Willie Nelson

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.


Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September-October 2004

Willie Nelson
Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now. Photograph by Jim Herrington

Willie Nelson may not live forever, but sometimes it seems that way.

LUCK, Texas, isn’t as easy to find as it used to be. Development has sprawled the entire 25 miles from downtown Austin to this idyllic little spot in the Hill Country near Lake Travis where Willie Nelson created his own universe more than two decades ago. The old corner store that was once a landmark is now a bank. The entrance gate is practically lost among the McMansions and ranchettes that have sprouted up.

This fact of life is not lost on the guy in the Willie Nelson T-shirt driving the mower over the fairway of the Briarcliff Country Club. After providing directions to a wayward tourist, he wisecracks, “Welcome to Oak Hill,” referring to the suburb fifteen miles closer to the city.

Still, there’s enough acreage surrounding Luck that once you stumble onto the dirt main street, you realize Willie Nelson’s home base is safely in a zone of its own. The cowboy town of faux buildings – including a feed store, barn, gunsmith, church, and bathhouse – hasn’t changed much since it was built for the film Red Headed Stranger in the early 1980s. Unchanged, but deteriorated to the point that Luck today looks less like an Old West movie set and more like a real 20th century small town in Texas that is drying up and blowing away. Whatever it is, it is Willie’s World. The rest of us are just visiting.

I had come for my last sit-down with Willie Hugh Nelson. I’d been writing about him since I hit Austin in 1973, a year after he did. I’ve spent the ensuing years listening, watching, and observing him as he played shows on flatbed trucks, in drive-in movie theaters (with Paul Simon sitting in, no less), in amphitheaters, in performing arts halls, and at too many July Fourth Picnics to count. Somewhere along the way, the television appearances, movie roles, and inductions to various halls of fame added up to Willie achieving some kind of sainthood, with just enough speed-crazed hustlers, soulful used-car salesmen, and honest-to-Sam-Houston characters to keep me engaged.

Like Austin, Willie too has changed along the way. He came to the game as a songwriter. Some say that particular skill fell by the wayside decades ago – that he’s sliding by on cruise control, that he hasn’t written a memorable song in years. And yet, in the midst of all his albums of cover songs, tribute songs, collaborative affairs with high-profile buddies, television specials, and films, he’s still continued to write songs – including an antiwar protest number that briefly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy late last year. Not to mention enough straight-ahead country tunes to justify a full-blown album that may be his best work in ages (It Will Always Be, due October 26 on Lost Highway).

Willie Nelson
Willie and Paul English (background) at Stubb’s in Austin, TX, May 2001.
Photograph by John Carrico.

But even if he hadn’t written a line in a quarter-century and decided to follow the path of Fats Domino – who once reasoned he didn’t need to write another song because he already had more than enough hits to perform in concert -Willie would justify a visit just because he’s Willie. After all, he personifies the outlaw movement that presaged altcountry. He’s the one credited for putting Austin and Texas Music on the map. He’s a pop culture icon, bandanas, pigtails, running shoes and all, the one Texan more popular than George Bush. He’s the gold standard for Texas marijuana: If it’s Willie weed, i.e. pot fit for him, it’s top-of-the-line bud. And he’s just mysterious and mystical enough to keep everyone guessing. You never know what you’ll find when you’re in Luck.

That said, we’re both old enough to be lucky just to be alive.

He’s 71. I’m 53.We’ve both done a pretty fair job taking care of ourselves. While Waylon kept roaring until a few years before his death in 2002 at age 64, Willie quit the powder and the partying back when he was about my age. These days, drinking means water more often than whiskey. His biggest vice remains his appreciation of the sweet smoke.

Change at this stage of the game usually means some kind of diminishment, and in the case of Willie, the black cast on his left arm was a big red flag. Carpal tunnel syndrome, the repetitive motion injury of the computer age, had finally gotten to him. He had scrunched and contorted his fretting hand into chords on his battered guitar, Trigger, one time too many. The surgery that was required to fix the problem knocked him off he road for the first time since… well, forever.

But it wasn’t just him who was hurting and hobbled.

His friend Ray Charles had passed away five days before. Willie’s drummer and lifelong partner in crime and other adventures, Paul English (of “Me And Paul” fame), can’t make it through an entire show anymore. Paul’s son, Billy English, carries the load when it comes to keeping the beat. Another drummer during Willie’s outlaw glory days, Rex Ludwick, passed on earlier in the year, his life cut short from too much drinking. Even the title of Nelson’s new CD, It Will Always Be, especially the track “Tired”, suggests loss and resignation.

So Mr. On the Road Again had been forced to adjust to the sedentary life off the road. Not that his band minded – 220 dates the previous year were a few too many for some of his players, all of whom except Paul are younger than Willie.

I thought I’d done my last interview with him five years ago, when he drove me around Luck in his pickup truck and I caught him off guard when I asked whether there were times when he got tired of being Willie. His response -“Not really, but if I do, I go and hide” – said a lot. He’s very much a public figure who enjoys his station in life. Wouldn’t you enjoy it if everyone around you acts glad to see you and showers you with compliments? But he’s also human enough to enjoy his privacy and the opportunity to chill whenever he can.

