Willie Nelson:Â ‘Still is Still Moving”
2002 CINE Golden Eagle Winner
Features Exclusive Footage From Nelson’s 2002 Concert Circuit, Rare Behind-The-Scenes Glimpse Into Life On And Off The Bus, Musical Performances And Interviews With Neil Young, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, Lyle Lovett, Dave Matthews, and Kinky Friedman
Cradling his battered guitar in his arms, Willie Nelson kicks back on the porch of his Luck, Texas home, reminiscing about a song he wrote in Reno at 3 a.m. called “Half a Man.” The song was born when Nelson wanted a cigarette without waking his wife, who was lying across his arm. Such stories – all personal, all Willie – give genuine life to an American road warrior in AMERICAN MASTERS Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving, a 90-minute documentary that profiles this iconic musician who has toured almost non-stop for 40 years, logging millions of miles and thousands of nights. By Nelson’s own estimate, he’s written more than 2,000 songs and released more than 250 albums.
The musician’s craft and the outlaw’s life are explored from all angles in AMERICAN MASTERS Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving, which will be re-broadcast Wednesday, August 9 at 9 p.m. (E.T.) on PBS (check local listings). The film is part of the 20th anniversary celebration of AMERICAN MASTERS.
The documentary includes concert footage in cities stretching from one side of the country to the other, including New York, Austin, San Francisco, Atlanta, Portland, and Tampa. Throughout filming, Nelson gave Academy Award-nominated producer/director Steven Cantor exclusive access, allowing him and his crew to travel on the bus as he criss-crossed America during his latest concert circuit.
“The opportunity to travel the country with Willie Nelson and his band was unique and life-changing,” says Cantor. “To watch him light up that stage night after night, to witness first-hand the electric connection he has with all of his fans, and then to gain intimate knowledge of his thought process and hobbies and struggles and concerns – the whole experience was just incredible. He is his music.”
Executive producer Susan Lacy says, “Such unparalleled access makes the audience feel as if they are on the road with Willie Nelson. Whether he’s on stage, at home or kicking through a board in a tae kwon do class, Willie Nelson comes across as a true original.”
Nelson’s reputation is part myth and part legend – the cowboy, the renegade and the outlaw – and AMERICAN MASTERS provides the first bare-all look at this quintessential American folk hero. Nelson is captured in veritÃ© through concert footage, conversation and casual eavesdropping as well as in interviews with family, friends, band members, roadies, fans, and other musicians and performers. “Willie is like no other person you ever met,” says singer and long-time friend Waylon Jennings, who died during the course of making the film. “If there ever was a gypsy, that’s what he is.”
Throughout the film, a legion of loyal fans – young, old, yuppie, and country – declare their devotion to the Willie Nelson experience. Says singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett: “He makes everybody feel welcome, everybody feel at home and he makes every single person in the audience feel as though he’s singing to them.”
The film is laced with the stuff of life: Nelson writing music, hitting a punching bag, riding a horse, striking a golf ball, and even playing chess with Ray Charles, who says: “What I like about Willie is he has this unique sound. Nobody sounds like him and this is what really makes any artist outstanding, when they have their own identity. They can sing one note and you know who it is. Well, Willie’s like that.”
Many of Nelson’s best-known songs act as bridges between scenes of the performer at home, on the bus, on stage, and hanging out with star-struck fellow musicians like Dave Matthews, who says: “I always get amazed by the songs that I keep discovering that you’ve written.” But Matthews also gets Nelson to admit that “Crazy” originated from an old Floyd Tillman song that starts out “Baby.”
Of classics he didn’t write that have become so associated with him, Nelson says: “You always know in the back of your mind that when you record something, if it turns out that it does pretty good, you may have to sing it every night. ‘Georgia,’ ‘Always on My Mind,’ ‘Blue Skies,’ and ‘Stardust’ are just great songs that I never get tired of singing.”
Bass player Bee Spears recalls Nelson writing “Bloody Mary Morning” on the back of a plane ticket on his way to Houston. “That’s the way he writes a lot of his stuff,” says Spears, who has been in the band since 1968. “He writes it right now, on whatever he’s got to write it on.”
Nelson’s decades-long career as singer-songwriter, social activist and much-publicized outlaw has endured the test of time. The highlight of his activism was co-founding Farm Aid, an annual fund-raising concert for an issue close to Nelson’s Texas-born heart – the plight of small American farmers. AMERICAN MASTERS Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving includes Neil Young introducing Nelson during a Farm Aid concert as “the best friend the American farmer ever had, and an American treasure.”
The documentary also includes clips from two movies where Nelson has appeared, his first, “The Red Headed Stranger,” and his first in a starring role, “Honeysuckle Rose” with Slim Pickens. During an on-screen discussion with Lovett (another singer/actor), Nelson says: “Somebody asked Slim Pickens what kind of actor I was and Slim said ‘Well, he plays Willie Nelson better than anybody.’ ”
AMERICAN MASTERS provides a frank take on Nelson’s outlaw persona, including his drinking and tax problems, as well as numerous testimonials to Nelson’s life-long devotion to his music. In the early 1960s, Nelson was known as a songwriter, not an entertainer. But once he hit Austin, Texas, everything changed. The hippies went wild, even before Nelson grew his hair long and started wearing an earring. His success throughout the South led to a recording contract with Columbia Records and the 1975 release of the “Red Headed Stranger” album and its break-away single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
“It was now singer-songwriter,” recalls Nelson’s manager, Mark Rothbaum. “Things were just changing and they were changing Willie’s way.”
On the side of Nelson’s tour bus is a sign that speaks volumes about his strong bond with his five-member band – “Willie Nelson and Family.” According to stage manager James “Poodie” Locke, who has ridden with Willie for decades, “This band wasn’t hired; it was conceived. It is a family because we all grew up together.”
The film also lovingly illustrates the close relationship between Nelson and his sister, Bobbie Nelson, who plays piano in the band. As Nelson’s daughter Paula says of her Aunt Bobbie: “She’s definitely his strength. It’s been the two of them for so long that you just don’t see one without the other.”
The film traces Nelson’s roots back to Abbott, Texas, population 300, which Willie and his sister revisit with Cantor and his crew. “I remember picking cotton out here on the highway and watching this air-conditioned Cadillac that went by and I said ‘I’m not going about this the right way,’ ” Nelson says. “And that’s when the guitar got to be more and more enticing, because I figured that was a way out of town.”
After 40 years on the road, Nelson talks about the possibility of finally settling down, perhaps in a permanent location such as Austin, where he and the band could play every night and still go home to sleep in their own beds. But drummer Paul English says, “I don’t think Willie can ever give up music, or the road. He feeds off it. Always has.” Even Nelson, now 73, admits: “As long as the crowd is there, as long as the people show up, and as long as we feel good, our health is good, then I don’t need to quit . . . I don’t think you can learn it all in one lifetime. I think that’s why we keep coming back.”
Susan Lacy is the creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS series. Barry Schulman is director of cultural and arts programs for Thirteen/WNET New York.