Willie Nelson turns 85: A Visit With the King of Night Life

by:  Patrick Doyle

As he reaches his 85th year, Nelson is writing, touring and smoking more than ever. His band and family members weigh in on what drives the Red Headed Stranger.

“What else we got?” Willie Nelson asks. He’s sitting with his famous battered guitar Trigger at his recording studio, located on the Cut ‘N Putt golf course he owns in Spicewood, Texas. He’s deep into a session of Frank Sinatra covers for a future tribute album. Nelson’s producer Buddy Cannon has given him plenty of chances to call it a day (especially because the singer was up until 4 a.m. playing poker), but Nelson keeps asking the control room to cue up more tracks. At one point, last night’s poker guests – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – pop in, but even they can’t distract Nelson. “We’ll let you focus, Willie,” Harrelson says with a smile, leaving the room.

From the signature ballad he wrote for Patsy Cline to his love letter to life on the road.

Nelson remains focused as he reaches his 85th birthday, which he celebrates on April 29th. He’s still sharp: “Sometimes I forget lyrics to new songs or whatever, but normally I can remember them pretty good,” he says. During a break from recording, he says the Sinatra release is actually a ways off; before that, he will release an album of new songs, Last Man Standing, his 19th new album of the last decade, and the continuation of his most prolific writing kick since the Seventies. After Last Man Standing, he will reissue his 1973 gospel album The Troublemaker, with songs, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which still close his live show.

I want to re-release that one before the Sinatra album, to give me a chance to finish it,” he says. Nelson also still maintains a touring schedule that puts younger acts to shame, playing about 100 dates a year, two weeks on, two weeks off. The reason for the workload is simple. “I just enjoy playing,” he explains, “whether it’s on the stage, here in the studio, or wherever.”

The new song “Last Man Standing” is a tongue-in-cheek rocker about Nelson’s conflicted feelings about his status as country’s elder statesman: “I don’t want to be the last man standing / On second thought, maybe I do / If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line and decide after thinking it through.” “I was thinking about Merle, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Cash – all those guys gone on,” he explains. “You kind of wonder [about death]. I’ve been around a long time.”

Nelson’s influence is often overlooked because of his image as a weed-smoking cowboy caricature – the guy who shows up in Austin Powers or admitting to Larry King that he’s stoned on the air. But he’s a lot more than that. He is the most unique and versatile country artist of all time – a cowboy singer with jazz phrasing, playing Django Reinhardt guitar licks on a beat-up classical guitar. In the same way Miles Davis is considered the quintessential jazz artist because he explored almost every iteration of the genre over 50 years, Nelson has seen through every chapter of country music – first as a radio host and honky-tonk bandleader in the Forties and Fifties, then as a slick crooner in Sixties countrypolitan Nashville, then as the face of the outlaw country movement, something that happened after Nelson moved back home to Texas, grew his hair out and stopped caring about the charts. Nelson shook his career up once again by recording the first standards album, Stardust, against his label’s wishes. It went quintuple platinum.

Nelson’s pace is only surprising because just a few months ago he was questioning whether he would play in public again at all. In January, he walked offstage in California and canceled two months of dates, retreating to his place in Maui. Fans feared the worst. “I had the flu for, like, three weeks,” he says. “And that wasn’t no fun. I was a little uncertain about coming back and whether I could still do a show – it had been so long.”

The first show back was in St. Augustine, Florida on February 27th. The band didn’t know what to expect. “Willie came out of the gate just smoking,” says his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. “We were all a bit nervous coming back out after so much time off, but the first night felt like we had never stopped playing. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ye of little faith.’ He blew us all away and all we had to do was hold on.” Asked what was going through his mind, Nelson is less sentimental: “I was just trying to remember ‘Whiskey River,’” he says with a smile. “We did it then; we did three or four more good shows shows in a row, so I got my confidence back.”