Two years ago, I went to the well one more time, speaking to him by phone while he was on his way to play a show in Nebraska for a club owner friend who was down on his luck. That really, really, really was my very last Willie story, I thought. What else was there for me to ask? What else was there for him to say?

That’s what I got for thinking.

Willie Nelson
Willie at the Paramount Theatre, 1999 during "Willie Week". Photograph by John Carrico.

BETWEEN releasing It Will Always Be, performing relentlessly, recording prolifically, appearing in commercials and TV specials, plotting more film roles, speaking out on behalf of family farmers, Dennis Kucinich and marijuana, and writing one of the first protest songs against the war in Iraq, Willie is living ten lives at once. The most stunning example is the new album, a full-blown, state-of-the-art polished piece of work that rings with clarity and purpose like his recordings of thirty years ago.

Not bad for an old fart who’s supposed to be in his autumn years.

I walked into the saloon that’s the official Luck World Headquarters, but the room was empty and silent save for the hushed audio from CNN on the big screen at the end of the bar.

Willie wasn’t there. But Willie was everywhere.

Every square inch of space on the walls was covered with 40 years’ worth of Willie memorabilia. There were photos of sister Bobbie, Johnny Bush, and Ray Price. Two Roy Rogers kiddie guitars were propped behind the bar. The Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight neon sign shared space in one corner with bleached cow skulls. Movie posters advertised Red Headed Stranger, Texas Guns and Barbarosa. A photo of Willie on a golf course flanked by Darrell K. Royal, the storied University of Texas football coach, Mack Brown, the current UT coach, and hometown golf star Ben Crenshaw vividly illustrated his exalted role as one of Texas’ living treasures. He is clearly not averse to the idea of being Willie.

Someone once wondered aloud how weird it must be, sitting in the middle of your own personal universe, surrounded by photos, posters, neon, and trinkets all about you. But when “you” is Willie, it doesn’t seem so strange. The building with the creaky wooden floors – recently outfitted with air conditioning – is more like his playhouse. There’s a pool table up front, a chess table over to the side, a Bose radio behind the bar, a CMT director’s chair on the floor. There’s a small room in back where Willie can conduct a guitar pull or record a picking session on a whim. There’s always old friends such as Ben Dorsey, Bill McDavid, David Zettner or Freddy Powers nearby to hang with, or to pick with.

Outside the saloon, I found Rusty and Ed, who were doing busy work around the premises. Ed said Willie was probably on the bus, where he really likes to hang when he wants to lay low. But Willie wasn’t there, either. A crew of four was busily renovating the interior (as if the tricked-out rolling mini-mansion needed an upgrade). “Willie was expecting you,” one renovator said. “But not for another four hours. You might check at the recording studio.”

Rusty led the way to the Pedernales Recording Studio in a battered RV. We hadn’t gotten down the hill and outside the main gate toward Willie’s golf course before Freddy Fletcher, the studio owner who is Bobbie Nelson’s son and Willie Nelson’s nephew, pulled alongside, rolled down the window of a black Mercedes, and said, “Hidy.”

A muddy Chevy pickup pulled behind the Mercedes. It was Freddy’s uncle, grinning from ear to ear. He was dressed for summer in a black straw western hat with a dangling lanyard and a black tank top shirt hanging loosely over his running shorts and running shoes.

We caravanned back to the bus long enough for Willie to determine maybe that wasn’t the best place to sit and visit. So we headed back to Luck.

“How’s it been going?” I asked as we walked into the saloon.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson in the sanctuary of his tour bus on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, Ca, July 2004. Photograph by Jim Herrington

“It’s perfect,” he said, his green-brown eyes twinkling, illuminating the scruffy white beard and long mane of hair flowing out of his hat to below his shoulders. “It couldn’t be any better.”

I got a closeup of the cast on his left arm. Willie was holding it close to his chest like a gimp. The other hand juggled a tall Starbucks cup and a big fat joint.

“Pull up a chair,” he said after we walked inside. He went around to the other side of the bar and pulled up a stool, assuming the role of a bartender ready to dispense whatever wisdom and advice was needed. He fired up the fatty in his good hand.

Perfect? But the hand…

“Oh, it’s getting better. I’ve had to get some assistance, but I’m back to where I can roll,” he allowed, passing the hemp bomber across the bar. “Some of my therapy is rolling and it’s getting pretty good. This is the longest that I haven’t played the guitar. It’s still painful and sore and I’m not really jonesing to get back up there. I’d love to play, but I want it to feel good when I do, and I want to be able to play as good as I played the last time.”

