- 29 Apr 20
Happy 87th Birthday Willie Nelson! To celebrate, we're revisiting his classic 2002 interview with Hot Press.
In David Lynch’s The Straight Story, the septuagenarian Alvin Straight showed his steel when the twin freak mechanics the Olsens tried fleecing him for repairs on his John Deere 110 lawn mower. Sitting across the table from Willie Nelson on his tour bus, I get a whiff of the same stoic shrewdness. It’s in the way he turns his head as he phrases a certain line and then smiles to himself, black, black pupils boring out of brown irises, the colours rhyming with the black of his t-shirt against the brown of his braids. Despite the Zen cowboy demeanour I get the impression you wouldn’t want to fuck with him. Seventy years old or not, he’s from Texas. And he’s got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
“It helps you physically, mentally, spiritually, every way imaginable,” he says when I ask him about the martial arts. “It gives you a little different attitude, it takes away a lot of fears; you’re more secure. My boys are into it, my wife is into it, and it’s good for your mind, it teaches respect.”
Respect is something you learn about if you’ve spent the best part of six decades playing honky tonks, barrelhouses, chickenwire joints, county fairs and arenas, a life of one-nighters. Like Dylan, Willie Nelson is most at home on the road.
“Yeah, Bob and I have about the same attitude I think toward workin’,” he says in muted measured tones. “Y’know, there are some of us who do it for the enjoyment and the fun of it. There’s still guys like Merle Haggard and Ray Price, he’s older than I am and he’s still out there workin’, and before him there was Ernest Tubb who stayed on the road all the time, Bob Wills… it’s just a way of life and I guess some people are born to do that kind of thing. That’s not a big deal for me. Everybody in my band’s the same way, they’re all about half gypsy.”
Which is well and good for outlaw cred, but tough on family.
“I’ve been married… several times! Truck drivers, everyone who moves around a lot has that problem.”
These days, Willie gets around that problem by bringing his family on the road, an extended itinerant clan of musicians, crew and next of kin.
“It’s absolutely necessary if you’re gonna do it as often as much as we do,” he says. “You have to be able to get along and you have to be even closer than a lot of families, able to live in small confined places for long periods of time. It’s like a submarine.”
Contrast this with the high class hip-hop and r&b acts who travel with a huge entourage and end up filing for bankruptcy as soon as the hotel bills have been tallied, lugging those platinum discs down to the pawn shop a couple of months after they’ve been mounted on the wall.
“Most of them are told this is the way you have to do it,” Willie reckons, “and next thing you know you’re not selling a million records so you can’t afford that kind of production and you’re down to about what we do every night. I think it’s important to stay with the basics and not try to do too much production. I think that loses the feel for the whole show. A lotta hype. All of that in some way or another has gone on in my career in different spots, I know the record companies are out here workin’ – that’s great, but I’ve had it both ways.”
At this, he affords himself a wry laugh.
“I played in clubs ever since I was ten, twelve years old, and sang in church earlier than that,” he continues. “I didn’t know whether I was any good or not, because I couldn’t have been that great back in those days, but I think the people around me saw something and encouraged me to keep doing it so I got better and better as the years went on.”
Tonight is just another stop on the campaign trail, another date on the never-ending tour. It’s Saturday night in the City West hotel, half an hour or more outside Dublin and off the rock ‘n’ roll radar. The venue is a huge conference hall that looks like it might be more suited to a John Player Tops Of The Town final, or chicken-dinner gigs by Red Hurley. The hotel has been doing Willie Specials all weekend (frankenfurter I presume) and the establishment is renowned for having hosted the largest sit-down dinner in Ireland at a Fianna Fail bash a couple of years ago. In fact, it looks like a few of Bertie’s boys stuck around for the show – and a couple of Albert Reynolds’ and Donie Cassidy’s cronies too.
In the bar adjoining the main hall, cowpokes from Cabra wearing white ten gallon hats (all the better for ferrying beer from the bar) jostle for space with red-faced forty-something bigfoots in starched shirts who in turn rub rhinestones with poodle-headed Ladies Who Lurch. The assembly seems to have the median age of a speed limit. Forget Wilco and the Handsome Family and Bonnie Prince Billy. Forget your No Depression and your nu-country. Forget Gram hanging out with Keith. When George ‘n’ Tammy or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson come to town, it brings out the unreconstructed cunnery ‘n’ Irish constituency, that forgotten generation reared on the weekend wireless diet of Ceili House and Pascal Mooney’s Keep It Country.
