Jack Johnson may have once lost a handful of cash to Willie Nelson in a stoned poker game, but he doesn’t hold a grudge: in fact, he showed up at Saturday night’s tribute, Willie: Life & Songs of an American Outlaw, to salute his idol (and apparent card shark) with a performance of “Willie Got Me Stoned.” Taking the stage solo before a surprise appearance from Sturgill Simpson, Johnson played the tune he wrote before Farm Aid in 2015 and released, appropriately, this past 4/20 on the deluxe edition of his last LP, All the Light Above It Too.
“This next song right here, it’s got three chords in it and it’s a true story,” Johnson told the crowd as he introduced the song. Rolling Stone had a chance to talk with the Hawaiian singer-songwriter minutes before the show began about Nelson, the importance of eco-conscious tours and how he’s leaving Nashville with a little bit of Steve Earle in tow.
“Willie is a friend,” Johnson says, “and somebody I have always looked up to.”
Clearly Willie Nelson is an artistic inspiration of yours, but how has Willie inspired you in terms of thinking about every aspect of your touring — like making sure to keep your environmental impact as low as possible on the road?
In a big way. Willie is one of the people who made me start to think about the impact of my touring. When I heard he was powering his bus with biodiesel, back during the first times we even had a bus, and then finding out we can run them off of biodiesel, and then sustainable biodiesel as opposed to just anything in the world, all the things he had been doing for a long time, it was really inspiring. And it got us thinking and making sure the people who were opening for us, that maybe we can inspire them to make little changes when they are running their tours in the same way that Willie inspired us.
You have never felt the need to base your career out of a major entertainment hub like New York, Nashville or Los Angeles. Has the way that Willie eschewed Nashville and made his home in Austin, even when it wasn’t the “practical” business choice, helped you feel more secure in your decision to stay Hawaii based?
Yeah, for me that part was more natural — I grew up pretty far away from a hub, just being in Hawaii. And the style I always saw was just uncles or aunties playing a guitar in the corner with no stage or anything, no fancy lights. I think, if anything, it would make me overthink it to be so near the industry. I like to forget about that part when I am writing. It’s fun to come around [to cities like Nashville] though, when the record is done. But I always have to take a break from writing when I am on tour, because it’s too apparent that the songs will be performed. I kind of have to almost trick myself that they are just for my friends again, when I write them.
Are you writing now?
I have been, since I have been off tour for a little while. I’ve been writing some songs, yeah.
Willie released two albums in 2018, in his eighties. Do you hope to be doing the same 40 years down the road?
Yes and no. It is inspiring, but whether or not I’ll still be doing it, I kind of look at my dad who was the same thing as Willie, but with surfing. Surfing is my first love and I hope to still be surfing at that point and maybe not touring. But I love that Willie does it. And maybe still be making records. That would be nice.
An impossible question perhaps, but do you have a favorite Willie Nelson song?
Earlier I was saying “Always on Mind,” and that’s such a beautiful song, I heard it again just the other day and was thinking about how it’s got to be one of the nicest sentiments out there. And then, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” I played that with Willie once with Ben Harper. It was one of my favorite musical memories, ever. And I like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” That’s a real nice one, too [laughs].
We heard you made quite the score at Carter Vintage Guitars [a Nashville instrument shop frequented by Jason Isbell, Sadler Vaden, Brothers Osborne and Molly Tuttle among others].
Oh, yeah. I got a new guitar that was Steve Earle’s old guitar. And I got a chance to run into him backstage, and we got to talking about it. He started checking it out and making sure they had the right knobs on there and everything. It was fun to hear stories about his recordings and using it. It was really cool to have him bless it.
Willie: Life & Songs of an American Outlaw will air sometime in 2019 on A&E.