It absorbs you for the first few minutes you see him. Framed by a thick shock of long red hair and a thatch of beard, Willie Nelson’s face is that of a lifelong storyteller. More specifically, it’s the face of a life lived long … and hard. It is weathered, tracked with troubles and adventures (more often than not the same thing), hits and misses, triumphs and, well, leaner times. It’s not something he cares much to call attention to, and I beg forgiveness in advance. But, from the early days when he sold the tune “Family Bible” for 50 bucks, through the Outlaw years with Waylon and Tompall Glaser, to today’s ongoing road exploits, golf stories and records—he’s worn it well.
On a January night in Atlantic City, with the wind cutting from the ocean across the boardwalk in a particularly unfriendly manner, among the incessant clatter of coins spilling from slot machines and the over-loud chatter from too-bright “Cash for Gold” pawn joints, Willie is putting on one hell of a show at the Tropicana. With a fist jabbed into the air, he charges the band into “Whiskey River” and the place goes nuts—bikers, New Jersey grandmothers, soldiers, punks and businessmen all holler at the same time.
In that eclectic crowd, you see Willie Nelson’s impact on popular American music—it’s everywhere. Patsy Cline made country music history of Willie’s song “Crazy,” and so did Faron Young with “Hello Walls.” Nelson’s 1975 Red Headed Stranger turned the music industry on its ear by becoming a country music hit with no bells, whistles or reverb-saturated string sections. The lines He cried like a baby/And he screamed like a panther in the middle of the night … it was the time of the preacher in the year of ’01/Now the lesson is over and the killing’s begun from “Time of the Preacher Theme” still sends chills up the back like a gush of freezing water. Of course, there’s “On the Road Again” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” There’s also Farm Aid—which has done more for the American farmer, both financially and as a publicity vehicle, than a fistful of presidents and senators. There’s the gleefully incorrigible pot smoking, the many ex-wives (as Willie says, “there’s no such thing as ex-wives, only additional wives”), children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He’s had his mistakes, too. Whether it was his infamous IRS or state trooper troubles, or the occasional unfortunate recording choice, he doesn’t particularly care. After all, he’s Willie freaking Nelson.
Tonight, after a two-hour hurricane of a performance, the man—who wrote more hits than we can list; who, with a little help from a few unsavory characters, redefined country music in the ’70s; who brought the hippies and the hillbillies, the beer joint truckers and the gypsy bikers together; who just spent well over an hour shaking hands with every single fan in line by the bus (not to mention the ones backstage and the ones in the crowd to whom he bent, smiled, and spoke from the lip of the stage long after the band had headed for the bus and the crew had folded the giant Texas flag)—is relaxing on the trusty Honeysuckle Rose #3 bus.
You’ve said before that you’re a lazy songwriter. What do you mean by that?
Oh, I don’t really get up saying, “I’ve got to write a song today,” you know. And that’s really what a good professional songwriter should do (laughs).
Has your songwriting process changed from 1956 to today?
Not really. I get an idea or someone will give me an idea and I write it. With “The Great Divide,” Jackie King came to me with some chord progressions. I listened to the chord progression and he wanted me to write an instrumental. I said, “Oh, no, I’m gonna put some lyrics to it.” So, it happens all different ways.
Do you write more for yourself or with your audience in mind?
Well, I try to please myself. I don’t think that’s much different for anybody else. You know, through the years it’s sort of worked out that if I liked it a lot somebody else would like it a lot, or at least a little. I just try to write what I like.
What do you think it is about your music and your writing that has appealed to so many different kinds of people for so long?
I don’t know. I write a lot of different kinds of songs. I write some real country songs and maybe some that stretch out a little bit (grins). Fast ones and slow ones. I write gospel songs … that might have something to do with it. Different ones for different people.
Is there anything you have to say to aspiring songwriters?
If you’re willing to really carve into yourself and spit it out, I think you’ve got a better chance of succeeding. I think a lot of songs are just … the substance is really not there. You can tell that somebody’s writing for a publishing company just because he’s on salary. But, if you can carry a little bit of yourself off and put it in there, people can feel it, and see it and I think that’s the biggest key to being a good songwriter: not being afraid to put yourself into it. Tell it like it is and don’t try to sugar coat it a lot.
You still play 150-200 or so dates a year.
It ain’t for sissies, that’s for sure. It can take a toll. You have to really like it or it’ll hurt you bad (laughs).
You’ve been on the road for, what, a hundred years now?
Ever since they had one (laughs). I was on the trail before that.
–By Clay Steakley
Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 60
Willie was also featured in the special “Salute to Texas” Issue 34
And a hi-res PDF from Issue 108