Laid Back Willie Nelson (Country America Magazine, March 1990)

Country America
March 1990

Willie Nelson, country music’s most famous “outlaw” is in church. Sitting in the front row, in fact, where he can catch every pearl of wisdom delivered from the pulpit… by Kris Kristofferson.

“Take that damn hat off in church!” Kris suddenly commands Willie, who obliges and does so with a sheepish grin.

What’s going on here?  Nothing in real life, of that you can be assured.  This is pure Hollywood.  Texas-style, on location outside of Austin, where Willie and Kris have teamed for a new television movie entitled Pair of Aces.  The two-hour melodrama aired in January on the CBS network.

In the film, Willie plays a wily burglary suspect who’s been released into the temporary custody of Kris’s character, a Texas Ranger nicknamed Rip — a man of such standing in the community that he also leads Sunday Bible study.  Although neither man is particularly excited about the prospect of spending 72 hours in the other’s company, their relationship warms as the outlaw helps the lawman solve a series of grisly local murders.

During a break in the filming, Willie and Kris walk outside the church into the crisp morning air. Immediately, Willie is engulfed by onlookers, well wishers and autograph-seekers.  Most are actual members of the small church who are working as extras for today’s scenes.

"I’ve waited 26 years for this picture,” says one man, sidling up to Willie as his wife takes a snapshot.  A woman asks Willie to autograph a Bible.  “Sign it ‘For David,’ ” she says.  Another young woman comes up to shake his hand.  “We have a saying at this church,”  she tells him.   “Whenever you enter here, you become a member — but it’s for sinners only.”

Willie smiles politely.  “Well,” he says, looking her square in the eye.  “I guess we all qualify for that!”  The small group around him laughs heartily.

This singing, songwriting, move-starring celebrity maintains a grass roots appeal that belies his status as one of the world’s most instantly recognizable personalities. Much of his “common-man” image stems from his humble roots as a native son of the Texas soil, as well as his refusal to adopt the outward posturing of a superstar. 

He grew up on Abbott, three hours north of his current home in Austin.  Although he moved to Nashville for several years in the Sixties, he eventually returned to the Lone Star State ot drop permanent anchor.

Young Willie’s early days were spent laboring with his family in the broiling Texas sun, often working someone Else’s land.  It’s a time he remembers well, if not particularly with fondness.  “Hay baling,” he says, relaxing later that day in the quite privacy of his tour bus, “Was the hardest, hottest farm work there was.  The hay got down your neck and itched, and sometimes the bales weighed 50 to 100 pounds.  The first job I ever had was punching wires and stacking hay, and I got paid 15 cents a bales.  I barely weighed as much as the hay bales I was stacking.”

One day he was picking cotton, busting his back and bloodying his fingers, when a sleep, air-conditioned Cadillac breezed down the road.  Willie paused from his labor long enough to admire it — and the lifestyle it represented.  Some day, thought, some day…

That day came over a decade ago, when Willie, after years of struggling as a singer/songwriter, finally broke into the music business with his 1975 single “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”  the song’s crossover success secured his reputation as a country music superstar.  During the late Seventies and Eighties, he rode the airwaves with such solo hits as “On the Road Again,” “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” and, recently, “There you Are.”

He also became known as a vocal collaborator with dozens of other artists, such as Waylon Jennings (“Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys”), Julio Iglesias (“To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”) and Merle Haggard (“Poncho and Lefty”).

Willie also established himself as a movie actor, appearing in the films Thief, The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, Red Headed Stranger, Barbarosa and Songwriters.

Burt even though he’s long been a part of the Cadillac crowd, so to speak, Willie is still out there in the field — in a figurative sense.  His ongoing passion for the past five years has been the economic plight of American farmers.  he currently serves as president and chairman of Farm Aid, an organization he helped establish in 1985 to provide assistance to poor an needy families whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture.  to dae, Farm Aid has distributed more than $9 million to farmers in distress through various educational, legal, emergency-help and outreach organizations.

