Fans Outraged by Willie Nelson's Politics Haven't Been Paying Attention
Country music and left-leaning politics don’t always mix—just ask the Dixie Chicks.
On Friday, The Washington Post reported about the blowback country music legend Willie Nelson is catching for signing up to play a concert later this month that will benefit a Democratic politician. This isn’t just any candidate, either, jockeying for position in some ho-hum electoral contest. The aspiring legislator in question is none other than Rep. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, the U.S. congressman from Texas who’s challenging Ted Cruz’s hold on one of their home state’s Senate seats on Capitol Hill.
As the Post noted, O’Rourke had already picked up a guitar and joined Nelson for a couple of songs, not to mention some bona fide campaigning, at last summer’s Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. Yet for a considerable swath of Nelson’s fan base, the musician’s deliberate bid to back O’Rourke at a public event on Sept. 29 is apparently tantamount to a deal-breaker. Timothy Bella of the Post writes:
For Nelson, the jam session with O’Rourke was the latest in a career filled with activism and liberal-leaning political stances that have largely gone against the norm for country-music culture.
But for some of Nelson’s fans, his partnership with O’Rourke was the breaking point. After Nelson announced Wednesday that he would be headlining a Sept. 29 rally for O’Rourke in Austin, the first public concert he’s ever held for a political candidate, fans have taken to social media to boycott and publicly disown the country legend.
On Nelson’s Facebook page, where he posted an article from news outlet Austin360 with the announcement, some of the most striking remarks accuse the performer of aligning with what they believe to be the “socialist” positions of O’Rourke.
“Goodbye Willie,” David R. Williams posted on Facebook. “I don’t support socialist commies! You’re not going to advertise on my FB page either.” He added: “Like we say in Texas, Now Git.”
“Open your eyes Willie!” Claudia Kirby Heathington wrote. “Beto is a Socialist who probably has lied to you. This is a real shame you support him.”
“Wow what a let down,” Melanie Philip said. “You would pick a socialist agenda and an Anti American fellow like BETO, shame on you.”
Still, why the static now? Nelson hasn’t exactly hidden his politics over the decades, putting his name and talents to work for several causes. He’s stood up for farmers and spoken up for legalizing marijuana (a stance for which he now reportedly stands to reap rewards).
And it’s not as if he’s steered clear of making cameo appearances with politicians or turning up in political spaces. In fact, as he told this reporter in 2001 at a New York event celebrating his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, during a stay at the White House during Jimmy Carter’s tenure a member of the president’s family let Nelson onto the roof to smoke pot. Later, Nelson mentioned in interviews with several outlets that it was Carter’s son, James Earl Carter III, who had joined him for a toke.
More recently, he spoke candidly about supporting Democratic political candidates, telling PJ Media in 2015 that he was a “great Bernie and Hillary fan.” The degree of political volatility on a national level was clearly different then.
In light of the dust the country music legend has kicked up with his decision to take the stage for a politician, we’re presenting an encore of the two-part, deeply personal interview Nelson did in early 2017 with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer for the “Scheer Intelligence” podcast.
During Part I of their conversation, Nelson told Scheer that his childhood was ideal, although much of it took place during the Great Depression. Nelson also covered the influence of the church on his music and experience, discussed a run-in with the IRS in the early 1990s that he considers positive and talked about his well-known appreciation for marijuana.
In the second installment of their conversation, Nelson told Scheer why, in spite of prevailing political conditions, he was still optimistic about the future of the United States.
—Posted by Kasia Anderson
Transcript to Parts I and II follow below:
ROBERT SCHEER: It’s Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from the person I’m interviewing with; in this case, Willie Nelson. I have spent the last three days reading your book–
WILLIE NELSON: It’s a long story. [Laughs]
SCHEER: –called “The Long Story.” And I also, I got so excited; I teach at USC in the School of Communication and Journalism. And I teach an ethics class that normally begins with Jesus and the tale of the Good Samaritan and the “other,” and you get to heaven because you care about the other. So where do we get ethics from, and how does that relate to communication, entertainment, and does anyone care. And actually, this time I decided I’m going to begin with your book. Go from Jesus to you. Because–
NELSON: That’s a big turn there. [Laughs]
SCHEER: Yeah, and it takes us back to Abbott; takes us back to the early influences on your life. And I’ve found that despite–I mean, you couldn’t, you’re three years older than me and you couldn’t have had a more different background. You know, I was a kid in the Bronx in a tenement and all that, but I was listening to the same Philco radio. So I’m reading this book, and I’m thinking–wait, I’m listening to Arthur Godfrey! And even I got some, I got that Chicago station; you know, because you got these stations wherever you could pick ‘em up. And I thought wait a minute–and then, you know, we were both listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chat, that’s in your book. And I was thinking, wait a minute; for all of the differences of distance, and that rural town where you got 400 people in your whole town; we probably had 400 in our project, probably had 4,000 in the project area. You know, but I was thinking the influences at that time–in my case, I was born in ‘36, you were born in ‘33, the Depression was on. We both come from kind of dysfunctional, by description dysfunctional families, not the, you know, cookie-cutter family; your mother and father had other things to do, they were separated, my parents weren’t married, they were garment workers. But I remember them as great parents; I remember this great support. So I want to begin with that, because actually, you traced the making of Willie Nelson to a very positive story of your grandparents stepping in. And the book is full of love and affection rather than woe-is-me victimhood. It’s–no! These people did the best job they could. Why don’t we begin with your book?
