Willie Nelson’s 65 Years Go By “In Just a Cotton-Picking Minute” (1998)
Originally published in the April 21, 1998 issue of Country Weekly featuring Loretta Lynn on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
“Over the years, the red-headed stranger has turned a tad gray. But at a time when he’s eligible for Medicare, Willie Nelson is picking up the pace, instead of slowing down.
“The great thing about reaching 65 is being here to see it happen,” chuckles Willie, whose birthday is April 30. “The old saying, ‘If I had known I’d live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself,’ pretty much fits me. There are definitely things I would have done differently.”
Willie is sitting in his home away from Texas—his customized bus, the Honeysuckle Rose II. Last night, he performed at the Trump Taj Mahal. Tonight, he’ll rock the Morristown, N.J. Community Theatre with his customary two-and-a-half hour concert. It’s a musical career built on talent and spurred on by one simple childhood wish to spend as little time as possible picking cotton. “When I was working those cotton fields as a kid in Abbott, Texas, I had no idea the ride would be this long or this successful,” continues Willie. “At that time, success was anywhere except in that cotton patch.”
Throughout his career his music has transcended categories like “country” or “pop” with such standards as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again,” “Crazy,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “Always on My Mind. As he approaches the mid-point of his seventh decade, Willie is philosophical. “I’ve had ups and downs in my life, like most folks. It’s been a roller coaster, but things have smoothed out for me in the last few years. Things are a lot easier and quieter these days.” The ultimate Outlaw sighs. “Mother Nature has a way of slowing you down a little bit. You think a couple of moments before you do all the dumb things you used to do instinctively, without consideration of the consequences.” He recalls one of those “dumb things.”
Years ago, after a concert in Birmingham, Ala., Willie was on his bus in a parking garage. Suddenly, a ferocious gun battle between cops and ne’er-do-wells broke out. Bullets zipped through the air. Civilians were diving for cover. Out of the bus stepped Willie, two Colt .45-caliber revolvers jammed into the waist of his cutoffs. He inquired coolly, “Is there a problem?” Almost instantly, the shooting stopped and Willie began singing autographs. Would he do that again? “No! I must have been crazy. I didn’t have a lot of sense back then. There some good things about getting older. Older—but not slower.”
Willie will perform more than 150 gigs this year. His most recent Island Records album, Spirit, was successful, and a new album will be out soon. He’s leaving for Spain to film another movie and he’s launched the Outlaw Music Channel, that airs classic country music TV shows from years past. In between all this, he’ll squeeze in as many rounds of his passion, golf, as he can. “On my 65th birthday, I’ll be in Europe,” he notes. “I’ll finish that movie at the end of April and I open in Amsterdam May 1.”
How will he celebrate birthday No. 65? “I don’t have any real plans,” he confesses. “I’ll just try to get through one more day.” The days have lined his face but never quashed his spirit since. Willie Hugh Nelson was born in 1933 to Ira and Myrle Nelson, in Abbott. His first public performance, at a picnic, was not without problems. Willie, 4, stuck his finger in his nose. The resulting nosebleed ruined his little sailor outfit, but, like a trouper, he was undaunted. “My grandmother had taught me this little poem. I realize now that it was appropriate for how I was feeling at that moment. I was nervous, but I delivered these lines: ‘What are you looking at me for? I ain’t got nothing to say If you don’t like the looks of me you can look the other way.’ His first paying gig was playing guitar with John Raycjeck’s Bohemian Polka Band in Abbott. He was 10. “I made eight bucks a night playing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That was more than I could make in the cotton fields—and a whole lot easier.”
He began to write songs, putting them into his handmade Songs by Willie Nelson songbook. “I made it out of colored construction paper that we used back then in school. I took sheets of different colors and tied them together with a string. I was about 12.” By the time he was 20, he was on the road in Texas, California and Oregon. He was writing songs and performing where he could, while selling vacuum cleaners, cars, radio time and newspaper ads. His favorite job was as a DJ. “Being a disc jockey helped me pay the bills and it was a way for me to stay in the music business. I sold my first record on the air, along with an 8-by-10 glossy photo of me. The record had ‘No Place For Me,’ a song I wrote, and a remake of ‘Lumberjack,’ and the photo was autographed. Listeners got everything for one dollar. I sold 3,000 copies.”
