Here’s a blast from the past: a 2013 Q&A with The Red-Headed Stranger.
Note: Willie Nelson actually was born April 29, 1933 – but his birth wasn’t officially recorded until April 30. In any event: It’s always a good time to celebrate The Red-Headed Stranger, so we’re reposting my 2013 Q&A with Willie — taken from a conversation he and I had shortly before his 80th birthday. The above photo was taken two years later, at Willie’s Luck, Texas retreat. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I was so overjoyed to speak with one of my idols, I sang “Happy Birthday” to him just before our conversation ended. Willie was very polite and, instead of screaming in pain, he graciously thanked me for the impromptu serenade.
Willie Nelson was on my stereo when Willie Nelson called. Is that great timing, or what?
Specifically: I was enjoying a bit of late-afternoon relaxation while listening to one of my all-time favorite Nelson albums – Countryman, an irresistible collection of his distinctive takes on reggae classics – when The Red-Headed Stranger himself called me just before he was due to step on stage for a concert.
We talked a bit about Angels Sing, the feel-good, family-friendly comedy-drama in which he plays a benevolent fellow who may actually be angel, or at least close enough that it makes little difference. (The movie had its world premiere in March at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival under its original title, When Angels Sing.) But we talked a lot more about his upcoming 80th birthday – and about his refusal to let aging keep him from going on the road again, making music with his friends.
Cowboys & Indians: Willie, right before you called, I was listening to your rendition of “The Harder They Come.”
Willie Nelson: All right! A little reggae, eh?
C&I: That’s right. And I couldn’t help thinking of something when I heard you sing: “I’d rather be a free man in my grave than to be anyone’s puppet or slave.” Would you say that’s been your motto, in your life and your career?
Willie: Well, yeah, I think so. And it’s a pretty good one to follow.
C&I: Do you still enjoy being on the road as much as ever?
Willie: I think so. I still look forward to the shows every night. I’m lookin’ forward to the show tonight. There’s a certain kind of energy exchange, I think, that takes place at a concert, no matter who it is. Whether it’s me, or whoever, people pay money to come see it. For some reason, they enjoy clapping their hands and singing along. And for some reason, I enjoy it, too. When we can all get together and exchange that good, positive energy, that makes for a good show.
C&I: Do you ever get nervous before a show? Or still experience anything like stage fright?
Willie: No. I guess it’s because I don’t have an act. I don’t have anything to worry about — if I can just remember my songs, I’ll be alright. That’s always been the only thing I’ve ever had to worry about, or think about.
It’s sort of like this: The first poem that I ever learned, my grandmother taught it to me when I was about five or six years old. And it was one that I was to do at church. I had on a little red and white sailor suit, with short britches, white trimmed in red. And I started picking my nose. And my nose started bleeding all over my sailor suit. But I still had this poem to do in front of all these people at the church. And it was, like: “What are you looking at me for? I ain’t got nothing to say. If you don’t like the looks of me, then look some other way.”
And I held on to the memory of that all through the years. And after that — I’ve never really ever had stage fright.
C&I: Well, certainly not after you were able to overcome something as embarrassing as that at so young an age.
Willie: That’s what I thought, too. I thought, ‘If I can make it through this, I can do anything.’
C&I: Are you ever surprised by the song requests you get during concerts? Not just for the big hits — but sometimes for more obscure tunes?
Willie: Sometimes, yeah. But most times, I think most people out there in the audience are as old as I am, or older. There are a lot of young people, too. But I know that for those older people out there, the reason they’re there is because of the old tunes. And, yeah, sometimes they call out a lot of the names — like “Healing Hands of Time,” or “Is the Better Part Over?” — and they may be songs that I haven’t done in a very long time. And if I can remember them, I’ll do them.
C&I: Sting once told me he felt very ambivalent about hearing his songs piped into supermarkets and elevators as Muzak. One hand, he was uncomfortable about their being used kinda-sorta like white noise. But on the other hand — he also felt good to know that people must like hearing them, or they wouldn’t be piped in.