NELSON: What do you want to know about it?
SCHEER: I want to know about the making of Willie Nelson in this improbable circumstance. In your book you keep getting, you had a Mexican neighbor and you’re familiar with that music; there were Black or Negro people working in the fields; it breaks the stereotype. You’re White, you’re in Texas; Texas now is seen in this last election as a center of reactionaries as opposed to California, as opposed to–but you present people as whole, complex people, whether you talk about your own parents, you talk about Waylon Jennings, you talk about anybody. They all have a story.
NELSON: Well, I found out one thing. I’ve been a lot of places all over the world more than one time, to all kinds of people; Black, White, spotted, you know. And I found out one thing: we’re all the same. We’re all the same life, the same life that’s in you, is in me, is in those birds out there; it’s all one thing. And once you realize that, you realize how small the world really is, and how much you have in common with everybody. And it’s not hard to be positive.
SCHEER: The cynicism didn’t get you. I mean, that’s the persistent thing in this book is it’s kind of Normal Vincent Peale–
NELSON: Norman Vincent Peale, yeah.
SCHEER: Brought to life. I mean, to me, it was always, oh yeah, easy to say: power of positive thinking. And then when I read your life story, you know, including, you got it woven through the book; the IRS is after you, you owe them $32 million. You know, I’ve been audited by the IRS; it’s crazy-making.
NELSON: This story is the power of negative thinking is just as powerful as the power of positive thinking. And if you go one way, negative, you’ll be all the way to the other end before you realize, wait a minute, goddamnit, I’m on the wrong road; I should have been thinking positive instead of negative. But there’s a power in both the positive and negative. So we got to remember that also.
SCHEER: Right. And so when you talk about the origins, though, you pay tribute to that Methodist church; you pay tribute to small-town values–
NELSON: To the Baptist church, to the church of Christ. In Abbott we had five churches, so I didn’t have a chance. [Laughs] I was going to hell from the day I was born.
SCHEER: Yeah, but you pay tribute to the positive qualities of that life.
NELSON: I tried to, because it’s a good town; it showed how people can live together. Like you say, I lived across the street from a Mexican family, a Bohemian family, and we all lived together, picked cotton together, a Black family over there. They had the other side of town; you know, the Blacks lived on one side of town and the Whites, we were very segregated. But they had their own church over there, and they still do; they got a great Black preacher over there that does a great job. So Abbott is kind of a, anything you need or want, you can find it right there in Abbott, Texas.
SCHEER: So what was Abbott like during the Depression?
NELSON: I didn’t know, because I was poor all the time anyway; I didn’t realize there was a Depression at all. We grew our own food, raised our own hogs. So you know, and we had chicken on Sunday. So that was about it; I didn’t know there was a Depression going on.
SCHEER: But there was an issue of survival.
NELSON: But it always had, whether you were, if you got a nice job over there, it really doesn’t matter what’s going on in the rest of the world; you make it OK. But if you’re over here unemployed and hungry, and your family is on welfare and on Social Security and old-age pensions and all that stuff that they depend on, you realize how important it is to think about where your food’s coming from, how much it costs; if you can grow it over here, it’ll be a lot cheaper than buying it in California and shipping it in. So I picked up a lot of little things.
SCHEER: So let me ask you about your relation to this music. Because one of your great contributions, I think, is crossing the lines of gospel to, you know, folk to, you played with the Dallas Symphony at one point. Your sources of music are all, and it requires a real openness, which you said you got from the beginning, and that informed your whole worldview.
NELSON: I felt like music was the common denominator. I felt like it was with me. I would go hear people sing and I would, you know, if I had the money to pay for it I would; if I didn’t I’d try to sneak in somewhere to watch somebody sing. And I’d bellow and shout just like the people do who come to my shows. And I think that’s the reason people get out and go places; because there’s a great exchange of energy out there that takes place. They come to forget about their troubles; you go to forget about yours. You sing to them; they listen, they applaud, there’s–it’s, every night it’s a big show for both of us.
SCHEER: So could you just put us there, though? I mean, you’re listening to music on the radio, it’s in the church; your sister, I gather, was a more talented musician–
NELSON: Much more talented.
SCHEER: –piano player, and you get your first guitar. I don’t know, can you just sort of set the stage?
NELSON: Well, she was playing piano a long time before I knew anything about a guitar. I would sit on the stool by her while she played piano, and she could read music and everything. So I would learn songs like “Stardust” and “Moonlight” and “Vermont” back before I realized that, hey, these are great pop classics. At the same time I learned “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “San Antonio Road” and “Down Yonder” and all those great country songs. So I got a huge education just by listening to her.
SCHEER: And she was encouraged to do this, right?
NELSON: Oh, she loved doing it, yeah. She taught music in Abbott when she was just a teenager.
SCHEER: So, let me go to that a little bit. You present Abbott as a great place to grow up.
NELSON: The best. “A quitter never wins; a winner never quits.” That’s what’s up on our gymnasium basketball goal, so I saw that from the time I first went into there, which was, I was about this tall. So I had that “A winner never quits; a quitter never wins”–it’s the greatest lesson I ever learned.
SCHEER: Yeah. And one of the things that happened, you were small for, you know–and it reminded me of somebody we know in common, Dennis Kucinich, who is short. And, but like you, he played football. And I have a picture of Dennis with his whole football team; he looks like the mascot, but he also played quarterback at times.
