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Willie Nelson’s ‘Promiseland’ Celebrates Immigration and Condemns Building Walls
Posted on Jan 27, 2017
In the second installment of a two-part conversation, the American musician Willie Nelson told Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer why, in spite of prevailing political conditions, he is optimistic about the future of the United States. Nelson also discussed his start in the music industry as a DJ and promoter and his love of Texas and Texans, and explained why he’s not afraid of getting older.
Why do Texans keep voting for “assholes,” Scheer asks Nelson. “Because assholes keep running,” Nelson replies.
When Scheer points out that many liberals do not understand why millions of their fellow citizens voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Nelson says: “I recorded a song called ‘Living in the Promiseland.’ ... It’s about welcoming everyone: ‘Living in the promiseland, our dreams are made of steel. The prayer of every man is to know how freedom feels. Bring us your foreign songs, we will sing along. ...’ Come on. Come on, America. We love you. We’ll help you. We’ll find a spot for you.”
Scheer asks, “So you’re still optimistic?” Nelson replies: “I’m still optimistic that all the people are coming in and it will be as great tomorrow as it is today.”
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Listen to the first part of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript of the second installment below:
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And as you may have guessed from the song, this is Part Two of my interview with musician Willie Nelson. This is his brand new song, “Delete and Fast Forward,” inspired by recent political events.
One of the things I really liked about reading your book is, here I am running around with this equipment—and this is just one, you know, I’ve been a reporter, I write books, I teach, I do a lot of things. But here I am with your son [Micah Nelson] helping me—thank you, great musician in his own right. I’m thinking, here I am with this technology; I’m 80 years old, what the hell am I doing, and everything. But when I was reading your book, there’s also a tribute to disc jockeys. There’s a tribute to people who go into little funky stations like you did, and spin records and talk to people, and try to communicate. And I thought, you know, I said to my wife, “That’s me!” That’s what I’m doing here now; I’m using this new technology of the Internet and podcasting and iTunes and NPR and everything to tell stories.
Willie Nelson: You’re a disc jockey.
RS: I’m a disc jockey. Damn it.
WN: Yeah. Me too, yeah.
RS: But in your book, your relation to this thing called this microphone, and this technology, and you get back to it a lot in there. Fame came late, success came late—
WN: Yeah, it was a long road, a long road.
RS: Yeah, that’s the title of the book. [Laughter] But during, on that long road—look, my idea, and because I teach at a college and I struggle, what are we doing with our students? What kind of jobs are they going to? What is this world they’re inheriting? And the problem is, we too often teach a message that careerism trumps everything. If you got to do it to get ahead, or if that’s what they want, if that’s what the company—or what do they want in industry, we’ll train you to go out and do that. And then somebody says, well, we should be training critical thinking, or we should give some sense of history, or there should be some interest in morality or something. But no, no, because they got tuition to pay, they got debt, they got jobs, you know, which is real. And when I look at your book—and the reason I got this idea, hey, I’m going to teach my ethics class based on this book this coming term, this spring term. You know, because it’s all there; it’s all there. The class is called Ethics in Communication and Entertainment. I thought, this is it; I’ll just get everybody to buy this book, and we’ll study it. No, because you wanted to be successful; you wanted to get fame; you wanted to do all this, and people kept telling you, this is the way to do it, and sometimes you followed their advice. Oh yeah, let’s have a lot of strings and let’s do a big production and, you know—no, your thing sounds like a demo, drop that, we’ll get you in a big studio. And throughout the book there’s this constant struggle of who is Willie Nelson, what does my music represent, what am I trying to do here. And sometimes it’s connected with making money and sometimes you pull back and say the hell with it, let’s do it this way, right?
WN: Yeah. You know, being a bandleader, which—you know, it has certain freedoms. You can call the tunes, you know; you can say, we’re going to play this, and you play that, you play this, that’s what the bandleader [does]. So I’ve kind of felt like that I could make the decisions for the band and music, and that’s my qualifications; I can put on a good show for the people who come out there, because I know the music and I have good musicians around me. But I also know my limitations; I stay out of math a lot. [Laughs]
RS: You’re a kid who comes out of a small town, you get these disc jockey things, you know you have talent; it’s not necessarily a conventional talent, you’re not quite sure where it is. And then there’s what everybody knows about: there’s this big prize somewhere, right? There’s the ring you’re going to grab, right? And you’re conscious of it.
