At nearly 80 years of age, Willie Nelson is nowhere near retirement–and reveals the secret to his longevity, his work ethic and his music
Willie Nelson is 78 years old and spent this past summer headlining the multi-act Country Throwdown music festival which now bears his name. The veteran Texan became a country legend by writing classic songs like “Crazy” (most notably a hit for Patsy Cline in 1962) and as a pillar of the “outlaw country” sub-genre. Albums like 1973’s Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages the following year, and 1975’s Red Headed Stranger helped define the so-called Outlaw Movement at the time and remain country music high water marks. But to younger audiences Nelson is perhaps equally well known for his pro-cannabis activism (he’s a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and biodiesel advocacy (he formed Willie Nelson Biodiesel to market the bio-fuel to truck stops in 2005). Since 1985 Nelson has also been a co-organizer of the annual Farm Aid benefit concert, which raises money for family farmers in the U.S. Last year the city of Austin, Texas renamed its Second Street to Willie Nelson Boulevard. Speaking from a recent tour-stop in Mississippi, Nelson talked to Culture about why (and how) he still does it; what makes Country Throwdown so special; and how marijuana has helped him keep up his incredible work ethic for so long. Oh, and Nelson is on tour again, scheduled to perform six shows in California in September.
How did your involvement with Country Throwdown come about?
It was like all the other tours, y’know: my agency books ’em and I go work them. On this particular one I knew it was a different tour, because there [were] a lot of great acts on there that I don’t normally get the opportunity to work with.
Last year it was simply “Country Throwdown,” but this year’s festival is “Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown.” What is the difference and what is the extent of your involvement behind the scenes?
The fact that it’s got my name on it, that’s a great honor, I think. A lot of these acts could be leading the show themselves. Jamey Johnson is a great example: he’s a really great artist and he’s got a great future out there.
What are your feelings about large festivals like Throwdown, as opposed to playing regular shows?
The pros are that I get to work with a lot of great acts. The part that I wish was a little different is that we don’t go on until real late and it’s a very long show . . . I have to take a nap before the show!
You are well known for championing bands like Los Lonely Boys, for example, and you even started your own record label [Pedernales Records, in 1999]. Is helping out up-and-coming artists one of the joys of your lofty status in the country world?
Yeah, that’s my responsibility. To not only help other people, but also to help the music.
How would you say the quality of country music today compares with, say, the 1960s and ’70s–is the genre thriving or has it become too American Idol for your tastes?
I’d kind of like to take it back further than that–to the 1950s and ’60s. That’s where my favorite country music came from: Hank Williams, Bob Wills and all those guys.
Would you regard that as the heyday of country, that hasn’t been repeated since?
I grew up in Texas, where when you said the word “country” you said “western” with it, y’know? I grew up in country and western music. Country music, I loved it, but I was really born into western swing and country and western music. That’s my favorite kind of music.
You obviously wrote one of the genre’s great torch songs, “Crazy.” Do you see that quality of songwriting amongst young country artists today, or is it a dying art?
Well, we won’t know that until . . . I mean, [“Crazy” has] been around a long time, since the ’60s. Fifty, 60 years from now we’ll say, “Well, that was a better song than I thought it was,” or “well, that one didn’t do as well as I thought it would.” It’s hard to say.
Your son, Lukas, was also on the Country Throwdown bill. What’s it like to perform and tour with him?
He’s been really touring with me all his life. When he was just a baby he was on the bus . . . we kept the family together. It’s really a thrill to have Lukas out there on the stage with me every night and I hope we can do it forever.
What’s your take on Lukas’ future music career, given the current state of the music industry? It’s a very different industry today compared with the one you entered all those years ago.
The marketing is different; the way you sell a record and promote a record is different. Everything is different these days. Lukas grew up on the computer and he did home-schooling on the computer, and so he is using all the high-tech ways that he can to promote his own music. He’s doing a great job. He’s doing as good a job as a record company because he knows how to utilize the Internet.
Watching him do that, would you rather be an aspiring artist today or was it easier to break into the industry back when you did, in the 1960s?
I would think it would be very, very difficult today . . . I would think it’s harder today.
