Willie Nelson Interview in “Y’All Magazine” (July/Aug 2005)

The Magazine of Southern People
July/August 2005
Willie, by Kristin Gravatt

Willie Nelson has traveled the world and become an American icon.  His name is recognized by people young and old across boundaries of class and ethnicity.  Through the decades Nelson has made all types of music from country to gospel and now reggae, and has also had his fair share of acting beginning with his role in The Electric Horseman in 1979 and continuing through his latest role as “Uncle Jesse” in The Dukes of Hazzard movie.

“The Red Headed Stranger” has become a grey haired star, and at 72 he shows no signs of slowing down.  He maintains a demanding recording schedule and continues to host yearly events such as Farm Aid and Fourth of July picnics.

Yet with his numerous accomplishments, Willie Nelson has not let fame go to his head and still feels connected to his Southern heritage.

“I always felt like we grew up in a place where there was a lot of respect for individuals, individual rights, and to me that’s where I learned to pattern my way of living,” Nelson shares on-board his tour bus.  “I think I got some good lessons growing up in a southern rural town.  I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a place to go:  Head South.’

Born Willie Hugh Nelson in Abbott, Texas on April 30, 1933, he spent his years after high school bouncing around from a D.J. job to a brief stint in the Air Force to a door-to-door Bible salesman until he moved to Nashville in 1960 and began making his career in music.  After penning hits for other musicians, such as “Crazy’ for Patsy Cline, Nelson focused on making his own hits.

Nelson moved back to Texas in 1970 and flourished in the relaxed musical atmosphere.  By the mid-1970s he had become the country music outlaw still revered today.  His trademark style of worn denim, bandana, and long hair was established and a star was born when he struck it big with the 1975 album Red Headed Stranger, which included his first No. 1 song, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”  Other hits soon followed as Nelson paired with Waylon Jennings on unforgettable classics like “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Good Hearted Woman.”

With a musical career solidified, Nelson wasted no time delving into acting.  He played the lead in 1980’s Honeysuckle Rose (which is th ename of his tour bus) and has continued to act and play himslf in numerous film roles since, including Songwriter (1984), Red Headed Stranger (1986), Dust to dust (1994), Wag the Dog (1997), Half Baked (1998) and The Big Bounce (2004).  With The Dukes of Hazzard, Nelson is playing the moonshine maker role Denver Pyle made famous in the classic sitcom, and also plans to record a duet with co-star and fellow Texan, Jessica Simpson, on the soundtrack.

Today, he has over 200 album credits, has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of fame (1993), and received a Lifetime Achievemant Award from The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (2000).

“Mainly i just like playing music a whole lot and I don’t like sitting around and waiting,” Nelson says.  “I don’t like the award shows that much because you’ve got five people up there competing for one award and to me all those people should get the award.”

Nelson doesn’t have to like award shows, becaue he manages to make an award-winning show out of each project he does.  In 2002 he aired Willie Nelson & Friends:   Stars and Guitars and another in 2003, Willie Nelson & Friends:  Live and Kickin.’  From its inception in 1985 to 2003, Farm Aid, co-founded with John Mellencamp and Neil Young, raised over $24 million to benefit family farming.

Nelson has had his share of hardships too.  He managed to rack up a $16.7 debt to the Internal Revenue service by the early 1990s’ has been married four times and lost his son, 33 years old, Billy to suicide in 1991.

Nelson takes the good with the bad, and always manages to end up on top.

“[Playing music] is all that I really know how to do,” Nelson says modestly.  “I’d like to do it forever.”

Although the Maui resident could probably get enough votes to become president, he is completely content making music.  “I would run, but I’d be afraid I’d win and then I’d have to go to work.  I’d rather sit on the side and criticize and play ‘Whiskey River.”

But Nelson doesn’t just sit on the sidelines when it comes to interests close to his heart.  He was raised by his paternal grandparents, he spent time in the cotton fields as a kid and has never forgotten the struggles of American farmers, whom he helps through his Farm Aid concerts.

He also worked with the Democratic Party doing fundraisers for John Kerry before the 2004 election, but insists that he doesn’t fit in any one political category.

“I’m just an ole redneck from Texas who ain’t a Democrat or Republican, but I can look at a guy and tell whether I like him or not.  I don’t think I would like to be in a party that would have me in there.  I’m a troublemaker.”

Even now, long past his wild days, Nelson still managers to stir up controversy.  In 2005, a Texas senator sponsored a bill proposing renaming a portion of Highway 130 the “Willie Nelson Turnpike.”  objections arose because of Nelson’s checkered past.  Nelson was honored but objected to his name being attached to a toll road.  The bill was later withdrawn.

Nelson’s musical style is anything but set after all these years.  He released a gospel album in 1973, has recorded with innumerable stars, like Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith, Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, and legends like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.  His next record is his long-talked-about reggae album, Countryman, due out August 2.  He will cover Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,’ and also rework his own Darkness on the Face of the Earth.”

Don’t plan on Willie retiring anytime soon.  He is running full-steam with no plans to quit.

“I try to take care of myself.  For a guy my age, I’m in shape” explains Nelson.  “I still have a lot of fun everyday, but I don’t have to get drunk to do it.”

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