NELSON: He’s a tough little guy.
SCHEER: And what was that all about? You just thought, it doesn’t matter, I’m this size but I’m going to do it, I’ll do it all.
NELSON: Well, I never thought I couldn’t, you know? No one ever told me I couldn’t. I was always taught to believe I could do anything I wanted to do. So I believed that, and so far I’ve done everything I wanted to do, basically.
SCHEER: You know, in terms of being taught, you have this wonderful portrait of your grandfather, who was a blacksmith, and your mother, grandmother. And I mean, it’s amazing to hear about people like that. I mean, they just stepped in, right?’
NELSON: Oh yeah. My parents divorced, moved off, and so here I was, six months old; my sister was, I think, two or three years old. And my grandparents took us in and raised us. She was a cook in a lunchroom there and made 18 dollars a week, so she supported us, sent us through school. My dad died from pneumonia–I mean my granddad died from pneumonia when I was only six years old, I think it was. So from there on, she raised us, taught us what she thought was right and wrong, and she knew what was right and wrong; she was a stubborn old gal. And all the way ‘til she died, she was a great, great lady.
SCHEER: But she also gave you your freedom.
NELSON: Well, she gave me my freedom because she couldn’t–it didn’t matter whether she gave it to me or not, I was always running away anyhow. You know, first thing I did when I was a kid, I ran away from home; I couldn’t have been over three or four years old. And they found me up on top of an old milk cow down there that we had, and I was sittin’ up there having’ a big time. But I did run away. She finally had to tie me up. She put a rope around me, staked me out like we did the cows, with about a 25-foot rope [Laughs] so she could keep me from running away while she was trying to do washings and ironings and things.
SCHEER: But she encouraged your music, she encouraged your independence.
NELSON: She taught, she was a great music teacher. She knew, like, she taught like, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, and she knew all those, how to read those in the books, in the gospel books. And they had in Hillsborough, I think it was Wednesday night, they had a gospel singing. So all the good singers in the county would go in there and they’d sing gospel stuff. And I learned a whole lot from those folks.
SCHEER: You know, you’ve been close to Jimmy Carter, and I remember when he was running in 1976, I went down to Plains and to his house, talked to him very much the way I’m talking to you. And the cynical New Yorker in me, you know, was oh–come on, this is off a movie set or something, here’s the farmer and he’s talking about peanuts and tilling the field and walking and all that. And I must say, you know–and I had my criticisms of Carter as president and so forth, but I think he has been really an incredible role model of how to live a life, and a life of, you know, particularly after he was president–how to handle his fame and channel it into productive activity, caring about the other, caring about poor people, and you know, building houses and so forth. And what it was is, we deal in stereotypes; the reason I like doing these interviews, I want to cut through these stereotypes. And we have a stereotype, OK, we got the religious right, or we got the Baptist church, or we got–and they don’t like other people, or they think they’re, you know, they’re narrow-minded; you know, and some people are. And then you run into Jimmy Carter–no, he taught Sunday school, and he cared about the First Baptist Church in Plains. And yes, it was segregated, but Miss Lillian did care about–even his brother, who got a bad rap, Billy, was actually concerned about what was happening to Negroes in the area, and actually took a stand shucking the peanuts of other people–there was a cooperative farm up the road, Koinonia Farm, and actually Billy was the one who shucked the peanuts of these people who were doing some integration and so forth.
And so, reading your book, it’s really about smashing stereotypes about America. Whether it’s stereotypes about music, and who likes country music, or who likes jazz; or just in your book, the idea that Frank Sinatra, the ultimate big-city, urban, sophisticated singer, would be appealing to a kid in Abbott listening on the radio. You know, and in terms of the church and the political alignment in America, you present a pretty positive view of the role of religion.
NELSON: Well, I hope so, because I think it is a positive message that needs to be put out there. We’re all going to die, you know; and whether you’re in hell or heaven, we probably a lot of us are in hell right now, here on Earth, you know; all over the world, Aleppo, places like that. You can’t scare them with hell, ‘cause they’re going through it right now. So one thing I had kind of against the established religions, Christian religions, is that they–’If you don’t do this, you’re going to hell,’ blah, blah, blah. A lot of people are already in hell. So it didn’t scare them that much. So it didn’t scare me, because you know, I just didn’t quite believe everything. Because I didn’t quite believe that–well, first of all, I was, since I started traveling, on Sundays I was gone so I couldn’t go to church anymore anyway. So I had to go to church in my own temple, in my own body, which everybody still should do or does do.
SCHEER: You were traveling because of the music, you mean.
NELSON: And I had the music that kept me in contact with the people, which I felt was the ultimate religion, is music; that transcends everything, goes right to the bone. Whether you know you like it or not, you’re going to start shakin’ and pattin’ your foot. And you can see where music is the common denominator.
SCHEER: So in terms of the music, and growing up in a segregated town in–you know, it’s Texas, but it’s the old South–how did that all register on you? In the book you make some references to it; for instance, the Mexican guy across the street, and his music, and you know, you make–but how did that all hit you at that time?
NELSON: Oh, it was so–I felt like I was living in, you know, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I had music coming to me from every direction, and I was trying to learn to play C and D on the guitar, and I was listening to these great mariachi bands across the street over there play, and listening to them on the radio all night long. There was a Mexican station, XERF I believe it was, that was a border station I listened to all the time. And I heard everything. I heard all kinds of music, and I just couldn’t wait to get out on the road to start doing it and playing it.
