Willie Nelson: The Legend Who Never Quits (1997)

Willie, who describes himself to Bradley as a “redneck hippie,” talks about drugs—“I gave up whiskey for weed, and I came out way better off”—and the death of his oldest son, Billy, in 1991. “You think you’re prepared for when your parents die, or your grandparents, but you’re never prepared for a child to go,” he tells Bradley. “There’s no way you can get prepared for that.”

Originally published in the May 27, 1997 issue of Country Weekly featuring Loretta Lynn on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.

This is the face we grew up with, now rosy from Florida’s sun and wrinkled from too many years of dry Texas air, never mind the long nights. The dark brown eyes are as familiar as a cousin’s, and the rhythm of his speech is as unpredictable as the phrasing of his songs. Although the mustache and beard have gone white, the hair is still red. Willie Nelson is on his bus, the “Honeysuckle Rose II”, parked behind the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Swap Shop. Moments after his concert ends, Willie, his sister Bobbie and the band have gathered there to watch Ed Bradley’s taped interview with Willie on 60 Minutes, taped weeks before.

Willie, who describes himself to Bradley as a “redneck hippie,” talks about drugs—“I gave up whiskey for weed, and I came out way better off”—and the death of his oldest son, Billy, in 1991. “You think you’re prepared for when your parents die, or your grandparents, but you’re never prepared for a child to go,” he tells Bradley. “There’s no way you can get prepared for that.”

Fans streaming out of the concert have surrounded the bus as nervous security wranglers try to keep them corralled. A smiling Willie, stripped down to T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops, wedding ring and watch, signs guitars, photographs, hats, jeans and a purple Harley-Davidson. Later, after Bobbie disappears into a back room and the rest of the gang stretches out in the living area behind driver Gates Moore, Willie comes up for air and talks with Country Weekly.

Forty years after his first record and 35 years after “Willingly” became his first Top 10 single, Willie Nelson is still on the road, still taking risks, still learning new ways of doing things.

Willie, who turned 64 on April 30, keeps playing 250 concert dates every year. New projects include the long-awaited reggae album One in a Row, to be followed by a blues album called Black Night. A European tour is being discussed, a July tour of Norway is likely, and he’s just wrapped an episode of Nash Bridges with Don Johnson, on whose Miami Vice he once played a retired bounty hunter.

He also has juicy parts in “Wag the Dog”, a movie with Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, and in Gone Fishing” he plays a guide who helps Joe Pesci and Danny Glover evade gangsters who have chased them into the Everglades. Both pictures are due this summer.

Wag the Dog is about a president who’s having an affair with a teenager,” says Willie, looking amused. “Robert De Niro is the president’s trouble-shooter, and he hires a big movie producer, Dustin Hoffman, to call attention away from what’s going on. Dustin does all kinds of diversionary things—like starting a war with Albania.”

The idea entertains him. “When we did this, Albania was on the map, but nobody had heard much about it. I’m sure the writer thought that picking Albania’d be safe. Now, of course, it’s all over the news.” Willie’s role makes him laugh even harder. “De Niro hires me to write war songs, and I sing ’em,” he says, obviously tickled.

Besides work, the elements of Willie’s life are his wife, Annie D’Angelo Nelson, his six children, from 7-year-old Mica to Lana, 43, and his assorted family—blood and extended—which includes Willie’s current band of gypsies: Bobbie on piano, Jody Payne on lead guitar and vocals, percussionists Paul and Billy English, bassist Bee Spears and serious harmonicat Mickey Raphael.

Then there’s Willie’s other passion: Farm Aid. In the clear light of hindsight, it seems inevitable that Willie would understand the need for Farm Aid, which helps individual farmers survive hard times.

After their parents split up, Willie and Bobbie were raised by their grandparents William Alfred and Nancy Elizabeth Smothers Nelson, whom they called Mama and Daddy Nelson. After Daddy Nelson’s death in 1939, Mama Nelson was forced to move to a shabby house in a poorer part of tiny Abbott, Texas, and support herself, 7-year-old Willie and Bobbie, 9, by picking cotton and working in the school cafeteria. That’s something that can influence anyone’s outlook.

“I think it had to,” Willie says, his smile gone as he touches a worn Zippo lighter lying on the dinette table. “It certainly makes you more aware of what farmers go through. I didn’t know then how really poor we were—we considered ourselves ‘not poor.’ Instead of money, we’d take a dozen eggs to the store and trade for cigarettes or whatever.”

But it was surely not the way Mama Nelson, who was pushing 60 at the time, had expected to live out her life. “She was up there in years pretty good,” recalls Willie, and his smile disappears again. “She worked in the school lunchroom for $18 a week. We worked for our lunch—we got it free, but we cleaned up the room. I never went around thinking, ‘Boy, we sure are broke,’ but I look back now and I think we made it pretty good.”

Just behind him hang his ever-changing collection of photos, a beaded Indian necklace and what may be a shot of Waylon. A big box of perfectly ripe California strawberries on the kitchen counter scents the air. Willie has never been a man who harbors grudges: He even signed autographs for Internal Revenue Service workers when he settled the agency’s $32-million judgment against him. He settled for a little less than $10 million: The debt will be paid off this year. But there are some practices that aggravate him greatly, and one of those is the way, he says, our government mistreats farmers.

“I’ve said since the beginning of Farm Aid that it’s a shame our country treats its farmers and small businessmen so bad that there has to be a Farm Aid to call attention to it,” he says bluntly as he discusses tentative plans for this year’s fundraiser. “We’ll have another one maybe October 4, maybe in Irving, Texas, near Dallas. We’ve skipped a year or two, but over the last dozen years we've raised between $12 and 14 million.”

Willie has joked that, because all he does is sing and play golf, he’s actually retired. Still, this wiry American original maintains a pace that could erode men half his age. He claims his best survival lesson is simplicity itself: “Just keep breathing,” he says, retreating behind that protective smile. It’s no joke—Willie’s done breathing exercises for years at a time, believing them useful to his mental, physical and spiritual health.

“Fortunately, we are not in control,” he adds gently, easing back along the dinette’s bench until he has enough room to cross his legs. “That’s a kind of philosophy of mine. We just need to keep out of the way and let whatever’s supposed to happen, happen. Usually we try to let things happen.

But if we just get out of the way, they “By now even Willie knows he's achieved success, however success is defined. He seems pleased that he has, mostly, done it his way.

"I've learned to accept success," he says with a shrug, his brown eyes steady. "I live with it, and I expect it. I knew the first time I got paid for playing a song instead of having to pick 200 pounds of cotton that I was going to change professions.

"I became a success when I made my first dollar playing music and got out of those cotton fields. Everything since has been great, and every day has been a surprise."

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