After a lifetime of failed marriages, money troubles and ‘medicinal’ marijuana, the world’s greatest country star is hitting the road again
Parked under the shade of a couple of palm trees, in the car park of a cheap hotel in California, the Willie Nelson tour bus does not look like the icon of American culture it undoubtedly is.
The 77-year-old country singer sleeps around 200 days a year on here and has done for decades. Well, on this one and its earlier incarnations. It is called the Honeysuckle Rose III.
One of his best-known songs, On the Road Again, is about this bus and the home-from-home way of life it represents.
Nelson’s actual home is a farm in Luck outside Austin, Texas, near to where he was born and raised. That is where his fifth wife Annie and two of his seven (possibly nine) children live.
But this bus is the home where his heart is. There are some homely touches: a collection of American Indian necklaces draped above the dinette, a toaster, family photos on the wall, a miniature stars-and-stripes sticking out of an ashtray.
But these are not what you notice first: that would be the smell of marijuana. He smokes it every day and has spent a lifetime campaigning for its legalisation.
Indeed, just as the Beatles once smoked pot at Buckingham Palace, so Willie Nelson once had a toke on the roof of the White House, which is certainly one way of putting across your point.
The second thing you notice is the world’s most famous stoner himself. He has an unassuming air about him, is scruffy in a black T-shirt and jeans, and is quite diminutive at 5ft 6in. He is sitting in a halo of light in the corner, fixing me with his dark starey eyes.
His fingers are long and crooked and, as he talks, he steeples them, as if in prayer. His cheekbones are sharp but you suspect his chin, hidden under a white beard, might be a little weak.
His waist-length mane of greying hair hangs over one shoulder and is not in plaits today, nor is it hidden under a stetson or held back with a bandanna, which it often is.
But there is no doubting that this is the man who was once described as ‘Jesus on a bad hair day’, which perhaps explains the popularity of the T-shirts and bumper stickers you see across the United States that ask simply: What would Willie do?
His reputation for being mellow is partly to do with his languid manner, partly the way he dispenses homespun wisdom in a measured Texan drawl.
He speaks in short, croaky sentences and lets you know when he has finished by smiling gently or giving a soft chuckle.
Actually he speaks through his songs which, in their unassuming way, are as seared on the American musical landscape as those of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday or Jimi Hendrix. Like them, he is a touchstone for his own genre.
Crazy, the spare and haunting song he wrote for Patsy Cline, is said to be the most played jukebox recording of all time, so let’s begin with that.
I ask him what he thinks it was about that song that gave it such universal appeal. ‘The simplicity,’ he says. ‘The song itself is not that simple, there are a few chord changes, but the idea is simple.’
He’s written so many, about 3,000. Does he remember writing that particular one? ‘Sure. In that same week I wrote Night Life and Funny How Time Slips Away, I felt like all three had something.’
I ask if he ever wakes up with a new melody fully formed in his head? ‘Often, and it seems to have come from nowhere. There are only so many notes so there must be only so many melodies. I don’t really question it. I think maybe I’ve heard something like this before, but that’s OK. It’s what I’m hearing now.’
He has recorded more than 100 albums, and sold more than 50 million of them. His latest, Country Music, is out this summer and will be accompanied by a European tour.
The songs have never stopped coming, it seems, but does he worry that he will wake up one day and find the inspiration fairy has flown away?
‘Yeah I know there will come a time when it is no longer there so I have to take advantage of it while I can. Roger Miller (the honky-tonk singer), a great friend of mine, said sometimes the well goes dry when you are a songwriter and you have to live a while and let the well fill up again.’
Nelson is wont to have a joint before going on stage to perform, but can he also write music stoned?
‘I’m not sure whether it makes me more creative or keeps me from being more creative. I can’t give the weed too much credit, though, I think it’s mostly down to me.’
Nowadays he smokes the stuff through a vaporiser, which he considers healthier than a joint. ‘Yeah I smoke it most days. But there were several days recently I went without smoking it, to prove I could.’
Does it worry him that since he began campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis several decades ago it has become much stronger and that there have been a number of studies that show that skunk, which is 25 times stronger than the pot Willie would have started out smoking in the Sixties, can cause psychosis?
‘Really? I’ve never run in to that much. But you’re right, there are stronger strains out there now than there used to be with the old Mexican dirt weed. But I think people have built up their tolerance a lot over the years.
‘To someone who smokes all the time it isn’t necessarily stronger. I think it depends on who is smoking it. It’s not for everyone. It’s medicine and if it’s not your medicine you shouldn’t make it so.’
When I ask him what he makes of his reputation for being mellow, whether that is how he would describe himself, he blinks slowly and gives a little nod.
