Willie Nelson: The Rolling Stone Interview, by Kinky Friedman (3/7/91)

It’s Not Supposed to be This Way
On the bus and behind the $16 million eight ball with Willie Nelson.
by Kinky Friedman
Rolling Stone Magazine
March 7, 1991

Willie Nelson, the cover boy for the National Inquirer? The story contends that Willie owes the IRS $16 million, that it has confiscated everything but the T-shirt off his back and that Willie is a despondent, broken man, who according to “friends,” has been thinking of taking his own life.

It’s a rainy January night in Austin, Texas, and Willie’s bus is parked near the set of Another Pair of Aces, a movie he’s starring in with Kris Kristofferson and Rip Torn. I climb aboard the bus, the Enquirer story still on my mind, and find Willie dressed in a flashy sport jacket, slacks, shiny new boots and big, black cowboy hat.

“I hope these are from wardrobe,” I say. Willie smiles, and nods.

“As you’ve probably noticed,” Willie says, “I’m homeless and penniless and now residing with Little Joe and his family in Temple, Texas. I’ve been callin’ around lookin’ for one of those suicide machines. I’ll go on national tv, hook myself up to that machine and tell everyone I have ’til seven o’clock to get $16 million. If I don’t get it, I’m pulling the plug. Just like that guy, Oral Roberts did. And he’s still around.”

“What’s it like to owe this money?” I ask.

“I started out thinking if I ever got $50,000 in debt, I’d be a pretty successful cowboy,” says Willie. “considering how far in debt I am now, I’m really cuttin’ a big hog in the ass.”

Willie wants it known that he is not a tax dodger. Since 1983 he has paid over $8 million in taxes, and his records are up-to-date and current. The problem, according to Willie, was listening to bad advice about a tax-shelter scheme. Willie, who has dedicated so much of his time and efforts to helping others, does not really want to accept Willie Aid. He suggests that if people want to help, they buy his forthcoming album. The IRS Tapes, which consists of unreleased material confiscated form his recording studio before it was locked up by the IRS. Willie has met with the IRS, and the people there seem to like the idea, too. This month Willie plans to go on the road again.

There is in Willie a spirit of calm, upbeat determination, in a situation many would regard as hopeless, tragic or impossible. He is a timeless spiritual hustler, Willie Nelson is chalking his cue.

‘According to the National Inquirer, I say, ‘you’re gonna have a hell of a time singing your way back from a debt that large.” Willie’s eyes shine.

“Watch me,” he says.

Both of us laugh. My thoughts wander back to an earlier time, five months and $16 million ago. . .

IT’S A BLOODY MARY MORNING, 4:45 a.m. I’m loitering in the parking lot of a convenience store on the outskirts of Tedious, Texas, watching a large Hispanic male projectile vomiting on the only pay phone in the place. Not an auspicious beginning. at five o’clock. I’m supposed to call Doug Holloway, my contact man. the mission: to travel across America on the bus with willie Nelson and attempt to ****, **** or cajole a hip, quirky profile that shows a side of the star to American has ever seen with the naked eye.

I make the call.

By dawn’s surly light I’m aboard Willie’s beautiful touring bus, the only other two occupants being Willie’s driver, Gates “Gator” Moore, and Ben Dorsey, who at sixty-five is said to be the world’s oldest roadie, having worked for every major country star in the firmament, including a long stint as John Wayne’s valet. I mention that being Willie’s valet must be easier since the only accouterments he employs are a pair of tennis shoes and a bandanna that has been carbon-dated and found to be slightly older than the shroud of Turin. Dorsey does not respond. The bus lurches onto the highway.

We stop to pick up Willie’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, keyboard player for the band. She is a charming and gracious lady, and she likes men who smoke cigars on buses. Bobbie has known Willie longer than anyone on the planet. “He was my little brother,” she says. “Now he’s my big brother.”

I think about my own relationship with Willie. He and I have been friends for along time, and one of the secrets of our enduring friendship is that we’ve usually stayed the hell away from each other. I do not want to trick the prey, but I do want to catch him. The situation is somewhat uncomfortable and reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s description of a fox hunt:Â ‘The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.”

We pick up the man who was once Bobbie Nelson’s little brother in Abbott, Texas, the place where he was born and now lives with his new love, Annie, their two infant children and their two Mexican nannies, whose only word of English appears to be Weellie! I do not bring up Willie’s problems with the IRS, but Willie does. It seems Willie owes the IRS more millions than there are cross ties on the railroad or stars in the sky. Sister Bobbie is very concerned. “I don’t know what people with minds of machinery will do,” she says. “Willie’s worked so long an hard for this, and now he could lose everything.”

