Willie Nelson is one of those rare American icons that you’re just not allowed to dislike. He doesn’t have to be your favorite artist. You don’t even need to be able to name any of his songs—he’s got well over 2,000 of them, and off the top of my head I can only recall “On the Road Again”. But saying you don’t care for Willie Nelson is like saying that Elvis Presley was overrated, or that Abraham Lincoln gets too much press, or shrugging off the Bill of Rights as overrated claptrap. No, sorry, that’s just not okay. Loving Willie Nelson, like paying taxes and pretending to have an opinion about politics, is just part of being a citizen of the United States. Nobody’s asking you to memorize the lyrics to “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” or “Good Hearted Woman”, but if you happen to hear one of those songs on the radio and it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’ve shamed yourself and your country. Why not just spit on the flag while you’re at all, ya fucking commie?
I called Willie Nelson to talk about his latest album, American Classic, a collection of standards (his third since 1978’s megahit Stardust) that comes out next Tuesday, August 25th. It took me almost a month to track down the 76-year-old singer—actually, if you include my entire history of trying and failing to interview Nelson, it’s been at least two years. “We just can’t find him,” his PR rep has repeatedly told me. Given Willie’s age and propensity for smoking immense amounts of cannabis, that’s actually pretty remarkable. One doesn’t usually encounter senior citizens who are quite so wily and elusive. But that’s why Willie Nelson is a legend.
Eric Spitznagel: During your almost 50-year career, you’ve dabbled in a diverse array of musical styles. You’ve done country, pop, gospel, rock, jazz, and even reggae. Is there a genre that you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole? Can we expect a Willie hip-hop record any time soon?
Willie Nelson: Well, you know, I try to do what I think I can do. I’m not sure that doing a rap record would be the best idea I ever had. I like to stick with music I know I can play. I love classical, but I don’t think I could ever play it. I’m just not qualified.
You’ve never been tempted to pick up a French horn?
Oh, I’ve thought about it. But it never ends well. The only time I ever picked up a horn, nothing came out the other end. I was disappointed at the time, because I kinda thought I could play anything. But I guess that isn’t true.
You re-recorded “Always On My Mind” for American Classic, which was originally a huge hit for you in 1982. Is that what happens when you’ve been in the business this long? “Aw crap, I did that one in the 80s? Why didn’t anybody fucking tell me?!”
That’s possible. In fact, I suggested to my producer that maybe I’d done that song enough. But Barbra Streisand had talked about maybe wanting to do “Always On My Mind” with me for the album, so that’s the reason we recorded it, just on the outside chance she’d do it. But then she wasn’t available, and we just had the version I did by myself. I honestly would’ve left it off the album, because I thought I already did a pretty good take on that twenty-seven years ago.
You also recorded “Baby it’s Cold Outside” with Norah Jones. I’m not sure how closely you’ve listened to the lyrics, but I’m pretty sure that song is about date rape.
Yeah. That’s what I liked about it. It’s about this guy who’s finally found what he needs from this gal and he’s just going for it.
You’re kidding, right?
Oh, I don’t know. You think it’s about rape? I’ve been listening to that song for a long time and I never picked up on that. The song’s older than you and me put together, probably.
Those lyrics are kinda difficult to interpret any other way. When a song begins with a woman pleading “the answer is no” while trying to get out of a dude’s apartment, it seems pretty inevitable that their date ends with a police report.
A lot depends on how you sing it. You could make any song sound creepy if you wanted. It’s all about the inflection. At least the lyrics aren’t too obvious.
I guess that’s true. It could be so much worse. (Sings.) “You’re hurting my arm/ Baby’s it’s cold outside.”
Yeah, yeah. That’s when you know something is really wrong. (sings.) “My leg’s turning blue/ Baby’s it cold outside.”
You’ve been touring with Bob Dylan this summer. What’s it like backstage? Is it all giggles and pillow fights?
Honestly, no, it’s not that exciting. I open the show, so I usually get to the stadium first. I go on at 6:10, play for about hour and then get out of the way so that John Mellencamp can come on. Then Bob Dylan finishes it up. By the time Bob goes onstage, I’m a couple hundred miles down the road.