How did you make the transition from being a songwriter for other people to being a performer and recording artist yourself? Was that intentional or would you have been happy to always be a songwriter behind the scenes?
I was a songwriter second and a singer third. I was a guitar player first. So I started out playing in all these beer joints in Texas. I was a musician and I worked in other bands. I worked in Johnny Bush’s band as a guitar player and I also wound-up managing him at one point.
You’ve talked about coming very much from a Texas country and western background. When you tour today, do you find there’s a difference between Texas crowds and, say, crowds from other states? Do crowds have different personalities around the country?
I play probably more concerts in Texas than anywhere else. There’[re] a lot of reasons for that. I have a lot of friends and fans and there’[re] a lot of places to play in Texas. But I have found that pretty much people are people anywhere, whether it’s Austin or London. I mean, music lovers are pretty much the same the world over.
Do you think that your Farm Aid concerts have even more relevance in today’s economy?
We do a Farm Aid every year. This will be our 26th year in a row. This year it’s in Kansas City on Aug. 13. We’ve had the same program through the years. We’re losing farmers by the millions. We used to have 8 million small family farmers out on the land and now we’ve got less than 2 million and are losing 500 to 1,000 every week. That’s a sad situation and it’s not getting any better–it’s getting worse.
Why is that issue so close to your heart?
I grew up on a farm and I know how hard it is to make a living on a farm. So when I first heard they were in serious trouble I thought I’d figure out a way that we might help ’em.
At your age, most musicians–or indeed people in any profession–have retired. What keeps you going? What keeps you out there on the road?
I enjoy playing music; I enjoy traveling; I enjoy the audiences and the people. There’s really no reason to think about quitting right now . . . People still show-up!
You also seem to be in great physical shape; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do this level of work. What’s your secret?
We are professionals out here and you’d better act like one or you won’t last long. In order to do as many shows as we do each year and to travel as much as we do we have to take care of ourselves. I kinda instinctively knew that all along and I prepared for it. I prepared my body and my voice and everything else that I’ve got to stay strong through the years. And I’ve done everything you can think of physically: running, swimming, biking, weight-lifting.
What is your current daily regimen?
I’ve got my bike underneath the bus and in fact I took a ride this morning. It’s so hot, I didn’t ride very long. I try to do that, and run a little bit. If there’s a place to swim, I’ll do that.
You’re obviously not shy about your advocacy on behalf of cannabis, but I heard that after your 2010 arrest for possession [in Sierra Blanca, Texas], you created the Tea Pot Party with the motto “Tax it, regulate it and legalize it!” Can you tell me how the Tea Pot party is doing?
The Tea Pot Party is represented in every state in the Union. And I’m not telling them how to vote; I’m just telling them to vote. Because I don’t know who is in their area; who is in their town–I can’t tell them who to vote [for] like a regular party could. But I can remind them that if they don’t want to be treated like criminals all their lives, they better vote [for] people that believe the way we do.
I believe 16 states now having medical cannabis laws on the books. Do you see this as a positive sign of progress, considering you’ve lived through times when there were zero “medical marijuana states”?
I think that the fact that it’s legal anywhere is a great start. Eventually we’ll figure it out in this country that it’s much better to tax and regulate it than it is to put up with all the drug wars and the murdering and all the things that go on in the drug-related areas. It’s not necessary. It’s been proven in other parts of the world that you can tax and regulate it. And with the economy being the way it is, I would think that a lot of people out there would really be thinking about it . . . I hope somebody will get elected [as President of the United States] who will be our friend.
Do you feel your use of marijuana has been a factor in your longevity–in keeping you physically fit, mentally sharp and creatively stimulated?
Yes. I remember reading a book called The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer, and in there he said a lot of great things. And one of them was that stress is the biggest killer on the planet, and the best medicine for stress is marijuana. And I know that to be a fact. I’ve done a lot of experimenting with it and I know for a fact that it is good for stress.
PICK OF THE LITTER
Each tour, Willie Nelson’s camp release commemorative, limited-edition guitar picks that are given to roadies, friends and family. Here is a sampling of some of the Willie picks over the years. (Photos by Kristopher Christensen)