He didn’t really have a choice but to take a break. “The last couple years, it was so painful, I was kind of dreading the next show,” he explained. “It was getting worse and worse, getting numb. I’d wake up and it would go to sleep. I found out there’s hundreds of thousands and millions of people that are going through this same thing, all over the world. I was just talking to a mandolin player awhile ago over on the golf course, a big ole boy. He had this same operation back in the ’80s. He said it takes time, but he was back picking in awhile and he’s still doing it.”

The surgery shut down the show. “I couldn’t see going out with a hand mike,” he said. “I’m not saying I won’t?’ [He did just that at his Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth before going back on hiatus in preparation for a scheduled tour of minor-league baseball parks with Bob Dylan in August.] “If things don’t get well, then I might be hiring out as a vocalist,” he chuckled. “I’ve done that before. It’s easy, you know.” He can sing with the best of them, as he’s demonstrated by pairing up with folks such as Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Julio Iglesias. But Willie watchers know that’s not the whole Willie. Even he acknowledged that.

“Songwriting is the easiest thing for me to do,” he said. “It requires less effort and less thought than what it takes to learn what Django [Reinhardt, the gypsy guitarist] did on that last record. Writing’s first. And I love to perform. I enjoy the interaction between us and them. That’s good for your ego. It keeps you going and going back again. Me and the band, we enjoy being out there and we enjoy working. And we come home and we enjoy this for a little while. But we get ready to go back pretty quick. Everybody who knows us knows that’s the way we are, even our wives and kids.”

Willie Nelson
Razorcut: Willie Nelson, Nashville cat.

Then he startled me by acknowledging he was mortal.

“It’s kind of like you stopped a big train for a minute. It gives everybody a time to stop and think, ‘Whatever this is, is not going to last forever.’ So we might as well enjoy the rest and take it as far as we can.”

I had no reason to doubt him. All I needed to do was look into his eyes.

Those watery, soulful, puppy dog eyes have served him well.

Kevin Connor, who hosted an impromptu Willie radio performance with reggae legend Toots Hibbert on the lawn of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel during the South By Southwest festival in March, related how after the show, he walked up to Willie to thank him, and was immediately stopped in his tracks by Willie’s eyes. “He didn’t need to say a word. He said all he needed to say with his eyes,” Connor said.

It’s a similar observation to the one Eddie Wilson made 32 years earlier, when Willie and Paul English showed up at the beer garden of the Armadillo World Headquarters to talk about doing a gig at the hippie rock emporium that would become the foundation of Austin music. “Although he was in a house full of strangers, a few enlightened folks recognized him and approached him in awe,” Wilson said. “I then observed a trait that has been consistent throughout his career: He suffers fools gladly, and as long as someone’s talking to him, he does not break eye contact. It’s a quality I’ve seen in only two other people – [former Texas governor] Ann Richards when being talked to by children, and Muhammad Ali when he’s talking to girls.”

Grant Alden told me he regards Willie as Yoda, the all-knowing, ancient and revered Jedi master of the Star Wars trilogy. Somehow that doesn’t quite square with the flashes of a Baptist preacher conducting a tent revival that flare up sometimes when he’s playing a show. I regard him as more of a Zen cowboy, always at peace residing in the moment, but ready to ride and shoot at the drop of a hat. He moves through the world as if bulletproof; even the IRS couldn’t burst the bubble. There’s more than a little Perfect World in the whole danged concept of Luck, Texas, designed for the inner kid hungering to play Cowboys & Indians. “Hey, let’s go shoot ’em up!” “Hey, let’s go rob the bank!” The street’s long enough to re-create High Noon on a whim. And it’s always 4:20 somewhere in Luck.

IN TRUTH, Nelson is a flawed figure. He’s on his third family and his fourth wife, not exactly a surprise given his penchant for staying on the road. His life history is tailor-made for a country song, back when country was called country & western and really sounded like it. He and Sister Bobbie were abandoned by their parents as kids. They were raised by kinfolk. He grew up a hustler, just scraping by. He knocked around Fort Worth, a wannabe salesman attracted to the used car salesmen – real salesmen who could sell you the shirt off your own back – and through them became familiar with the Dixie Mafia. (There are stories about Roger Miller and Willie working as bellhops at the Hotel Texas that indicate he was no stranger to hustling illicit vices.) He learned music from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, who ably demonstrated time and again how to put on a show and dance (fast song, fast song, slow song). He learned the business of music as a disc jockey, debuting on KBOP in Pleasanton southeast of San Antonio.

Willie Nelson
For the Good Times: Willie and Waylon celebrating willi’s 60th birthday at Antone’s in Austin, Tx 1993. Photograph by John Carrico.

His entry into showbiz was playing in bands such as Paul Buskirk & His Little Men and Larry Butler’s group before joining up as a Cherokee Cowboy behind Ray Price, the honeydripper vocalist who epitomized countrypolitan, the hybrid sound that was too smooth, too swinging and too hip to qualify as straight country. In the early 1960s he came into his own as a songwriter with “Crazy” (Patsy Cline’s signature piece), “Hello Walls” (Faron Young’s signature piece), “Night Life” (a classic for Ray Price and B.B. King), and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (which made the career of rhythm & blues crooner Joe Hinton) – but not before he learned the hard way about publishing, royalties, and composer credits. He sold the rights for “Night Life” and “Family Bible” (a top-10 country hit in 1960 for Claude Gray) for $50 each, figuring he could always write another song.

