Life According to Willie Nelson (INTERVIEW)

The music legend and "outlaw" octogenarian shares some candid words of wisdom from his well-lived life.
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Todd Aaron Jensen
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The music legend and "outlaw" octogenarian shares some candid words of wisdom from his well-lived life.
Wille Nelson Photo

At 82 years old, Willie Nelson has enjoyed more than 60 years of popular success, offering music fans an astonishingly prolific 300 albums and some 2,500 timeless tunes. (Photo: David McClister/Courtesy Sony Legacy) 

The year Willie Nelson was born, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge didn’t yet cross the bay, Adolf Hitler was anointed Chancellor of Germany and promptly opened his first concentration camp, the Loch Ness Monster was allegedly spotted for the first time, Japan introduced a machine gun that could fire 1,000 rounds per minute, chocolate chip cookies and the Monopoly board game were invented, the unemployment rate was 25.2% and those Americans who were able to actually find work grossed about $20 a week, Prohibition was repealed at last, the pop charts were ruled by Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, and Ethel Waters, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously declared that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. 

In other words, yesterday and tomorrow are often impossible to distinguish, crackling with bedlam and wonder, mayhem and lunacy, and there have been few musicians and songwriters who have so masterfully scored the decades as Texas native and music industry legend Willie Nelson, now 82 years old. 

In 1933, Nelson was delivered to the Earth right on time, it seems, his mission apparently preordained and fulfilled over more than 60 years of popular success, an astonishingly prolific 300 albums, and some 2,500 timeless tunes. With urgency, humor, ferocity, and wistfulness, Nelson has given the world this priceless gift: he’s eased our suffering and loneliness by stripping bare his own desire, anguish, eccentricity, and yearning, crafting irresistible musical gems along his singular path. If art is, as the late, great author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “a very human way of making life more bearable,” then we are, each and every one of us, beholden to Nelson. Where would we be, after all, without the octogenarian’s breezy, aching, fearsome, frisky oeuvre? Where would we be without “Crazy” or “Always On My Mind” or “On the Road Again” or, heck, “Beer For My Horses”? 

Willie Nelson Autobiography

Willie Nelson's autobiography My Life: It’s A Long Story.

An authentic American icon, one of the bestselling recording artists of all time, Willie Nelson remains a paragon of the outlaw culture, an avowed road dog who always goes his own way, dusting the globe with his singular repertoire and galloping to the beat of his own drum. Even in his 80s, Nelson clocks more hours on the job than most of his compatriots, more than a dozen dates set in the next several weeks alone. Nelson comes by the work ethic honestly, born into the parched, merciless expanses of the Great Depression, abandoned early on by his hard luck parents, the sole beacon of his youth an acoustic guitar given him by his grandfather. By 6, Nelson could strum the thing into submission, strumming, plucking, throttling the thick strings. By 10, he was banging out originals in honkytonks and dive bars throughout Texas. Still touring, Willie Nelson continues to take the stage – one of the world’s last living legends, a collision of sagacity, whimsy, and heartbreak (not to mention braids and bandanas) – and, should the mood strike him, run through a generous serving of tunes from the recent albums Django & Jimmie (recorded with longtime pal, country legend Merle Haggard) and Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1: December Day, a set of archival recordings made years ago (but only recently released) with his sister, Bobbie. The songs may sound like country or folk, jazz or blues, swing or reggae, but they will all sound like Willie Nelson. And more than that, they’ll all sound like your personal, most intimate biography.

Earlier this year, Nelson published My Life: It’s A Long Story, an autobiography that is candid, rollicking, wise, and exuberant. He’ll speak freely, openly, with wisecracks and candor as long as a journalist would like, and then like the vagabond he’s known to be, literally and figuratively, Willie Nelson will disappear, headed out once more, as we could only expect, on the road again.  

George Carlin once said, “When evolution has been outlawed, only the outlaws will evolve.” You’ve been described as an outlaw. What does that mean to you?

I don’t really think I’ve evolved that much, between you and me. (Laughs) I’m never sure what I’m supposed to do. I’ll have to read up on the outlaw code and see what outlaws are supposed to be doing today. I’ve never really been too sure about that. 

