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Willie Nelson: The Biggest Heart In Country Music (1994)

Originally published in the Sep. 6, 1994 issue of Country Weekly magazine.

Willie Nelson is no redheaded stranger to charitable causes, especially farmers in need.

“When you start working on other people’s problems, the first thing you realize is you don’t have very many problems,’’ Willie told Country Weekly before he started another benefit concert—this time at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, on behalf of the Reunion of Professional Entertainers, an organization that assists retired performers. “Other than that, there’s just a lot of other people out there who need help.’’

In recent months, his unflagging urge to help has touched a down-on-his-luck Nebraska hog farmer, the people trying to restore a fire-gutted county courthouse, and a Louisiana couple fighting for their dairy. His own financial troubles—a recently settled, $16.7 million debt to the Internal Revenue Service—never caused him to pull back the hand he extends to others.

Willie, 61, is best known for the Farm Aid benefits he began in 1985, the latest of which he co-hosts Sept. 18 at New Orleans’ Louisiana Superdome and which Country Weekly is one of the proud sponsors. Six previous megaconcerts have raised $11.5 million distributed to 100 organizations in 44 states. Willie is president of Farm Aid, Inc. and signs the organization’s checks.

The money goes to help organizations that aid people such as H.D. and Hattie Lockwood. The couple has operated a 300-acre dairy farm in Greensburg, La., 115 miles north of New Orleans, for more than 40 years. Farm Aid helped the Lockwoods via volunteer Betty Puckett of the Farm Crisis Coalition, part of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference. The Coalition volunteer convinced the Farm Home Administration to allow the Lockwoods to delay payments on the loan they took out to keep up their farm.

“I think his Farm Aid is the most heartwarming effort simply because the people he helps don’t have to fill out millions of forms for humanitarian aid,’’ Hattie said. “They get assistance to the people who really need it.’’

An affinity for farmers comes naturally to Willie. “Willie grew up in a rural community,’’ said Mark Rothbaum, Nelson’s manager for 22 years. “He picked cotton, he shucked corn, he was a rancher working with cattle. He’s all too familiar with how hard the work is, and how rewarding.

“All the country artists, because they travel so much, see the farmers out in the fields. As a matter of fact, there’s a Johnny Cash song called ‘Country Boy’ in which he expresses his longing for the life that the country boy is living and how beautiful it is, and how he’s stuck in a bus wishing he could do that. “There’s a respect for the farmers from country artists that is profound,’’ continued Rothbaum, “and to think that they’re going to be displaced from their homes . . . is enough to incite these great artists to riot on their behalf. There’s something essentially noble about the American farmer.’’

Willie’s generosity is older than his fame, said some of his friends from the 1960s, when Willie was a young songwriter living in Nashville. “I knew Willie when he was in the Air Force and when he played bass for Ray Price,’’ said veteran Nashville talent agent Billy Deaton. “He’s always been one of those giving-type persons. He’d give you the shirt off his back.’’

“I knew Willie when he first came to town and he was trying to get his songs going,’’ said Hillous Butrum, an original member of the late Hank Williams Drifting Cowboys band. “I don’t guess there’s anyone, other than maybe Ernest Tubb, who has done so much for his fellow man than Willie Nelson.’’

His homestate of Texas has benefited, as well. Last spring he traveled to Hillsboro, Texas, to headline a benefit concert to save the century-old county courthouse that was ravaged by fire. One of Willie’s latest causes is Ernest Krikova, 70, of Nebraska, who is serving five months in the Leavenworth, Kan., federal penitentiary. In a desperate moment—after a loan went bad, he declared bankruptcy, his wife died, and family needed food—he sold some hogs he raised but a bank had repossessed. The bank had him arrested.

“I talked to President Clinton,’’ Willie told us. “He said he would look into it. I also called the Attorney General [Janet Reno] and her office said the same thing. His son is trying to get some help for him, and a lot of other people are. So hopefully good things will happen. Ideally, we can get him out of prison and get him pardoned by the president. There’s been talk of a benefit concert to buy the guy’s farm back. I think that would be the best of all possible worlds.”

Tammy Wynette’s brother-in-law, Paul Richey, is putting together the benefit. Richey told Country Weekly that he had early commitments from Tammy, Willie and Marty Stuart. He’s hoping to add more stars to the concert and is aiming for a late September or early October show. “We’re trying to decide where and when we’re actually going to hold it. These things do take time. We just want to get it done for Ernest,’’ said Richey.

Willie’s next confirmed charity event: Sept. 18 at the Louisiana Superdome. Farm Aid VII will bring together John Conlee, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie to host the continuing effort to save family farms. Kris Kristofferson, the Neville Brothers, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe and a few surprise artists also will perform.

“This Farm Aid will have fewer acts and longer shows by the individual acts,’’ Willie said. “First of all, it’s more economical. We save money by not having to have that big spinning stage, which you nearly have to have with 60 or 70 acts coming in one day. By reducing the number of acts, we can let the guys go ahead and do a 30- or 45-minute show.’’

Somehow, he’s still able to take care of personal business. He just finished another album of classic songs for his new record label, Liberty, to be released late this fall. Produced by label head Jimmy Bowen, it’s tentatively titled Crazy, after the Patsy Cline classic Willie wrote. He performs it on the album, which includes five more of his own songs and four other standards—all produced by extraordinary producer Don Was. The Red Headed Stranger declared to Country Weekly: “It’s one of the best albums I’ve had since Stardust, I think.’’ Bowen reportedly has long itched to produce the legendary singer/songwriter, who was inducted last year into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The two men share a passion for golf and have even managed to play a few rounds together in Nashville and L.A.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 31 in a Los Angeles studio, Nelson will join Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to begin recording another Highwayman album. “It should be remarkable. I can’t wait,’’ said Rothbaum, who manages Kristofferson as well as Nelson. “Just to see those four guys together . . . they’re going to make an album unlike anything they’ve ever done, in that they’ll all be together, choosing the music together. It should be something.’’

Kristofferson has stated that being around Willie is a lot like hanging out with Buddha—he gives off such calming spiritual vibes. Willie thinks he has no special gift. “I like to think that whatever power I or you or anybody else has, there’s no power going around that any one guy has an exclusive on,’’ Willie said. “But I think once you start being aware of that, then things can get a lot more fun and life can be a lot easier.’’