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Willie Sings for Jimmy

Nelson serenades Carter for upcoming TV special

September 14, 2004 12:00 AM ET
Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy may be the most famous president/musician buddy combo, but there is no more unusual pair than Willie Nelson and Jimmy Carter.

What could the world's most famous pot smoker have in common with a Sunday School teacher? Plenty, according to Carter, and that's why Nelson took a detour down Georgia's pecan tree-lined roads last Thursday to spend the day with America's thirty-ninth president. Friends since Carter was the governor of Georgia some thirty years ago, the two toured Carter's boyhood home in Plains, ate a down-home meal at Mom's Kitchen, discussed crops (cotton, not pot) and reminisced about the days when they were young enough to jog five miles together. The day ended with Nelson performing a free concert for the town's 635 residents (and about 2,400 others from the county). At the show's end, Carter and his wife Rosalynn joined Nelson onstage to sing "Amazing Grace" and "Georgia on My Mind."

In front of Plains High School (Carter's alma-mater), Nelson -- who releases his new CD, It Always Will Be, on October 26th -- performed standards such as "Crazy", "Nightlife" and "On the Road Again", as well as his recent Number One duet with Toby Keith, "Whiskey for My Men (Beer for My Horses)." Throughout the day, a camera crew followed the two legends to film a Country Music Television special, "CMT Homecoming: Jimmy Carter in Plains," that will air in December.

"He and I grew up in cotton fields," Carter says. "When we were both teenagers, we did blacksmithing. We shoed horses and mules, and we picked cotton. We both came from a small town . . . Our beliefs are basically the same, although we have some differences. I've been a partisan Democrat, and Willie performs for everybody in the world -- both Democrats and strange people like Republicans."

Nelson adds, "I've always admired and respected President Carter . . . President of the United States is a hard job, and I don't know why anybody would want it. But, fortunately, some people are brave enough to take it on, and he did a great job. So far, he's my favorite president."

While Carter was in the White House from 1977 until 1981, Nelson occasionally slept over. The two would discuss music and politics, and then Nelson would slip away to smoke pot on the roof. During one of Carter's most important moments, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Nelson was there to serenade him with "Georgia on My Mind." Soon after Carter left the White House, Nelson played a local benefit concert for Plains. "We've used those funds for the last twenty years to improve the quality of our town," Carter says.

The former president also half-jokingly credits Nelson's music with helping him govern. "When I was in trouble in the White House or when I wanted to have some deep thoughts, I had a very high quality hi-fi player, and the number one thing I played was Willie Nelson songs," Carter says. "All the good things I did as president, all the mistakes I made -- you can blame half of that on Willie."

Nelson recently returned to guitar playing after taking time off to heal carpal tunnel syndrome, and he looked healthy and relaxed throughout the day. And did he behave himself in front of the president? "Of course," Nelson says, "Twenty-four/seven."

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