So the two of you haven’t had a chance yet to sit down with a one-hitter and share war stories?
Nope, not yet. There’ll hopefully be time for that later. And I think it’ll take more than a one-hitter. (Laughs.)
How have you resisted walking over to Bob and ripping that god-awful mustache off his face?
Bob has a mustache? I didn’t notice.
It’s just horrible. It’s like a cross between Vincent Price and a 14-year-old boy trying to grow facial hair. I love the man’s music, but somebody has to shave that thing.
Well, I’ve never been one to carry around a razor. (Laughs.) So I think he’s safe with me.
You sold the rights to “Family Bible,” one of your first songs, for just $50 and it went on to become a gospel classic. In hindsight, do you feel cheated?
No, no, not at all. I needed the $50 real bad. If the same thing happened today and I needed $50, I’d sell another one.
Do you have any songs lying around that you’d be willing to sell to us for $50?
I’d have to see the money first.
You’re shockingly prolific. It seems like you’re releasing a new record every few months. In the time it’s taken to do this interview, have you composed another album worth of songs in your head?
Yeah, I sure have. And I’ve already sent it to you. Check your email. I sent you mp3s of some rough cuts.
Wow. Thank you, Willie. And you’re not even going to charge us for this one?
Naw, that one’s for free. It’s not really my best work.
As a country music legend, can you do something to stop the mullet?
I can try if you want, if you think it’s worthwhile. I’ll try to write a song that’ll make it happen.
Would you? Just rewrite “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” but make it about mullets.
So it’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Grow Mullets?”
Hey, you’re the artist. I’m just trying to push you in the right direction.
I’ll see what I can do.
You did a song in 2006 called “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other,” in which you claimed that “Inside every cowboy there’s a lady who’d love to slip out.” Is your inner lady a redhead too?
Um. (Long pause.) I’m not sure I know exactly what you’re talking about.
I don’t think I could be any clearer. Does the female Willie Nelson have a fire crotch? Does the red-headed stranger have a red snatch patch?
Well c’mon, I gotta have some secrets. (Laughs.) I’ll tell ya, though, I don’t cross-dress a lot. And my voice is kinda lower than most, so I don’t think I could get away with that. I don’t have anything against anybody. I’m not prejudiced in any way that I can think of. That’s just not the guy I am.
You once claimed that marijuana is better than sex. You’ve either been having terrible sex or smoking some really, really, really incredible weed. Which is it?
I don’t think I ever said that marijuana is better than sex. If I did, I must’ve been really fucked up. But no, I don’t think I ever said that. Marijuana is a nice high, but that’s about all you can say about it.
You got stoned on the roof of the White House in 1978. Not that we’d ever try it, but if we happen to be in the White House and we happen to have a fat Austin torpedo on us, how do we get up to the roof?
Oh god, it’s been too many years. It’s kinda hard to tell you on the phone. I’ll send you a map.
How’d you even find your way up there the first time? Did you just make a lucky guess?
The fella that I was with knew his way around, so I didn’t ask any questions. I just followed him.
Now that there’s a Democrat back in the White House, it’s probably safe to light up again. Have you gotten the call from Obama yet?
Not yet, but I’m expecting it any day. Next time I see him, I’m gonna ask if there’s a new way up to the roof that I should know about.
You’ve got your very own flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. What’s the THC content on that?
It’s high. I’ll just say that. It’s very, very high. It’s the equivalent of eight pounds of Oaxacan.
Yeah, you need to be careful with this stuff. It’s a lot. One bowl at a time.
Bruce Robison wrote a song called “What Would Willie Do?” Given your history, don’t you think it’d make more sense to ask, “What Would Willie Not Do?”
I think so, yeah.
Not everybody’s liver is as durable as yours.
It’s funny you said that. There was a guy who worked for me named Poodie Locke. He was my road manager for 35 years, and he died just a few weeks ago. I hated to lose him. There’s a picture on my ice box of Poodie I’m looking at it right now, and it says “What Would Poodie Do?” I crossed off “What Would” and wrote in “What Didn’t“. But I guess that applies for me too, doesn’t it?
