Willie Nelson going strong (Interview, Esquire Magazine)

photo:  David McClister

by:  Jeff Slate

Willie Nelson may be 84, but he’s still going strong. He’s released a clutch of excellent albums this decade, including Heroes, which featured a superb version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” a fantastic tribute to his friend Ray Price, God’s Problem Child, from earlier this year, and his latest, Willie and the Boys: Willie’s Stash, Vol. 2, which teams him up again with family, this time his sons Lukas and Micah—and he keeps up a relentless touring schedule that would make any artist half his age blush.

 But with all the accomplishments in his long and storied career, at the moment Nelson seems most proud of Willie’s Reserve, his own line of legal cannabis products.

“It’s time has come,” he tells me, with great joy in his voice.

Long a proponent of marijuana use, Nelson is also blunt about why you should consider his brand over the competition. “I know what I’m talking about,” he says, with a chuckle. “Why wouldn’t you trust me that I know what’s good stuff? They say my stash is legendary for a reason.”

The country legend talked to Esquire.com about what keeps him active, how the music industry has changed (and how it hasn’t), and, of course, the stash he’s very proud of.

Willie and his sons tackle some classic country on the new album—including several tunes by Hank Williams—because he wants you to love those songs as much as he does.

I sort of compare this album to the old Stardust album that I did many years ago, where I did a lot of the old pop standards on there that people of your age, including the country audience, had never heard before. I enjoy the old standards, whether it’s Hank Williams or Hoagie Carmichael. I never get tired of those lyrics and the melodies. So I felt once people had heard the songs on Stardust they’d like them, and I kind of felt the same way about this album.

Like his days with the supergroup The Highwaymen, Willie says it’s the camaraderie and quality that keeps him going.

It’s amazing to have my kids on the stage with me. The fact that they are good, that helps a lot, too. [Laughs] But if I wasn’t good they’d kick me off! Though there might be a little fight! [Laughs] But me and the boys are very close now. We play golf together, we play music together, chess, we vacation together. We have a place over in Maui that we like to go and hang out at. We’re just a pretty close family. The fact that we play music together, it’s just double the pleasure.

A good song is a good song, even if it’s by Coldplay.

That is a good song. I thought it was funny that anybody thought that I could do a song called “The Scientist” to begin with! [Laughs] I felt like that was a stretch of somebody’s imagination. But when I heard the song I realized, “Hey, this is a good song.”

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Willie’s secret sauce? A great producer. Plus more than a dash of Willie Nelson.

It has a lot to do with the producer, the sound you get. Danny Lanois is great, and now I work with Buddy Cannon. They all bring something very different to the project. But ultimately it sounds like me, or I hope it does. But I do like to challenge myself, and I’m lucky to work with these guys. In fact, I’m getting ready to do a Sinatra tribute album with Buddy, and I also I want to do an album with Jerry Lee Lewis. So I’m looking forward to that. Jerry Lee? Yeah, he’s out there. Actually, I haven’t talked to him about doing the record yet—he hasn’t said yes or no—so we will have to wait and see. [Laughs]

Like his friend Bob Dylan, he’s planning an album of Frank Sinatra covers.

Frank Sinatra is my favorite singer, and always has been. For overall great singing, ain’t nobody can beat him. I read somewhere that I was his favorite singer, and we did a few shows together, and some commercials together, so he and I got to be good friends, but his singing always amazed me. So this is my way of honoring him and I’m looking forward to singing all the songs I heard him sing over the years. The song that epitomizes Frank to me that I’m planning to tackle? “My Way.” But Frank really owns that song, you know, so I’ll just sing it three times, and if it ain’t there, fuck it. I’ll move on. [Laughs]

Willie’s Reserve

The recent project he’s most proud of is Willie’s Reserve, from his legendary cannabis stash.

I have a lot of friends in Colorado, and my wife Annie had the recipe for the candy. There’s also some really talented and gals in California that I refer to as “The High Women” who are doing a great job doing everything that needs to be done to promote Willie’s Reserve. They know who to call to get the job done. But, yeah, a lot of people thought it was a good idea, so I just kind of sat back and burned one down and thought about what it could be.

Willie, not surprisingly, thinks the movement for legalization and the normalization of the use of marijuana in the general culture is a long time coming.

I think there are a lot of really right-wing old, white people out there who don’t really know what’s going on still. But once the kids grow up and get a chance to get into the voting booth, I think we’ll see a change like we have in the few states that have legalized it. That could be a long way off, but in the meantime I don’t think anybody’s ever had any problems buying weed if they wanted it—whether it was legal or not—so it’s a problem that one day may be solved, but right now it’s not solved at all. Actually, a lot of people throw it on stage, so it’s not that hard for me to get. [Laughs]

“A lot of people throw [marijuana] on stage, so it’s not that hard for me to get.”

As laid back as he is, the current state of politics concerns Willie Nelson as much as it does everyone else.

I think there’s a lot of things out there to be concerned about. So yeah, I’m concerned about it. And I’m hoping that more and more Americans will get concerned about it, because anytime you get even the hint that some foreign country might have anything to do with controlling our elections, well, that’s very disturbing to me, and I think it should be to every American out there. But when I get out on the stage I don’t bring in the politics. I don’t care if you’re a Baptist, a Methodist, a Muslim, or what the hell you are, as long as you like our music and you come to hear us, you won’t hear me say anything bad about anybody. But if you ask me my personal opinion, well, I’ll tell you what I think.

He also thinks Trump is over his head. And knows it.

I think he walked into a job that he had no idea of what he was getting himself into. I think about now he’s probably ready to back away and go home and forget it. I don’t know if he can do that or not now, but I have a feeling he’s beginning to realize that this is not the piece of cake he thought it was going to be.

Nelson and his sons, Micah and Lukas
Janis Tillerson

He’s as busy at 84 as he’s ever been—with a new album, a tour with his sons, a Sinatra covers album on the way and, of course, Willie’s Reserve—but Willie Nelson isn’t sweating what’s next. But he isn’t planning to retire, either.

I let other people worry about that stuff. If they come out with the T-shirt I like, I wear it. But other than that I don’t worry about the business all that much. There’s a lot of people out there that do think about those things, and that’s their job, and the way I see it I’ve got to let them do their job. But I do have to keep myself interested. That’s the big problem, because I have a tendency to roll over and go to sleep and forget about everything if given the choice. So I have to keep punching myself and making myself get up and go and book the tour and do the records, because I think that’s what keeps me going. I think as long as I can play I should play. I don’t think that I could just one day say, “This is it. I cannot play anymore.” I think if I did that I might as well lay down and die.

So one day maybe his sons will have to drag him off.

That’s possible! [Laughs]

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