For a good while, you virtually defined the outlaw culture.

The word “outlaw” has a lot to do with freedom to do what you want to do, no restrictions, and I certainly believe in that. But as for my music, the whole “outlaw thing” was some record label marketing thing someone dreamed up when Waylon (Jennings) and me decided to do our own things. That label actually sold music. It worked. Someone actually knew what they were doing. Or maybe they just got lucky. Maybe I just got lucky. 

You began writing songs at a very early age. Do you remember that first song?

I started out writing poems before I figured out how to put melodies to them and play the guitar. Somewhere, there’s a book out there of all those early songs and poems. I hope no one ever finds it. I don’t think it’s my finest work. 

A couple years ago, you released an album called Let’s Face the Music and Dance. That’s probably pretty good advice these days.

It is. It’s kind of a timely thing. The way things seem to be going around the planet, face the music and dance is not bad advice, I don’t think. We could do worse, couldn’t we? Well, we probably have. 

Willie Nelson Photo

When asked about his "outlaw" persona in the music industry, Nelson says: "The word “outlaw” has a lot to do with freedom to do what you want to do, no restrictions, and I certainly believe in that. But as for my music, the whole 'outlaw thing' was some record label marketing thing someone dreamed up when Waylon (Jennings) and me decided to do our own things. That label actually sold music. It worked. . ."(Photo: David McClister/Courtesy Sony Legacy)

You’re a black belt in kung fu, which comes as a surprise to many of your fans. How did that happen?

Oh, I don’t know. Really, all my life, Charles Atlas and Bruce Lee have been on my mind. Kung fu’s a good form of exercise, especially as you get older. I went through school playing all kinds of sports. I played shortstop. I ran track. I played football. I was a pole-vaulter. Then when I went to Nashville to start making music, I got into some martial arts and kung fu. I liked it. We used to offer kung fu lessons to the kids in the towns where we’d play. It’s good for you.  

That mind-body-spirit connection is important.

Absolutely. 

Probably makes it a little easier when you’re on the road for long stretches.

Even when you’re off the road, you have all this time we’re given in life, and it’s better to have something to do with it. Keeps you out of trouble. Sometimes. (Laughs) 

We’re always open to words of wisdom. Anything you’d care to offer? 

As far as advice goes, an ex-father in law of mine (Nelson’s been married four times) once gave me the best advice I ever heard. He said, “Take my advice and do what you want to.” So with that, go on. 

You have seven children. Any words of wisdom about fatherhood?

You want to be a good parent and you want to be a friend, and it’s hard to be both. You have to balance it as well as you can.

How about in the realm of love?

No advice at all. I have no advice – zero – on that subject. (Laughs)

Willie Nelson Photo

When it comes to navigating life's highs and lows, Nelson says: "(Life) ain’t for sissies. It’s an ongoing problem, an ongoing situation, life is. But its just life, and it never stops and it never will – until it does. You just be thankful for what you’ve got, and move on." (Photo: Danny Clinch/Courtesy Sony Legacy)

Most people consider you to be a pretty cool cat. Is there a secret to being cool?

When I see someone I think is cool, it’s a pretty well adjusted individual, not too affected one way or the other by what’s happening, no matter what’s going through his mind. I heard Rita Coolidge once say, “On the outside, I look pretty calm, but there’s a 37-piece orchestra going off in my belly.” Now that’s cool. 

You wrote a book a few years ago, The Tao of Willie, which is about the power of positive thinking. How do we do that, despite the deep valleys we sometimes endure?

Well, it’s not easy, that’s for sure. (Laughs) It ain’t for sissies. It’s an ongoing problem, an ongoing situation, life is. But its just life, and it never stops and it never will – until it does. You just be thankful for what you’ve got, and move on. 

There have been so many high points in your career. I’m wondering if you might recall the best moment.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I had been working in the field, picking cotton, baling hay, for a couple of bucks a day. And then I got this job in this Bohemian polka band one night, and I made eight dollars the first night, just playing music, doing my best to keep up with the boys. And I said to myself, “Well, here we go. This is success.” And I’ve just been that way ever since.