Willie Nelson can’t wait to get on the road again

Photo: Dave Creaney

Read article here.

by: Alan Paul

You might think that Willie Nelson, at age 87, would enjoy a chance to slow down his constant touring, after decades of playing about 150 shows a year, two weeks on and two weeks off. But when Covid-19 shut down live performances last year, the self-proclaimed “road dog” didn’t repair to his Texas ranch or his Maui home to relax and wait things out.

“This is the worst time of my life,” he says. “I have never been this frustrated. I try to think positive, but I feel like I’m in jail—I can’t go here, I can’t go there—and that really pisses me off.”

Mr. Nelson remains strikingly prolific, averaging about a new album a year while also writing books. He also oversees a SiriusXM channel called Willie’s Roadhouse and two cannabis companies: Willie’s Reserve, which sells a range of products with THC (the principal intoxicating compound in cannabis) and says it operates “under a simple philosophy: my stash is your stash,” and Willie’s Remedy, which features hemp-based “wellness products,” including CBD-infused coffee, tea and lotions.

“That’s Life,” a big-band tribute to Frank Sinatra released Feb. 26, is Mr. Nelson’s second release of the pandemic, following last July’s sparse, elegiac “First Rose of Spring.” That album made its debut at number five on the Billboard country album chart—Mr. Nelson’s staggering 53rd top-10 album, making him the only artist to have a top-10 country album in seven straight decades, from the 1960s to the 2020s.

That run is particularly amazing for an artist who, early in his career, was sometimes considered too stark, idiosyncratic or downright weird to make it as a country performer. Mr. Nelson’s first triumphs were as a songwriter, most notably with Patsy Cline’s 1961 take on his ballad “Crazy,” which became one of the biggest jukebox hits of all time. He recorded as a solo artist from 1962-72 but didn’t find consistent success until he ditched Nashville, haircuts, suits and alcohol in favor of Texas, long braids, jeans and joints.

Mr. Nelson also bypassed any concept of musical genres, proving equally comfortable in a duet with his “Outlaw Country” buddies Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, the pop crooner Julio Iglesias or the blues and R&B greats Ray Charles and B.B. King. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Sinatra called each other their favorite singers; both shared distinctive phrasing and an ability to make any song they sang their own.

That was clear on “Stardust,” Mr. Nelson’s 1978 album of American standards. Record executives thought that releasing the collection at the height of his country stardom was foolish, but it became a number one album and cemented his place as an iconoclast who transcends genres. “It was amazing that they thought I was crazy, because I can’t imagine anybody not loving those songs,” says Mr. Nelson. “They never get old and never will. There’s one thing about a good song—it’s always good.”

Mr. Nelson had huge hits throughout the ’80s, including “On the Road Again,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (with Mr. Iglesias) and “Always on My Mind.” He also appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, starting in 1979 with “The Electric Horseman.” In 1985, he worked with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to found Farm Aid, an annual concert that has raised millions of dollars for family farmers.

That era of stardom hit a wall in 1990 when the IRS seized Mr. Nelson’s assets, estimating that he owed $32 million in back taxes. Mr. Nelson even feared that the government might auction off his beloved guitar Trigger. He refused to file for bankruptcy; instead, he recorded a two-disc album (“The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?”) of some of his favorite songs, sold initially only by mail order via TV ads and later released in stores. He recorded it alone, featuring just his voice and guitar, primarily to keep costs down, but in the process created a sparse fan favorite. Proceeds from the sale helped him settle his debts by 1993.

Mr. Nelson, who has been married since 1991 to his fourth wife, Annie Nelson, is a sparse but genial conversationalist—until you tiptoe up to the topic of any of his friends and musical collaborators who have died in recent years. He has faced a relentless series of such losses, most recently with the deaths last fall of fellow Texas singer-songwriters Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker. “Yeah, it’s horrible,” he says in a tone that sounds like a door slamming shut.

Mr. Nelson seems to prefer thinking forward, looking toward his next project—and he always has something in the works. He is currently excited about a gospel album that he cut with his sons Lukas and Micah and his daughters Paula and Amy. In June, his 10th book, “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America,” will be published by Harper Horizon (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

That follows up last September’s “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band,” co-written in alternating chapters with his big sister, who was his first musical mentor and has been his piano player since the early ’70s. The two were raised by their grandparents in Abbot, Texas. “She taught me so much,” says Mr. Nelson. “When I was 8 years old, I’d sit next to her on the piano bench and try to learn what she was doing as she played songs like ‘Stardust’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont.’ I look forward to hearing her play every night and take so much comfort knowing she’s over there on the right side of the stage.”

Mr. Nelson has been an outspoken marijuana advocate for decades. He credits replacing heavy drinking and a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit with marijuana in about 1971 with changing his life—and maybe even saving it. Mr. Nelson says he dumped out a pack of cigarettes, filled his empty Chesterfield pack with 20 freshly rolled joints and never looked back. After decades working with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a Washington-based nonprofit group, Mr. Nelson says that he is happy to see more of the country coming around to his way of thinking, including legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Nelson’s other key to longevity is probably more mainstream. “If you want to live a long time, you have to take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to pay for the day, every day. As you’ve always heard, if you don’t use it, you lose it. You need to move. So every day, I’ll jog or walk, do some sit ups—just a little something to pay for the day!”

Leave a Reply