Willie: That’s kind of the way I feel about it. I feel lucky that people like the music enough to put it in an elevator.
C&I: You’ve had great success as a recording artist, doing everything from country to gospel to classic pop tunes — and, yes, reggae. But is there an album you’ve done that you wish had been better received — more widely accepted — because it was especially close to your heart?
Willie: Oh, I think the Spirit album was one of those that I really liked. I think some of my best writing was in that. I did OK, I guess, but I think it’d come out again now, I think it would do a lot better.
I did the whole thing like a concept album, and I wrote it — well, in 20 minutes, it felt like. It just all flowed out pretty good. And one song led into another. Even the instrumentals just led from the other stuff. Johnny Gimble, a great fiddle player from Texas, played with me on that. See, it was sort of a stripped-down album, mostly acoustic. I really enjoyed doing that. I plan on doing another one as close as I can to that one when I get back in the studio.
C&I: You’ve still recording — and selling — CDs at an impressive pace. And what’s really delightful is, you keep surprising us with the material you choose, and the folks you collaborate with. Your latest release, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, has songs by everyone from Carl Perkins and Irving Berlin. And on your last album, Heroes, you actually did a duet with, of all people, Snoop Dogg. Or should I say Snoop Lion?
Willie: [Laughs] Well, I haven’t seen him since he changed his name. So I’m not sure what he likes. But whatever he wants to be called is fine by me.
C&I: So how did you and Snoop hook up?
Willie: Well, we wound up getting to be good friends. We wound up in Amsterdam together — he was playing in one club, and I was playing in another. And we started hanging out in the coffee shops over there. We did one song together, and then we did another song. And most recently, he came in and sang a verse on this new song I’d written, called “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
C&I: These days, so many singers in all genres rely heavily on music videos to promote their music. Have you ever wondered whether, when you were first starting out, you might have made your big breakthrough even earlier if you’d had music videos back in the day?
Willie: Well, actually, I’ve always been a little bit dubious, a little bit skeptical about how much a music video does for a song. It sort of limits the person who’s listening to the words, and then sees someone else’s interpretation of what the pictures should be that go along with those words. So I have mixed emotions about videos. I think there’s a lot to say about a song that doesn’t have a video, where you can just use your imagination and out your own pictures in there.
C&I: True enough. On the other hand, I think one of the greatest music videos of any kind I’ve ever seen is the one you, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings did for “Highwayman.”
Willie: Well, that was a great song. Jimmy Webb wrote a classic when he did that one, I guarantee. But, yeah, I guess that’s one instance where the video projected the song higher [on the charts] than maybe it would have gone.
C&I: On the other hand, have you ever done music videos that you wish, well, would just disappear?
Willie: Well, usually, I can tell whether I like them or not before we leave the editing room. Did you ever see the video for “A Horse Called Music”? That’s one of my favorites. I’m riding my favorite pony in there — Billy Boy. He’s getting on up there in age, too, but we still get out there and ride every now and then. We made that video together. The song is a great song. But I think that’s another instance where the video projected the song way out there.
C&I: Well, Willie, you’ve got a big birthday coming up. Back when my father turned 80, he told me: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Do you feel anything like that?
Willie: Oh, sure. For years, I’ve felt like that. [Laughs] Hell, at 21 I felt like, if I’ve had known I was going to like that long, I would have taken better care of myself.
C&I: Still, you aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. And, obviously, you’re still very much in demand. Never mind how old you might be. Are you surprised at all that you’ve kept your career going this long?
Willie: I guess maybe I should be. But being really stubborn and arrogant and pushy… [Laughs] No, come to think of it, I’m not surprised.
C&I: Looks like you’ve already gotten a pretty terrific birthday present: Longevity. The gift that keeps on giving.
Willie: Yeah. You look around, and you don’t see too many guys out here as old as I am still doing one-nighters. And still enjoying it, still having good crowds. So I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.