Willie Nelson is like the Energizer Bunny. He just keeps going and going, even as he celebrated his 82nd birthday last week. (The guy wrote his first song 75 years ago!) His career really got going in the 1950s, though, as he split his time between writing songs and radio DJing. By the time 1960 rolled around, Willie had moved to Nashville. He made his first record, signed with RCA Victor, and joined the Grand Ole Opry within five years of arriving in Music City.
But, then he quit. It was 1972, and a disillusioned Willie “retired” from music and relocated to Austin. The hiatus lasted not even a year, thankfully, and Willie went on to anchor the 1970s outlaw country sound with some of his most popular records — including Shotgun Willie, Red Headed Stranger, and Wanted! The Outlaws. In the ’80s, the outlaws became the Highwaymen while Willie’s hits kept on coming … “On the Road Again,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and “Pancho & Lefty.”
Another major marker in the 1980s of Willie Nelson was Farm Aid. It was 30 years ago this year that Willie, along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, established the benefit concert project to support family farms during hard financial times. The musicians understood, even in the pre-Monsanto days, that farms and food contribute to both our planetary and personal health. As Willie is prone to say, “If we don’t have good food to eat, we don’t have anything.”
Due to a tussle with the IRS in 1990, Willie lost everything. He was down, but never out, and he hasn’t stopped since, often buoyed by those around him. In that same spirit of community, quite a few of Willie’s projects have been duet-based, including a recent song with Merle Haggard — “It’s all Going to Pot” — which launched Nelson’s signature “Willie’s Reserve” line of marijuana. Oh, Willie …
One of the many artists who have passed through the Farm Aid gates is singer/songwriter Will Dailey. Having grown up on Willie’s music, getting to be part of the benefits for the past seven years has meant more to Dailey than almost anything else in his career. (Dailey is also on the team with Mellencamp for the Stephen King musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.) Like Willie, Dailey also has a bit of an outlaw streak, choosing to ditch his major label deal in favor of crowdfunding his latest release, National Throat. That record garnered the native Bostonian two Boston Music Awards in 2014, Album and Artist of the Year.
Willie is such an unlikely “rock star” and, yet, there he is, carrying on for 60 years now and being just as cool as ever. What is it about him that you relate to and that makes him such an icon?
The first part is that he’s always been in my life. When I first heard him, my mom was buying the records and they were in my house, part of my childhood. You’re seven years old and there’s an old guy, with pigtails, that your family’s listening to and it just becomes part of you. That might have happened for a lot of people because the guy’s been doing it for so long.
The other side is the truth of it all which is … he’s a true artist. That’s what it comes down to. He’s a real deal artist — songwriter, guitar player, advocate for artists, advocate for the people. And the other thing that can’t be lost is the tone of his voice. You know from a mile away when it’s Willie Nelson’s voice.
Yeah, you do.
That’s the beautiful thing about voices when they do that, but he’s also an exceptional singer. He has a beautiful vibrato. His diction … I know it sounds ridiculous to talk about diction, vocally, but he has magnificent diction when he sings and it’s still soulful.
Why does he matter? I mean … I think, more than ever, what Willie Nelson has carved out is the true way. As an artist — and someone who’s been doing this for a while myself but always in a small, independent light — you’re bombarded with all these people coming up to you on a new song or new album saying, “This is going to be the one to break you.” You get all this stuff thrown at you. Your aunt calls you up: “You should be doing American Idol!” They don’t understand that being an artist is not a destination; it’s a way of being. And Willie Nelson embodies that way. As everyone panics about music and sales and technology — as they have for decades … if we go back to the 1900s, they panicked about the Gramophone — Willie Nelson exemplifies what it really is about. It’s a way of being, from top to bottom — how you treat people, how you play, what you play, how you play it, what you say. It’s an example.
And part of that, too, is that he paid his dues coming up.
And then some!
He worked as a DJ and a bassist for Ray Price …
He quit …
Exactly! He was writing songs like “Crazy” and then he quit. He certainly wouldn’t have won American Idol in his day. Do you feel like that’s kind of a lost art — that work ethic? Do you think that people, these days, are more interested in being stars and writing hits than being artists?
I think we’ve developed a culture that tells people that’s what they need to be if they want to be an artist. But, to be an artist, all you need to do is do it. If you want to do it abundantly, you do it for a job. I think we have a role in our education, we have a role in the way we talk about art — as journalists and as artists — to shine a light on what it’s really about.
I think what Willie understands, from all his advocacy and all his years, is that artists grow economies. Of course they develop culture, but they really grow economies. And they can drive an economy. Let’s look at Paris and take out the Louvre, take out the Eiffel Tower and that architectural design, take out all the culinary artists, take out all the painters, take out all the musicians … and what do you have? You don’t have a place we’re all going to fly to and want to go.
Once he developed the outlaw country thing, Willie used his … power is the wrong word … he used his knowledge and his heart to enact changes for artists because he seemed to understand that, whether it be marijuana, family farms, the ideals of true freedom — not commercialized freedom — he’s been a champion of the artist which is to be a champion of the people. Because the artists’ culture and art gives people jobs, gives people hope, gives people context for their times.
Then he found out that he’d been, basically, cheated and he owed the IRS $32 million and had to sell everything. So that set him back and he’s spent the past 25 years rebuilding his “fortune” with pretty constant touring and all kinds of records. Willie’s 82 now and he’s done some damn living, so you have to wonder if he’d still be pushing so hard if he hadn’t lost everything.
One of the significant things that happened is, when he got in trouble, everyone came to his side. The people that he helped stand up came to his side and helped him get back on his feet. It was the community that did it. I like to think more than saying, “I gotta rebuild my fortune,” he was just empowered by that and realized what happens when you’re out there and interacting with people and doing what he does night after night with the dexterity that he does it. When I saw him at House of Blues here in Boston two years ago, he played the hell out of that guitar … out of Trigger.
That poor guitar, man … [Laughs]
[Laughs] That poor guitar … yeah. When you look at how hard he works at 81, I still think of the guy who quit Nashville and went to Austin, and tried to walk away from music. The only thing that’ll pull him away from music is the ground. [Laughs] And I think he’s got enough will in him to avoid the ground for as long as possible. That’s one of the many beautiful things about him as a person. And it’s great seeing his sons up there with him and all that.
Alright … top three greatest Willie songs and why … go.
“Shotgun Willie.” Wait. Do I have to do them in order?
Not at all.
Okay, please specify: Not in order.
“Shotgun Willie.” Groove. Just that country funk groove of “Shotgun Willie.” I want to say, just because of my own nostalgia and my own burning this song into my mind, “Always on My Mind.” It’s a beautiful arrangement. Just wonderful. One more … ummm … the other one … “On the Road Again,” simply because I got to be on stage with him and sing that one and I can’t help but live on that moment for the rest of my days, if that’s all I’m allowed.
Amazing that “Crazy” didn’t make it in there. But … okay.
I know, but that’s like a phenomenon. I was going personal because “Shotgun Willie” I can listen to and be like, “I need to work harder.” [Laughs] And “Always on My Mind” puts me in the world of being a child and feeling the magic of music and seeing that my mother, who’s enraptured by the song, just loves it. It’s spinning constantly and a few years go by and it’s like, “This is a great arrangement. This is a beautiful song.” You hear it again new and that nostalgic memory is strengthened.
Obviously, your mama did not heed the advice to not let you grow up to be a cowboy.
[Laughs] No. She didn’t. She said, “You can do what you want … just work hard.”
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.