Bikers and Texas — An Interview With Willie Nelson
When I got the call from our wandering photographer, Billy Tinney, I was skeptical. He was in Las Vegas and ran down some off-the-wall story about bumping into Willie Nelson and mentioning this rag. Willie actually knew of Easyriders and volunteered to pose in front of his Texas flag for a cover. He also volunteered to do this interview — blew Billy away. But Billy’s been known to get a little blurred aound the edges after a fifth of ta-kill-ya or so, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention, at first figuring he’d been talked into a scam by some silk-suited cokespoon and had slipped over into fantasyland.
But damned if it all wasn’t true, and the next thing I knew I was sitting next to the Cub, or resident photog, in a propeller driven crate flying to Lake Tahoe to interview Willie. The Cub quickly drank himself into a stupor and was thus able to take the plane’s constant shuddering and rattling in stride. I spent the time trying to go over the questions I wanted to ask Willie; but it’s hard to write when yur white-knuckled fists are locked to the armrests and you’re begging the stewardess for a parachute.
Eventually, we found ourselves wandering the posh casino of Harrah’s Hotel, where WIllie was playing. Our grubby jeans and stained T-shirts looked out of place among the high rollers, but the pit bosses knew we were big shots when the Cub dropped three whole bucks plaing the nickel slots. We had to operate on Willie’s schedule the entire time we were there, which meant things never got started before 2 a.m., when the second show ended. Every morning would find me and the Cub clinging to our barstools, drinking our breakfast, adding additional stains to our T-shirts, and wondering if we could get thorugh another day on a diet of booze, toot, and no sleep.
The interview took place in Willie’s packed dressing room between shows. It was a glitter, star-speckled party atmosphere at first — Jane fonda loved the Easyriders T-shirt the Cub laid on her. But I had to pull him over into a corner and talk him out of asking her to strip for an Ol’ lady Contest photo. WIllie was gracious as always, and after excusing himself from the party, he gave us his undivided attention.
When I spoke to him, Willie had just finished one movie and was about to begin another. His records continue to sell millions, he had just completed a Christmas album, and he still found time to maintain a personal appearance schedule that would kill most entertainers. The story of Willie’s career and success is too familiar to need retelling here, so the talk turned to motorcycles — the only thing I know shit about — and proceeding from that subject.
Easy Rider: You used to ride a motorcycle, right?
Willie Nelson: Yeah, I’ve owned a bunch of bikes — everything from Harleys to Hondas.
ER: Did you start riding early, when you were a kid?
WN: No, I started later on in life, after I was grown. I’d always wanted one, even as a kid. But I could never afford one then. I was grown before I had any money. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to ride much anymore.
ER: When Paul Newman or Steve McQueen want to ride their motorcycles or drive their race cars, they have to face the opposition of entertainment executives who are uptight about the risks. Like them, you’re valuable property — if you wanted to ride, would you face the same thing?
WN: Not with executives. I’d face it from my family, though.
ER: You’ve been called an outlaw and the name has stuck — both to you and to an entire movement in country music. The same term, as you know, has been applied to a segment of motorcylce riders — the sort of hardcore Harley riders we write for and about in Easyriders. Do you think there’s any parallel to be drawn between the two?
WN: Definitely. I think that all bike riders are like pickers in the sense that they’re both sorta looked down on by the community.
ER: Why is that?
WN: Well, a musician has always been a second class citizen. I say always, actually, not so much now, but a long time that was true. He couldn’t get credit, he couldn’t anything. He had no visible means of support, no regular job. A lot of bikers aren’t nine-to-fivers, so they and musicians are are treated the same — they’re called loafers, troublemakers, everything.
ER: Is that why both groups to one degree or another, feel alienated form society?
WN: Well, I think there’s a freedom that certain people insist on having –like the cowboys, that type of person. Bikers have that same kind of image. Pickers have that image. A lot of people feel that way and want that freedom, but these people actually go after it — they try to live a free life.
A guy who has an eight hour job where he punches a clock five days a week is generally a little envious of somebody who rides around on a motorcycle having fun. The same goes for the guy who rides around on a bus with a bunch of musicians playing music. You know, it’s something the clock-puncher would like to do.
ER: So there’s a mixture of envy in society’s disapproval?
WN: I think so. The average person has mixed emotions about us.
ER: Easyriders has a substantial readership in prisons. You seem to be as popular with guys in the joint as you are with the public. Have you ever done any prison shows?
WN: Yeah, I’ve done a few shows in different prisons around the country. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done one. I think the last time I played was down in Texas, at Sugarland. I plan to do them as long as I can fit them into my schedule — I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now, so it’s not easy. But I do a few benefits each year for causes I’m in favor of.
ER: At your July Fourth Picnic this year we met some Bandidos who are fans of yours. Do you have personal friends in motorcycle clubs or are they primarily just fans?
WN: I have friends in a lot of bike clubs.
ER: The audience you played to in Austin was young and hip. The poeple who came to see you here are somewhat older and obviously more affluent, but you do essentially the same show for both groups. What explains the fact that you cut across so many social and economic levels and are so popular with such a broad spectrum of people?
WN: I believe that people are people – period. They may dress differently and do everything they can to look different, be different, or act different, but as far as music is concerned they’re all the same. Good music is appreciated by most people, regardless of how they look or how old they are or how much money they have. If you produce a sound that’s pleasing to the ear, it doesn’t matter how long the hair is. Whether it’s over the ear or not, the same ear is there to appreciate the sound. Also, we play all kinds of music in our show. We haven’t done anything — just play a lot of different kinds of music. And by doing that you attract a wide a wide variety of people, all different ages and form all walks of life.
ER: You come form a religious background, a Baptist upbringing. What role, if any, did that play in accounting for your popularity?
WN: It had a lot to do with my learning people — learning what people want to hear and how to get their attention and what they respond to. You see, when you go to church every Sunday for most of the early years of you rifle, you learn how the preacher gets the congregation’s attention and how he holds it. A preacher is a professional speaker, an entertainer, really. He’s not usually regarded that way, but it’s true nonetheless. He has to be a showman to sell is product.
ER: So you’re saying that the religious influences played more of a part in your ability to project a performer than in the nature of the songs you write?
WN: I think you could say that. I owe a lot to those preachers I watched do their act all those years.
ER: So there’s a touch of evangelism in the manner in which you relate to an audience.
WN: Or maybe there’s a touch of show business in evangelism — or at least salesmanship, which is also show business. It all involves selling your product not matter what you’re trying to sell or get across to the people. If it’s religion, you’ve got to be good. Billy Graham is a great salesman. He used to be a door-to-door salesman.
ER: As you did, too — right?
WN: That’s right. When you go from house to house and knock and you don’t know who’s behind that door, you learn a lot. Do that for a long period of time, and you learn a helluva lot.
ER: Were you good at it?
WN: Yeah, I was good at it.
ER: Would you agree that ther’s a religious thread running through the songs you write — a tradional morality?
WN: Well, I don’t write immoral songs, so I must write moral songs — at least songs that I think have a moral. In my mind I write songs that mean something to me, songs I hope will say waht I want to say. Being apositive thinker, I’m not going to write anything negative. So a lot of the things I write have what you might call a semi-religous effect on some people.
I believe that none of my songs present life as being hopeless. There’s humor — wholesome stuff — in my mind when I write them. Even if the song is on a tragic subject, I try to say something about the lighter side of it.
ER: Do you think there’s a ‘lighter side’ to songs like “Hello Walls,” and “Bloody Mary Morning,” and “Half a Man’?
WN: Well, yeah. Like in "Hello Walls," — when you put it in the blues rhythm, then you take it away form being too depressing and you add a little jump beat. That’s what the blues is — depressing lyrics with a driving beat. The negativity is countered with a positive drive and the feel behind it. So people cry in their beer and listen to the blues but still don’t despair.
ER: To what extent would you say drugs, including alcohol, have played a role in your life?
ER: I think drugs are medicines. In the Bible it says, "Physician, heal thyself." In other words, a person knwos what’s wrong wtih him and sometimes he knows what it’s gong to take to relieve that condition temporarily, until he can work it out. It’s the same thing a doctor is going to do for him. A doctor is going to charge him for an office visit to do the same thing. If the patient knows what to do himself and is sure he knows, then he should do it himself. For most people drugs serve as a kind of self-medication.
ER: Does being from Texas mean something special for your music and your popularity? Is there something unique about being from Texas?
WN: Evidentally there is today — it hasn’t always been that way. We Texans are boastful and we brag a lot, so over the years we’ve gotten a reputation for being big mouths, bragging about this state we claim has everything in the world — which it does, you know. But for a long time they didn’t believe us. I think now they say, “Those sonsabitcheswereright after all — Texans are okay.”
ER: About Austin itself — recently you said that you really never thought there was anything special about the music scene there.
WN: Again, people are people. I think a lot of good people gathered in Austin and I got a chance to go down and play some music for them. A lot of good people are gathered in every town I’ve ever been in. In fact, I think you can pick a town and throw a dart at a map and we can get an auditorium who will enjoy good music, if we can get them out of the house. In Austin, having a college there and having access to all those young people and all that peak energy made everything possible. It just happened to all come together there. That’s where I happened to find the audience.
ER: Would you mark the 1972 Dripping Springs Picnic as where everything started to happen?
WN: I think that picnic was probably the first big indication that there were a lot of young people who were into rock and roll but who were also able to enjoy another type of music as well. People love an underdog, and the Picnic has always been an underdog. There’s always been a lot of reasons why there should not be a Picnic or couldn’t be this time, and so forth. So each time we had it, it was like, “Well, I’ll be damned; we did it again.”
ER: One of the reasons your music hits home to so many people is he way you articulate difficulties and disappointments everyone has known. That experience comes form those lean years you spent before you were so successful and well-recognized. Do you ever worry that success will make you complacent and cause you to lose that connection with your audience?
WN: Absolutely. It’s dangerous because it can happen to anybody in my position. And it would be easy, once you get a little bit of money, to quit work. But in order to stay ahead in the record business, in order to keep selling records, you need to keep putting on these shows and doing those one-nighters and working across the country and letting people know that you’re still on the scene and still working and still enjoying having having a big crowd come out and hear you. People will go where they know they’re appreciated. And it works form the musicians’ end, too. I think there’s something built into most musicians and pickers — you know, it’s their egos or they’re hams or something. They enjoy an audience. They get off seeing other people enjoy what they do — and that’s what keeps us all on the road.
ER: How much are you on the road these days?
WN: I don’t know exaclty. We’re wroking more now than we ever were. I don’t know how long that is going to go on, but right now we’re doing over 200 days a year on the road.
ER: In a magazine article you were described as always carrying yoruself “with a kind of fierce innocence.”
WN: I think it’s probalby a fierce “So What?”
ER: Is that “So what” attitude responsible for yoru down-to-earth quality? You seem very genuine, very real, to people, and that has to mean a lot to them.
WN: Yeah, but I might be riding a trend, you know. I might realize it’s a big audience out there with a bunch of longhairs in it and I might just be taking advantage of that opportunity.
ER: You’re saying that you might have suckered a lot of people into believing in Willie Nelson. You might have run a scam on them, but even if it’s fake, a lot of people are responding.
WN: Well, if I did anything, let’s just say I crashed a party.
ER: You’ve achieved so much success that it’s as if you don’t have any worlds left to conquer. beyond records and movies, is there anything that you haven’t been able to do that you still want to achieve?
WN: Oh, something will come up — I really don’t know what, but it will come up. I’m not bored at all with waht I’m doing. Things are happening every day — I have to do double-takes all the time at what’s going on in my life. But the future is always interesting. It’s like riding motorcycle — you always want to see what’s over the next hill.
ER: Thank you, Willie.
WN: Thank you.