The tour wrapped at the Luck Reunion, a mini-festival at Nelson’s home, a mock old-West town he had built for the 1986 movie the Red Headed Stranger. After a day that included Kurt Vile and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nelson’s ’94 pickup could be seen snaking down his long dirt driveway, past fields of horses, pulling up next to the stage. Nelson strapped on Trigger and led an audience through singalongs like “Crazy,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” (I wondered if Nelson had any reservations about opening his home to 3,000 fans, and he laughed. “Nah, that’s cool,” he says. “It’s a good place to play because it’s close to the house.”) Nelson noted that a lot of young faces had probably never seen him play before. He also had fun because he was joined by his kids, Lukas and Micah. “There’s no better feeling,” he says, “than having kids working with you and doing a good job.”

By his own quick math, Mickey Raphael has played more than 5,400 shows with Nelson since he joined 45 years ago. The harmonica player is essentially the bandleader, and the biggest piece of advice he gives to musicians sitting is, “You have to watch him.” Nelson does not technically have a set list – though he always starts with “Whiskey River” and ends with a gospel medley – and he will routinely cut songs short, extend solos, or even repeat songs if he feels like it. “Every night is a gamble, like walking a high wire without a net,” Nelson says. Adds Raphael, ”If you’re reading a chart or singing or playing it by rote – you’re screwed.”

Kevin Smith, the band’s newest member, learned this lesson when he joined mid-tour, after the death of longtime bassist Bee Spears in 2011. A seasoned Austin bass player, Smith was “just jobbing around town” when Raphael called him at 8 a.m. one day, asking him to play the gig that night. “They weren’t terribly kind to me – they just did their regular thing,” Smith says. “And it went well and Willie walked past me and slapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Way to go.’ And that was pretty great.”

Other variables can affect Nelson’s performances too. He recently started his own cannabis company, Willie’s Reserve. Since he considers himself the “CTO” (Chief Tasting Officer), Nelson was trying out several strains before a show. This may be why, Raphael says, Nelson unknowingly re-started his set toward the end of a show. “We were three quarters into the show and he does ‘Stay all Night,’ which might have been the second song,” says Raphael. “He just lost his place. Then he does that by rote, so he did, like, the first 15 minutes of the show again. I didn’t tell him till he asked me. He said, ‘Have we done, ‘Good Hearted Woman?’ ‘Yeah.’ I don’t say anything unless he asks me.”

“He’s also 85,” says Raphael. “I’m surprised he remembers what he does without the dope.”

Mortality has always been one of Nelson’s least-favorite subjects. “He doesn’t talk about it at all,” says Raphael. “He didn’t go to Roger Miller’s funeral. He didn’t go to Waylon’s funeral. We just don’t talk about death around him, especially because a lot of his friends are punching out.”

So it was surprising when, during the sessions for Last Man Standing, Nelson introduced a new song, “Something You Get Through.” Nelson had sung about death jokingly on recent albums – on last year’s great “Still Not Dead” (“I woke up still not dead again today / the Internet said I had passed away”) or on another new song, “Bad Breath” (“Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” “Bad Breath”prompted critic Steven Hyden to observe, “Apparently, someone dared Willie to write a perfect, heartbreaking lyric about halitosis.”) Still, Raphael was unprepared for “Something You Get Through,” which begins:

“When you lose the one you love / You think your world has ended / You think your world will be a waste of life / Without them in it / You feel there’s no way to go on / Life is just a sad, sad song / But love is bigger than us all / The end is not the end at all / It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through.”

“I got chills,” says Raphael. “I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be a classic. I don’t care about any of the others.” Raphael left the studio, both to give Nelson space and because Raphael was raw from the losing of his longtime girlfriend to cancer. The lyric – “It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through” – was just the latest example of what Raphael sees as Nelson’s gift: “That’s his genius. That’s why he can write ‘Night Life and I can’t. I knew ‘Night life ain’t no good life but it’s my life.’ But I didn’t write it. He just sees things that are just there. You often can’t see the forest for the trees – sometimes things are so blatantly obvious and you miss them. He just knows how to look and see things.”

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