Willie Nelson is a great many things. He is country music’s greatest living songwriter. He is a fifth-degree black belt in Gongkwon Yusul, a Korean mixed martial art. And he is the only person to ever outsmoke the almighty Snoop Dogg. He’s also 87 years old, which is baffling given how loose—and lucid—he is in conversation, firing off one-liners left and right. Oh, and he is staggeringly prolific. The occasion for our chat is Willie’s 71st (!) solo album, That’s Life, a second collection of Frank Sinatra covers that sees the godfather of outlaw country put a soulful, delicate spin on Ol’ Blue Eyes’ timeless ballads.
There’s a lot of ground to cover when you talk with Willie, who’s had enough fun (and raised enough hell) for several lifetimes. Who can forget the time he smoked weed on the White House roof with Jimmy Carter’s son? Or the time a woman sued him for $50 million, claiming he’d wanted to marry her and that they’d had a 9-hour-long sex session that ended in a backward-somersault (while still in the act)? Or the time he rang Snoop Dogg and convinced him to fly to Amsterdam, where the two hit damn near every coffee shop in town?
We covered some of these tales (and more) during the course of our conversation.
How are ya?
All right, how you doin’ Marlow?
I’m all right. Thanks for taking the time, I appreciate it. I saw that you got that COVID vaccine a few weeks ago. I was wondering how you’re feeling.
Yeah, I feel great! I’m going back in for the second one tomorrow.
Must feel good that there’s sort of a finish line to this pandemic. You’ve been around for a bit. Is this like anything you’ve ever seen before?
A year now, almost. The last day that I worked was in March at the Houston Rodeo. We had 80,000 people. And that was the last time we saw an audience. So yeah, I miss the audience, I miss the music, I miss all of it.
There’ve been some who’ve been skeptical of the COVID vaccine despite the scientific community ensuring it’s safe. Did you have any concerns about getting it?
No. I had my first shot, no problem. Was a little sore—but that’s natural. And I’ll get the next one in a day or two. And that’ll be it!
How have you been passing the time under lockdown?
Well, fortunately my studio is here in Austin, so I’ve been doing some recording here. And we did some recording out in California. So, I haven’t been totally down. I’ve been doing some recording here and there.
Has the Willie’s Reserve helped you pass the time?
It makes it all a lot easier. [Laughs]
We’ve all, I think, learned some things about ourselves over the past year, trapped inside and not interacting with people so much. What have you learned about yourself?
Well, my wife Annie and I have been here kinda locked down for a long time. I was joking, I said, “The other day I saw a sign out on the window that said, ‘HUSBAND FOR SALE.’” [Laughs] So, I’m sure there’s a lot of that! You know, we all miss what we do. I miss playing music, for sure.
You’ve gotta be on the Mount Rushmore of marijuana smokers. I’m curious when you first started smoking, and how do you feel it’s improved your life?
I started out as a kid up in Abbott, Texas, a little town of about 300 people. They say the population never changes: every time a baby’s born, a man leaves town! [Laughs] We had a thing up there in Abbott where all we do is fight, fuck, and throw rocks. It was a great town. I still love it. I go up there every chance that I get. But I miss going places, I miss playing music, I miss the audiences! I’ve smoked everything there was. When I was a kid growing up, I smoked grapevine, I smoked cotton leaves, I smoked everything that would burn. I smoked roll-up tobacco. As I grew up, I started drinking too. I didn’t get into marijuana for a long time. I smoked cigarettes, drank, did all that for years—until it almost killed me. And then I came across marijuana, and I said, “What a minute—I don’t need to drink whiskey no more, I don’t need to smoke cigarettes no more.” In fact, it was about killing me. I’d already had a lung collapse and wasn’t doing so great health-wise, so knew I had to quit something. So, I quit tobacco, I quit alcohol, and I doubled up on the weed.
And it seems like that decision’s paid off.
You know, I was watching Jimmy Kimmel once and Snoop Dogg told a very funny story. He revealed that you were the only person to ever out-smoke him, and that he couldn’t hang with you and “had to hit the timeout button.”
[Laughs] That was over in Amsterdam! I called Snoop and I said, “Hey buddy, you gotta come over here. This is where it’s at!” So he came over and we hit every bar, every smoke place in Amsterdam. We had a helluva time.
Is it true that you guys got KFC together at one point?
Oh yeah. [Laughs]
Do you get the munchies when you smoke? I want to eat everything.
Well, I gotta be careful or I’ll gain a hundred pounds!
Has anyone ever outsmoked you?
Oh, I don’t know. There’s probably people that can outsmoke me! I don’t do a lot of smoking anymore. I’ve switched over to a vaporizer because it’s better on my lungs.
Let’s talk about your new album of Sinatra covers, That’s Life. Do you have any fun Frank stories?
I did know him, and we got to be good friends. He still is my favorite singer, and I had read somewhere that I was his favorite singer, so we hit it off pretty good. We played Vegas together a couple of times, but I didn’t get to hang out with him as much as I wanted to. I really loved the guy, though. One of the main regrets of my life was, Frank and I were both playing Vegas and after the show was over, he had a place there in Vegas, and he invited me to come by and hang out with him for a while. For some reason, I had to go on the bus to L.A. But that’s one of my main regrets—that I didn’t hang around with Frank more.
What is it about Frank’s music that really speaks to you?
He had a great choice of songs. He picked all the best songs in the world to record—and of course he had access to them. But I loved his phrasing. He and I recorded a couple of songs together many, many years ago. We did “My Way” together, and we did “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” We did a commercial together one time, I forget what it was for. Some satellite or something. I got to hang out with him a little bit but not as much as I wanted to.
Oh, that’s right. You were in a Space Foundation PSA.
Maybe that’s what it was! Yeah.
