain that, you’ve got the wrong one. There are so many beats in a measure, you have so much time to get in so many beats, some people lay back to the last minute. … Some do a beat every quarter. However you feel it is the way you should do it. Sinatra’s best asset was his ability to phrase. He’s my favorite singer. It’s how you say it.
I did a lot of reading before coming to meet you. People who know you very well say you remain a mystery. The true Willie Nelson doesn’t come out easily. We know this whole massive catalog of songs; can we know you through that catalog? Do you remain a mystery?
I don’t know … I loved every song Hank Williams wrote. Doesn’t mean I knew him any better. Music says a lot about you. I’m guessing … maybe so? Maybe my music does tell stories I wouldn’t be able to tell any other way unless it was through a song.
Amazing story you tell in the book: You land in jail in the Bahamas because of your love of pot. Two days later, you’re at the White House having dinner with President Carter. That evening, you said a friend of yours, a White House insider, knocks on your door, takes you on a tour and lights up a joint.
Hrm. Were you there?
No, I just read the book.
[Laughs.] I didn’t know I put that in the book.
Do you have regrets about how you treated women? Would you change it?
No. No. Most of the women in my life knew that they were taking a big chance with a guitar player, anywhere. Not that that’s an excuse. Guitar players do like women. That’s why we got into the business; we like girls. That can lead to trouble if you’re planning family life. Which I did. I have four wives, kids, grandkids, I love them all. There’s no such thing as ex-wives; there’s only additional wives.
I see there are photos behind you, [including] one of your late son, Billy …
Oh, there he is, with his daughter, my granddaughter. There he is on Scout, his pony. Another one back here.
He died a very early death. You outlived a son. You lost people you played on stage with. You talk about Jennings, Cash, … How does that loss around you impact you and your life today?
Me and Merle were talking, ain’t many of us left.
We were chuckling about that. Where’d everybody go? The fact he and I are still here is probably a miracle in itself.