SCHEER: And what about the Black community or the Negro community?
NELSON: Well, they had great music, and the best singers. Still got great singers, great gospel singers. And I would sneak over to the Black church on Sundays and listen to those guys and gals sing. And really enjoyed it.
SCHEER: Why didn’t you go to college? It just wasn’t in the cards?
NELSON: I went to Baylor University, did you know that? For six months. And majored in dominoes, I think. [Laughter] I was in the Air Force, and when I got out of the Air Force I had a–
SCHEER: Oh, that’s the GI Bill.
NELSON: you know, I could go to college; and I had like six months’ college paid for. After that I had to leave. But I went to Baylor for six months.
SCHEER: So if I were to ask you, what were the values you got out of that childhood experience that then carried forward? Because the book is really about, your autobiography is really about a struggle for integrity. And I don’t mean in some high-falutin’ sense; you wanted to make money, you wanted to get known, you had a wild life, you loved sex, you loved family; you know, there’s a lot of stuff going on there that’s reality. But through it all, there’s, if I read it correctly, a struggle about integrity. Whether you’re dealing with the record companies, the quality of the sound, what is the music you’re playing. And so as you do in your book, what would you say you got from that place in Abbott? Which, by the way, you returned to; you have a house in Abbott, you bought the house of the doctor that’s there, right? It’s inconvenient sometimes to be there because tourists come by and hassle you. But still, you felt the need to be there, back there, right?
NELSON: Yeah, and like you said, I hate it that I can’t be there more often now, because you know, for all the obvious reasons. One day I may go back there and hang out awhile, I hope so. But the reason is because everything that’s there is things that I grew up with, and it’s all home to me. So it is literally going back home.
SCHEER: So it’s not the sticks, it’s not something you want to get away from.
NELSON: Oh, no. No, it may be the sticks, I don’t know; [Laughs] but it’s definitely not a place I want to leave, get away from; it’s, you know, a lot of people who live there, you couldn’t buy ‘em out and make ‘em leave.
SCHEER: So what is it about it?
NELSON: Well, you’re in charge of your own life there. We don’t have any police. We used to have a little guy named Scotty Hubbard, I think; he was about three foot tall, [Laughs] he couldn’t have done much if he’d have wanted to, but he never even wore a badge, I don’t think. All the doors in town, you know, I’ve never checked ‘em, but I don’t imagine they were all locked, you know. Everybody trusted people there, and for good reason; there was no thefts there that I remember, no huge scandals or murders or all those things. It always was a very special, nice, little religious town. Like I say, there’s five churches there. I played in a Bohemian polka band when I was like, started out when I was nine or ten years old.
SCHEER: By “Bohemian,” I think people might not know there was a Czech–
NELSON: Czechoslovakian and Bohemian–
SCHEER: –Czechoslovak community in that part of Texas.
NELSON: Yeah, yeah. A lot of Bohemians, Czechoslovakians, farmers. Great blackland farmers there. And I worked on a lot of their farms.
SCHEER: And you were a Future Farmer of America. When you did all the farm aid stuff and everything–you know, it’s like oh, country singer, and he’s doing farming–but you were actually a farmer.
NELSON: I started out in the Future Farmers of America, and I, you know, I grew–and I didn’t have a big field, hundred acres or nothing, but we grew what we needed to eat and everything. So we farmed in our own small way, and I worked on all the farms around there to make school money. So I felt like I was a farmer.
SCHEER: They’re, everybody deals in these images, you know; I’m not going to drag you, I don’t want this to be a particularly political interview, because I want it to be evergreen and really deal with an American original. But politics gets mixed up with images of “make America great,” or when was it great, or our lost innocence, or so forth. And in your book, you do find a greatness in America, but it’s not Donald Trump’s greatness; it’s a world of trouble, of confusion, of some suffering, of people have to work hard, not everything is attended to. And there’s a suspicion in the book throughout that some people are not carrying their weight because they have undue power or influence. If I were to think of a theme, it’s what Roosevelt was, if you think about those fireside chats, it was concern for the ordinary person; the greatness of the ordinary person; the need for the ordinary person to have a chance. And that if I were to, I don’t want to impose an idea on the book, but it seems to me to be a celebration of every man in that respect.
NELSON: I think so, and it goes beyond politics. It goes beyond republicans and democrats, or you know, any individual personality; it’s bigger than that.
SCHEER: Well for instance your grandfather, I think you were six when he died? Yeah, and he was a blacksmith, right? And you know, he is a hero in your book.
NELSON: Absolutely. He raised me as best he could; he taught me what he knew. He tried to discipline me when I needed it. I helped him out in the blacksmith shop. I watched him shoe horses, I’d help him turn the bellows there that he used to shoe the horses, to cool off the shoes. And he got kicked one time, and had a, he was ruptured; and he wore one of those rupture belts practically the last 20, 30 years of his life. But I realized how hard a worker he was, and how he really took care of us.
SCHEER: But he wasn’t judgmental. I mean, he accepted–
NELSON: Oh yeah, no, he was not. He was–
SCHEER: About your parents, for instance, he accepted–
NELSON: Yeah, he accepted all that. And he was glad to be there to help out. He wanted to help out. Him and my grandmother both were just there for me and my sisters.