Your voice still sounds so sharp and pure on the album too. What’s your secret to keeping it that way? We’ve seen a lot of folks, like Bob Dylan and others, who have struggled to maintain their voice. But yours is still in very good shape.
When I was a kid, I was always into some kind of martial arts—and I’ve stayed with it. I think that’s been a big help to me staying in shape physically. It helps my lungs, which is gonna help your singing. I think that’s one reason why I’ve been able to keep singing, is because I’ve kept up with my exercises. I did Taekwondo. I did kung fu. I did judo. You name it, I did it. I was a fifth-degree black belt in Korean mixed martial arts (Gongkwon Yusul).
Wow. Have you ever had to use it on someone?
Well, it’s a warning for anyone who steps to you.
Yeah. You’ve got a feeling of confidence where you can avoid trouble. If you were a drunkard, you might just get drunk and fight—and I’ve done that too! I went through all that.
Right before the interview I was listening to your cover of “That’s Life,” and there’s a line in that that I really love. It goes: Each time I find myself layin’ / Flat on my face / I just pick myself up and get / Back in the race. Is there a time in your life where you fell flat on your face and had to pick yourself up to get back in the race?
Oh, many times. Many times. Back when I was drinkin’ and smokin’, I did a lot of crazy things that probably hurt me more than anything, in every way possible—from singin’, physically, and everything else. Because I’m not a good drinker.
I’d read that you earned the nickname “Shotgun Willie” from an encounter with your daughter’s husband, is that right?
[Laughs] Well, that might have something to do with it, yeah. That was just one of those deals where you felt like you had to do something. He beat up my daughter, and so I went over there and beat him up.
And shot up his car, right?
Well, yeah. He jumped in his car to leave and I shot his tires out. [Laughs] The police came by and said, “What happened?” and I said, “Well, I guess he ran over a bullet.”
It sounds like he had it coming.
Yeah. I didn’t have any more trouble with him.
A favorite Willie story is the time a woman alleged that she had sex with you for nine hours straight, and that you two did a backward-somersault at the end while you were still doing it.
[Laughs] That’s too good a story for me to deny!
I’ve listened to country music for a while—but mostly your brand of “outlaw country”—and country has only recently turned its back on the Confederate flag. You’re a progressive guy and weren’t in that mix, so was it strange for you to see so many of your contemporaries flying that flag at concerts?
Well, every night when I play, I drop the Texas flag, so I can understand some of the Southern pride and all that. I would never do the Confederate flag—but I drop a big Texas flag every night.
Right. Because the Confederate flag is more of a treason flag.
You’ve got this book coming out, Willie Nelson’s Letters to America. What inspired you to write that right now?
They offered me some money! [Laughs] And Turk Pipkin, the guy who’s actually doing the writing, is an old friend of mine and he’s a very good writer. I’ve read what he’s been writing, and he really does a good job.
It’s been a surreal four years under Donald Trump. I’m curious what your letter to America would say about the Trump years.
[Long pause] Oh, I don’t know… I’ve made it a point to stay away from politics, because every four years it changes. You get used to hating one guy, then another one comes in, then you get used to hatin’ him. I’ve never gotten into politics, and that’s the reason. I don’t like mixing up my audience like that. If I go play music, they’re probably Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and everything you imagine there, and I’m not going to do anything to piss ‘em off. If they want to vote Republican, that’s fine, as long as they like “On the Road Again.”
Although you did come out for Beto O’Rourke in a big way, and you sang a very fun rendition of “Vote ‘Em Out” aimed at Ted Cruz.
[Laughs] Well, Beto was a big pot smoker—was—and he was for legalization, so that’s the main reason I came out for him. Plus, he’s a good guy, ya know.
That did seem like an interesting flashpoint in Texas politics. You’ve been in Austin forever, and Austin—and really the state of Texas—has been gradually getting more progressive.
I was born and raised here. They always say, “You can always tell a Texan—but you can’t tell him much.” [Laughs] I guess we tend to brag a lot on our state, because we love our state.
I know you try to stay away from politics, but one politician that is pretty universally reviled is your senator in Texas, Ted Cruz, who was pretty instrumental in all the election-fraud nonsense that led to the Capitol riot. How do you feel about Ted?
I don’t know him—probably never will. And that’s cool, too.
Back in 2006, you released a cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other,” in support of gay rights. And I thought that was a really cool stand for you to take at the time. What compelled you to take it?
I believe that whoever you wanna love is cool with me. I’ve got friends who are gay, friends who are straight, and they’re good friends, you know?
Couldn’t agree more. What young artists out there are you excited about?
Oh, there are some young artists back there that I think are really great. Margo Price, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, and my sons, Lucas and Micah. There’s a lot of young ones back there that are comin’ on good. I’ve been recording a lot with my boys, Lucas and Micah. We did a lot of songs together over in L.A. and did some television stuff together. One day that’ll all come out. I’m really proud I got to do that. I’ve been really lucky. I have an album coming out that I just finished called The Family Album, and I do a lot of gospel stuff in there with my little sister Bobbie, and the band, and my kids, I got ‘em all in there. It’s kind of a family deal, and I really have enjoyed doing that.
Willie, you’ve accomplished so much in your career. Is there anything left that you’d really like to accomplish? An itch that you still want to scratch?
That would really be stretchin’ it a little bit. I think I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do and been fortunate to do it the way I’ve wanted to do it. I have no complaints about anything. I think my life has been pretty good.
It sounds like you’re quoting Sinatra’s “My Way” there.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess so!
You once sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” I believe at a ceremony to unveil your statue in downtown Austin. Is that how you actually want to go?
[Laughs] I don’t care! When I’m dead, I don’t care. You know, there was this song one time, I don’t go to funerals? I won’t be at mine!