Willie himself does not say much about this possibility. The case is current, and he’s counter suing. There is a lot of money involved: Willie plays over 200 dates a year and earns roughly $50,000 per gig.

As the bus roars toward Texarkana on the way to Detroit, we talk about the situation. Willie, relaxed and philosophical, is not the kind of man who would be likely to jump out the window of his bus.

‘You’re a gypsy, Willie,” I say. “And a gypsy’s definition of a millionaire is not a man who has a million dollars, but a man who’s spent a million dollars.’

Willie laughs as we sit at the little table on the bus. His eyes look into me with all the even-mindedness of a mahatma.

“It’s like this,” Willie says. “I have the ability to make money. I have the ability to owe money. I have the ability to spend money. And I’m proud of it. I’m the perfect American.”

I ask Willie about the woman who’s garnered some press lately in the tabloids with a rather unusual story. She claims that on January 4, 1985, in the Biloxi, Mississippi, Hilton, she and Willie had sexual intercourse for nine consecutive hours and that he consummated the act with a backward somersault with the woman still attached. She’s now suing Willie for $50 million for breach of promise in refusing to marry her. At Willie’s Fourth of July picnic in Austin he told me that this was the only true story ever written about him. Now he seems to hedge a bit.

“I’m not saying it didn’t happen,’ he says. “It might’ve happened. but you would’ve thought I’d remember at least the first four or five hours.”

“What will you do,” I ask him, “if the case actually comes to court?”

Willie thinks for a moment, then smiles. “My ex-wife Shirley said she’d be glad to testify on my behalf,” he says.

The bus moves like a patient brush stroke across the sepia Arkansas twilight. inside, as peaceful as a sill-life painting, Willie sits across the little table, the conversation moving into the murky casino of world politics.

‘You’ve got to look for the good in everything,” says willie. ‘Iraq took the heat off Rosanne Barr and Neil bush.”

Willie has no great empathy for Neil bush, but he does feel something for Roseanne Barr. “I can sympathize with anyone who has to sing that song,’ he says.

Willie belongs to that small, close-knit fraternity — consisting primarily of Robert Goulet, Pia Zadora, Roseanne Barr and himself – - that has botched the singing of “The star-Spangled banner.” At the 1980 Democratic Convention, Willie accidentally blew the chorus, leaving out the entire portion beginning with “And the rocket’s red glare…” and ending the song quite a bit earlier than expected. Democrats, putting the best fact on it, maintained that Willie had deliberately deleted the violence form the song, the ‘bombs bursting in air,” et cetera. Republicans, not being so charitable, contended that Willie was bombed himself at the time. today Willie merely says: “The teleprompter wasn’t rolling at the same speed that I was.”

Around midnight a storm comes up, and we see lightning lashing the Nashville skyline almost as if God is smiting the philistines who never understood Willie Nelson. In the song ‘me and Paul,” Willie acknowledges that “Nashville was the roughest,” but tonight he seems to hold little rancor for the town that once drove him to lie down in the middle of snowy Broadway and wait for a truck to run him over.

“As they go,” I say, “that was a fairly ballsy suicide attempt.”

“At three o’clock in the morning in Nashville,” says Willie, “there’s not much traffic.”

As we roar through music city, it’s bright lights and dark shadows do not appear to evoke any bitter memories in Willie. Ben Dorsey, the world’s oldest roadie, has joined the conversation which now has turned to bandannas, john Wayne and the Trilateral commission. Willie is a believer in bandannas an the trilateral Commission, but he isn’t so sure about John Wayne.

“I’m a Gene Autry/Roy Rogers guy,” Willie says. “John Wayne couldn’t sing, and his horse was never smart.”

This kind of loose talk irks Dorsey, who, of course, was the Duke’s valet for many years before he worked for Willie. Dorsey staunchly defends Wayne and releases a new narrative about beautiful women, freight elevators, seven passenger roadsters and Tijuana, at the end of which Willie concedes to Dorsey that Wayne was indeed a great American. I inquire if it’s true, as Nashville’s famous Captain Midnight asserts, that Willie stole the idea of wearing the bandanna from Midnight and John Wayne. Willie contends that the bandanna and tennis shoes are not an affectation – they are the outfit he wore as a child, predating Wayne’s or Midnight’s use of the bandanna. Dorsey takes out a John Wayne book and authenticates that the Duke wore a bandanna in a movie in 1928, five years before Willie was born. The conversation has become metaphysical. “Do you ever think of being old?” I ask.

“I was old before it was fashionable,” Willie says.

We stop at a truck stop on the other side of Nashville to pick up guitar genius Grady Martin. Everyone gets off the bus to eat except Willie, who usually stays on, subsisting almost entirely on fried-egg sandwiches to go and bee pollen. In the early hours of the morning, during the long haul to Detroit, willie speaks forth on one of his favorite causes: the American farmer.

“Russia’s giving its land back to its farmers,” willies says, “and here we’re taking it away.” the Russians, apparently, have asked Willie to speak to the Russian farmers about trusting their governments, something the Russian people haven’t given serious thought to in over seventy years. “I don’t know how i can tell the Russians to trust their government,” he says, ‘when i don’t even trust my own.”

I try a few units of bee pollen myself. The conversation has somehow come back to the trilateral commission, which, Willie believes, controls the world. The notion is often a favorite of old right wingers, but looking at willie, one can’t help but see that the man has a far closer spiritual kinship to Che Guevara than to Robert Bork. As I move toward my book, Willie is contending that there are men more powerful than George Bush who are calling the shots. Willie’s driver, Gator, shouts back from the front of the bus: “Anybody who can get his old lady’s picture on a dollar bill is powerful enough for me.”

That night i have a vague, troubling dream of Barbara Bush having intercourse with George Washington and at the end, performing a backward somersault. I write it off to the bee pollen.

When I wake up it is morning, and we’re in Detroit. Everyone’s already checked into the hotel except Willie and myself. I pour some coffee and peek around the curtains to find that the bus is parked right next to a green lawn with a canopy and many nice, respectable-looking suburban couples having brunch. Willie pulls the curtain back ever so slightly and peers out at the scene like a storybook princess in a tower. He can never be one of these people, I realize; his gypsy lifestyle, his incredible celebrity, his standard wardrobe, all mitigate against it. But if he’s a prisoner, I figure I may as well interrogate.

“How many songs have you written” I ask him.

“About a thousand,” Willie says.

“How many kids do you have?”

“About a thousand.”

How many wives have you had?

“Four.”

“How many albums have you made?”

“Over a hundred.”

“How many cars have you wrecked?’

“Over a hundred.”

“Ever been really brokenhearted?”

“I’ve had a trail of broken hearts,” he says, “At the Hank Williams level.”

“Doesn’t part of you dream of being one of those people out there?” I ask a bit rhetorically. “Of having a little house with a white picket fence and polishing your car under an airport flight path?”

Wilie doesn’t answer the question directly. Maybe there is no direct answer. “I had to stop thinking that I had a home,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to move to the next big town without slashing your wrists.”

“At least it must be comforting,” I say, “to realize that your ex-wives and ex-girlfriends have to listen to your music in elevators and dentist waiting rooms.”

Willie laughs, “The one nice thing about all my marriages,” he says, “is that every time I start a new relationship, all my old lines are good again.”

“What effect does marijuana have on you?”

“It makes the questions further apart,” he says, “but my answers are still wise and heavy.’

i see that Willie is again toying, rather poignantly it seems, with the curtain at the window. “If you couldn’t sing or write or play the guitar,” I ask, “What do you think you would have been?”

Willie steals another shy glance at the nice people eating their mushroom quiches. “A lawyer slash pimp,” he says.

“I’m not sure that we really need the slash,” I say.

The show at the Michigan State Fair that night is so vibrant, spirited and full of energy one might not believe every member in the seven-piece band, except Mickey Raphael and bee Spears, is over fifty. Maybe they’re all on bee pollen. The large crowd, seemingly as diverse as America itself, is warm and enthusiastic toward Willie — almost as if he were a personal friend. There are surprisingly large numbers of blind people, adults and children in wheelchairs and one ambulance with the back doors open and a frail old lady lying inside. the next day I’m having a drink in the hotel bar with Larry trader, Willie’s old pal and promoter and the man who once helped my former band the Texas Jewboys, escape a redneck lynch mob in Nacogdoches, Texas. I mention to Trader about the wheelchairs, the blind people, the lady in the ambulance.

“I ain’t saying he’s a doctor,” Trader says. “I’m sayin’ he’s a healer through music.”