SCHEER: I mean, for people who don’t know the story, basically your parents separated and you were dropped off with the grandparents. Now, I mean, I think–because one of the reasons I keep bringing this up, my parents were on welfare during the Depression. And my parents, as they say, they weren’t married, and my father had another family. And so his money had to go to the other family, and we lived off my garment-worker mother’s family. And you know–
NELSON: Things happen, yeah.
SCHEER: Yeah, different part of the country, but I remember them as saintly, saintly people, making do the best they could in that circumstance. I didn’t judge them, and so forth. And reading your book, it really registered with me. Because the last thing I expected would be to find my own story in this book, you know. I mean, what the hell do I know about a small town in Texas? You know, but there was the respect. You show in the book respect for your mother, who had a hard life; complex, you know, woman. You present a complex portrait of this women, complex portrait of your father. Right? But there’s respect, there’s love, and there isn’t anger. Were they?
NELSON: No, there wasn’t, even back then when I didn’t really understand what was going on. But the older I got and the more I lived, the more I realized and understood that they did what they had to do. And I made it OK; they left me with some good folks.
SCHEER: We have an idea, somehow we fall into an idea of “throwaway people,” no-account people, or they could have made it but they didn’t, so welfare is bad, or you don’t want to give them a break, or something. And what your book is an assertion–I think; I don’t want to put my cast on your book–but it says, no; there’s value in all these people. Give ‘em a shot, give ‘em a chance. And you actually populate your book with people, on yeah, this guy was great at dominoes; he didn’t quite work out that way; or even the guy who, yeah, he swindled me but he was an interesting swindler. And I’ve always liked swindlers anyway; they got character, you know. [Laughter] And they’re really, even the people who really screw you over are given, like, a second chance somehow. Or, you know–
NELSON: Oh, I learned from them. And you know, if they screwed me over one time, that’s cool; if they screwed me over twice, that ain’t cool.
SCHEER: Yeah, but you still present them as total people. OK? They’re coming from somewhere, they’re struggling with something; they didn’t make it, they didn’t take the right path, but there’s redemption there, or something; there’s, even the IRS ends up giving a break. The first guy you talk to, well, he’s a good ol’ boy from your hometown, right? I mean, you’re freaked out–
NELSON: Yeah, we had a big meeting there in Austin at a big long table, and we sit there, and all those guys were, yeah, very nice. They were just telling me I owe $32 million; what do you want to do about it? [Laughs] I said, well, let me sell you a song here. And so I made them an album, IRS Tapes, and it was songs that I had recorded on different nights that I went over to the studio, just me and my guitar, and put out on demos. And I had 40, 50, 60, I don’t know. But I put ‘em all on one little IRS Tape, and I let them have it, and I think they made some money off of it. And we got together, we understood each other; we wasn’t trying to hurt nobody, they realized that I was where I was because I’d got a lot of bad information from a lot of lawyers and accountants that I’d listened to for a while; they knew that. They knew that the accounting company that I had been working with didn’t do everything exactly right. So everybody had to pay up, and eventually, I got back even again.
SCHEER: Well, you had to pay ‘em six million or something.
NELSON: Whatever it was.
SCHEER: Yeah. But what I got out of that–because I’ve been audited; a lot of people get audited; it freaks you out. You know, the power of the state is just there, you know. And how did you justify this dinner, or how do you justify–you claim you took the airplane to go to Maui to interview Willie Nelson, but then you really also swim. [Laughter] Then you also have a good time, you know, are you really going to write off this trip, right. And so forth. And they got the power; they say no, you can’t write that off. And so forth, and it’s an intimidating thing.
NELSON: Can be, yes.
SCHEER: Can be, and yet in your book, you even cut them slack. You even say, well, at the end of the day they’re doing their job, and at the end of the day some of them saw reason.
NELSON: I don’t mind paying taxes, I never have minded paying one dollar of the taxes that I’ve paid. Because if you don’t make money you don’t pay taxes, so I was glad to pay the taxes; I was making the money.
NELSON: I didn’t have any complaints about that.
SCHEER: And when you were being hounded by the IRS, as I recall from the book, two nights later after your grueling session, they put you through two days of interviews and so forth–you were sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom.
SCHEER: Well, that must have been a mind warp.
NELSON: That was nice, you know. [Laughter]
SCHEER: No, but I mean, here you are in this incredibly vulnerable position; you’re famous, but you know, they can break you, some of the media is describing you as washed up and finished and everything, and the power of the state is aimed at you. And the next thing you know you’re there in the White House, and actually go up on the roof, I forget–or upstairs, I don’t know if it was with Jody Powell or Hamilton Jordan or somebody, somebody who was working there, and you’re actually smoking a joint.
NELSON: Another funny story is I was in the, went down to Mexico and got busted down there. They found some pot in my bag or something, so they deported me. And on the way out of the jail, I jumped off the steps and broke my ankle, and then from there, I was flying to Washington to see President Carter. So when I saw him, I was standing there in crutches [Laughs] and we were laughing about it, because you know, he’s a pretty broad-minded guy.
SCHEER: But you’re making it now, OK, I had a little trouble in Mexico, but in your book you describe it as a harrowing experience. They could have held you there.
NELSON: Well, they could have. They told me never to come back.
SCHEER: Yeah. And so let’s talk a little bit about pot. [Laughs] Because it runs through your book. I can one-up you–you came to be disillusioned with alcohol, and I consider myself an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in 20 years or something, and struggle with it. So I always did take the knee-jerk position, yeah, pot’s better than alcohol, but I really don’t like pot either; I don’t, you know. And yet your book, in many ways, is a tribute to pot. You say it mellowed you out, it was constructive, it was–you just really give it a lot of credit.
