A conversation with Willie Nelson, by Peter Blackstock

by: Peter Blackstock

Austin icon talks about new album, book, SXSW and more

“It’s been exactly a year that I haven’t done anything, been anywhere.”

It’s almost impossible to fathom this quote coming from Willie Nelson, who’s done everything and been everywhere for the better part of his nine decades on the planet. But pandemics have no exceptions for living legends, which means the man who wrote “On the Road Again” has been off the road since March 4, 2020.

“We played the Houston Rodeo,” Willie says, bittersweetly recalling the last full gig he played with his band before the coronavirus pandemic took over the world. “We had 80,000 people there. It was one of the best shows of the year. I remember it well.”

Speaking by phone from Luck, Texas, the sprawling horse ranch about an hour west of Austin that has been his home base for decades, Willie is in good spirits on a late February afternoon. (It’s about an hour past 4:20, for what that’s worth.)

We have lots to discuss in our 15-minute window: a new album of songs that Frank Sinatra made famous, his first-ever South by Southwest keynote address, possible plans for an in-person Fourth of July Picnic this year, a new book written with his pal Turk Pipkin, and more.

But first, we talk a little bit about the pandemic, and the toll it has taken. Willie wants to make it clear that he knows it’s been hard on everyone.

“I’m not the only musician who’s hating this,” he says. “There’s a lot of them out there, not only musicians, but everybody. Promoters, audience — everybody associated with music is really tired of this, and ready for it to go away.”

As for when that might be, your guess is as good as Willie’s. Check his website, and you’ll find four shows scheduled for April and May that seem questionable. But other dates in August — plus two October shows at Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels — feel more in reach.

“Well, you’ve got to be optimistic,” he says of the April dates, not giving up hope yet, even as he acknowledges the odds. “Personally, I’m thinking more about August-September.

“I know we set up Farm Aid for September 26, I think up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I think for sure by then we’ll be able to go out. Between now and then, I don’t know; we’ll have to look at it and see. I’d love to do them all, you know.”

FARM AID BECAME a virtual event in 2020, following the lead of both Willie’s iconic Fourth of July Picnic and the Luck Reunion mini-festival, a newer tradition that’s taken place during the week of SXSW over the past decade. The Luck Reunion livestream was a ramshackle but remarkably enjoyable affair, especially given that it was thrown together in a matter of days after SXSW got shut down in early March.

Willie’s hard-working Luck Productions crew spent the spring honing their livestream skills with a series of large and small events before an ambitious Fourth of July Picnic that blended live performances at Luck with recorded submissions from luminaries including Lyle Lovett, Ziggy Marley and Margo Price.

The Picnic, which began in the Austin area in the early 1970s and then hopscotched across the state and country for several decades, returned home in 2015 for a five-year run at Circuit of the Americas. Nelson says he has no plans to move it out of the area in the future. He fully expects to bring it back as an in-person event, perhaps by this summer if the dominoes line up right.

“We might have it here in Luck,” he says, intriguingly. When the pandemic hit last March, a 2020 Picnic site had not yet been announced, so it’s unclear as to whether Circuit of the Americas may still be in the cards.

“Last year I threatened to not do the Fourth of July Picnic until December, but I was just kidding,” he says with a chuckle. “But we’ll see. We’ll take it a little at a time and see what happens. Hopefully we can do the Fourth of July Picnic (this summer), and then everything around that.”

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