‘The outward appearance can deceive. Sometimes there is a 36-piece orchestra going off in my stomach.’ He directs a thumb over his shoulder. ‘I’ve got a punching bag in the back of the bus there. It helps me let off steam.’
One assumes from his plaintive songs that he has a strong streak of melancholy running through him.
‘Well the country songs themselves are three-chord stories, ballads which are mostly sad. If you are already feeling sorry for yourself when you listen to them they will take you to an even sadder place.
‘Sometimes that’s good for your mind. It doesn’t hurt to feel sad from time to time. It’s better than having a drink when you feel life has abused you, because that way you can end up a drunk.
‘We enjoy making ourselves feel sad. People will pay good money to come and cry. Give me a hundred bucks for a ticket and I’ll make you cry!’
And are there any that make him cry? ‘You do have to be careful singing these songs over and over again because they can become self-fulfilling. Some of my songs I find quite painful to sing because they remind me of certain times in my life.
‘There are some I have written and recorded which I don’t perform for that reason. I don’t want to go back there. There are some though, like Crazy and Night Life, I can keep doing because they have become standards, general rather than specific.’
The episodes in his life that he would rather forget no doubt feature his hard drinking and womanising. His first wife left him because of his drinking, but only after tying him up in a sheet and beating him with a broom.
His second wife found out about the woman who was to become his third wife when she mistakenly opened a letter about maternity payments.
Then there was the night in 1970 when he dashed into his burning house to rescue his guitar and his pot.
Another drunken night ended with him playing chicken by lying in a busy lane of traffic. He later said: ‘It was one of those Russian roulette things.’ He also once said: ‘Hell, I only drink so much so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend.’
But the most painful time in his life was not to do with drinking. In 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) informed him that he owed them $32 million. Thanks to bad financial advice he had been using tax shelters, which were disallowed.
After lengthy negotiations the IRS halved the demand, but he was still forced to auction off most of his possessions. Friends bought them and then sold them back to him when he regained financial stability.
It was at this point that tragedy truly struck. His alcoholic son, Billy, killed himself. ‘Everything else just fell into insignificance.’
It’s all he has to say on the subject of his son, so I ask instead what his IRS experience taught him about the nature of money.
‘When you don’t have it, it seems more important than when you do. And when you do have it you realise it can’t buy you happiness or health. A man with $10 million is no better off than a man with $9 million. Trying to get by without money can be a chore. But it can be done.’
It must have been stressful not knowing whether he was going to be able to pay it off; were there sleepless nights? ‘I think all along I knew I would do OK. I live one day at a time. I don’t worry about yesterday and I’m not concerned much with tomorrow.
‘You only need one pair of shoes at a time. As long as you have enough to eat and somewhere to sleep, it becomes about what you need versus what you can afford.’
Nelson is approaching his eighties; why does he still work so hard and give himself such a punishing schedule if not for material gain?
‘I do it because I just really love playing music. I enjoy playing for an audience. I would do it for free and have done it for free many times, playing in bars when I couldn’t afford to, just because I love doing it.’
Sounds like he’s never going to retire. ‘I think that would be the hardest thing to do. To quit the road. To quit playing music. Being on the road in my tour bus, it’s what I enjoy.
‘I would get tired in a day or two if I stopped doing this. I’d get fidgety. Restless. I want to see what’s happening over there. I want to play with this singer over here.’
He has worked with an astonishing range of performers, including Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and Norah Jones. He even had a hit with Julio Iglesias (For All The Girls I’ve Loved Before).
‘I don’t sit and plan these things,’ he says. ‘I just believe in letting them happen and going with the flow. With Sheryl we hit it off real well and decided to hang out more. She’s involved in a lot of the things I am. Against the war, fighting for the protection of horses, the bio fuel.’
Nelson is known as Bio Willie. His bus runs on biodiesel and he has set up his own filling stations in Texas to supply it to truckers.
‘I don’t think I converted Sheryl to biodiesel; she was pretty wised up to it. We’re trying to get others to use it more, because the more of that we use and the more solar energy and hydro and wind we use, the less we will have to go around the world looking for oil.’
His childhood love of country music came from watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing cowboys on the silver screen. ‘I wanted to ride my horse, shoot my gun and sing my songs like them,’ he says. (Like his bus, his acoustic guitar has the name Trigger, after Roy Rogers’s horse.)
Why is the idea of the cowboy as hero, as semi-mythical figure, still popular, does he suppose? ‘I think it represents a freedom people can relate to and aspire to. It’s a romantic ideal. Everyone wants to be a cowboy at heart. Truck drivers are the modern equivalent.’
While teaching Sunday school in Fort Worth, Nelson began playing at honky-tonk clubs. He then went to Nashville and wrote for other people, most notably Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. But as a performer, success eluded him and he returned to Texas in 1970.
