The 84-year-old icon and his musician sons weigh in on never-ending road adventures and secrets to staying on top of his game for decades.
Willie Nelson arguably is the most energetic octogenarian in country music. But even he admits that aging into the role of gray eminence has its downside. Indeed, the celebrated Red Headed Stranger repeatedly addresses the subject throughout God’s Problem Child, his most recent album, which Rolling Stone writer Jeff Gage aptly and admiringly described as Nelson’s “stark, honest, sometimes bleak, and often funny look at mortality and the specter of his own death.”
In “Old Timer,” one of the album’s most poignantly melancholy cuts, Nelson sings: “One by one, your friends have crossed over. You pray for mercy and a few more days. Still got dreams inside your head. Some days it’s a struggle just to get out of bed.”
On the other hand: Don’t assume he’s looking to quit cheating the reaper anytime soon. Another album cut, “Still Not Dead,” which Nelson co-wrote with Buddy Cannon, comically insists that reports of his impending demise are way too premature. “The internet said I had passed away,” but pay that no mind. “I run up and down the road, making music as I go. They say my pace would kill a normal man. But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway. And I woke up still not dead again today.”
Listening to those lyrics, I was reminded of the day in April 2015 when I got to hang out in Luck, Texas — the faux Old West town Nelson maintains on his ranch near Austin — and watch while the Country Music Hall of Famer and occasional actor filmed Waiting for the Miracle to Come, a still-unreleased indie feature co-starring Charlotte Rampling. Even then, mortality was on Nelson’s mind. But not so seriously that he couldn’t shrug it off.
“Honestly, and I mean this sincerely, I do 150 shows a year or whatever, and we do some recording in there, and we do a movie here and there, or a video,” Nelson told me after wrapping up the day’s shooting. “And I’m always amazed that I wake up the next day feeling good and ready to go do it again. I’m 82 years old, so that’s kind of a miracle in itself.”
Nelson is now 84. And judging from a recent TV interview he did in Luck with veteran CBS newsman (and, not incidentally, longtime country music aficionado) Bob Schieffer, he continues to feel pretty dang miraculous.
“Everything’s going good,” Nelson told Schieffer. “I think age is just a number. It’s the way I’ve heard it all my life: It’s not how old you are, it’s how you feel. And I’ve been lucky with [everything], health-wise and career-wise.” Laughing, he added: “I haven’t really got anything to bitch about!”
In other words, life is good. And as anyone who knows anything about Willie Nelson can tell you — go ahead, cue the “On the Road Again” lyrics — the life he loves is making music with his friends. He’ll be doing just that, again, this summer as the headliner of the Outlaw Music Festival Tour, a multi-genre traveling concert that kicks off July 1 in New Orleans, and continues on to Dallas (July 2); Rogers, Arkansas (July 6); Detroit (July 8); Milwaukee (July 9); and Syracuse, New York (July 16). Among the rotating array of artists who’ll be joining Nelson: Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket — and Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, who’ll be performing with his father and his own band, Promise of the Real.
Lukas, whose group has also toured with Neil Young, says that he has learned from his father some invaluable lessons about sustaining his enthusiasm, and his sanity, while on the road for lengthy stretches. “Exercise is important,” he says. (Willie Nelson, it should be noted, celebrated his 81st birthday by earning his fifth-degree black belt in Gong Kwon Yusul, a Korean martial arts discipline.) “And having a routine that you stick to really helps you keep your head on straight. When you’re on the road, all your surroundings are changing all the time, and it can feel chaotic. You can lose your sense of balance. So you need to have a set routine: You wake up, you work out a little bit, you go to sound check, you kind of do the same thing every day. And that really helps.”
Also — and don’t try this at home, kids — there is an occasional indulgence that has famously worked for Willie Nelson.
“You try and keep it pretty mellow,” Lukas concedes. “And weed is pretty mellow. ... But that’s pretty much the only thing he does. He doesn’t drink. And he also keeps his family around him. He makes sure he’s got good folks around him that don’t sap his energy too much. They give him inspiration.”
Another musically inclined Nelson offspring, Micah Nelson, also tours with Dad when he isn’t busy with his own endeavors. (In addition to sometimes playing with Promise of the Real, he divides his time between the group Insects vs Robots and, more recently, his “experimental musical identity,” Particle Kid.) Last year, when he recorded a cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” he updated the classic protest song with slightly altered lyrics to make it more relevant to contemporary events. It’s an approach, he says, partially inspired by his father’s willingness to keeps things fresh by mixing things up while on tour.
“For the most part,” Micah says, “it’s been kind of the same show for decades now. But at the same time, he never plays the same show twice. It’s always like he’s playing it for the first time. He’ll throw in new songs. He’ll kind of skip verses. He’ll extend things. He keeps it fresh every night.” If you’re performing with him, “You’re never allowed to just be phoning it in. He’s never going through the motions — even though he’s basically doing the same show.
“That spontaneity, that energy, that sense of anything can happen at any minute is not only what keeps an audience captivated, and keeps them coming to the shows night after night. It also keeps you engaged, and keeps the band engaged. It keeps every show fresh and different and unique.”
Echoing his brother Lukas, Micah says that, while on the road, his father “finds his routines. He likes to play chess and poker. He likes to smoke cannabis, and he likes to watch western films. He keeps the news on most of the time. He has his bike out on the road, so he’ll ride his bike around if he can and try to stay fit.
“I think there’s something that seems to be in our blood, where if we’re home long enough, we’re antsy and restless, and we need to get back on the road. Then, if you’re on the road long enough, it’s really great to come home and just chill and not think about playing shows for a minute. It’s kind of this symbiotic relationship between the road and being at home. They bleed into one another.”
Willie Nelson has told me that, yes, he truly does appreciate downtime on his ranch. On a typical day there, “I go look at my horses. I can look at the weather. There’s a lot of beautiful things out here to see.” But after a while, he can’t resist the siren call of the road because, well, he’s still not dead.
“There’s a certain kind of energy exchange that takes place in a concert no matter who it is, me or whoever,” Nelson believes. “People pay money to come see it, and for some reason, they usually all are clapping their hands, and they’re singing. And for some reason, I enjoy it too. When we can all get together and exchange that good positive energy, it makes for a good show.
“Yeah, you know, 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, yeah, I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”
And he remains thankful to the folks who have made it all possible.
“Willie reminds me of Walter Cronkite,” Schieffer says. “When people used to ask me what Walter was really like, I always said, ‘He’s just the way you want him to be.’ He was without question the most famous and recognized man in America — but he always had time for the folks who wanted an autograph or a handshake. That’s Willie.”
Schieffer recalls that after wrapping up their Luck conversation, Nelson “didn’t know we were following him, but we wanted a picture of him leaving. So we went down to the place where the bus was waiting to take him to the next show. Now keep in mind: He had been up past midnight doing a show the night before, he was dead tired and had a six-hour bus ride ahead of him. But as he was getting on the bus, a guy appeared out of nowhere with three or four items to sign. And then he asked Nelson for a selfie. Most celebrities would have brushed the guy off. But as tired as he was, and as anxious as he was to get going, Willie stood there, talked to the guy, signed all the stuff, and took three or four pictures. Finally his wife made him get on the bus.
“I love the guy. When I asked him when he was going to retire, he said, ‘All I do is play golf and music. Why would I want to quit either of those things?’ Pretty good philosophy.”
From the July 2017 issue.