He was ambitious enough to front his own band, and made a comfortable living recording small hits, covering his own compositions on the road, and dabbling in television. For a spell in the late 1960s, he hosted his own weekly variety television show in Fort Worth, live from Panther Hall. But the system didn’t much care. He was valued for his songwriting skills, not his performing or recording talents. It was telling then that he was a cool daddy by Nashville standards, favoring a razorcut hairdo, golf shirts, tight slacks and Italian loafers – about as outside the mainstream as one could get in Nashville those days.

Somewhere along the way, he got full of the Music City mainstream, the assemblyline production of hits, and the straight life. It didn’t help that his house had burned down. So he came back to Texas, for the gig money, for the familiarity of home turf, and for the belated Lone Star version of San Francisco that was going down in Austin. Long hair and cowboy boots were suddenly cool. Beer and pot were held in equal regard. Recent arrivals including Doug Sahm, Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Freda & the Firedogs were breaking down traditional music barriers. Rock and folk were sounding twangy. Country was morphing into something else. Audiences could perfectly understand Willie’s band breaking into an extended twenty-minute jam on “Whiskey River”; after all, they’d heard the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.

Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or finally growing into the role of Willie, he proceeded to lead a movement hat signaled a shift in popular music and marked the start of a continuum. He wrote in song cycles, as heard on 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine his last Nashville album), 1973’s Shotgun Willie, 1974’s Phases And Stages, and ultimately 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. Even if the songs weren’t all jewels, he was nothing if not prolific. David Zettner told the story walking into a Nashville motel room and finding him passed out with sheets of paper strewn about. The sheets contained the words to “Shotgun Willie”, written in a single frenzy of inspiration.

By covering a collection of pop standards n 1978 for Stardust, still his best-selling album, he transcended country and left Nelson behind, evolving into a general all-purpose icon with a single name: Willie.

It’s been 26 years of smooth operating over since.

Willie Nelson
© Charlyn Zlotnik
Cult Hero: 1977

His comfort level has allowed him to indulge in the weirder side of life. He’s an avid reader of America’s most documented psychic, Edward Cayce, and can quote from Cayce’s writings. There was a time when a psychic surgeon hung around with the Family, performing healing “operations.” He enjoys listening to paranormal radio host Art Bell as much as his pal Merle Haggard does.

The size of his extended Family is nowhere what it was back in the glory days. Back when, his entourage swelled into the hundreds. These days, the Family has been reduced to the core of his band (Mickey Raphael, Bea Spears, Paul English, Billy English, sister Bobbie); his crew, headed by Poodie Locke (who also runs what amounts to Willie’s own personal beer joint, Poodie’s Hilltop, for those times when he needs to reconnect with what brung him to the big dance); and a chosen few close personal friends.

He doesn’t seem to miss leading a bigger parade. Life is much more manageable at this juncture. He’s flexible and nimble enough to pick and choose his spots. He spends almost as much time on the Hawaiian island of Maui as he does in Luck or on the road, in one of the most beautiful spots on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. That’s where his current brood – wife Annie and his youngest kids – lives these days.

“It’s for my boys who are growing up,” he says of the Maui homestead. “They were born around here. And then we moved over there. They’ve gone to the Montessori school here and now they go to the Montessori school over there. They’re doing great. It’s like another small little town. I have a lot of friends there. Don Nelson, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, is a good friend of mine and we play golf over there all the time. He’s real good and has a lot of money. So he doesn’t mind losing. I say he doesn’t mind. He can afford to lose. I’m sure he minds. We’re more or less back down toward Hana. Me and Kris [Kristofferson] used to ride a lot over by the Hana Ranch. He was living there at the time. Me and my family would stay there and we’d ride over. Saddle up every day and go out and ride. It had 3,000 acres to ride on there."

WHICH MAKES it all the more unusual that he appears to be willing to put the sweet life on hold and gear up to promote It Will Always Be. Maybe it’s because it’s the first album in awhile to hold its own against his 1970s classics. Or maybe it’s largely because of the sense of finality it conveys. There’s no fairy dust, no Rob Thomas or disco whistles, just a collection of songs – three of them his – done straight away. “Tired”, co-written by Toby Keith and Chuck Cannon, may infer weariness, but the title track (one of the Willie originals) reassures. Several cuts are straight-ahead classic country songs, particularly “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leaving)” and “Big Boody”. He excels best as the ladies’ man, performing spot-on duets with daughter Paula Nelson (who wrote the song they sing, “Be That As It May”), Norah Jones (bringing out her sultriness and jazz strengths in a way her last recording did not), and Lucinda Williams (getting low, lean and wanting on her song “Over Time”). Lucinda and Norah may be the truest Willie disciples of all, applying outsider thinking to recording and performing.

