Willie Nelson: man, myth, music legend


by: Greg Archer

Man, myth, country music legend Willie Nelson descends upon Santa Cruz. The story you’ve been waiting for.

Willie Nelson is a bona fide music legend, yes. And that’s a very good thing. Willie Nelson also happens to be coming to Santa Cruz, which is, perhaps, even a better thing. Let’s face it: if there’s anybody Cruzans love to embrace with arms wide open, it’s a creative beast with liberal leanings who advocates the legalization of marijuana. The last time Nelson performed here, back in 2012, he attracted a huge crowd.

As most people already know, the pop country patriarch has led a colorful existence. Nelson’s six-decade career and collection of more than 200 albums to his credit are but two of the things that make the Texas singer-songwriter iconic. He also happens to be a resilient performer—that voice, those hands on the guitar. Few showmen have managed to capture the heart and spirit of a tale as effectively as Nelson has over the years.

But after the publication of his latest bestselling memoir, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road,” last year, as well as the studio release of Let’s Face The Music and Dance in April of this year, Nelson seems to be on a new roll. The album has been well received and his multi-city concert tour continues to pack in throngs of devotees. There’s also buzz over the September release of yet another album,


which comprises newly recorded duets between Nelson and a dream list of


cover poster

contemporary pop-county female crooners. It’s dubbed To All The Girls and it was mostly recorded in Nashville. A quick glimpse of the talent he’s working with on it makes one’s eyes widen in anticipation: Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn and—what’s this?—Mavis Staples. It’s the artist’s third full-length album of new music to be released in just 16 months and it celebrates a milestone year for Nelson—he turned 80 in April—and the work is loaded with classic songs from the American country, pop and gospel canons.

Truth is, Nelson doesn’t really need to do anything to keep his celebrity or his integrity in high orbit. The 10-time Grammy-winner has been inducted in into several music halls of fame and also garnered a Kennedy Center honoree in 1998. In 2000, he earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and every step along the way, his musings about life, love, survival, turning points, dreams, wishes, and all the highs and lows in between, have left an indelible imprint on the hearts and minds of the souls who’ve gravitated toward his words, his music, his work.

All of this comes to mind when Nelson’s upcoming appearance at the Santa Cruz Civic on Aug. 20 became more than a blip on my radar. Why not interview the man, I thought.

Good idea.

Nothing really came of my efforts. Well, I did give it my all, but Nelson rarely grants interviews, so it was a long shot anyway. Still, now the man was on my brain—he of Texan roots, political fervor and “outlaw country” fame; he of deep thought, Farm Aid, and costarring gigs inElectric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose; he of “Crazy,” of “On The Road Again,” of the mega hit duet “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”

He of animal activism, of guitar strumming and pot possession.

My growing intrigue surprised even me. Hey—I’m blond, I’m Polish, I dig disco. Why ponder Willie?

Actually, why not?

If it’s true, and everything happens for a reason, then perhaps there was a very good reason why Willie Nelson kept popping up in my mental inbox. Perhaps there was something to learn from the man. Did I need to talk to him to do that? No, not necessarily. (Yes … it would have been nice—and hey, I’m still available for a drink after the show, by the way.) I’m creative. I’m enterprising. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. If I can survive childhood, puberty and the cancellation of ABC’s Happy Endings, surely I could discover another way to absorb the full Willie.

But how?

Through his music? His words?

Perhaps. But first, it only seems appropriate to do one thing first: Smoke something good. (For the art of it all; for journalistic integrity, for Mr. Nelson.)

So now, I ask that you, dear reader … yes, you, passionate person who has already exhibited such bravura by reading more than three paragraphs in a day and age when modern media is forcing you not to do so … bear with me as I kindly take flame to—(do I have to spell it out for you here?)—and light up.

On A Roll

Something haunts me about Willie Nelson’s memoir, which was released last year. It’s the title: “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road.” Actually, the title doesn’t bother me. It’s the concept—having your remains rolled up into a joint and smoked by your pals.

Imagine that. No, really, I mean it: Imagine it.

Now, imagine having had that very same idea, oh, like a decade ago. Yes, that’s right; yours truly boasted a secret craving to be cremated and have a few of his remains sprinkled into a joint. Originally, I thought it would be a nice idea to have one’s friends absorb a little bit of one’s spirit and essence. After all, wouldn’t I be all the wiser if I could inhale some of the good juju from my comrades? But then my mood swing era began—circa 2001—and the idea of having my dearest pals inhale my lingering threads seemed a bit abusive … for how would I ever know if they’d be absorbing the best parts of me—and not the more “questionable” aspects?

