portrait: Julian Schnabel
by: Stephen Mooallem
WILLIE NELSON: Outlaw, legend, Countryman, Rastafarian? It’s been a long and tempestuous road for music’s braided troubadour, and with a big-time movie, an old-time tour, and a good-time reggae record all on the go, he’s still the wildest ace in the deck.
Stephen Mooallem: So, this reggae record you’ve done, Countryman [Lost Highway], has been nearly a decade in the making.
Willie Nelson: Yeah. It started around 10 years ago when don Was and I went to Jamaica to see Chris Blackwell, who was the head of Island Records at the time. He had wanted us to do a reggae album, and we did one track, so we took it down to play it for him. He liked it, but I also took a copy of a CD I’d just produced called Spirit, and he liked that, too, so he said, “Let’s put that out now, then we’ll put the reggae record out later.” Meantime, the company had some shake-ups, so Chris moved into another spot, and the reggae album just lay around for a long time.
SM: Is reggae music something you’ve been into for a long time?
WN: No. When I first heard it, there was way too much rhythm for me. It took me a while to realize that they were doing something with all that rhythm and not just banging. So once I was able to figure out what was going on, I discovered how well country songs could adapt themselves to reggae rhythms.
SM: Why did you think they would adapt well? Were there similarities in any way?
WN: I tried doing my song “Undo the Right” in reggae style, and it turned out so well that I felt I could do any country song an put reggae rhythms behind it. Then these musicians told me that reggae started from people in Jamaica listening to music from United States radio. The people there had fiddles and guitars but no drums, so they added their own rhythms to what they were hearing. They swore that’s where reggae came from.
GM: How did you pick the songs for Countryman?
WN: A friend of mine told me I couldn’t do a reggae album without “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo,” so I did those. Then I did a Johnny Cash song called “I’m a Worried Man.” When he found out I was doing a reggae album, he played me his song, and I said, “Yeah, that’d be good.” Then on the rest of them, I used a lot of my old songs — just country songs that I’d written back in the ’60s and ’70s.
SM: Was it hard waiting for this record to come out?
WN: Oh, yeah. But it’s the record business, so everything is different and strange. [laughs]
GM: You’re also in the new Dukes of Hazzard movie. How was that experience?
WN: Exceptionally good. Movies come along so rarely that when they do it’s kind of like a vacation. You pull the bus in there, and you stay for a week or two, and you get to see a lot of great people every day.
GM: You play Uncle Jesse in the movie.
WN: Most of my scenes are with Wonder Woman.
GM: Oh, Lynda Carter. Who does she play?
WN: She plays my girlfriend.
GM: Very nice.
WN: Yeah. She’s a great gal.
SM: Do you still like being on the road?
WN: Yes, I do. I enjoy being able to hang out during the day and not having anything to do until the nighttime. But I do run and try to stay in shape. With the way I abuse myself in the nighttime, I have to do something the next morning to at least even it out.
SM: Do you still keep late nights.
WN: No, I don’t really. A lot of the old things I used to do, I don’t do anymore. I don’t drink much anymore, so I have no reason to wake up feeling bad.
SM: Did you ever think when you were starting out that you would still be touring and playing music at this point in your life? What keeps you interested?
WN: Every day is a challenge, for one thing. And it keeps me off the streets. It keeps me from getting into trouble, because I don’t know how to do days off that well. For me, being out on the road, when you’ve got something to do every day, is good therapy. And my boys are playing with me, and they are just incredible musicians, so it’s fun to have them around.
SM: Do yout hinkyour sons are going to become musicians as well?
WN: No doubt. It just depends on how quick their mom will let them hit the road. She’s very interested in keeping them in school long enough to learn how to take care of the business part of it. I am, too, because i learned mainly by making mistakes. I started out playing in bands when I was around 8 or 9 years old, living in Abbott, Texas. I was living with my grandmother, who raised me. I’d play around town, in school and church and everything, and she said, “That’s all f ine, but I don’t ever want you to go on the road.” So there was a little old club down in West, Texas, about six miles south of Abbott. I went down there one night and played with a bohemian polka band. Nobody heard me, but I made $8. When I got home, my grandmother was a little upset. She said, “You promised me you wouldn’t go on the road.” Six miles away was “on the road” to her.
SM: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever learned?
WN: Be careful what you say, and be careful what you promise, and be sure you’re able to do what you say you’ll do.
SM: Do you have a philosophy then about, how to go about things?
WN: Yes: Fortunately, we’re not in control.