If you go to interview Willie Nelson, you better have a lot of questions ready. Because at 86, he’s heard pretty much any question you can think of, he’s not too interested in wasting time on speculation, and by nature he’s a fairly laconic guy.
So a lot of your interview could go something like this.
Do you have favorite places to play—particular concert halls, beer joints?
“Well, I’m from Texas, so I still like playing there. Close to home. So I can get back on the bus after a show and go home. But as far as audiences are concerned, they’re all good.”
Do you ever worry that mainstream, one-size-fits-all mass culture is going to sand the edges off regional music cultures?
“I never worry about it.”
Do you become more or less philosophical as you get older?
“Oh, I think that requires too much thought.”
As that last answer suggests, Willie hasn’t lost a thing in his upper story, especially in the humor department. He laughs easily, mocks himself, and gently mocks his guest (he was raised right). He’s also courteous and hospitable—you are, after all, a guest on his bus. So if you ask a bullshit question, he’s not going to get ornery. The bat just stays on his shoulder while he waits for a pitch he can hit.
Sitting in his tour bus’s little dinette, with a couple of cups of black coffee and a pack of cards between the two of you, you study that famous face framed by that pair of equally famous braids: a folded and refolded road map whose every line and ridge bespeak a long lifetime of experience and adventure—he’s earned every wrinkle. But what really gets your attention are his eyes: dark, chocolate brown pools as bright as a dime and deep as a well. They are the eyes of a man on whom nothing much has been lost, and the eyes of a child on Christmas morning.
They’re also a poker player’s eyes. They’re not steely but they’re steady, and they don’t give anything away. And that makes the man a little intimidating. I mean, come on, it’s Willie Nelson sitting there, the fellow who wrote “Crazy” and “Nightlife” and “On the Road Again” and cut almost 70 solo studio albums, worked in movies, wrote a couple of autobiographies, helped start Farm Aid and the Outlaw movement in country music. And smoked weed on the roof of the White House—and now has his own weed company. He’s surely one of the most recognizable people on the planet. He’s also one of the few celebrities who’s not smaller than life when you meet them in person. In Willie’s case, quite the opposite.
The only thing that makes the staring match bearable is the twinkle in Willie’s eyes: He may look like Yosemite Sam, but you know inside he’s all Bugs Bunny.
As for how he’s holding up, the answer is: pretty damn well. Still lives his life very much in the present tense. Still has all his marbles (and always had more than most). Still puts out a couple of albums annually. Still tours for a third or more of the year. Cruising through his ninth decade, he’s not going gently into anyone’s good night.
So, yeah, that’s Willie Nelson, sitting right there, not three feet away. Hell.
It’s Father’s Day and his sons Lukas and Micah, along for this 15-city tour, will play in his band tonight at a show in Hartford, Connecticut. For the occasion, Willie has busted out a BEST. DAD. EVER. T-shirt. This Outlaw Music Festival, a changing line-up of roots and Americana bands, tonight includes Phil Lesh and Friends, Alison Krauss, the Revivalists, Particle Kid, and Lukas Nelson’s band, Promise of the Real. Willie is the closer.
It’s been ages since that “package show in Buffalo, with us and Kitty Wells and Charley Pride,” and he wasn’t the closer then, but it must seem like yesterday to Willie. Or just one long day. All his life, since he was a teenager, he’s been a rambling troubadour, singing and playing his way from one town to the next. For a man who’s never led a tame life or had much use for the ordinary ways of making do, his existence is at the same time unchanging. Call it the Outlaw Music Festival if you must, but this is just Willie’s latest package show. The details don’t interest him at all (managers and promoters “just tell me, go there, and I do”), just so long as he gets to go out on stage and sing and play his heart out for an hour every night.
Does he often get to perform with his sons? “Not enough, naturally,” he says, “but every time it’s always good. When your kids are good kids and talented, you’re always glad when they come up and sing with you. And they’re all good, so I can’t complain about a one of 'em. They all have talent.”
He says he neither actively encouraged nor discouraged his children from getting into music, which is not to say he didn’t put his thumb on the scale just a mite. “I just left a lot of instruments laying around. Drums, piano, guitars, whatever, and if they wanted to pick them up they could. And as the years passed, I’d see one getting on the drums, and I saw 'em moving around, playing different things, and the next thing you know they’re playing everything. Luke can play piano, guitar, so can Micah. And my daughter Aimee, her and Cathy Guthrie have Folk Uke. They’re touring still and doing great.”