The irony is that It Will Always Be is a classic Nashville production. The Family Band stayed home for this one, with the exception of harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Willie ran down the list of songs he wanted to do with producer James Stroud, who lined up a state-of-Music City roster of studio musicians (including guitarist Brent Mason, keyboardists Matt Rollings and Steve Nathan, bassists Glenn Worf and Michael Rhodes, drummers Shannon Forrest and Eddie Bayers, and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore) Willie walked in and laid down scratch vocals, then did the serious vocals back at his Pedernales studio.

“That has a lot to do with the songs themselves, and the arrangements, and the band that James Stroud put together,” Willie said. “Those guys are great. They played ‘Big Boody’ and they turned around and played with Norah Jones. Those guys are that good. The tracks were cut in Nashville and brought here. I went in and did my vocals over in the studio. Then they took the tapes back to Nashville and Norah came in and recorded, my daughter went in and sang, so did Lucinda. It sounded great.”

He admitted that going back to Nashville broke the typical Willie anti-formula formula. “It was all done kind of different than I normally do things. Usually, we just go over and set up and play. But James Stroud is a good producer. That’s where he shines. I had to put together the songs. He knew the musicians to call. I sent him a scratch vocal of some things, so he knew how it was supposed to go. He played it for the band. Those guys could get the feel of anything.

Willie Nelson
Pedernales Studio, 1996. Photograph by Jim Carrico.

“It’s kind of a ‘the-best-of’ situation because I get to sit here in Austin out in the woods and sing with the great musicians out of Nashville, and I don’t have to fly all the way up there. It almost sounds like cheating to do it that way. But with all the new high-tech things they have, they can do it OK. There’s always a group of guys in Nashville who are the hottest thing going. And if you’re a good producer and really on top of it, you know who they are.”

Since he’s Willie, he was even able to get Sugar Hill Records to agree to hold back the gospel album he recorded with his sister (tentatively titled Farther Along and originally scheduled for summer release, it’s been pushed to an as-yet undetermined date), and to rush Lost Highway’s September 14 release of the DVD of Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws And Angels (a superstar concert with Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Bob, Dylan, Kid Rock and others that he taped in Los Angeles last spring for a Memorial Day special on the USA Network).

“Those folks at Lost Highway, they’ve been good,” he said, “so I want to try to give them a good shot.” But Mr. Practicality is hardly wedded to the Nashville assembly-line concept. Given his druthers, he prefers the recording process be kept simple. The attitude reflects the truth that for all the other attributes heaped upon him, Willie is first and foremost a player. And players want to play, not waste time setting up. Emotion trumps technology any day.

“I’m lazy,” he laughed. “So naturally, I like to go right back into the studio there,” he said, nodding to the small spare room, no more than fifteen feet square. “That’s where we did Rainbow Connection and the Ray Price album [last year’s Grammy-nominated Run That By Me One More Time, his first duet album in 23 years with his 77-year-old mentor]. It’s just easy to do. We all gather around like a radio show in there and sing and play around a single microphone.

“I enjoy both ways of making a record. Doing it this way with a guy like James Stroud, Chips Moman, or Fred Foster or someone like that, you turn everything over to him. You get together and say, "These are the songs I want to do and here’s how I want to do them. Next thing you know, you’re doing them in the studio. I enjoy that. On the other hand, I enjoy taking the band or David Zettner and do it simple.”

The big studio down the road, Pedernales – which he lost in 1990 when he was hit with a heavy bill by the IRS, then bought back two years later with a little help from his friends – is busier than ever. “We got Pat Green in there now,” Freddy Fletcher said of the third-generation Texas country outlaw. And Geffen’s mixing down some rap group. Don’t ask me.”

But Willie can walk in whenever he gets a whim?

“It’s getting harder,” Fletcher smiled. “But we manage to move things around to get him in.”

“Having your own studio has its positives and negatives,” Willie said. “The good thing is, you can go do anything you want to, anytime you want to. The bad part is you can’t put them out, you know, because you can only put so many things out.”

Like, say, more than 2,000 finished tracks in the can. Some are with Shelby Lynne (“She can sing. God, she can sing”), some with fiddle maestro Johnny Gimble, several albums’ worth with Merle Haggard, and countless others with his cutting and putting partner David Zettner. “We’re still stumbling across things we have over there,” he says.

Which explained why he’s in no rush to do more. “I don’t want to record right now,” he said. “I don’t want to record until I can play.”

TWO DAYS after our talk, Willie played at Ray Charles’ funeral in Los Angeles, performing Charles’ signature piece, “Georgia On My Mind”, the official state song of Georgia. Willie could hardly get through the performance. His voice intermittently cracked with emotion; he sounded spent and very, very blue. But B.B. King broke up while performing during the service too.

Willie Nelson
It Was A Very Good Year: Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. Photograph courtesy Rhino Home Video.

