Willie Nelson's 'Promiseland' Celebrates Immigration and Condemns Building Walls
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.”
“So you’re not for building walls?” Scheer asks. “Fuck no,” says Nelson.
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.
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.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly