Willie Nelson Interview (9/22/1998)

Sylvie Simmons
Yahoo Music

Plaited hair, piercing eyes, a lean, lived-in, beautifully ruined face:  Willie Nelson in the flesh looks like one of those iconic Native American sculptures.

We’re in London, where Nelson played the Barbican (a respectable classical venue) as part of a concert series called “Inventing America.” If it were a contest, Willie would win hands-down. No one–no one still breathing, anyway–has more fingers in more American pies than Willie Nelson.

There he is: a cartoon in King Of The Hill (“That show’s real funny. It goes back to that old joke they had cartoons about, like: ‘I heard Willie Nelson got run over and he’s playing “On The Road Again!”‘”), a character in Kinky Friedman’s novel Roadkill, a cowboy in too many movies to mention (the latest, Outlaw Justice, features Willie alongside old buddies Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings), a writer whose bruised love songs are now supper-club standards, and star of the political satire Wag the Dog.

Oh, and he’s just released his 200-somethingth album, Teatro (named after the old Mexican theater he recorded it in, with producer Daniel Lanois backing singer Emmylou Harris, his long-term musicians, pianist sister Bobbie Nelson and Mickey Raphael on harmonica, plus youngsters like Tony Mangurian from luscious Jackson and Victor Indrizzio from Scott Weiland’s band). He’s just finished a blues album and he’s now working on a reggae one. “I’ve done a lot of my songs with reggae rhythms, and some that other people have written–a Johnny Cash song, a couple of Jimmy Cliff’s–‘The Harder They Come,’ ‘Sitting In Limbo,'” he says.

Cliff was at the Barbican watching the show. So was Peter O’Toole! In the row in front of me! Looking like an aristocratic skeleton in an expensive white suit! If there’d been a sculptor backstage they could have knocked off an instant three-piece Mount Rushmore of 20th Century Art! But, back to the star who is pondering my question: who (or what) is the real Willie Nelson?

“Well,” he replies, drawing the word out to about a minute and a half in his battered Texan accent, “he’s stubborn, funny, and,” he laughs, “old.”

65 years old, to be precise–born April 30, 1933 in cotton-field country to Ira and Myrle Nelson, and raised by Ira’s parents when Dad died and Mom left home. Granddad bought Willie his first guitar when Willie was just six years old.

“My first chords I learned were from playing a country song or a gospel song–from the radio and the old 78 records that my family would bring home. The Mexican flavor was added because in Texas you can always pick up a Mexican radio station, and I was raised up with two Mexican families right across the street. I love that music still.”

Willie’s first record was, in suitably outlaw fashion, an indie release: No Place For Me (1956) was self-financed by selling encyclopedias door-to-door. He promoted himself to DJ and married his first wife, Martha (who, discovering one of many infidelities, tied him to the bed when he came home drunk and beat him with a broom). If the ’50s were lively for Willie, the ’60s were legendarily excessive, when he decamped to Nashville with a bunch of songs he’d written. Patsy Cline covered “Crazy” and took it to No. 1; Willie caroused with Kris Kristofferson and eventually married wife No. 2–who quickly gave way to No. 3 when she opened a bill for maternity payments that came to the house. Willie became a country superstar, a millionaire. Then, depressed, on a snowy night in Nashville, he got drunk–it was his 40th birthday–and lay down in the road, waiting to get run over.

Asked if he’s happier now, he answers, slowly, “Maybe so.” His songs are more inspired by sadness than happiness. “I don’t know why. I just lean toward the ballads, whether I wrote them or not. I just enjoy singing them.” As for writing them, “I fight it all the time. I get an idea and say, ‘I don’t want to write it.’ Because I know if I’ll commit to write that song that I’m tied up for a while and then I’ll tell myself that it’s really not that good anyway. You get a lot more critical of your songs as you get older. And,” he chuckles, “laziness has a lot to do with it too.”

Lazy is the last thing you’d call him. In between all the stuff in paragraph two, plus his obsessional golf-playing and running his newly-acquired Outlaw Music country TV channel, he still spends half the year on the road. There’s a plaque above his bunk in the tour bus–given to him by old pal Roger Miller –saying “He who lives by the song shall die by the road.” It’s the musician’s version of dying with your boots on.

“I just love it! I’m 65 years old, and still having fun like a teenager–well, maybe not exactly like a teenager, but I’m still out here,” says Willie. As he’s said before, “like most musicians, I owe my life to nurses and waitresses–and I think that’s still true.” Doesn’t live quite as hard as he used to, though. These days the hemp diet (“I still smoke a lot of weed”) is mixed with health store juice. “Chlorel is a chlorophyll product that comes from the sea and it’s really good for you. I also drink a water made from aloe vera called Georgie’s Water.” He also jogs.

“Somewhere along the way I decided that I wanted to be healthy instead of unhealthy, I wanted to last longer than some of my buddies had. The first 18 years of my life I was a young kid playing sports, in as good a condition as you can be when you still don’t train as much as you ought to, but then everything started getting out of shape. I finally started figuring out that getting old and fat and dying early was not really what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of dangers on the road, from drugs to alcohol to everything else. There’s a lot of pitfalls out here, and some of us miss them and some of us look for them–I hit all the pitfalls pretty quick!” He laughs. “And then I decided maybe I was ready for a little smoother road.

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