It was there he pioneered a new form of country known as outlaw. It broke away from the all-domineering Nashville sound to incorporate the redneck music of Texas and the hippie folk-rock of California. And this coincided with the post-Easy Rider reinterpretation of the Wild West, with Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah making revisionist westerns.
Nelson grew his hair long and pitched his voice up half an octave so that he strained on the high notes, giving him a more affecting sound. His chord changes, meanwhile, echoed his strange, half-toned vocal phrasings.
His breakthrough album was Red Headed Stranger in 1975. After that he formed a supergroup with Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
‘The term “outlaw” was a marketing thing that someone came up with in Nashville,’ Nelson says. ‘But the cowboy side was something me and Waylon and others could relate to, sure. It made a good story and felt fresh again.’
His campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis and his run-in with the IRS have perpetuated his outlaw image and added to his popularity with the young. Politicians have often tried to tap into his mass appeal but have rarely seemed sure how to handle him.
‘That’s how it feels, yeah. I think my advocacy of marijuana makes the politicians nervous. I’m not persuaded that much by either side because those guys are trying to dodge that issue.’
He tells me he doesn’t have an act, that he is the same offstage as on. Yet he has a very distinctive image: the stetsons, the bandannas, the long hair. Was there not an element of invention to this, given that he started off in a suit?
‘Maybe so. Maybe there is an element of showbusiness. When I got into the country music scene in Nashville, we all got dressed up in the moody suits and rhinestones and boots and hats, and we all looked the same.
‘When years later I first started growing my hair long and beading it and wearing the bandanna, Eddie Arnold, a great singer from Nashville, met me back stage at the Grand Ole Opry and said with a grin: “I know what you’re up to.”’
We talk about his childhood and how his parents, who were musicians, left him when he was six months old in the care of his grandparents.
‘I never felt insecure about it. Never felt the lack of anything. I got plenty of love from my grandmother. She spoilt me rotten. She encouraged my sister (Bobby, who plays piano in his band) and me in our music and got us to sing in church.’
His first job was picking cotton. ‘At the time I didn’t think anything of it but looking back now it does seem like hard work, 12 hours a day, sunup to sundown. Baling hay I made 15 cents an hour, so when I made $8 a night playing the honky-tonks that felt like the big time.’
It left him with a love of farming and respect for farmers (he is heavily involved with the charity Farm Aid, for which he does regular free concerts).
‘I’ve always known the farmer worked hard and didn’t make much money. It is even harder now when the big corporations are trying to run the small farmers out. They are doing a good job of it. We used to have eight million small family farmers, now we only have two million.’
From cotton picking he moved on to selling encyclopedias door-to-door; he seems so laid back now, it is hard to imagine him as a pushy salesman.
‘The training I had was from a great salesman who had a rebuttal to every objection. I learnt a lot. I learnt it is pretty easy to go in and sell someone something they cannot afford. I learnt you can sell someone a set of 300 books when they don’t have shelves to put them on.
‘I would always drive along looking for swings in the backyard then I would know there was a potential customer there, an aspiring family with young kids.’
It sounds cynical but in a way he was selling the idea of the American dream, that anyone could improve their lot in life. ‘Anyone can be a good salesman if they learn to sell themselves first. It almost doesn’t matter what the product is. You have to make friends with your customer.’
What does it mean to be a Texan? ‘I like being from Texas because in Texas no one is in control, everyone polices their own area and there is a whole lot of area down there to cover.’
And everyone carries guns. He chuckles. ‘You don’t have one?’ Does he? He shakes his head. ‘I grew up with a 22 rifle to shoot rabbits, then a 4:10 and graduated all the way up to rifles with scopes to shoot deer and bear.
‘Did it until I got tired of it. Got tired of shooting things. One day I realised it wasn’t that much fun any more so I stopped.’
He prefers golf these days and owns his own course and even he is puzzled by his incongruous passion for the sport. Perhaps it’s a Texan thing.
Speaking of which, George W Bush must make him proud to be a Texan. ‘Well, first off, Bush wasn’t born in Texas. He played on it. But I have to say, when he was governor I didn’t notice him. He snuck through to become president without making any waves.’
Presumably, for all his mellowness, Willie Nelson has had to be pretty pushy to achieve his successes, engaging in a lifetime of the hard sell. ‘I think I know what I wanted. I was hungry. Every day I had to keep going for it,’ he says.
Has he had to be selfish to realise his ambitions? ‘You don’t have to be selfish because your ambition and drive is for your family members as much as for yourself. Along the way you pick up wives and kids and you are responsible for them. You don’t discard them. There is no such thing as ex-wives, only additional wives.’
If he were to bump into his 18-year-old self, what advice would he give him? ‘I’d probably tell him to shut up.’ And with that he gives a wheezy laugh. ‘Yeah, just shut up.’