Willie Nelson just returned to the top of Billboard‘s Country chart with Band of Brothers, his first Number One album in nearly 30 years. It’s just another accomplishment to add to the pile — after all, in his 81 years on this earth, Nelson’s done just about everything. . . and lived to tell about it.
In the new issue of Rolling Stone, he’s looking back at his career while still moving forward, with a never-ending tour schedule and plans for another new album, December Day. So in celebration of a life well lived, here are five Willie Nelson stories that are so amazing, they actually might be apocryphal. But like the old saying goes, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
The IRS Tapes T-Shirt Incident
You’re probably aware that in 1990, the Internal Revenue Service hit Willie with a $32 million bill for delinquent taxes – one of the largest ever served to an individual. After months of negotiating, Nelson and the IRS struck a deal: He’d release a compilation of demos, outtakes and stripped-down tunes – appropriately titled The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? – to help pay down his tab.
The only problem? Turns out he was much better at dodging taxes than he was selling albums. During a promotional appearance on PrimeTime Live, Nelson wore a T-shirt with the number “1-800-IRS-TAPE” printed on the front, though, as fans who called soon discovered, that number actually belonged to a Salt Lake City-based company called Visual Technology. Luckily the owner of that company decided to let Willie lease his number so as to not disrupt the fund-raising campaign. Sales of the IRS Tapes would generate a reported $3.6 million, which eventually helped Nelson get square with the taxman.
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The Time He Survived a Plane Crash
This according to Willie’s pal, promoter and scratch golfer Larry Trader:
“Willie was flying in to the landing strip near Happy Shahan’s Western town that they used for the Alamo movie set. Happy is watching the plane coming in, knowing Willie is on it. The plane hits a big chughole in the strip and flips over on its side and crashes. Happy likes news and publicity, you know, so first thing he does is pick up the phone and call the radio stations, the TV, the newspapers. Happy says, ‘Willie Nelson’s plane just crashed. Y’all better hurry.’
“He jumped in a Jeep and drove out to the crash to pick up the remains. And here comes Willie and his pilot, limping up the road. The media people were arriving by then. They started firing questions at Willie. How did he survive? Was he dying? Was he even hurt? Willie smiles and says, ‘Why, this was a perfect landing. I walked away from it, didn’t I?'”
The Nine-Hour Sex Marathon (with Somersault)
During the depths of his tax issues, Willie also had other problems: Namely, a $50 million lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged he promised to marry her. . .and also claimed that the two had sex for nine consecutive hours, a marathon that was consummated with a backward somersault with her still attached. Naturally, the tale quickly became the stuff of tabloid legend.
In a 1991 Rolling Stone interview, Willie’s first told his friend Kinky Friedman that it was “the only true story written about him,” though, when pressed, he hedged a bit:
“I’m not saying it didn’t happen,” he told Friedman. “It might’ve. But you would’ve thought I’d remember at least the first four or five hours.”
The “Shotgun Willie” Shootout
Willie’s a peaceful guy these days, but that wasn’t always the case. For example, consider his response after learning that his daughter Lana was being assaulted by her husband, Steve:
“I ran for my truck and drove to the place where Steve and Lana lived and slapped Steve around. I told him if he ever laid a hand on Lana again, I would come back and drown his ass. No sooner did I get back to Ridgetop than here came Steve in his car, shooting at the house with a .22 rifle. I was standing in the door of the barn and a bullet tore up the wood two feet from my head. I grabbed an M-1 rifle and shot at Steve’s car. Steve made one pass and took off.”
Of course, for reasons unclear, Steve came back for more. And Willie was waiting.
“I ran out the garage door. Steve saw me and took off. That’s when I shot his car and shot out his tire. Steve called the cops on me. Instead of explaining the whole damn mess, the beatings and the semi-kidnapping and shooting and all, I told the officers he must have run over the bullet. The police didn’t want to get involved in hillbilly family fights. They wrote down what I told them on their report and took off.”
The incident earned Nelson the nickname “Shotgun Willie,” also the title of his 1973 album. Of course, it wasn’t the only time was caught in a shootout back in the day. There was also an infamous gun battle in the parking garage of the Birmingham Coliseum, where Nelson kept the peace wearing nothing more than “cutoffs and tennis shoes” and a pair of Colt .45 revolvers.
The White House Joint Story
The Willie Nelson story to end all Willie Nelson stories. In 1980, he was invited to perform at the White House by then-president Jimmy Carter, then famously retired to the roof, where he supposedly smoked a joint.
Nelson’s been asked about the incident countless times in the decades since, and he usually plays coy – though he also admitted to it in his 2000 autobiography, Willie – and in the new RS cover feature, he splits the difference:
“Oh, that might be true,” he says. “I forget.”
And that’s the best thing about Willie Nelson: He’s lived such an epic life that he forgets the things most folks tend to remember.