by: Doug Heselgrave
It’s the middle of the afternoon and for the past few hours Willie Nelson has been talking to reporters about his new album, ‘Heroes.’ For a writer, it’s not the ideal situation, and as I bided my time in the middle of the queue, I worried that by the time it was my turn to speak to Willie, he’d be burned out and his answers would be perfunctory and clichéd. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I went away from our conversation realizing how little I really understood about this singer and songwriter that I’d been listening to for most of my life.
Over the years, the red headed stranger has slowly metamorphosized into a grey haired icon who has become as synonymous with American culture as Mickey Mouse or the Titanic. He’s been called one of the most recognizable people on the world, and millions of folks who never listen to country music know about his stance on marijuana, biofuel and the dangers of factory farming. For many, Willie Nelson represents a way of life that has all but disappeared, so it’s not surprising that for the last four decades or so, his fans have created myths, images and expectations around him that have all but obscured the man behind them.
If any of this bothers Willie in any way, it’s certainly wasn’t evident when we spoke. Serene and imperturbable, open and empty of expectations, it was almost unnerving how utterly present Willie is in conversation. At this stage in his life, he certainly doesn’t need to talk to anyone if he doesn’t want to, but from the beginning to the end of our chat, he exhibited a Bodhisattva-like calm that goes beyond any explanation that all the pot he’s smoked could account for. So, when I asked him about his new album, ‘Heroes’, not surprisingly his first comments deflected attention away from himself and onto everyone else who contributed to the record.
“You know Doug, there were really a lot of great moments in putting this album together. Buddy Cannon, the producer, got such great talent together. There were such wonderful musicians who worked on this album, and that’s really the key to every good record. All those musicians on there were just incredible. They played each song with exactly the right amount of feeling and emotion. A lot of the success of this album goes to those musicians. I can’t thank them enough for what they did.”
He paused a moment, obviously lost in a private reverie before resurfacing with “so many great memories. So many great songs.” Picking up the thread, he continued, “A lot of the songs on this one came from Buddy and Luke, so I can’t really take credit except for the songs I wrote myself I guess. ‘Heroes’ was one of those songs. I wrote it for and about Billy Joe Shaver. He’s one of my favorites and just a beautiful singer still”
Like Slim, the cowboy Buddha in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the quality of silence between Willie’s sentences resonated as deeply as anything he says, and like that character he is secure in his own ego and reluctant, even after repeated attempts, to aggrandize himself, preferring to see himself as a conduit or a catalyst for the music rather than ‘anything special.’ In a culture defined by celebrity worship, where fragile egos live and die by what is written and said about them, Willie Nelson is a survivor who reminds us that of all the paths through stardom, the road less travelled is the one that leads to humility.
As we began to talk about the songs on ‘Heroes’, I remarked that the most interesting aspect of the record for me was just how good his son, Lukas’ songs have become. Willie’s voice became warmer as I’d obviously brought up a subject close to his heart. “Oh yeah, I’m proud of Lukas. I’m so proud of all of my children. He and Micah – both of my sons – are on the album in different places. As for Lukas, ‘Sound of Your Memory’ is a good song. I really like that one and ‘No Place To Fly.’ I think they’re some of his best compositions”
‘Sound Of Your Memory’, especially, sounds like a great, lost Willie Nelson song, and I wondered aloud if he had ever taken any part in writing any of his son’s music. “ No, but when he writes something he sings it to me and I’ve always liked everything he’s written. He’s never written anything bad, but of course some of them are better than others. He’s just naturally a good writer. The song, ‘Just Breathe’ by Eddie Vedder is one that Luke brought in. It might be my favorite on the album. I think it’s a great song that just builds a great story. Now, you know, I’ve noticed over the past few years that Luke’s band, Promise Of The Real, is just full of a lot of young guys that are just incredible musicians. You could put them in with any band out there – Dylan or any of those guys – and they could hold their own. There are a lot of great young musicians out there that really know what they’re doing and I wanted some of them to play on this album. It makes me feel good.”
When I remarked that there were a lot of older players of his generation like Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price singing on the album, too, and wondered if that was a conscious choice, Willie may have thought I was over-analyzing his process and preferred instead to reminisce about his time with Ray Price. “ Well, I do know that Ray Price and I go way back. Those are some good memories. I played bass with him in the early sixties. We were on the road for a while. He and I were good buddies and we enjoyed being on the road together riding on the bus. He’s still the best country singer out there. He really is.”
We spent a few minutes discussing some of his song choices for ‘Heroes’, and I admitted to being baffled by why he had chosen to record ‘The Scientist’ a pop song originally sung by ColdPlay. I told Willie that it was a song that I couldn’t stand when it was on the radio, and I was interested in what he heard in it, and how he was able to unearth the beautiful melody that was so deeply embedded in the original. He laughed for several seconds before saying, “Well, you know I always rewrite every song I sing so that it suits me!” “But,” he continued, “I liked the idea of a commercial first of all which was for the small family farmers against the big corporate farmers. I’m just glad that there was a song and a video and a commercial that talked about that, and I was glad to sing the song because I thought it fit the whole thing perfectly.”
As our conversation began to naturally wind down, I realized that I hadn’t asked him about ‘Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die’, his duet with Snoop Dog that celebrates everyone’s favorite weed. Willie laughed and offered, “I thought I’d written it, but just the other day I came to find out that there was another song with the same idea around. There were I don’t know how many writers on it and I just don’t know. You can have part of it if you want!” Once we’d stopped laughing, he continued, “But, it’s a song that was a natural I thought and the timing was right.”
Still, I remembered how Walmart refused to sell his ‘Country Man’ album in its original format because of the marijuana leaves on the cover, and I wondered if he felt a song like that would alienate a portion of his audience.
“No, in fact I close my show with the song every night and it’s a great sing along. It was funny to see, but we had an 84 year-old lady celebrating her birthday in the house last night. She was right down on the front row and she was standing up and singing right along with ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die’”
With visions of Keith Richards snorting up his father’s ashes mixed with cocaine, I asked him what kind of high he think I’d get if I had the chance to roll him up and smoke him when he died, and Willie didn’t skip a beat before answering, “Oh, I don’t know, but I’d go and get a shot real quick. There’s no telling what you’d catch! Don’t take any chances out there!”
We shot the breeze for a few minutes as our time together drew to a close, but just before moving on, Willie offered, “Doug, I am a lucky man and I have to tell you, thinking about this record, and the time I spent making it, it was just as good as it gets to have my kids in there with me. What more could you want?”