Willie Nelson turns 90

by: Jim Farber

Never one to sit still long, the singer-songwriter takes a moment to tell ‘Parade’ about his new tour, turning 90 and whether he’s thinking about retirement.

Willie Nelson has a simple motto that speaks volumes about the life he’s leading right now. “You have to do something every day to pay for the day,” he said. “You need to run, walk, swim, sing; whatever it is that’s important to you, you have to do it and then see how long you can keep doing it.”

If anything, Nelson has overperformed on that philosophy of late. At the moment, he doesn’t just have one thing going on that gives him a sense of purpose, he seemingly has 100. In the months leading up to the day when he’ll hit the great age of 90—April 29—Nelson picked up another two Grammy awards (bringing his total to 12, for those keeping score), including one for a song cheekily titled “Live Forever.” He also finished recording an album that will bring his catalogue of studio work to a staggering 100 releases, 14 of which he created in the last decade alone. He also found out that he was nominated to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony to be held in New York later this year. And he made good on one of his most famous song titles, “On the Road Again,” by kicking off a new tour that will take him straight through the summer in a schedule packed enough to wind someone half his age.

Then there’s the jewel in this crown of honors and events—a pair of concerts to be held over his birthday weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. They will feature more than 30 guest stars including Neil Young, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert, Tom Jones, Sheryl Crow and an artist who shares Nelson’s reputation as one of the world’s most famous potheads: Snoop Dog. Still, when the man himself is asked about his big bash, he just shrugs and says, “That was more other people’s idea than mine. It’s kinda gotten out of hand. I don’t know how many people are coming at this point. I just hope to get to sing something with all of them.”

Nelson’s eagerness to remain furiously engaged has a physical as well as a psychological reward. “Your lungs are the biggest muscle you have,” he said, “so it’s healthy for me to sing.”

More, he said, “I get really bored when I’m not working.”

To alleviate that, Nelson cut two albums in the last year, one dedicated to bluegrass music, which will come out later in 2023. The other, released last month, honors the work of one of the rare artists who can be considered as accomplished and prolific a songwriter as Nelson—the late country legend Harlan Howard. “His songs are standards,” Nelson said. “Something like ‘Busted’ (which has been recorded by stars from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles)—everybody in the world has heard that one.”

The two songwriters were also close friends. “When Harlen passed away [in 2002], his family sent me his ashes,” Nelson said. “I’d had ‘em stored up in a place where I thought they were safe. But then a storm came through and blew ‘em all over,” said Nelson said with a mischievous laugh.

His songs have long displayed a streak of black humor, particularly when it comes to the subject of death. If anything, that has increased in the last decade. In 2018, he wrote the lyric “Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded/So I think I’ll just stay where I am.” That same year, he wrote, “I don’t want to be the last man standing/On second thought, maybe I do.”

Nelson said he often writes about mortality for two reasons: First, it’s a meaty subject. Second, he said, “I’ve had friends come and go over the years. You start to think about what it all means. I’m a believer in reincarnation.”

Still, there was one passing in the past year that hit Nelson especially hard. His older sister, Bobbie Nelson, with whom he had been exceptionally close since childhood and who played in his band since the early ‘70s, died at the age of 91. “She was incredible,” Nelson said. “I learned a whole lot about what I do just by sitting on the piano stool next to her when I was 7 or 8 years old, trying to do what she’s doing and never being able to do it as well as she could. She could read and write music and was a better musician than me.”

Nelson had his own health scare last year—from Covid. “I almost died,” he said, striking a tone that shows he’s still rattled by the experience. “It’s bad stuff.”

Yet, two weeks after he recovered, he was back on the road, playing outdoor venues to stay safe. Being unable to tour for the major portion of the pandemic was hard on all musicians but for Nelson it was sheer torture. He longed so hard to return to the road that at times he would look longingly at his tour bus sidelined at his home near Austin. “I’d go out there and sit on it sometimes,” he said. “It’s where I feel comfortable.”

Nelson’s lifelong dedication to work doesn’t just explain his creative longevity but also how he broke through in the first place. Born during the Great Depression in 1933, Nelson had been writing songs since he was 10 and peddling them since he was a teenager. Still, he didn’t get any real exposure of his work until his 30s, initially through cover versions of his compositions by well-established stars like Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and Ray Price. He didn’t become a superstar—as a performer in his own right, as well as a presence beyond the country music world—until he was in his 40s, starting with albums like Red Headed Stranger in 1975. “Honestly, I wondered what the hell kept it from happening so long!” he said, with a laugh.

The fact that he never stuck to one genre helped Nelson establish, and maintain, an incredibly broad audience over the years. His top-selling album, Stardust, in 1978, was a collection of standards featuring classics by writers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. “I’ve sung practically every kind of thing,” Nelson said. “A good song is a good song.”

His connection to the rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, and, thus, to its mass audience, got a major boost from his friendship with the late Leon Russell. Leon was the one who helped inspire Nelson to hone his outlaw character, a persona that both expressed his dislike for the conventions of the Nashville music scene and dovetailed perfectly with rock ‘n’ roll’s rebellious nature. The two stars even recorded an album together in 1979, One for The Road, that went gold. “Leon was incredibly important to me,” Nelson said. “He was the best entertainer I’d ever seen. He was also the first guy I ever saw throw his hat to the audience. I stole that idea from him right away!”

Despite the connection, Nelson was surprised when he was told he might be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It knocks me out,” he said. “That they even know who I am is fantastic to me.”

His entry into the Hall will be the final triumph in this momentous, 90th year. At the same time, Nelson said his age in no way intimidates him. “Norman Lear is a good friend of mine and he just turned 100,” Nelson said. “I was telling him, ‘Norman, I heard that age ain’t nothing but a number, am I right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s just that.’ And that’s good enough for me.”

“I’ll be one of the oldest bastards out there,” Nelson added with a cackle. “But as long as people keep showing up, so will I.”

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