When federal agents raided Willie Nelson‘s home on November 9, 1990, they weren’t looking for drugs. Instead, the feds were intent on seizing most of Nelson’s worldly possessions — including his recording studio, instruments, memorabilia and more than 20 properties in four different states — to help pay off the whopping $16.7 million he’d racked up in back taxes and penalties. The only thing they didn’t get was Trigger, Nelson’s favorite guitar, which had been spirited away from the home several days earlier by his daughter, Lana.
Nelson wound up using Trigger — and nothing else — to record his next album, The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, an acoustic collection of new songs and old standbys. Released in 1992, the album’s profits went straight to the IRS, which helped Nelson finally dig himself out of debt. More than two decades later, he’s still playing Trigger (a Martin N-20 classical guitar that’s as weathered and mellow-sounding as its owner), as well as “Who’ll Buy My Memories?,” which makes a revised appearance on the upcoming album December Day.
Due out on December 2nd, December Day finds Nelson teaming up with his sister and longtime bandmate, Bobbie Nelson, for a mix of re-recorded greatest hits, deep cuts, cover songs and new originals. The project was borne from a string of casual jam sessions aboard the country legend’s tour bus, the biodiesel-fueled Honeysuckle Rose, where he and Bobbie — armed with Trigger, a travel-size keyboard and a musical chemistry that dates back to the siblings’ childhood days in Abbott, Texas — have a long history of regrouping after shows to play their favorite songs. The two rustle up the laid-back, stripped-down vibe of those bus sessions in a live studio performance of “Who’ll Buy My Memories Again?,” which makes its premiere today exclusively on Rolling Stone Country. [Watch above.]
“A past that’s sprinkled with the blues / A few old dreams that I can’t use,” Willie sings at the song’s outset, punctuating certain lines with jazzy, out-of-time runs on Trigger’s beat-up fretboard. Bobbie accompanies him on grand piano, and the pair’s performance is intercut with grainy footage of their hometown, including churches, crops, the Abbott water tower and endless expanses of blue Texas sky.
Twenty years ago, “Who’ll Buy My Memories?” felt like a kiss-off to the IRS, which sold Nelson’s repossessed belongings to the highest bidder. [In a touching display of support, many of Nelson’s fans purchased those belongings and then donated them back to the original owner.] Today, with Shotgun Willie nearing 82 years old, the song is a poignant reminder that everyone — even one of the country music’s most enduring icons — is mortal. After nearly 70 studio albums, Nelson is focused less on sticking it to the (tax)man and more on highlighting the things that never really die: family bonds, memories and the music that glues them all together.