The bond was cemented long before Willie ever met Brother Ray. “I was playing clubs in Houston back when ‘What’d I Say?’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ were big,” he recalls. “I loved him, all those songs. Jimmy Day could play any Ray Charles song,” he adds, referring to his longtime pal and steel guitar legend who died in 1999. The impact Charles made with the release of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music in 1962 was not unlike what Willie did to country with Shotgun Willie and Stardust a decade later legitimizing the music to the outside world as a cool sound that had soul.

A close friend said Charles was Willie’s hero. It showed when he talked about him. “We played chess a lot,” Willie said. “He kicked my ass more than once and enjoyed it, I guess, better than anybody. We was playing down here one time, we’d done a show together and he was staying over at a hotel. I went over to visit him and he invited me to play chess. I said, ‘Sure.’ And I kind of thought to myself, ‘OK, I’ll play chess.’ The hallway was nice and bright and everything. We walked into where the table was and sat down. And not a light on anywhere. Then Ray brought out his chess set. All the pieces were the same color. It was a Braille chess set, where he could feel the pieces and play. And he kicked my ass really bad. Of course, in the dark, it’s hard to play. I made him promise me the next time we’d turn on some lights.

“We talked a little bit about music whenever it came time to decide what we wanted to do together. I could be in one country and he could be in another. Whenever they asked him what he wanted to do, he’d say, ‘Whatever Willie wants to do. Have Willie call me.’ So I’d always call him. And whatever I wanted to do, he would do it. But it was mutual.”

At least he’d had time to say his goodbyes. “We did a song together in the studio in April, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’; we had some fun.” The song, about aging and looking back, is included on Genius Loves Company, an album of Charles duets released by Concord August 31.

“[Last year] I was at his birthday party. He and Quincy Jones and two, three of us sat around and talked and had a drink and ate cake. Right after that I went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem for the anniversary of the theater and Ray got a tribute that night. I sang ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

“You know, there are a lot of younger people than you and I already gone on,” he told me with a soft sigh. “So it has nothing to do with age. There’s those huge disasters that happen on the planet when 20,000 people get wiped out, and there’s no age preferences there. We’re all headed that way.”

I COULDN’T wait any longer. I blurted out a question: What ever happened to “Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth?”

Last December, on Christmas Day, Willie was moved to write an anti-war protest song. It became a much-talked-about news item for a couple of news cycles, an impressive feat considering the song hadn’t even been recorded when it became news; it was just a lyric sheet. But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished from the public eye. Had he been pressured to back off at the risk of being Dixie Chicked?

The question I had been hesitant to ask got him going.

Willie Nelson
Night Life: Ray Price and Willie Nelson, July 4, 2000. Photograph by John Carrico.

“Well, I decided I didn’t want to make money out of it,” he explains. “I did make it available on the internet,” he said. (Words, lyrics, an MP3 audio of a simple performance, and a video of the song can be found at: www.kucinich.us/nelson_ poe_song.php) “Or you can go to SMN.com and hear me sing ‘The War Prayer’ and ‘Jimmy’s Road’; all those songs are there.

“The Democratic Party called and asked if they could include the song on the CD they’re putting together of anti-war songs, anti-administration songs. The Democrats think that my song should fit in there. And I said, ‘Go ahead. Because I don’t want any money out of it.’ But I still believe everything that’s in there.

“I don’t care about airplay. I knew it wouldn’t get airplay because I know that there’s hundreds of channels out there who are on the other side. They might play it and ridicule it a little bit. That’s why I didn’t send them a copy. I knew there was a couple of lines in there that might piss off a few folks. But if it didn’t do that, I’d failed in what I was trying to do, which was to get the message across that what we’re doing and the direction we’re going is not right.

“In the song, I said a lot of things. You remember a long time ago when we heard all that, ‘Don’t believe anything you read, about half of what you see, and nothing you hear?’ That’s pretty much true. And if it was true back then, it’s damned sure double true today. You can’t believe what you hear. You can’t believe what you see. So there you are.

“You have to start using your intuitions to say, ‘What do I really feel about this? Do I like killing people? Do I like jumping on other people and taking over their oil and just killing whoever I want to kill to get it and justifying it by saying, ‘We’re freeing you folks?’ No, I can’t go along with that.

“When that song was getting all the flack, some guy called me in San Antonio when I was doing one of those call-in radio shows. On the show, I was talking about the line, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ He called up and he said, ‘That really doesn’t mean that. That means under certain conditions, it’s OK.’

“I said, ‘Well, you know, I think way back when, God knew how to spell. So if He says, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ that’s what He meant. He could have said, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless You Have A Very Good Reason.’

“If the churches in the world are set up to bring about peace on earth, where are they at now? I mean, whose side are they on? How can they be for peace on earth and still say, ‘Let’s attack anybody who don’t like us, let’s force them into being Halliburton employees. It’s the best thing for them.’ You can’t drop 150,000 troops down in Oklahoma City and say, ‘OK, guys, here we are. We like that old oil over there.’