WN: I was a promoter. Which might be promoter slash hustler, you know. But a promoter promotes, and I would promote—I promoted, what, 40 Farm Aids, and 50 Fourth of July picnics, all the different things that I have promoted. I promoted when I was 13, I booked Bob Wills to come in and play, and paid him $750 and got up and sang with him. And I was just a teenager. So I was booking things, I knew I had the talent to book, put things together. And like I said, about a half hustler; I put on a roping, a match roping in Texas where I had all the calf ropers, best in Texas, go out and do a match roping, and get it down to who’s the best calf roper. And then I’d rope against you. I never won, but I’d always come in at number two. [Laughs]
RS: And that, so yeah, you had the moxie; you had the desire to get out of that, I mean, to advance. But there was always this pressure of—do it their way. And then at critical moments, I guess as the subtext of your book, you said “My way or the highway.”
WN: Well, hey, their way wasn’t my way. You know, I knew what I wanted to do; I knew my music better than they did. I knew my audience better than they did. I was playing to people every night at beer joints all over Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana—I knew what they liked. And I got tired of trying to convince the people in Nashville, because they did not know at that time what I was doing down there. They was trying to tell me how Nashville does it, and that’s cool, but it wasn’t what I was doing. So I left Nashville and keep doing what I’m still doing, the same thing. It wasn’t Nashville’s fault; they have their own way of doing things. And I left the Grand Ole Opry up there because you have to go back every Saturday night so many nights a year in order to say you work for the Grand Ole Opry, and I was working all my days down in the South, in Texas, so it was hard for me to get back every Saturday night to Nashville; it just was not financially or physically possible. So I had to leave the Grand Ole Opry; I hated to do that. I still have a lot of friends up there.
RS: But then you got involved with, I think it was Atlantic in New York—
WN: Jerry Wexler. Atlantic Records.
RS: Yeah, and they had a Nashville office, right?
WN: Yeah, Rick Sanchek was running that office.
RS: Right, and they were trying to expand into country.
WN: He was trying to expand to country, right.
RS: Yeah, and as I understand your story, you were doing real well.
WN: Yeah, we did an album in Muscle Shoals, which was a pretty good album; and yeah, I didn’t have any problems with it, with Atlantic or Jerry.
RS: Yeah, and then it was also successful.
WN: Very successful.
RS: And then he was, by your definition, the perfect executive, the perfect suit.
WN: Yeah, good guy, we got along, yeah.
RS: And then they pulled the rug out from under him.
WN: I guess so. I’m not sure how it all happened, but one day he was there, the next day he was not.
RS: And they closed their office.
WN: Yeah, but I never quit talking to him. We would, you know, every now and then we’d call up, and we’d like to tell each other jokes. All the way up until he died, we were still telling jokes.
RS: And then you went to Columbia, I think, right?
WN: I think so, I don’t remember. [Laughter]
RS: I’m taking the text of this book more seriously than you are. The gospel of Willie. But when I got out of this, and I know nothing about the music business, so I’m looking at it the same way I would look at the newspaper business or I would look at any other business. You got these people you describe as the suits, and they have a way of what the market wants or what’s needed, and what the categories are; this is jazz, right, this is blues, right, country and so forth. And not only you, but you give a whole long list of musicians who are busting up against those walls, right?
RS: Or challenging it. And yeah, I think it’s an interesting thing when you say, “They don’t really know what they want or need.”
WN: Yeah, well, you look at the artists like Hank Williams, who left, started doing his own thing; Ray Price, left, started doing his own thing. It’s, you know, it’s hard to tell somebody like Hank Williams and Ray Price what to do [Laughs] Because they’ve been doing it forever and they know what’s right, they know what the people like. And in the same way, I mean, I know what they come out and hear, and they want to hear “Whiskey River,” and they want to hear whatever, “Stardust.” But I know more about my audience than anybody.
RS: So what comes out of this—and it’s not just you; but you introduce us to a whole bunch of famous people, not-so-famous, who have integrity or at least care about their art. They are artists.
RS: Right? I mean, whether it’s Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson—
WN: Merle Haggard was a good one.
RS: Yeah, Merle Haggard.
WN: Leon Russell.
RS: So tell us about that. Because people don’t realize it, they say, “Oh, these are just famous people, they’re playing the game, or their stuff sells.” But reading your book, at least the people you end up hanging out with or caring about or doing stuff with, duets and what have you—they’re driven by some notion of integrity or artistic value, or what they give a damn about.
WN: Well, you should be, you should be.
RS: But you found people like yourself.
WN: Oh, there are people like me everywhere. I mean, I’m not that unusual as far as people who think the way I do.
RS: Tell me more about that.
RS: No, really, because you know, I love Johnny Cash, the music, and so forth. But reading your book is the first time I saw this real, you know, consistent world view.
WN: There was the term “outlaw” that came up, you know, somewhere 20, 30 years ago back there, that they started using to call me and John and Kris and Waylan, who were trying to do their music the way they thought their music ought to be done. And so we were called, you know, outlaws; and I laughed at it, I thought it was funny, because none of us had ever robbed any banks that I know of. But the term “outlaw” seemed to catch on; colorful, I guess. So we went with it. But we laughed about it also.
RS: But you describe these people as, you had disagreements, and they wanted to go their way or do it this way, but I don’t know, maybe you’re sugar-coating it or something; they all come out in your book as people that have a backbone or something, or an integrity. I forget the, I don’t know what the right word is; they stand for something.
WN: Well yeah, they don’t mind whether you like it or not; they say what they think, they write what they think, they sing what they think. Johnny Cash was great at this. I mean, he’d stand up there and tell you exactly what he thought about whatever. If you liked it, fine; if you didn’t, that’s OK too.
RS: One of the things that I noticed real obviously in the beginning of the book is—I say this show, American originals, this crazy-quilt of our culture, immigrants and different things—you are part Cherokee, right?
RS: And your mother, in the book, I think you say she was three-quarters.
RS: What did that really mean?
WN: Well, I’m proud of that.
RS: No, but how was that reflected? Was it her appearance, or?
WN: [Laughs] Well, her humor was the funniest, because whenever she was in Oklahoma, she was an Indian; she moved down further toward the border, she was Mexican. [Laughs] But everybody knew and laughed about it, and she did too, but she was proud of her Indian blood and so am I.
RS: Yeah. The reason I bring it up is because the country now is being divided once again, you know. And Mexicans are now, Donald Trump has done the old-fashioned scapegoating, and these people are all rapists and crooks, and it has a terrible echo in fascism in Europe or anywhere; the scapegoat, one group. We had it with race, we have it with race now, again; you know, how we see black people, how many of them are in jail, and so forth. And Texas, which you love—you clearly love Texas; it’s described in your book. And you know, I don’t like Texas, OK; I’ll be honest with you, I’ve gone to the state, I haven’t liked it, I’ve interviewed—
WN: I think Texas ought to secede from the union, because we don’t like anybody else either.
RS: Yeah. And so I remember hanging out with the first President Bush, interviewing him; I mean, I’ve done it, do what people do, you go in and do your interview, you look around a little bit; now I have my godson lives in Austin, you know, has lived there, grew up near Fort Worth. So I see another view, obviously; I’m not stupid about it. But we deal in stereotypes. Reading your book, I couldn’t keep the stereotype. I’m suddenly introduced to Texas as a place of diversity, of different traditions, of different people, complex, everybody’s got, you know, a different makeup; the domino player’s also sensitive, and this one—you know, everybody comes in all these different things. And yet politically, when I look at the landscape—here we are in Maui, OK. We’re in Hawaii. Hawaii is a totally multiracial place, you know?
WN: I guess so, I don’t know.
RS: Well, but I mean you just look at it; whites are a minority.
WN: They don’t ban nobody, I don’t think. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, but I mean, it’s totally mixed up of all kinds of people, and—OK. And then, but you remind us: so is Texas, right?
RS: So is Texas. And so then, how does that get translated in—and this goes back to country and everything. Country music of a certain kind was associated with being culturally conservative, right? Anti-hippie, for the war rather than for the anti-war protesters. There was a lot of that imagery which continues, you know? What is the normal American, and so forth. And in your personal life, your work, your art, you challenge all that.
WN: Well, so does all the fans who come out and see us all the time. They challenge it also.
RS: Well, tell me more about that.
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