NELSON: There’s cannabinoids in the human body, which require cannabis in order to get all the healing and all the positive and all the things going. I believe that. Some people can’t smoke marijuana, some people have edibles; there’s candies and there’s chocolates or whatever. But I don’t like the edibles. Every now and then, I like to take a couple of hits off a joint. It smoothes me out, it relaxes me and I don’t want to kill nobody.
SCHEER: And you actually have a product now.
NELSON: I have a product called Willie’s Reserve, and it’s, you know, going pretty good. We had a meeting about it this morning with the folks in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California.
SCHEER: It is a persistent theme. You think this is a positive–
NELSON: Absolutely positive, and there’s people all over the world, since the Charlotte’s Web thing came out and they found out how many medicinal values there are in cannabis. They’ve done two or three huge TV shows, I don’t know whether you saw this Dr. Sanjay Gupta doing his shows on the Charlotte’s Web thing. More people are realizing that it’s not the devil drug that we were taught to believe.
SCHEER: But it’s interesting, because your whole thing is about balance. This helps you find balance. And the other big thing is that power of the state should not be used to intimidate people, I gather. And so there’s some, you know, poignant scenes in your book; you’re in a car and you’re tired and you pull off the highway to get rest, and the next thing you know there’s a–
NELSON: I’m in jail, yeah.
SCHEER: –state trooper or somebody shining a light in your face. And suddenly you’re in another world; you weren’t bothering anybody, you weren’t doing anything, and now even though you’re famous you’re going to have trouble here. Right? And the book is really an appeal for individual freedom or respect.
NELSON: Yeah, and even though that was unnerving as all that was, it still had a positive ending, because the sheriff in that county got up and made a positive speech about me, that he and I were good friends, and how he knew me not to be a liar; if I said this was there or that was there, then I was telling the truth. And it all worked out.
SCHEER: So you’re not afraid of America in any way.
NELSON: No. Or nothing else.
SCHEER: You think that we basically are–
NELSON: You can’t be, you have have fear.
SCHEER: Yeah. But you think we’re basically solidly–I gather, from the book–a solidly rooted people, and these spurts of meanness and violence and divisiveness are kind of, that come out from getting wrong ideas or wrong impulses, or–
NELSON: Negative thinking.
SCHEER: Yeah. I mean, that’s basically your world view. The raw material is here.
NELSON: The raw material?
SCHEER: Yeah, of who we are as a people, how we got to be here.
SCHEER: And it gets distorted.
NELSON: Well, yeah, it can be.
SCHEER: You know, it’s interesting. People put down eBooks, but I got it on my iPhone and that’s how I read it; I’m here in Maui, and I’m by the beach, by the ocean and I’m reading it. And it’s compelling. So I do want to endorse, and so anybody who finds any of this interesting, they’d better get the book, and it’s really easy to get. It’s not the only one; in the intro I mentioned all the other wonderful things that you’ve done. But it really moved me, and it moved me particularly because Donald Trump [Laughs] got elected president. And it’s a moment where a lot of us are questioning, what is this country? What is it all about? You know, people are using some pretty frightening images of fascism and–
NELSON: I wrote a new song that you’d be interested in hearing. It’s called “Delete and Fast Forward,” “Delete and Fast Forward Again.”
SCHEER: How does it go?
NELSON: “Delete and fast forward, my son; the wars are all over and nobody won. But don’t worry too much about it, you’ll just go crazy again; just delete and fast forward, my friend. Delete and fast forward, my son; the elections are all over and nobody won.” [Cut to music]
SCHEER: This has been Scheer Intelligence, Part One of my interview with legendary musician Willie Nelson, recorded at his home in Maui, Hawaii. Check out Part Two next week, where we talk about the music industry, family, and more. The producers of Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Technical assistance provided by Kat Yore and Mario Diaz at KCRW. And we’ve had a special assist on these programs from Micah Nelson, Willie Nelson’s musician son, who deserves a lot of credit in his own right, but is a terrific engineer; want to thank him; and Sebastian Grubaugh at USC.
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.
WN: Well, it’s obvious; you know, if they come out and see me, we have basically the same beliefs in music, everything; I write songs about what I think, they like ‘em and they let me know. So we’re pretty much alike, me and the audience. And we think Texas is a pretty good place.
RS: So tell me why, because–
WN: I know a lot of good people down there. I know more nice people that I do assholes, you know. There’s a few of them down there also, but tell me a place where there’s not, you know.
RS: But how come they keep voting for assholes?
WN: Assholes keep running.
RS: [Laughs] OK, well this is a very encouraging view of America.
RS: No, it is, it is. Because I think it’s, you know, here I’m doing this for an NPR audience, which at this moment in time is probably, many people listening to this are probably quite upset with a big part of America, the whole middle, you know.
RS: And so forth; they voted in a way that they can’t understand. I just looked at my evaluations; as a teacher, you get ‘em, you know, kids fill out these things at the end. And one student–they’re anonymous, and one student said, she thanked me, because here we are in Southern California, and she said I’m–you know, she’s from a Republican family, she didn’t quite vote for Trump, but she thanked me for actually being the devil’s advocate on the stage, saying wait a minute, these people can’t be all wrong, or they’re not all bad, or what is going on? Maybe they lost their house, maybe they’re hurting, maybe the American dream is not for them anymore. And I think many people listening to this, they’re having a hard time right now understanding red America.