Driving out with the record company, we were talking about how the usual big gig promos and poster count seemed low, but I think we underestimated word of mouth. This was a grass roots whispering campaign run by Country FM, alerting the ant colonies of Zetor jockeys and Dublin doobie brothers to the imminent visitation of a tribal elder. When we pull up to the production area the place looks like a Deadhead convention for redheads, with a queue for the hall the length of a Bible bloodline. Bear in mind, this is all happening without the benediction of the hip. Tonight the hatchet-jobsworths from the back of the Sunday Indo will be conspicuous by their absence. Bono will not park his vintage motor in the yard, leg it onstage, sing a quick duet and then vanish into the night (the invitation was extended, but he was at Edge’s wedding). Memo to pissant rock bands: it’s a land of plenty out here if you have the neck – red or not – equal to the task.
But with the house lights on for almost the first hour of the show, the lack of ceremony was bewildering. Hey John-Joe, that’s Willie up there, looking like Jerry Garcia stranded at a Daniel O’ Donnell tea party. Whoever was responsible for such an elemental gaffe should be flogged with a pair of wet Levis and reminded of the finer points of concert staging. Live shows are like sex with the elderly – better with the lights out.
Between that and the video screens beaming images from a handicam operated by someone whose focus was fuzzier than Handsome Dick Manitoba’s afro, well, the ambience seemed closer to a televangelist’s public appearance or a Tony Robbins self-empowerment seminar. There must’ve been 4000 people here, all seated. Towards the back of the hall, some folk were even facing away from the stage, peering at the rearmost screen. All of which might’ve been forgivable, but tickets cost something like a half a ton of yo-yos, generating some controversy the following week on the Joe Duffy show.
Not that all the blame should be heaped entirely at the feet of the hosts. For a while there Willie was phoning it in, tossing off stone cold classics like ‘Crazy’ and ‘Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away’ in perfunctory medleys, shovelling through the set like a chained man laying down blacktop. There were times he again echoed Bob, putting the people astray with his phrasing, sniffing for new twists in old tunes like a salty dog snouting out scents to take the years off his moulting soul.
But a couple of Kristofferson classics, ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and a railroaded ‘Me And Bobbie McGee’, had a profound effect on the plain people, making me think of James Kelman’s Glaswegians clinging to country blues as the true opium of the proles. And when somebody finally shut off the house lights, the little big man started hitting the spot with ‘Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain’ and ‘Georgia On My Mind’.
Other notes of note: during ‘Stardust’ a white-bearded guy of about 50 in a check jacket of the same vintage nods his head beside me like an automated puppet suffering some kind of rhythmical spasm. A weekend cowgirl in fringed denim whoops when she recognises ‘Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’. And during ‘Always On My Mind’, grown men and women become drunken supplicants at the altar of carefully forgotten or carelessly nurtured heartache, their tear ducts lubricated by drink.
Back on the bus, I ask Willie about the way people in the audience seem to really depend on these songs, investing a lifetime of hardship in each line.
“I do a lot of sad emotional type songs,” he says, “and going to that place every time, you have to watch it so that you don’t get too much into the emotion because that makes you drink a lot.”
He cackles at this notion, again choosing his words.
“A lot of us fell by the wayside because we got into the song lyric too much,” he says. “We forgot that what we were writing or singing about happened 20 years ago. When you go back there every night, it’s like laying on a psychiatrist’s couch and telling your story, and I don’t think that’s healthy, ’cos you can get too far into it. And it’s really difficult to sing ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ or ‘Always On My Mind’ without getting emotionally involved, specially when the audience gets emotionally involved and you feel their feelings. You can only wallow in your own misery for so long without saying, ‘Wait a minute, I want a drink!’ Everyone likes to know that someone has felt as badly or worse than they have at some point, that’s why the beer joints are full around five in the evening, people come by to relate. The songs that we sing are all therapeutic in their own way and just us doing them with or without an audience is good for us. We do a lot of soundchecks these days, and we have just as much fun in another way as when we do a show.”
Sure enough, by the time the show has hit the 90-minute mark, the band are having fun, chugging-a-lugging through ‘On The Road Again’ and ‘May The Circle be Unbroken’. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho And Lefty’ paves the way for a string of Hank standards that remind this pilgrim of how the bar bands of the Unyoke Inn and the Liver Fluke Lodge appropriated the Alabama bard for their own nefarious purposes. There are people here tonight who might attribute ‘Jambalaya’ to TR Dallas or Theresa And The Stars, or mistake ‘Hey Good Lookin’ for an infomercial cooking jingle. I don’t want to get too uppity about these things; whatever works, works. But the hat acts all too often turn a blind eye to the dark side of Hank, the shadow incarnation of Luke The Drifter: the serial killer hiding out in ‘Ramblin’ Man’, or the man who carried the genetic formula for Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kurt Cobain in songs like ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’.