“It has always been said that the farmer is the backbone of this country,” says Willie, “Bu now we’ve pretty much broken that backbone.”

Much of Farm Aid’s funding and most of its image raising, has been down through three massive star-studded concerts spearheaded by Willie in 1985, 1986 and 1987.  Now he’s planning another concert.  scheduled for April 7 at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana, this may be the biggest Farm Aid concert yet.  He’s also keeping himself busy designing a Farm Aid home video project and an album packages that will feature music from some of the rock and country stars who have readily joined him in the cause.

“I seem to be getting all the publicity for it,” says Willie, who is quick to cite rock musicians John Mellencamp and Neil Young, country singer John Conlee and others as his compatriots in the cause.

“Whenever you hear ‘Farm Aid,’ you usually hear my name, but there aer a lot of guys who are still very active in it.”

The farm crisis is not simply a faddish concern, explains Willie — its a society-threatening quagmire that continues to worsen.”  Since 1985, we’ve seen 400,000 farmers give up there farms.  Obviously we are not making that much progress.

New national farming legislation that will be introduced later this year has become a personal rallying point for Willie.  “I have heard a lot of family farmer say that what they need out of the 1990 Farm Bill is legislation taht would allow them to make enough money to pay their bills and plant and harvest their crops – enough to break even and make a living.  That’s all they’re asking.

“If we don’t correct his problem, it’s going to cost us the world.  If you look back at the cities’ problems of unemployment, poverty, drugs, you name it — you can trace it back to where the first farmers were forced into the cities to find jobs, and overcrowding developed.  It’s as if, after we got through kicking the Indians around, we started kicking the family farmer.”

“When the farms go under, the whole community goes under; the house, the schools, the hospitals.  After all the small businesses go under, all those people are forced into the next biggest town, and the problem starts to repeat iteslf.  The only way the situation can be reversed is to make farming an attractive enough business so that the children of our children will want to do it.”

If he hadn’t had direct farming experience of his own when he was younger.  Willie admits he probably wouldn’t have the awareness he does today about the precarious state of American agriculutre.  “I would just be like most people in this country who have no idea of what is happening.  They don’t hve time to think about that.  They’ve got their own problems, and I understand that.  But they should take time to think about where their food is coming from — is there’s going to be plenty of it, or will we be paying a dollar for a slice of bread?”

Willie, with his laid-back lifestyle, may at first seem like an unlikely candidate  for such large-scale activism.  “I have never taken the time to look up the definition of the word ‘activist.’  It sounds to me like the definition would be ‘somebody who acts,’ and that would be me.  That would also include everyone of the artists who performed at any of the Farm Aid concerts, every one of the volunteers and all of those people who sent money and paid for tickets.  It makes us all activists.”

“I would be a little scared to jump out there and say, for instance, ‘I think that all Repbulicans are great,’ or ‘All Democrats are great.’  I don’t think I’m ready to get that general with my acitvism.  But there are certain  issues that I believe people should act on, especially if its going to affect their family or the future of the world.  To me, being an activist means ‘positive action.'”

His first love, and still foremost, is the music that he’s been making for over four decades.  Even with Farm Aid, it’s been Willie’s musical role that has provided the axis for his involvement.  “Playing music is what I do,” he says.  “All these other things are just other things.  I really believe there’s safety in numbers.  The more things you get started, the less worriying you can do.  Plus, I do seem to get bored pretty quickly, which means I’m always looking around for something new.”

He hopes that his music, his movies, his crusade for Farm Aid and his whole public image send a message of inspiration.  “There are not enough people who realize the value of a good positive attitude”  he says.  “If I had a message that I would pass on to people, it would be that they don’t have any idea how much a positive attitude can change their lives.”

How would he like to be remembered, after the records, the films, Farm Aid and everything else is past and gone?  He thinks for a moment, and then a smile creases his face. “I’d like them to say, ‘He put on a good show.'”

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