by: Andy Langer
Willie Nelson was getting high once when he leaned in and whispered, “Two nuns are cycling down a cobbled street. The first one says, ‘I’ve never come this way before.’ The second replies, ‘Must be the cobbles.”” I’ve never been so high or laughed so hard. Willie’s jokes are old and corny — they’re mostly about golf or sex. Sometimes both. But the goal in the telling seems to be to disarm. People get weird around famous people, let alone bona fide American icons. They talk too much or too little. they fidget and breathe heavy. But I’ve never seen anyone freak out around Willie Nelson. Laughter takes the edge off. So does humility. Last year, moments after the mayor of Austin unveiled an eight-foot, one-ton statue of Willie downtown at 310 Willie Nelson Boulevard, rather than ponder his triumps, he said, “I guess I’ll be stoned 1,000 years.”
Street and statues are typically posthumous honors, but Willie turns 80 this month. He’s become part Yoda, part John Wayne. Or is it George Burns and Santa? Anyway, he’s an icon. What’s gotten lost is that he’s the most important songwriter of the 20th century. Had he written onlyPatsy Cline’s “Crazy,” the simplest, most beautiful Valentine ever, he’d be only as influential as the ladies who wrote “Happy Birthday to You.” But then there’s ‘Night Life” And “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Andy maybe most importantly, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” — the yardstick against which all songs about love and mortality (approximately 43 of all songs ever written) are measured. Willie deals in “Standards” — songs that make mere hits seem silly and disposable. Sinatra and Elvis sang them, but Willie wrote them, consistently and authoritatively. On paper, his peers were Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and George Jones, but when you’re looking at the hypothetical construct that’s the Great American Songbook, they’re really George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. You can make an argument for Bob Dylan, but if Ginger Rogers did everything Frank Astaire did backwards and in high heels, Willie did everything Dylan did stoned and in New Balance running shoes.
Willie has said he believes his music will eventually fade away, that like fame itself, achievements are impermanent. Zen, but probably bullshit. There’s always been a timelessness to his songs that ought to ensure, uh, timelessness: “Crazy” itself is more than 50 years old. Then again, much of Willie’s iconic status was earned off stage. Like the best legendary Texans — from Sam Houston to Ann Richards — he’s got not so much a biography as a mythology: In his autobiography, Willie claims to have sparked up “a fat Austin torpedo” on the roof of the White House. Elsewhere in the book, his first wife refutes the old story about her sewing him up in a bedsheet while he was passed out, then beating himw with a broomstick — instead she tied him up with a jump rope before beating him. Better documented is the work he’s done as an agitator, provacateur and champion: battling the IRS, lobbying for the family farm, and backing alternative energies. Marijuana legalization? Sure. But he’s also been outspoken about horse slaughter and, through a cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of each Other)” championed gay rights. He’s not perfect: Willie may be a 9/11 truther, telling Larry King that logic led him to look at the day’s events from another angle. It makes him look out of touch.
Friends say his arthritis is so bad he can’t roll a joint anymore. His latest song is comically morose: He sings, “Roll me up and smoke me when I die.” Willie says he still tours as hard as he does because he’s afraid of losing his muscle memory. And the shows are strong 90 minutes, no teleprompters, no breaks. When his son Lukas sits in on guitar, his grin is as wide as it’s ever been. And night after night, one lucky fan — usually a young kid on his parent’s shoulders or a young lady with a little extra cleavage — gets a trademark Willie Nelson bandanna tossed from the stage by Willie himself. It’s a souvenir, a permanent thing. But it’s the memory — the show, the brief flicker of interaction — that’s indelible. Willie Nelson’s legacy will live in the largess of small gestures, the right word at the right time, and songs and melodies that become milestone markers in real people’s lives.
Buy the April issue of Esquire Magazine, to read the entire article, and see more photos.