Willie Nelson Country Music Interview (May 1979) (Part II)

Country Music
May 1979
Willie the Gypsy Cowboy Goes Hollywood
by Michael Bane

From his one-time headquarters in Austin, the Red Headed Stranger has gone on to the White House, Malibu Beach, Hollywood… and beyond.  These days he’s makng movies with Robert Redford and showing up at parties with the lieks of burt Reynolds and candice Bergen.  He’s also found time to start his own record lable, take up residence in Colorado, record an album with Leon Russell, and still hit the road for an average of 200 nights a year.  for a 45-year-old grandfather of four who’s now being chased by 16-year-old girls, he’s not doing badly at all.

It’s the time of the preacher when our story begins, and, to be sure, it’s been a long time coming.  Forget all your country-rock-crossover MOR clones — while no body was looking, Willie Nelson sneaked in as the biggest star in country music, and now, he’s headed off into the sunset to become an international sex symbol, a la Kristofferson.

Right, Wille?

“Well,” he says, in that soft Willie Nelson voice.  “I don’t guess there’s any way I can avoid it, is there?”

Hardly. Ever since the Willie Nelson juggernaut spilled out of Texas and took the country by song and storm a few years back, great Things have always been just around the corner for Willie.  But Willie has a way of sliding out form underneath the brightest spotlight, and media folks have a notoriously short attention span.  The net result was that, for the last couple of years, Willie’s been popping up like a shark’s fin on a mirror ocean.

But lately Willie’s been taking on new frontiers.  He just finished his first movie role with good buddy Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in a film called The Electric Horseman and a second film, tentatively titled Honeysuckle Rose, directed by Sidney Pollack, is scheduled to begin filjing in Texas around july.  And the long-awaited filming of The Red-Headed Stranger album is almost ready to get underway — hopefully with Redford in the role as the Stranger.

And in his spare time, Willie operates the Texas Opry House in Austin, Willie Nelson Publishing in Nashville, Lone Star Records, and tours — or tries to tour — 250 nights a year.

“Well, I don’t think I’m going to make that this year,” he adds, almost apologetically.  “With all the movies and all, we’ll be lucky if we get over 200.”

Two hundred nights a year?  Three movies?  (“Well, there’s also this documentary about me that we’re going to do this year…”)

‘Well, we all just love the road,” Willie says.  “We all enjoy playing music, so it’s not really that hard a work.  It is hard when you’re doing too many nights in a row and you’re not getting paid enough.  That’s hard.  I mean, everybody likes to take a week off now and then, but any longer than a week and you start to get restless and want to do it again.”

When you add up the performing dates and the movie filmings and the publicity operations and the miscellaneous comings and goings necessary to keep an operation like the Willie Nelson and Family Band on the road, that doesn’t leave much time for much of a personal life.  What personal life that is left is scattered across three states — a couple of years back the press of stardom forced Willie to leave his ranch in Austin for the less celebrity-conscious reaches of Aspen, Colorado, and Malibu, California.  Connie, his wife, and his two daughters, Paula Carlene and Amy, now live in Aspen.

“It really wasn’t that bad for me, because, you know, I’m gone most of the time anyway,” Willie says.  “but Connie was there and with people coming by all the time, it didn’t give her much of a private life.’

The ranch in Austin had, by last year, become something of a mecca for the diehard willie fans, and there are no fans quite like the diehard Willie fans.  lLving in a fishbowlwould have been an improvement.

When Willie left Austin this time, it was with considerably more wailing and chestbeating from the community than when he left Texas before, in 1959, on the $150 proceeds from the sale of Night Life.  in short, the Austin community felt betrayed — Willie was the most important mainstay of the much-vaunted Texas music scene.  Without him, quite frankly, there wasn’t all that much of a scene.  Or so some claimed.  Willie himself is fairly fed up with hearing the myth of the Austin sound.

‘There’s still musicians there playing music,’ he says of Austin.  “I never did think Austin was that much different from any other place.  I don’t think Austin is any different from charlotte, North carolina, or wherever.  It’s just some people who like music — that’s all.  Austin just hapened to become my home town, and we stayed there for a long itme and we played music there in a lot of different places for a long time.  And then we started moving around a little bit.  But I don’t think that Austin either lost anything or gained anything by us either coming there or going, really.  I’d like to say we’re about even…”

And Nashville?

“Well, I’d have to say the same thing.  I don’t think either town lost or gained anything by me being there,” Willie laughs.  Nashville might think differently.  “I just don’t think I made that much of an impression on either town.  i don’t know..maybe I made a few good impressions and few bad impressions in both towns.”

It’s a quetion of myth, and Willie Nelson obviously doesn’t subscribe to the Myth of Willie Nelson.  The rest of the world can wear t-shirts that say ‘Matthews, Mark, Luke and Willie,” and everyone else in the industry can either admire him for being a “canny businesman’ or damn him for being a heartless, calculating bastard.  Willie doesn’t care one way or the other — what he does, how he perceives himself, as as someone who makes music.


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