Maybe that T-shirt’s just stating a fact.
Or maybe Willie’s just emulating the love and support he received from his grandparents, who raised him and his sister, Bobbie, in little Abbott, Texas, and who filled their house with music and music lessons (Bobbie, two years older than her brother, still anchors the piano spot in the band at every show).
Willie wrote his first song at 7 and kept all his lyrics in a notebook that he decorated with letters drawn to look like lariats, paying homage to the silver screen’s singing cowboy heroes who inspired him.
He can’t remember his very first song. “But I do remember the first poem I recited, when I was 6 years old. It was a homecoming over in East Texas. One of those all day singing, dinner on the ground things. And my grandmother, who had raised me, taught me this poem. And I had on my little sailor suit, with the short britches and the red trim. And before I started out there, I started picking my nose and it started bleeding, all over my white sailor suit. And my poem was, ‘What are you looking at me for? / I ain’t got nothing to say. / If you don’t like the looks of me, / look some other way.’”
When his audience of one says, “That’ll see you through life,” Willie responds, “It did!”
He politely brushes off questions about his age.
“I ran into Norman Lear the other day,” he says. “He’s 96. I said, ‘I’ve been telling everybody it’s just a number. Am I right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s just a number.’”
The recent loss of old friends—Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Leon Russell, Dr. John—is something he finds almost too painful to talk about. “At our age we’ve lost so much,” he says simply.
But occasionally the mention of a departed pal prompts a happy memory. When Hank Cochran, the songwriter and singer who gave Willie his first break in Nashville, comes up in the conversation, Willie laughs. “He was an old buddy,” he says. “I was best man for him at his wedding, and I was a witness against him for his divorce. So I helped him out every way I could.”
“One night Hank and I wrote seven songs together up there in my house in Ridgetop, Tennessee, and the last song we wrote was ‘What Can You Do to Me Now?’ And the next day my house burned. True story. So, don’t get smart with the Big Guy.”
Cochran wrote “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” the song that all by itself encapsulates the longing and loss that threads its way through Willie’s most famous masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger.
“The original song title—and Hank wouldn’t mind if I told you—was, ‘Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?’”
But if Willie can’t talk easily about the passage of time or the fate that awaits us all, the subject has cropped up more and more in the songs he’s been writing and singing lately. His last three solo records, not counting a Sinatra tribute, all contain more than one tune that wrestles with the question of mortality.
On his just-released album, Ride Me Back Home, he wrote both “Come on Time” and “One More Song to Write.” Even his cover of Guy Clark’s tribute to his late wife, “My Favorite Picture of You,” deals with the mystery of how love survives, if only in memory. Not coincidentally, it’s the best cut on the record, and Willie’s favorite: “As soon as you hear it, you gotta hear it again.” God’s Problem Child, released in 2017, contains “Old Timer,” “Still Not Dead,’ and “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” a beautiful tribute to Merle Haggard.
And stuck in between was Last Man Standing. He sings a couple of lines from the title track: “‘I don’t want to be the last man standing, but wait a minute, maybe I do.’” It’s a dark lyric whose depths are belied by an uptempo melody—a trademark yin-yang balancing act for country’s zen master. “But I don’t sing that song on stage because I don’t want to talk about that stuff,” Willie says. “I don’t want to bring up all those people who have passed in the last few years. I don’t want to dwell on that every night, cram that down the audience, it’s all negative stuff. I’d rather do something positive—‘On the Road Again’ or something uptempo or gospel, get ’em clapping their hands.”
The famous singing voice still has a trace of barbed wire, but in conversation it’s soft as an old pair of jeans, and sometimes it drops to a murmur. So you have to lean in when he says, almost to himself, “As long as people keep showing up and like what we do, we’d like to keep doing it.”
Willie’s a notorious lifelong jock. He didn’t make to his mid-eighties just kicking back and smoking weed. He still runs, rides a bike, golfs, works out with weights, practices martial arts.