Back to Nelson’s book—he’s the author of more than a dozen, by the way, having spawned the bestsellers: “The Facts of Life and other Dirty Jokes” and “The Tao of Willie,” among others.  “Roll Me Up …” is a bountiful read filled with tales and anecdotes about Nelson’s grandest endeavors, greatest influences and all of the things that matter to him most. It also celebrates Nelson’s friends, family and colleagues from whom he’s either drawn love or inspiration. In fact, the book’s soul is anchored around Nelson’s family and community and the entire gang has something to share here.

Fitting? Yes. Nelson keeps his peeps close by—on concert tours and beyond. His band, after all, is called Willie Nelson and Family. Sister Bobbie in on piano; daughter Amy on back-up vocals; and longtime cohorts Mickey Raphael (on harmonica; see sidebar), Paul English (on drums) and Billy English (percussion).

The book is insightful, too. Sure enough, Nelson …

(Oh dear, I fear I’m being entirely too formal here.)

Sure enough Willie doesn’t avoid controversial subjects either. He freely shares his thoughts on the government and corporations, and in between boldly suggests that it’s more than good to explore where our attitudes and apathy actually take us.

So, with Willie’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” playing on Pandora, I turn to the page 114 in the book, which features a note and the song after which the book is named.

    He writes:

THE NEXT SONG IS ON MY NEW RECORD. I PLUG MY MUSIC ANY TIME I can. I know it’s commercialism at its lowest forum … Bite me, again. It’s beginning to feel good.

…Well take me out and build a roaring fire
And roll me in the flames for ’bout an hour
And then pull me out and twist me up
And point me towards the sky
And roll me up and smoke me when I die.

Inhale Nation

It’s hard to prove, but I suspect you can count on one hand the number of people who don’t know anything about Nelson’s stance on marijuana. He is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and has often claimed that pot is not a drug, but rather an herb infused with natural properties and he has been a strong advocate for legalizing marijuana. Although he’s been arrested several times for pot possession, it hasn’t deterred Nelson. It wasn’t that long ago that he launched Willie Nelson’s Teapot Party. Its motto is “we lean a little to the left;” and of marijuana, Nelson is quoted online as saying, “Tax it, regulate it and legalize it.” The group’s Facebook page now boasts more than 100,000 Likes.

I must pause …

cover Nelson3“Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” is playing on Pandora. It’s Willie’s famous duet with Waylon Jennings from 35 years ago.  It hit No. 1 on the Country charts, climbed the Billboard Hot 100 and nabbed a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a duo. The line “Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold” stands out for me so I make a mental note of it before turning back to the book, my search for some life lessons in full swing.

In the memoir, Willie explains that he started the Teapot Party after he was busted for pot in 2010. Apparently, the organization now has reps in every state. He claims that on a few occasions, the group has even backed some politicians who share some of their ideals, mainly that marijuana should be legalized, taxed, regulated the “same way we do alcohol and tobacco.”

“If we legalized drugs in this country, and treated abuse as the disease it is, and offered medical treatment for these addicts, it would make much more sense than putting them in prison, and we should leave the marijuana users alone but tax them,” he writes. “It’s already been proven that taxing and regulating marijuana makes more sense than sending young people to prison for smoking a God-given herb that has never been proven to be fatal to anybody.”

No doubt this month’s recent speech in San Francisco by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about revamping “mandatory minimum” sentences on small-time drug offenses intrigued Willie. Holder noted that prosecutors in his Department of Justice would no longer seek the harshest possible charges in “low-level” narcotics cases, charges that, thus far, have spawned lengthy minimum sentences and tend to overcrowd prisons with “nonviolent offenders.”

Could Lesson No. 1 be: Don’t Send Young People to Prison For Smoking a God-given Herb?

You know, I must confess, I am not much of a pot smoker. In fact, I’m not a pot smoker—at all. I only came up with the idea for this article. Oh, people have done their best to encourage me to smoke pot. Oh, yes they have.

“Really, Greg, with all of your mood swings, I don’t see why you don’t get a medical marijuana card and call it a day?”

Or … “You just need to chill.”

Chill? Easy for them to say.

As if being a Sagittarius with a Scorpio Moon, Scorpio Rising, Scorpio in Neptune and Scorpio in Venus who was birthed from the loins of a Polish immigrant who barely escaped Stalin’s wrath is such a wonderful biochemically-balanced walk in the park.