After he quit one radio job in a pay dispute, he landed in Houston and picked up his pen. “I wrote three songs—’Crazy,’ ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ and ‘Night Life’—the same week. After that, I felt like I could make it in Nashville. “So I took off in my ’41 Buick. As soon as I hit downtown Nashville the car died and never rolled another mile. But I got lucky right away by meeting guys like Hank Cochran, Billy Walker, Faron Young, Charlie Dick and, of course, Patsy Cline.
“I tried to sell Faron Young ‘Hello Walls’ for $500. He wouldn’t buy it, but he loaned me the money. Faron knew he was doing me a favor by not buying my song. When he released ‘Hello Walls’ and it became a hit, my first royalty check was $20,000!” In 1961, he was finally recognized for his singing and signed to Liberty Records. He had a couple of Top 10 records, but parted with Liberty in 1964. Willie’s move to RCA Victor met with even less success. “That was a pretty frustrating period,” he says. “The songs I was writing seemed to be catching on more than my singing. My singing was a little different. My phrasing was different than the Nashville ear was hearing at that time. They didn’t think I had anything as a performer they could sell—and they didn’t sell it for a while.”
When his Nashville house burned down late in 1970, he took the hint and moved back to Texas. There, he grew his hair long and ignored Nashville conventions. Success finally found him. Beginning in 1973, with his album Shotgun Willie, he began to find an audience for his honest, rougher-edged brand of country. In 1975, he convinced reluctant Columbia executives to release the thematic Red Headed Stranger album. Its first single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” shot to No. 1. The second, “Remember Me,” went to No. 2. The album was certified gold within a year. He soon linked up with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser on Wanted: The Outlaws, country’s first million-selling album. Hit duets with Waylon followed, and Willie’s long-haired country began selling out arena-sized venues.
His film career started in 1979 with The Electric Horseman starring Robert Redford. Willie was awarded the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award the same year. “During the ‘80s, things were rolling along good,” Willie says. “The recording was going great. So was being on the road performing, either solo or as part of the Highwaymen—Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and me. And I got to do several movie roles. “Now the hits have slowed down, but the ’90s have brought both highlights—induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame—and lowlights—a famed back-taxes dispute with the IRS, since settled.
Today, a lean and fit Willie lives in Willie World, his compound outside Austin that features a house, recording studio, golf course and a western film set. He enjoys being home with his wife of six years, Annie, and their two sons, Lucas and Jacob. “Looking back, the best thing about turning 65 is that I have a great family, a lot of wonderful friends and I’m still out here making music. I’m really doing everything I want to do. “As for the new millennium, I plan to play a little music, write some songs and enjoy life. I’m working on my brown belt in tae kwon do.”
Another new project is his Outlaw Music Channel, a longtime dream that he launched in February. He teamed up with the Kickapoo Indian tribe of Kansas to begin the channel, which present both Native American culture and vintage country music programming. “It’s going great,” Willie says. “I’m extremely excited about it.” The backbone of the channel’s country content is Willie’s private collection of more than 2,500 country TV shows from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, purchased from famed TV producer Norman Lear. Willie says he’s also looking forward to hooking up with his old buddy Kris Kristofferson. “Kris, Travis Tritt and I will heading to Almria, Spain to film a CBS western called “The Long Kill”. Johnny Cash was also going to be in it, but he’s not feeling well enough to make it this time. “Like songwriting and performing, acting gives me another way to express myself. I’m not doing Shakespeare, so I don’t have to learn to speak with an English accent. I can just talk the way I do talk. I can handle that.”
“Hey, I’m having a good time. I’ll enjoy being 65, just like I enjoyed being 64. And I’ll enjoy being 66. I’m just rockin’ along.”