These days, though, he does those things when he’s not on the road. When’s he’s traveling, performing is his workout and reward: “If people come and applaud, that’s all you can ask for. And people love it. They clap their hands. And sing. I read this story about this guy in India that got up and started every morning, started running down the road and clapping his hands and singing.” Willie starts clapping slowly and keeps clapping while he goes on. “Next thing you know, people joined him, and then there’s hundreds of thousands of people out there in India doing the same thing. He’s drawing his own crowd, entertaining them, and they love it.”
“Singing is the best exercise you can get. Your lungs are the biggest muscles you’ve got. When you use ’em to sing, it works really good for you. Clap your hands, that’s good for you.”
“Like I say, if you sing for an hour, you’ve done a pretty good workout right there. And you clap your hands. I don’t need to do a lot more than that.”
Does he follow any special diet on or off the road? “I don’t eat.” He thinks for a second and then amends that to “I don’t eat a lot. I don’t know, I guess it depends on who you are, a lot of people say I should eat more. But I feel good, so—”
From elsewhere in the bus, his wife, Annie, chimes in: “Don’t let him sound like nobody feeds him. He’s trying to make me look bad.”
“Oh, I could eat all day and she’d be glad to feed me,” Willie says. “She can tell you what I eat. What do I eat?”
“Toast. And a shake. Sometimes bacon and eggs. Oatmeal.”
“And a little strychnine,” Willie says with a grin.
Compelled is not too strong a word to describe Willie, at least when it comes to performing and songwriting. “I still write a lot. I don’t know if it’s that good or not but I still write down my thoughts. I wrote one the other day. It went, ‘I didn’t want to write any more songs / but you can’t tell that to my mind. / It keeps throwing out words, / and I keep trying to make ’em rhyme.’ You can’t quit writing. You can’t quit thinking.”
If the songwriting urge has never died, neither has the talent. He’s never stopped turning country music’s tropes and cliches into something new, songs that are funny and sad all at once, songs that grapple with life’s joys and frustrations in such a personal fashion that he convinces you he knows exactly what’s in your heart.
Most important, he’s never lost his genius for elevating conversational English to the level of poetry in a song lyric—he’s like some country Johnny Mercer. He’s that good. “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “One for My Baby (And One for the Road)” could have come from the same pen.
Asked what advice he would give young songwriters, he says without hesitation, “I would tell them not to pay any attention at all to what I say. Follow your instincts. Do what you want to do. And don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do it.”
OK, but if he had to tell them something he’d learned himself along the way, what would that be?
“Be honest with yourself. If you think you’re right—Who was it said, If you think you’re right, then go ahead? Somebody said that.”
I watched the show from the side of the stage. He opened with “Whiskey River,” as ever, and followed with the more recent “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and “Beer for My Horses.” Then “Good Hearted Woman” and then Bobbie led everyone through “Down Yonder” and Lukas sang a song. Then Willie returned for “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and held center stage for the duration. Listening to him work his way through 20 songs in an hour, it sounded familiar but it never sounded stale. He sang and played like a man with a light heart, a man who, for an hour every night, doesn't know what it's like to grow old.
Somewhere between “On the Road Again” and a heartbreaking performance of “My Favorite Picture of You,” I started thinking about something Willie said in the interview. When I asked him if he let things worry him, he replied, “I try not to. It’s a real simple reason why not. Because worry is a negative thought, and any time you think a negative thought, it releases poison in your body and can cause cancer and every fucking thing else. So why do it? It’s not solving anything. Just think positive, and you’ll feel better. I do believe that energy follows thought, and you are what you think.”
That might sound pat if you just read it, but if you sit across from Willie Nelson and feel the buoyant intensity with which he talks or watch the quantum bundles of affection flowing both ways across the footlights, you’d know he’s telling the truth. This is a man who accentuates the positive and never once sounds like a fool.
I’d been in the same spot for the whole show, right off-stage with no one between me and the performers. A couple of crew members stood beside me for a while, but then they left and I had the place to myself. So when I turned near the end and looked back offstage, I was surprised to see that at least 20 people had crowded in behind me. When my eyes adjusted, I was delighted to see that the crowd behind me were all members of bands who had performed earlier in the show. And it wasn’t just the younger musicians. Even Phil Lesh was there. They’d turned out for Willie. And if you think that happens often, you don’t get backstage much.
Walking out, I revised my earlier opinion: This, I thought, getting a little misty, is definitely not your typical package show.