I digress.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with questioning the esoteric fabrics of one’s inner being and the Universe to boot. And it isn’t always fun and games. (Well, it is, but on a much deeper level, and really, it would take too long to explain it here … for the day is progressing and the world must be Tweeted about and there are kids to pick up from day care, after all, so why get into that now when I’m beginning to feel really really good … We can wait for the likes of Deepak Chopra to come to town to chat about these deeper topics. But we don’t have Deepak Chopra coming to town so we’ll have to push aside the craving to consume quantum soup and stay on track.)

Willie Nelson. The lessons.

There’s more to learn. But what, exactly?

By the way, if you could all see how quickly I am typing right now, you’d be impressed. God knows—I am.

And no, it has nothing to do with being “high.” Who knows if I really am. (I never said what I brought that flame to, after all. LOL.) Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to water down the flow of the prose with something as inane as a Text-cronym. (Really, at some point we’re all going to look back on the LOLs we’ve texted and be utterly ashamed that we’ve participated in the deadening of our brain cells.)

Wait a second … I could have made that point much better, considering the circumstances.

Back to Willie.

But first, more about me.

Truth is: I’m typically high on life. Aren’t you? I mean, my goodness, it’s so rich and delicious. You know, I’ve often said—and feel free to quote me on this—that “Life is like one big, fat, juicy peach … and that you have to take a big bite out of it and let the juice dribble down your chin.” I mean, really, what are we here for if we’re not supposed to surpass our own previous incarnations and expectations of ourselves; move further beyond what we think we think we can do?

Grow, damnit, grow!

Willie has. I mean, look at the man—he with all his hit singles, his legions of fans, and countless musings about life.

For a guy born in the Depression era, he didn’t settle for doing just fine. He paved his own way, created a stallion out of his music— that embraceable hybrid of jazz, pop, blues, rock and folk—and rode it all the way to Country Town. This, from a guy who is said to have toured with the Bohemian Polka as lead singer and guitar player when he was in high school. This is a man who made his way into Ray Price’s band in the early ’60s and recorded his first album  … And Then I Wrote by 1962. He’s the dude whose singles “On The Road Again,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Blue Skies,” “Always on my Mind” and “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got the Time,” sold millions. He’s the fella that owns the bio-diesel brand Willie Nelson Biodiesel—or BioWillie—which is made from vegetable oil. He’s the animal rights advocate who fiercely campaigned for the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Taking things a prairie further, he also went on to warn consumers about the cruel and illegal living conditions of calves that were raised to produce milk for various dairy products.

Not to be left out: LGBT rights.

Nelson has been a supporter of LGBT civil rights for some time … for it was back in 2006 that he launched on iTunes that quirky-cool version of Ned Sublette’s “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other.” He’s also the guy that boldly went on to tell Texas Monthly this year that, regarding same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act, that, “We’ll look back and say it was crazy that we ever even argued about this.”

Willie—free, unconventional and full of heart?

Yes, methinks, yes.

Learning Lessons

Page 87. Willie’s thought of the day: “If there is no solution, there is no problem.”

He writes … “if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s I don’t know nothin’ for sure.”

And on the following page: “I housebroke my dog. Every time he shit on the floor I would rub his nose in it, then throw him out the window. Now when he shits on the floor, he rubs his nose in it and jumps right out the window.”

And later still: “I shouldn’t have a problem writing this book: I’m so opinionated that I can give you my opinion on almost anything, anytime, and I’m glad to do it because I’m just an asshole. But they say opinions are like assholes: everybody has one. … I guess. ‘While in all your knowing, know yourself first.’ I’m not sure who said that. It was either Billy Joe Shaver or Jesus.”

I’m tempted to share Willie’s passage on passing gas on an airplane—and how medicinal and healing he claims his gas is—but really, let’s fact it: We’ve already slid so far down such a slippery slope here I fear none of us will walk away from this having learned a damn thing. (Although “Don’t Smoke and Write!” immediately comes to mind.)

You know, I’ve shared with people that the Universe often strums three magical words for us to listen to whenever we’re in need of assistance or guidance.

There’s “Let it go.”

There’s “Get over it … !”

And my personal favorite: “Don’t freak out!”

Maybe that’s the magic Willie holds and shares: Not freaking out. Somehow, as he’s moved creatively during his eight decades of living, the guy has managed to allow art to imitate life—and vice versa. He’s become a living, breathing country music song, something fluid, something with refrains and crescendos, with twangs and chords, and even when life and love get messy—as he croons about so deeply in the song “Three Days”—you still get the sense that, despite the woes, the guy’s country grace has the ability to keep him—and his fans—coming back for more.

That’s art. That’s Willie.

And that’s a wrap.

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