On the road to New York and Vermont, in Colombo-like fashion, I ask penetrating questions and occasionally get fairly wiggy answers that I write down in my special investigator’s notebook. At the Holiday Inn pool in Syracuse, New York, I ask Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica player, how it feels to be the only person of the Jewish persuasion in Willie’s outfit.

“Fine,” says Raphael, “but playing harp with willie, manipulating the media and controlling world banking is really wearing me out.”

Backstage, I talk to Paul English, Willie’s drummer, after the show at the New York State Fair. i ask him what he thinks of the woman who claims she had a “nine-hour nonstop loveathon with the redheaded stranger.” “Well,” says English, “at least she got her $50 million worth.”

Willie’s daughter Lana also has a comment about the rather unusual, not to say sordid, affair. “If Mama were alive right now,” says Lana, ‘I know she’d be wondering what ever happened to her other eight and a half hours.”

On the large patio of a Vermont luxury hotel with a vaguely mental-hospital ambiance, Jody Payne, Willie’s guitar player, is telling me how he first met Willie. It was 1962, and Willie had sat in for a few songs at the west Fort Tavern, in Detroit, where Payne was working. Willie sang “Half a Man,’ and the brilliance of the song completely blew Payne away. Then the owner of the bar came over to Payne and said: ‘Don’t let him sing anymore. He’s the worst singer I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Willie was playing bass for Ray Price at the time. “It took Ray almost six months to realize Willie couldn’t play bass,” says Payne. “It took us about five minutes.”

After the show at the Champlain valley fair, in Vermont, the bus appears to be surrounded by farmers, Hell’s Angels and American Indians. Willie is taking a break before going out to sign autographs when he suddenly realizes that he is sitting at the table with his longtime manager Mark Rothbaum and Mickey Raphael. Seeing the creative opportunities of the moment, Willie works on a spontaneous improvisation on his song “Why Do I Have to Choose?” He opens his palms in a somewhat Christ-like manner toward Rothbaum and Raphael. Willie sings: “Why Do I Have Two Jews?”

When Willie goes outside again to meet his fans, I take the chance to wander around the backstage area at the fairgrounds. L.G., a Hell’s Angel in good standing, is coordinating events with various members of the crew. Gator is organizing routes with the drivers of the three other buses in the entourage, one of which belongs to Shelby Lynne, a young female singer who’s opening for Willie and who ha one of the most undercaffeinated voices I’ve ever heard this side of Janis Joplin. Poodie, who first met Willie on the gangplank of Noah’s ark, is overseeing the removal of tons of equipment from the stage. Wille’s family is packing up to go back on the road. They’re a ragged, eccentric, efficient crew, who look for all the word like a band of gypsies who’ve broken into a Rolex distributorship.

As the fairgrounds empty, i am left with afterimages. I remember walking far into the crowd as Willie sang “Georgia on My Mind,” evoking the spirits of Hoagy Carmichael’s and Richard Manuel. I remember every person in the back of the huge fairgrounds seemingly listening to every word and every note. “Angle Flying Too Close to the Ground.” the metal spokes of the wheelchairs. The pulsating neon spokes of the giant Ferris wheel in the nearby field, a world away. childhood is close by, but you can’t quite touch it. “Blue Eyes Crying’ in the Rain.” Sister Bobbie playing “Down yonder” in a style that seems to bravely flutter like a balloon escaping to some beautiful place between a little country church and an old New Orleans whorehouse. “Just another scene from the world of broken dreams/The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”

I remember walking along the back of the fairgrounds listening to Willie sing, standing in the throng, thinking the thoughts of a lifetime. ‘You Were Always on My Mind.” Willie’s voice is not what is traditionally considered a good voice, but it is a great voice and one that is capable of making you cry and comforting you at the same time. It does both to me. I feel a palpable sense of history passing, ephemeral as the dopplered voices on a midway ride, and yet, I know something will stay.

earlier, backstage, willie looked out at the crowd. “That’s where the real show is,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of those people are not with their true first choice.” Willie smiled. Then he added, almost to himself: “That’s why they play the jukebox.”

As we slowly pull out of the fairgrounds, the curtain is open a bit and Willie is looking out the window of the bus. Standing behind him, I catch the face of a young girl who suddenly sees him. Her face reflects first disbelief, then a sort of gentle reverence, then the absolute innocence of wonder. Bobbie Nelson’s little brother smiles at the girl. the scenery changes. I. go back to my notebook, and I realise that there are some things Willie Nelson has tha the IRS can never take away.

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