Willie Nelson Is America’s Favorite Outlaw: “At 88, He Is Still Singing, Writing, and Championing the Causes He Believes In”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alan Light headlined “Why Willie Nelson Is America’s Favorite Outlaw: At 88, he is still singing, writing, championing the causes he believes in—and staying true to his Texas Roots”:

Being stuck at home has been brutal for many of us, but it’s different for Willie Nelson. He’s spent most of his life on a tour bus, logging over 100 shows a year for decades; his signature song is “On the Road Again.” The guy wasn’t trained to be an indoor cat.

His response to quarantine has been a schedule and productivity that would be daunting for someone half his age. In the past year, Nelson has released two albums—First Rose of Spring and, more recently, That’s Life, songs from Frank Sinatra’s catalog; written his 10th book, Willie Nelson’s Letters to America; organized and performed at multiple livestream benefits (including the 35th annual concert for Farm Aid, an organization he helped found); delivered a keynote address at the (virtual) South by Southwest festival; recorded a version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a PSA for Covid vaccination; launched a new cannabis convention; and turned up on additional duets and recordings. It’s not the same as being on the bus, but it’s not a bad showing for a guy who turned 88 in April.

In a Zoom call from Maui (his other homes are in Austin and Los Angeles), Nelson laughed easily as he described his efforts to keep busy until he can get back in motion. His unmistakable craggy face is as familiar as family when it pops up on-screen. He spoke from an airy living room, with a ceiling fan lazily spinning above him and the word BEACH spelled out on the wall behind. He’s a friendly but succinct conversationalist, opting for an aphorism over spinning a yarn.

Close by the Hawaii house, he has a little club called Django’s Orchid Lounge, its name a combination of his favorite guitar player (jazz virtuoso Django Reinhardt) and Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the legendary Nashville honky-tonk across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, where, in 1961, he first played a song he had written called “Crazy” for a guy who turned out to be Patsy Cline’s husband.

“I’ve got some friends here and we play a little poker, dominoes, watch TV, whatever,” he says. “Everyone has had their vaccinations, but still we’re not getting but just a few people together. It’s got a lot of windows and a lot of air, and we’re being very careful, but we have some really good times.”

After our call, his friend Woody Harrelson came over to play some cards. Harrelson later reported that the night, as expected, did not go his way. “I got totally taken advantage of by Mr. Nelson,” he says. “That’s how it usually shakes out—he’s a hustler from way back; he learned from the best.”

Harrelson noted the toll that being off the road has taken on Nelson. “The key that unlocks Willie is contained in one four-letter word, and that’s play,” he says. “He’s always playing—he hasn’t lost his kid juice. He’s constantly playing guitar, playing a song or playing a game, and even in conversation he’s like a really playful kid who, luckily, never grew up.”…

Some songwriters have struggled during the pandemic, overwhelmed and distracted by the chaos in the world, which Nelson understands. “In fact,” he says, “I had this song started: ‘I didn’t want to write another song, but don’t tell that to my mind / It just keeps throwing out words and I have to try to make them rhyme.’ I couldn’t quit writing if I wanted to, and I shouldn’t try. I think it’s good for me to write down what I’m thinking. It ain’t all fantastic. But that’s cool.”…

Not that Willie Nelson has much left to prove. One of the most beloved figures in American culture, he has sold more than 40 million records, 18 of them platinum-certified, in his 60-plus-year career. He’s received the Kennedy Center Honors and the Gershwin Prize from the Library of Congress. He’s won 10 Grammy Awards, out of 52 nominations. The “outlaw country” movement that he and some of his peers pioneered in the 1970s to challenge Nashville’s slick formula remains a powerful influence on contemporary music; there is currently a major exhibit dedicated to the Outlaws at the Country Music Hall of Fame, an institution into which Nelson was inducted in 1993.

“Everybody relates to Willie,” says Dolly Parton. “He’s down to earth, he can sing anything, he’s just an all-American boy. I just love him; I hope he lives forever—and he will, in his music.”…

After a stint in the Air Force, a stop at Baylor University and a few scattered gigs as a DJ, he moved to Nashville in 1960, finding a job as a staff songwriter for a publishing company. Parton met him a few years later when she came to town. “New writers like [Kris] Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and me and Ray Stevens would get together and write, and we got to be friends,” she says.

During this period, Nelson wrote a number of songs that would have ensured his place in musical history, even if he’d never recorded a note: “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”—masterpieces of concision, narrative and complex emotion. “There’s so much information in the songwriting musically and lyrically, with a lot of jazz influence and cool nuance,” says Chris Stapleton, who was named artist-songwriter of the decade by the Academy of Country Music in 2019. “And it all seems like this effortless thing that’s always existed.”…

Nelson isn’t sure who came up with the format of the Letters to America book. “The title of the book was going to be Yesterday’s Wine [also the name of his 1971 album], with a lot of my songs in there, but somewhere along the way, it got changed,” he says. “I never did know the real reason why, but why not? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ll let you know later.”

Nelson isn’t sure who came up with the format of the Letters to America book. “The title of the book was going to be Yesterday’s Wine [also the name of his 1971 album], with a lot of my songs in there, but somewhere along the way, it got changed,” he says. “I never did know the real reason why, but why not? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ll let you know later.”…

Though Nelson keeps his politics out of his music, portions of the book don’t hold back his feelings about current social issues. “I’ve been asked if I believe people should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem,” he writes. “Regarding peaceful protests and just about anything else, I believe everyone should do whatever the f— they want to do. You don’t have to watch sports if you don’t like the players’ personal beliefs. You don’t have to attend a gay wedding if you don’t want to. You don’t have to buy my music, and I ain’t gonna change the way I think so you will. We all make our own decisions. I’m trying to make mine with love.”…

Everyone around Nelson talks about his humility. While he’s waiting to get back on the road again, he’s had time to reflect, and even he admits that his life and music have left a mark. “Time will let you know how good you were,” he says. “And if you’re still around and still active when you’re 88 years old, you got to be kind of proud of what you did. And I am.”

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