WN: I think we should–I recorded a song called “Living in the Promised Land,” did you ever hear that?
RS: No…how does it go?
WN: You’ll have to check it out sometime, because it’s about welcoming everyone…”Living in the promised land, 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.” It’s basically, come on: come on to America, we love you, we’ll help you, we’ll find a spot for you. So, and it sings like, there is the other side who said no, no, no–but that ain’t right.
RS: So you’re still optimistic.
WN: I’m still optimistic that all the people are coming in, and it will be as great tomorrow as it is today. And they say, make America great–hell, it’s great already.
RS: But you’re not for building walls.
WN: Fuck no.
RS: [Laughs] We’re going to fight to keep that in. [Laughter] It’s NPR, you know, you might see the FCC–
WN: Well, you know, when I get to be president, first thing I’m going to do is make “fuck it” one word.
RS: And make it something you can do on broadcast radio and television. [Laughter] So that’s good. You’re optimistic, basically.
WN: Oh, very optimistic, yeah.
RS: So let me ask you, finally, about age. You know, because we’re both octogenarians; I never thought I’d be an octogenarian, but–it sounds terrible. And I was pleased that you’re older than me. And you start out with this religious background where there’s clearly an afterlife, right?
RS: Clearly a reward thing. This is just a test thing. And you end up in your book with, well, there’s something–
RS: Karma. What else?
RS: Reincarnation. And how does that work?
WN: For every action, there’s an opposite and equal reaction. Period.
RS: And that carries you through the day?
WN: Yeah, yeah. I believe we’re all here for a reason. We have our own jobs, we’re here; if we are children of God, which I don’t think anybody would deny that, we must be little bitty baby gods. We’re not little dogs or chickens or puppies; if we’re children of something, we must be little bitty ones. So–and I’m probably one of the smallest, and I have more to learn than anybody, but I realize that I have the potential to learn that, if I keep the right attitude.
RS: And in learning it, it’s interesting; everybody throws around these slogans, so family values, or pro-family, or what have you. Your book is, above everything else it is, is a tribute to the family; to actually what, three, four of them?
WN: Families that I’ve had? [Laughs] Who knows.
RS: It’s amazing, it’s–again, it challenges the cookie-cutter image. There’s loyalty, there’s love expressed for–you know, there’s love expressed for a woman that sews you into the sheets and hits you with a broom.
WN: Oh, she was great. I wouldn’t, I didn’t blame her for doing that. I had that coming.
RS: Oh, well there you go, that’s your first wife. You know, and then there’s love for your current wife, who you know, I’ve been invited to your house a few times; I know this is a no-nonsense woman with her own values, strong views, and so forth.
WN: Absolutely. Independent, that’s the one thing that we’ve allowed each other to be. Independent.
RS: Independent. But that carries through all of your relationships. And also loyalty.
RS: I mean, it seems where everybody seems to come back and live in the same place. Right? I mean, there’s a roof big enough for that ex-wife’s children, and this one, and so forth. Does that fit into your image of this sort of continuum of life? It’s kind of a celebration of the human existence. Because there are people even now, I run into them, and they say, I’m not going to have any children; this is a shitty world to bring people into, life is terrible, you know, and the climate’s going to get awful and we’re going to not have anything to eat or water to drink, or so forth. And in the book, and in your life, there’s a kind of full-steam ahead, get up, get on the road, make some money, make some babies, live, raise, you know–
WN: If we listen to all the news and all the radio programs and believe what they’re saying, we would be scared to hell, to death. Especially now, after the election, everybody’s saying oh, well, it’s over; we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, you know. And that’s a lot of bullshit. You know, everything will be fine. Delete and fast forward.
RS: Delete and fast forward. But you know, it’s interesting, because you have been an activist on climate issues. I remember the first time I came to your house, you gave me a brief lecture on going to a restaurant and getting the leftover oil and putting it into my car, I was supposed to go get a–
WN: Biodiesel, yeah, biofuels.
RS: Yeah, and you know, you’ve been very proactive on saving the planet, saving small farmers, doing other acts of kindness to the environment, to the population and so forth. So you don’t take it for granted that it’s going to turn out all right.
WN: So far, it has. So I have no reason to believe that it won’t.
RS: But you think it, I mean I gather, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I gather you feel you need to set an example of doing something.
WN: I think we all have to set an example of positive thinking, thinking forward, delete and fast forward, forget all that horseshit in the back, let’s start here and move on.
RS: OK, finally, I’m struggling with my own family situation. So when you talk about your family and the farm–my father came here from Germany, and he ran away from the farm.
WN: It’s hard work.
RS: You know, he was tired of it.
WN: No money.
RS: No money, but he was tired of the work and everything, and he thought, I’m going to get to a big city and you know, he was a knitter mechanic running big knitter machines. And also something of a musician [laughs], not on your level, but he came from a town where they all trained musicians for the circus–
WN: There you go.
RS: German oompah bands and all that. But he had an idea that Karl Marx described in the Communist Manifesto, of all places: he referred to the achievement of capitalism in destroying the idiocy of rural life. This is in the Communist Manifesto. And this was a common view, not just for Karl Marx, but for a lot of people as the Industrial Revolution was developing. That there was some inherent progress in industrialization, in bigness, in all of this stuff. And when I read your book, I see an opposite–not an opposite, but an alternative view, or a correction: No. There’s something wonderful about raising pigs. There’s a music to it. There’s a logic to it.