“When He said, ‘Peace on earth,’ was he just kidding? Isn’t that really what we’re supposed to be trying to do? I mean, are we going to put peace on earth on the back burner while we go over and take over a few countries? And then it will be peace on earth?”

He’s doing his part by voting with his pocketbook, and his lifestyle. “My wife and I are driving cars that operate on vegetable oil,” he offered. “The exhaust smells like french fries. On Maui there are several hundred cars now that run on vegetable oil. Neil Young’s buses are running on vegetable oil. When I go out again, we’re going to be running on vegetable oil. Because it’s available and it’s no more expensive and it’s not screwing up the environment. There are so many reasons to do it. Fifty years from now there won’t be any oil according to all the geniuses out there.

“There’s a solar well out here that’s running the whole town out here, running the well. I’m putting up a 100-foot windmill to do electric, to run the house and anything else it will run. I’m experimenting with all these things because I know we’re running out of oil and we’re running out of this, that and the other. The wind and the sun are good alternatives.”

THERE’S SOME irony, then, that Willie’s first chart action in too long a time was his duet last year with Toby Keith. “Beer For My Horses” was a change of pace for both Nelson and Keith, who has injected patriotism into his music in the same manner as otherwise undistinguished talents such as Lee Greenwood and Gary Morris. Keith’s 2003 album Shock’n Y’all went quadruple-platinum.

Willie Nelson
Philadelphia Lawyer: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, July 4, 2003. Photograph by John Carrico.

“That’s part of what he does onstage, is he sings these kind of songs,” Willie said of Keith, whom he regards as a friend. “And that’s fine. But it’s not what I’ve ever done. I think I may have sung ‘Jimmy’s Road’ [the antiwar soldier’s song he wrote in the early ’90s for his album Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes] a time or two on the stage. But I don’t really want to get in there and divide the audience. I’d like to try to do everything I can to keep them together.

“Everybody likes ‘Stardust’. Everybody likes ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’. Everybody likes ‘Beer For My Horses’. You can take music and use music to please anybody anywhere, I do believe, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat?’

That understanding allows him to sympathize with the dilemma President George W. Bush faces. “People think they know that they can blame anything in the world on whoever has took on the job as the president. It’s a stupid move for anybody to make, to run for president. Because what do you do when you win? You got everybody in the world firing at you. Honestly, for eight years he was governor here and I never saw him. He was a great governor. He said a couple of nice things about me one time. So I had no problem. I don’t know how they talked him into running for the president.”

That doesn’t hold him back from championing a very different politician. For most of the past year, he’s been one of the highest-profile celebrity backers of Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, an underdog from the very beginning and an underdog to the end. “He’s a good guy, a good man. He’s standing up for the right things,” Willie said. “He’s not an insider. He does all right in Ohio. They know who he is there. But in order for him to break into that league up there, it’s gonna take a little more time. And maybe he doesn’t want to break into that league.

“The reason he stayed in there and went around talking to people is that he wants the Democratic Party to keep some of its values, some of the things that it’s known for. You got to hand it to him for that. I think Kerry should meet with Dennis and see how a portion of the party feels. I’m not a Democrat; I’m not a Republican. But I am interested.” Even as he backed Kucinich as long as the congressman was a declared candidate, Willie raised money for John Kerry, doing a charity concert in Los Angeles with Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond.

He’s also remained active with Farm Aid, the organization he co-founded with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 to champion the family farmer. For all the high-profile publicity brought by Farm Aid concerts, it’s been an uphill battle, he admits.

“We have fewer farmers now. We used to have 8 million. Now we’re less than 2 million. We’re losing 300 to 500 a week,” he noted. “And that’s the plan of the powers that be. That’s the way that it’s set up. Because they think fewer and bigger is better. I know that’s not the truth. I know that when you take a farmer off his land, you also take him out of his home. That’s just not the same deal. When you’re talking about land that we’re feeding our kids on, we need to know that it’s done by somebody who feeds their kids on that land, drinks from the same water. And that’s not the way it’s happening.”

He’s sincere enough about those beliefs to set an example. “We have an organic garden up here that Ed and the guys have been working on all year,” he explained. “We’ve got all kinds of vegetables, tomatoes and peppers over there come right out of that. These peaches here are from Fredricksburg down the road. The more people read the papers and watch the news and see what’s going on in the food industry, they begin to say, ‘I used to couldn’t spell organic but, you know, now I need some.”

In a stroke of good timing, Ed delivered a plate of boiled cabbage, fresh from the garden, to the bar.

While he ate his cabbage, Willie detailed how the same forces that have squeezed the family farmer off the land are squeezing folks like him off the radio. “You know, they’re not playing outlaw music that much anymore. And so they’re not getting outlaw commentary anymore. Most of the stations are owned by large corporations who program their music in Connecticut or somewhere. I remember the days when I could take a handful of records and go into San Antonio, Austin, and walk into the radio station and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be here in ten days, will you play my records?’ ‘Sure, man,’ the disc jockey would say. He’d put it on and play the record. Ten days later I’d get a nice crowd over at the Broken Spoke.