That’s an excellent question. What haven’t you done yet? Hand-gliding? Gator rasslin’? Hunting men for sport?
Well I don’t know. I’ve tried to do as much as I can, but every day has something new. That’s how I like it. I’m always surprised to find out that there’s still so much left to do. I may have to wait till tomorrow to see what it is, but I know there’s some things out there I haven’t done.
So you’re telling us you haven’t tasted the sweet nectar of human flesh?
Can’t say that I have.
Despite your hard-living, you seem as healthy as ever. What’s your secret?
Well, here’s the thing. For a long, long time, I had to spend my days trying to recuperate and recover from all the bad stuff I did at night. I’d wake up in the morning and think, “Well, how much fun did I have last night?” Because I had to spend the entire day trying to make up for it. After awhile, I just got tired of it, and I just quit abusing myself so much at night. It made my days easier.
I’ve heard that you enjoy jogging. How did you discover that? And were you being chased at the time?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But no, I’ve always been a big jogger. I like to run and ride my bike and swim. I’m also into martial arts. I’ve always been an athlete, ever since I was a boy. So it’s not unusual that I’m still doing it. Despite my reputation, I really do enjoy things that are good for me.
You recently earned a black belt in Taekwondo. Under what circumstance would Willie Nelson kick somebody’s ass?
Probably under no circumstances. A guy who really knows martial arts doesn’t have to kick anybody’s ass. He knows when to just get out of the way.
You have a reputation for carrying guns in public. Are you packing right now?
No, no, I don’t carry guns anymore. It’s not necessary. I don’t know if anybody else in my group does. There might be one or two guys, like some of the security guys, but I don’t know. I never really ask. But not me, I have no use for a gun anymore.
I find that vaguely depressing. The guy with the nickname “Shotgun Willie” doesn’t have an arsenal of firearms strapped to his hip? What about your guitar? Isn’t it named Trigger?
Well yeah, but Trigger was a horse. Trigger was Roy Rogers’s horse.
So your guitar can’t also be used as a weapon? I was hoping it was a James Bond kinda thing. If the audience starts getting mouthy, you could just mow ’em down.
No, I’m afraid not. Trigger is just my horse. It’s not a weapon at all.
In the mid-60s, you briefly gave up music for pig farming. Do you still keep a few pigs around the house for inspiration?
Oh yes. You know there’s nothing prettier than a pig. Have you ever seen an ugly pig?
I can’t say that I have.
I guarantee you’ve never seen an ugly pig or an ugly bulldog. There’s just something about them that just turns me on. (Laughs.) I’ve got pigs all over the house.
Do you take your pigs on tour with you?
Absolutely. I’m always on tour, so I never get rid of them. I just keep pigs in the back of the tour bus. Have you ever heard of pigs in a blanket? Well, you ain’t ever seen nothing like these pigs. (Laughs.)
You wrote a book called The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes. What’s the dirtiest joke you’ve ever heard?
Hmm. (Long pause.) See, my idea of a really great dirty joke isn’t something you can share with everybody. You gotta watch yourself.
Come on, you can tell us. We won’t judge you.
Well, one of my favorites goes something like this…. A kid asks his mama, “How come you’re white and I’m black?” And she says, “Honey, from what I can remember of the party, you’re lucky you don’t bark.”
Wow. That is good. But you’re right, probably not for everybody.
You gotta be careful. Not everybody can appreciate a funny goddamn joke.
In the 1979 comedy Electric Horseman, you said, “I’m gonna get myself a bottle of tequila and one of those Keno girls who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Thirty years later, are those still words to live by?
Well, there are a few things these days that I don’t crave as much anymore. I can get along without Tequila. And it’s hard to find chrome trailer hitches these days.
(Long pause. We both burst into laughter.)
I think I hear what you’re saying. If given the chance, you wouldn’t turn down some private time with a Keno girl?
(Laughs.) Ooooh the Keno girls, I do love ’em. I’ll sing ’em a song.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)