WN: There’s something about, there’s something religious and rewarding about digging in the soil, about growing things and planting them and watching them grow. Our farmers, our small family farmers, have realized now that they can do better if they grow organically. And a lot of farmers have changed over the last few years, because there’s a farm to market out there for their product; people don’t have to wait for a truck to come in 1500 miles away with their breakfast, because there’s a farmer over there next door who can grow their food for them. People are beginning to realize all this, and it’s making life a little easier.
RS: You know, it’s funny, full circle, because just before we started taping I was talking to Annie, your wife, and your son about the Edible Schoolyard [Project] that Alice Waters has done–you know Alice Waters, she has a restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And I think they have it in some of the schools around here now, the idea of growing and teaching kids how to grow and prepare it properly and so forth.
WN: Mm-hmm, absolutely.
RS: And I knew her when she was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and I once ran for Congress, she was my campaign manager, and now she’s gone on to to this, actually, in the White House now; Michelle Obama had an Edible Schoolyard, you know, grow a lot of stuff.
WN: A lot of people, too, now are planting–you see vacant lots where they’re planting in the vacant lots, they’re planting on rooftops, they’re planting wherever they can find soil–
RS: Community gardens.
WN: –to plant and garden and raise their own food.
RS: Yeah. So you actually have, to get you to conclude this, kind of a, dare I say it, organic view of the human experience. I mean, this line that you have, “When I die, roll me up and smoke me”– [Laughter] But it’s actually is an idea of human existence, you know? It is an idea of being part of the earth again, of a continuum. So the earth is precious, life is precious. Is that sort of how you would wrap it all up?
WN: Absolutely. Life is precious, and we do what we can to keep it going.
RS: So, finally, what was this journey all about?
WN: It’s such a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-by-minute thing that you learn to live in the now. I can’t do anything about what happened this morning, I can’t do anything about what’s going to happen after awhile; all I have any control over at all is right now. And if I stay here, stay focused from here to wherever I go, then I’ll be fine.
RS: And you want it to continue, though, right?
WN: Yeah, I have no reason to want to go anywhere. [Laughs]
RS: No, come on, because you know–
WN: Life is pretty good, I’m eighty-somethin’, I don’t know, 83 I think.
RS: You’re 83 and I’m 80, and I’m telling you, this is a fight I have all the time with people. They say, hey, you’re an old guy, you look younger for your age but you’re an old guy. And you know, why don’t you just step–well, I don’t want to step aside, screw you. I like it.
WN: Step aside for what, you know?
RS: Yeah. But I like it, that’s why I’m here.
WN: We’re here, we’re doing what we like to do, and we’re still able to do it. Why should we quit? I’m working on this new album, and I’ll play it for you after a while; it’s called “God’s Problem Child.” It was written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White. You remember Tony Joe? Yeah, that’s really a good song. And some of the other songs on there are “Delete and Fast Forward,” “True Love,” “I Made a Mistake, I Thought It was Wrong.” There’s some songs on there that I think you’d like; I’ll play them for you.
RS: And you know, in the book you described songwriting. And as somebody–I don’t want to put myself in your category, but I, every day I got to think about what’s the lede, or what am I writing, or something. And you had something I would tell any students that were interested in writing. I forget the way you put it in the book, but there’s just a moment when it will come.
WN: Well yeah, sure. You got to be ready for it and write it down and don’t forget it.
RS: Yeah, you say like you’ll go for a walk or you’ll do something, and it comes to you.
WN: Yeah, and I have to be–you know, because short-term is for real, so I have to type it down or write it down in my iPhone real quick so I will have it there when I want to put a melody to it later. And there’s probably a dozen or 15 of those lyrics that I have new that I haven’t put a melody to yet.
RS: What’s going on with the music industry? I mean, now–I know in the book you say, well, so they don’t get paid but they find a bigger audience. And you know, but there are some people, I don’t know if you know that Marilyn and Alan Bergman, they wrote a lot of Barbra Streisand songs, and they’ve won three Academy Awards. They’re good friends of mine, I have them in my class, she was head of ASCAP or whatever. And they’re just all, no one can make a living, and the music industry is shot. And you say in your book, that may all be true, but you can still go out and tour, you can still go out and perform, and that’s the only thing you ever really counted on, was performing.
WN: I think most bandleaders and singers will tell you that the majority of their income that they can depend on to be in their pocket is what they’re going to make tonight when they play Billy Bob’s or wherever they’re playing. If they make five, ten, $20,000, that’s, you know, pretty much more than they can expect from record companies and things. Because that’s all changed now. People are making records in their basement and selling them on the Internet, and the record companies are having problems staying in business. So it’s pretty much what you make tonight on the concert, that’s what you can depend on.
RS: Will music survive?
WN: Yeah, always; music always will survive. Me and you won’t, but the music will.
RS: Yeah. Huh, me and you won’t. [Laughter] But you said we’re going to be reincarnated! I was feeling hopeful!
WN: Well, we’ll be back. We’ll be back. [Laughter]
RS: I want to come back as Willie Nelson.
WN: Well, I’ll come back as you. [Laughter]
RS: This concludes my interview with Willie Nelson. Thanks to Willie and his son Micah Nelson, a great musician in his own right, for producing this. And the producers in L.A. are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney; the engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz, with an assist from USC engineer Sebastian Grubaugh.