“It doesn’t get airplay for sure, and a lot of those obscure Hank songs were only known to a few of us,” Willie says. “I think at one time or another I’ve sung practically every Hank Williams song there was. You had to know these songs to play the bars and clubs of Texas. You had to know Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills… I think it’s important to keep the music, keep the tradition, keep the basics, keep the things that brought us where we are, guys that thought us the trade, the guys we looked up to. It’s important that people know about these people, it’s part of their education. It’s already been proven that people will go back and listen to the good stuff. O Brother Where Art Thou?, the movie and the soundtrack, has proved that they will buy great country music if you can get it to ’em.”
Willie’s new album The Great Divide attempts a similar crossover strategy, although it’s not a patch on other recent efforts like Teatro. Some of it, the sly ‘Maria (Shut Up And Kiss Me)’ for instance, is as good as anything he’s ever done. But some of it sounds slick and phoney and padded out with irrelevant cameo spots. The worst offender is Kid Rock, who guests on a piece of sub-Bon Jovi designer cowboy drivel called ‘Last Stand In Open Country’. The record was put together by roughly the same team that masterminded Santana’s comeback, Matchbox 20 singer/songwriter Rob Thomas and producer/writer Matt Serietic. Was Willie tempted by the fruit machine bonanza of Supernatural?
“It certainly was not a negative,” he chuckles. “I had met Rob Thomas and he and I had become friends and he had been recording with Matt who had done Matchbox 20 and Celine Dion and also Santana, so he had a pretty good resume. So when I heard there was some interest in him recording me I said, yeah, what the hell, let’s go for it. Rob Thomas said he wrote ‘Maria’ with me in mind. He sung me three songs and I recorded all three of ’em, so I really like his writing.”
Still, you can’t be too mad at Willie for going for the buck at this stage in his career. One thinks of the Bill Hicks skit where he works his way down a list of musicians who sold their songs for ad-copy until he gets to Nelson, who gets granted diplomatic immunity on the grounds that singing about tacos is the least of your indignities when you’ve got the IRS on your back. I ask Willie for a quick rundown on his battles with the four taxmen of the apocalypse and he duly obliges:
“The public didn’t really find out about that until fourteen years after the fact. I had a tax bill for this particular year and instead of paying the taxes, the lawyers and accountants decided what I should do was get into a tax shelter and defer taxes, and it turned out to be a disaster because the IRS disallowed the whole thing. So I not only owed the original, but over a fourteen-year period with penalties and interest at like $5000 a day, the whole bill went to 32 million dollars. By the time everyone else found out about it I had been living with it a long time and it had gotten almost funny . . . someone asked my bass player if he thought I was worried and he said, ‘Well, if he owed ’em a million dollars he might be worried, but he owes ’em 32 – they should be worried!”
So, all those times in the 80s when he spearheaded the Farm Aid gigs, was he ever temped to stage his own (insert your own double entendre) Willie Aid?
“No, but there were a lot of people who sent money, people I never knew. I got envelopes with change, fifty dollar, a hundred dollar worth of change from everywhere all over the country, just from fans and friends who could relate. The IRS came in and tried to auction off all different things, and farmers came in and they wouldn’t let things be gone for a while, they bought things and gave ’em back to me later. It was incredible the way they came in and wanted to help. A very good feeling.”
One of the highlights of The Great Divide is a remake of the old Mickey Newbury classic ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’. It’s a song that has been revived a couple of times over the last ten years – Supergrass used to cover it live, but it also occupied central position in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski as the soundtrack to one of Jeff Bridges’ Busby Berkeley-meets-Cheech & Chong reefer dreams.
Willie Nelson is equally fond of his weed. Kinky Friedman once told this writer that the man smokes a joint the size of a large kosher salami. A couple of years ago, in what amounted to possibly the most pointless bust of the century, Nelson got done for sleeping off the after-effects of a date with mary-jane in his car. Laws are laws, I suggest, but that was just plain disrespectful.
“It was a small town just outside of Waco,” Willie recalls. “This guy who saw my car there on the side of the road, it was him and his deputy, a younger guy, and he was trying to impress him. I saw the whole police video of the thing before court, saw how he pulled up behind me, checked the license plate and found out that it was my car and then moved in.”
Mandatory drug testing has been in place for applicants for even the most menial jobs with US corporations over the last ten years. What does Willie make of the National Institute of Citizen Anti-Drug Policy and their government-funded push to instigate random testing of US high schools students?
