Willie Nelson has had a pretty good summer. In June, he scored his first Number One country album in 28 years with Band of Brothers, and now he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time in more than 30 years (his last cover was in July 1978). We visited the 81-year-old in Luck, Texas, the Old West town he built for his 1986 film Red Headed Stranger, and got a rare tour of the cabin where he relaxes between his near-constant tours (at one point, he shows off his gun collection). In the story, Nelson discusses his six-plus decade career, from working as a Nashville songwriter to ruling the charts as the leader of the Seventies outlaw country movement. We also spent time with Nelson on the road – he tours close to 150 days a year – and interviewed more than 30 of Nelson’s friends, family and longtime band- and crewmembers about one of the most epic careers in music history. “I feel pretty good considering I’m supposed to be 81 years old,” he tells associate editor Patrick Doyle. “And I think working steady has a lot to do with it!” Here are just a few of the story’s major highlights:
Willie has been arrested for pot possession as recently as 2010, but doesn’t worry about getting busted.
“They mostly want autographs now,” Nelson says of the law. “They don’t really bother me anymore for the weed, because you can bust me now and I’ll pay my fine or go to jail, get out and burn one on the way home. They know they’re not stopping me.
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“Weed is good for you,” he adds. “Jesus said one time that it’s not what you put in your mouth, it’s what comes out of your mouth. I saw the other day that [medical] weed is legal in Israel – there’s an old-folks home there, and all these old men were walking around with bongs and shit. Fuck! They got it figured out before we did!”
Willie had a health scare recently, and George Clooney came to the rescue.
Nelson has been recovering from a torn rotator cuff, which forced him to cancel some shows. “I couldn’t play golf, and I could barely play guitar,” he says. His friend Clooney recommended a German treatment called Regenokine.”The doctor took some blood out and recharged it and made it with, like, 150 percent more healing power, then he stuck it back in there,” he says. “It really works. I’m in great shape.”‘
He doesn’t take the “outlaw country ” label seriously.
In 1975, Nelson ruled the radio with songs like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and his Waylon Jennings duet “Good Hearted Woman,” from 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws. On some level, Nelson knew that he was playing a part. “All of a sudden, we were outlaws,” says Nelson. “I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. And I tried not to disappoint ’em!”
“Everyone carried guns, everybody did drugs, everybody drank,” says Gator Moore, Nelson’s longtime bus driver, of that period. Some of the wildest parties happened during Nelson’s residencies at Vegas’ Golden Nugget. “We’d stay up for days,” says drummer Paul English. “Willie’s generosity with paying all the hotel bills led to some drinking excesses with the crew.” Adds Moore, “At one point, somebody figured out we were spending $80,000 a year on beer” – about a third of a million dollars today.
Maybe he didn’t smoke weed on the roof of the White House.
Nelson’s most famous outlaw moment came in 1980. After being arrested for weed possession at a Bahamas airport, he flew straight to D.C., staying in the Lincoln Bedroom at the invitation of a friend, President Jimmy Carter. “There I was . . . on bond, deported from the Bahamas,” he later wrote. “A few hours later, I was on the White House roof smoking dope.” Today Nelson is more cagey about the incident: “Oh, that might be true,” he says. “I forget.”
Nelson reflects on his 1990 IRS scandal; at one point he owed the government $32 million.
“We were afraid they were gonna come take the door receipts for taxes, so I quit playing for a while until we made the deal. I came out with enough to pay off the IRS, and I got even with those guys. But it was a long 16 years.” The ordeal hasn’t stopped Nelson from handing out financial advice to his friends: “I had blown hundreds of thousands of dollars in Vegas,” says friend Kinky Friedman of a recent conversation. “And Willie told me, ‘What I think you ought to do is mortgage your house, sell everything you have and play the slots. It’s what you like to do. It’s what you want to do.’ That was his advice.”
He was deeply affected by the death of singer Ray Price, his friend of more than 50 years who died in December at 87.
Price had recorded Nelson’s “Night Life” in 1961 and Nelson played bass in his band. They stayed close, touring with each other until 2007’s Last of the Breed tour. “He was my best friend,” Nelson said, as he got emotional. “He was kind of everything in my career. All the way back to when I first started writing songs for him, playing bass for him, he just kind of took me in and raised me.” The story also contains memories from Price from his last-ever interview, conducted days before the singer’s death. Price recalled one of his favorite Nelson stories, when Nelson called him on his birthday. “Willie said, ‘We’re waiting on you,’ Price recalled. “I flew in, and we cut a whole album. It was a big one, too. That’s the kind of cat he is.”
Also in this issue: Mark Binelli on the GOP’s fake border war, Stephen Roderick profiles Lizzy Caplan, Matthieu Aikins’ Last Tango in Kabul, an encounter with Tavi Gevinson, a special College Life section and more.
Look for the issue on stands and in the iTunes App Store this Friday, August 15th.