“You can’t do that anymore. One of the problems that I find with radio is that it’s controlled by too few people. There are a few stations around that, you know, are still trying to do it the old way. And that’s fine. And I think eventually it will win out. Because I don’t think you can control music that much.”

But he’s hardly crying in his beer about airplay.

“I’m very fortunate to have all this,” he said, surveying the room. “Honestly, it’s a day-to-day, a moment-to-moment thing. Things will be all right now, but then in a second there will be a lot of unfinished business. So it’s just a day-to-day. There’s too much going on. I’m thinking about doing some things out here.

Willie Nelson
Honeysuckle Rose

“Remember those Tales Out Of Luck shows? [Willie and friends, including Merle Haggard, filmed a series of cowboy shoot-’em-up short movies in Luck.] There’s some folks out of England who have a DVD company, they want to distribute some more of those. So we’re going to shoot some more. I thought I would do one around the song Cowboy Blues’ about the old cowboy who’s laying there at night wondering if he still can. I thought that would be a good one. You remember ‘A Horse Called Music’? Just get some songs like that and ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’.

Although the peak of his film career came with the lead role in Honeysuckle Rose in 1980, followed by Red Headed Stranger in 1987 – movies in which he pretty much played himself, albeit coming off a tad more wooden than he does in real life – he’s matured into a very credible character actor through more recent cameos in films such as Wag The Dog, a full episode of the TV detective series Monk, and a string of commercials including a major ad campaign for the Gap. His memorable line “My face is burning!” while sitting in a barber’s chair in the 2003 Super Bowl commercial for H&R Block has been eclipsed by his most recent TV turn for Capital Metro in Austin, which touts alternatives to driving your car. The spot opens with James White of the Broken Spoke, Austin’s historic honky-tonk, standing onstage and announcing Willie before looking around and mumbling to no one in particular, “Y’all seen Willie?” The scene cuts to Willie sitting n the back of his bus stalled in traffic, saying to no one in particular, “Are we there yet?”

“I may not be any better at acting, but I’m more comfortable in it,” he said. “We’re working with New Line to do a movie. I just met with the writer. Years ago I bought a script called Tougher Than Leather from the boxer and actor Tex Cobb and a friend of his in Philadelphia. We were going to do this movie with me and Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Fairchild, and Tex. It evolved from Diamonds In The Rough to Blood Diamonds, then another rewrite and another rewrite. But right now New Line is rewriting it again to do sometime late this year or next year. They’re doing all the work and we just come down and set up.”

I was getting comfortable enough to get personal and ask him how it felt, being in a room surrounded by your own image staring back at you. Was it weird, as my friend insisted it was?

“Well, you know, I look around the room here and think of a lot of good times and a lot of good memories,” he said. “If nothing else, sitting around and looking at these pictures is a good enough reason to be here. It’s nice to come back in here and look around and see where you’ve been.

“You want to go upstairs and see what it looks like?” he asked. “I haven’t been up there in awhile.”

On my previous visits, I assumed the stairs were fake, leading to nowhere, like a movie set. But these were real stairs. Halfway up the staircase, he stopped to show me his hidey hole, a crawl space built into the wall. ‘It’s my escape hatch if I need it,” he smiled. He wasn’t kidding.

The upstairs was hot and empty, lacking air conditioning or much sign of life. The main room was bare, save for a painting of Willie that appeared to be of mid-1970s vintage and a wood-cut portrait of Waylon Jennings, the only Waylon memorabilia I spotted in the saloon.

Another room had gym equipment and boxing gear – two speed bags, a headache bag, and several big bags. This is where he works out when he can, practicing martial arts and living up to the black belt he earned from an Austin instructor named Master Oh three years ago.

I hit the speed bag with one hand for a few reps.

“It’s probably out of air,” Willie said.

He was right. It was almost deflated.

I turned around just in time to witness Willie kicking one of the heavy bags. It wasn’t just a swipe, like mine was. It was a hard, swift kick.

Whap!

Then he did it again. Whap! And again. Whap! Whap! And again. Whap, whap, whap, whap.

Every time the bag swung around after absorbing a blow, he kicked it again, hitting the sweet spot in the middle. Willie Nelson kicked the shit of out of the bag for two minutes straight, hard enough and relentlessly enough for me to quickly conclude I don’t ever want to get in a street fight with him, no matter how old he is.

Which is the point.

The kickboxing demo convinced me he was neither old nor feeble. And he sure ain’t dead. There is a whole lot more to him than I’d given him credit for.

Final visit, my ass. As I left Luck, Willie made that clear.

“See you back here again,” he said.

Joe Nick Patoski’s first article on Willie Nelson appeared in Zoo World magazine. He has written about him for Rolling Stone, Country Music, Picking Up The Tempo, Texas Monthly, The Austin Sun, and other publications.

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.

Those seeking all things Willie should visit willienelson.com and stillisstillmoving.com.


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