“Well, I think that’s Big Brother takin’ on a little too much,” he says. “I think parents should be the ones to decide. I don’t think that’s something that can be governed by public schools; I think it’s a mistake. It looks as though there is this effort to take away as many freedoms as they can, using fear, using one thing or another to do it, and they’re gaining ground. That’s a scary thought. (Although) I think the pot laws have relaxed a little bit around the world in various places in the United States and also England and Germany. Amsterdam always has been. You don’t worry so much about it in border crossings and things. It’s not a good idea to carry anything around that’s illegal, I’m not recommending that, but it’s not the same scary feeling as it was ten years ago.”
Backtrack to the last leg of the City West show. There are precious few signs of illegal substances, but by the time two hours have passed, my head’s on my knees and I’m starting to hallucinate through the schmaltzy glop of ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’. But then something snaps my head up, and as Willie starts clawing out an improvised intro to ‘I Never Cared For You’ off Teatro, his face is morphing before my eyes, from Alvin Straight to Hank to Crazy Horse to Hernando Cortes. Now he’s bringing Django to Durango, his fingers pressing into the frets with such intensity you can almost see the bad drop fall from bleeding olives, the tragedy and murder of the corrido, the terrible subtext of tejano music, first cousin to Andalusian duende. Note to self: check out that album Joe Ely based around Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads. There’s something in the water in Texas, and it’s not the same thing that makes the grass grow green. Rather, it makes the blood black. And Willie Nelson seems to access that blackness every time he plays his trusty Trigger.
“Well since Grady Martin left, before Jackie Keane came in, I started doing a lot more playing, recording an instrumental album,” he explains. “I grew up around a lot of Mexican families and heard Mexican music, Spanish music, Tex-Mex, whatever, all my life, it was part of my education, so I’m not surprised that I hear it in my playing. My favourite music is Mariachi music.”
You can’t ever underestimate the Tex-Mex nexus. If ports can be portals through which pass strange and opiated airs, then bordertowns are Bermuda triangles. Texas is another country, and the Spanish connection makes kinsmen of the Surrealists, the socialists and the songwriters, all supping of the same citrus-Mescal visions. The state was annexed to North America in 1845, but antagonism towards the gringos persisted well into the next century. Hence a nation of contrarians and mavericks: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Buddy Holly, Roky Erickson, the Butthole Surfers, And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and At the Drive-In.
Settled by Spanish-Mexican colonists, secret Texan histories still resound with ancient mutterings of Aztec sacrifice and mass cannibalism as a wartime terror tactic – no wonder Tex-Mex arcana is often portrayed as a lawless Bosch-like underworld by Burroughs and Barry Gifford, by Ellroy in The Black Dahlia and Roberto Rodriguez in From Dusk Til Dawn. Hence the nightmare of Waco, starring mullet-headed messiah David Koresh rehearsing Armagideon hymns with his band in the compound before getting smoked by Federal agencies, an episode that, following the Randy Weaver incident in Idaho, did more than anything else to bolster anti-government sentiment and gun groups in the 1990s. The Feds’ royal bungling of the Branch Davidian episode had as much impact on Willie Nelson as the next Texan.
“The sheriff of the county was a very good friend of mine,” he says. “In fact when I went to court over this pot thing he came in as a character witness for me in front of the judge. So anyway, we talked about that a little bit, and he knew David Koresh and he had called him into his office two or three times, and it was just a matter of picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey David, I need to talk to you, come in’. He would’ve been ready and willing to do that (but) he was not contacted. Federal went around him and went in and did their own thing and a lot of what happened a lot of people think could have been avoided.”
By now, outside the window of the bus – christened ‘Honeysuckle Rose III’ incidentally – a crowd has struck up a chant of “Willie! Willie!” like some benign lynch mob baying not for blood but soul brother handshakes. More than two hours after the show has ended, Nelson is still signing autographs on the tarmac. He’ll be catching a ferry to Oslo in five hours, heading for another joint, heady from another joint. He tried to quit the road once in the early 70s, taking a sabbatical from music to try pig farming, but wanderlust eventually got the better of him.
“I took off a year and I wasn’t making any money and I thought I’d just take myself off the market and stay home a year,” he says. “I enjoyed it, I got fat and lazy around there for a while. I had a wife that could really cook, and as much as you can grow and eat out there on the farm. I was fatter than my hogs! Lot of things happened during that year, my house burned for one, so I moved back to Texas, and once I got back down there I got back to work again.
“In order to play music you have to move around,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of sit-down jobs where you make fifty, a hundred bucks a night, those are the kind of jobs that are okay, but you try to get away from ’em and get more successful travelling and drawing some crowds. I wanted to go from Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, San Antonio, make the circle a little larger as I moved around and each time I go back to these places maybe have more people.
That’s kind of the way I’m built.”