CLEVELAND, Ohio – In 1980, when I was a grizzled two-year veteran of the newspaper business, I was on the politics beat and ended up interviewing Teddy Kennedy, John Connally, John Anderson, Ross Perot, George Bush (the dad), Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
Nerves? What nerves? I was 23, writing for The Baytown (Texas) Sun and more intimidated by the national press than the candidates. I wasn’t just confident – I was COCKY.
In the 37 years since then, I’ve interviewed hundreds – maybe thousands – of other big names, in politics, in war zones, on playing fields. And in all that time, I’ve been nervous exactly once.
Talking to Willie Nelson scared the crap out of me. It’s not often you talk to God, which is how country fans in general and Texans in particular view Nelson, and he talks back like you’re both sitting on the banks of the stock pond cane-poling for catfish. That microcassette recording of the interview may be one of my proudest possessions.
And now, Willie’s scaring the crap out of me again, only for a different reason. This week, he canceled two shows “due to illness.” It’s not the first time one of the two surviving members of the legendary Highwaymen – the other is 80-year-old Kris Kristofferson — has had to do that, and really, since he turns 84 in April, it’s not all that surprising.
In 2004, he had to take time off for carpal tunnel surgery; the cumulative effects of creating musical poetry on his beloved Martin guitar, Trigger, forced that. But somehow, we all sort of knew he’d bounce back.
Now, though, I’m more than a little worried. Actually, I’m terrified all over again. I’m just hoping that he can do what he did in that interview 15 years ago.
We were supposed to talk for about 10 minutes, which is about average for an artist phone interview. We ended up spending an hour chit-chatting like long-lost friends, some about music and Trigger, and a LOT about being a dirt-poor kid in rural Texas.
Willie grew up in Abbott, a little town just north of Waco and about 200 miles from my dad’s birth “city,” Hamlin, in West Texas. One of Willie’s earliest memories, he said, was picking cotton with his grandmother, who raised him and sister Bobbie.
That was the opening. My father also grew up picking cotton, a backbreaking job that kids of the era were well-suited to do because they didn’t have to bend over as far to pluck the cotton bolls off the plants.
He talked of being dragged on the bag before he could walk, then tagging along once he got big enough to haul his own bag. It was never very full, at least not at first, but that didn’t matter.
He and Bobbie, who is two years older and plays piano in his band, learned music from his grandmother and grandfather. I think I recall him saying he called his grandmother Memaw, which is what I called my maternal grandmother, too, and that’s why it stuck. His grandfather, a blacksmith, died when he was 6, so there weren’t that many memories of him.
None of that made it into the story I wrote at the time. We did talk about Trigger, that oft-repaired Martin which now boasts more than 100 signatures of other artists (the first was Oklahoma native and pal Leon Russell) and just why he hasn’t been able to find a replacement that has the same sonorous tones.
We didn’t talk about one of my favorite stories, when Willie – a known fan of wacky-tobacky, as it were – played the famous Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and the drug dogs alerted on his bus, the Yellow Rose. Problem was, when they searched it, the dogs couldn’t narrow it down to a single spot – the cannabis scent had pervaded the entire thing – so the cops couldn’t do anything.
We did talk about his friends, Toby Keith, Billy Joe Shaver, Porter Wagoner, Roy Acuff and even Kid Rock and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas, and some of his iconic songs, like “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline, “Whiskey River” and of course, “On the Road Again.” Standard fare for an interview. Nervous as I was, I did my job.
Willie’s publicist, Elaine Schock, whom I’ve known for decades now, reassured me when I reached out to ask about his health.
“Don’t worry. Willie will be in fine form next week for his show in San Antonio,” she wrote in an email.
I’ve taken more solace than I probably should have from that brief note, given Willie’s age and the life he’s led. But I believe it because I want to believe it. I need to believe.
God can’t die.