Willie Nelson at 85: A Visit With the King of Night Life
“What else we got?” Willie Nelson asks. He’s sitting with his famous battered guitar Trigger at his recording studio, located on the Cut ‘N Putt golf course he owns in Spicewood, Texas. He’s deep into a session of Frank Sinatra covers for a future tribute album. Nelson’s producer Buddy Cannon has given him plenty of chances to call it a day (especially because the singer was up until 4 a.m. playing poker), but Nelson keeps asking the control room to cue up more tracks. At one point, last night’s poker guests – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – pop in, but even they can’t distract Nelson. “We’ll let you focus, Willie,” Harrelson says with a smile, leaving the room.
Nelson remains focused as he reaches his 85th birthday, which he celebrates on April 29th. He’s still sharp: “Sometimes I forget lyrics to new songs or whatever, but normally I can remember them pretty good,” he says. During a break from recording, he says the Sinatra release is actually a ways off; before that, he will release an album of new songs, Last Man Standing, his 19th new album of the last decade, and the continuation of his most prolific writing kick since the Seventies. After Last Man Standing, he will reissue his 1973 gospel album The Troublemaker, with songs, like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which still close his live show.
“I want to re-release that one before the Sinatra album, to give me a chance to finish it,” he says. Nelson also still maintains a touring schedule that puts younger acts to shame, playing about 100 dates a year, two weeks on, two weeks off. The reason for the workload is simple. “I just enjoy playing,” he explains, “whether it’s on the stage, here in the studio, or wherever.”
The new song “Last Man Standing” is a tongue-in-cheek rocker about Nelson’s conflicted feelings about his status as country’s elder statesman: “I don’t want to be the last man standing / On second thought, maybe I do / If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line and decide after thinking it through.” “I was thinking about Merle, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Cash – all those guys gone on,” he explains. “You kind of wonder [about death]. I’ve been around a long time.”
Nelson’s influence is often overlooked because of his image as a weed-smoking cowboy caricature – the guy who shows up in Austin Powers or admitting to Larry King that he’s stoned on the air. But he’s a lot more than that. He is the most unique and versatile country artist of all time – a cowboy singer with jazz phrasing, playing Django Reinhardt guitar licks on a beat-up classical guitar. In the same way Miles Davis is considered the quintessential jazz artist because he explored almost every iteration of the genre over 50 years, Nelson has seen through every chapter of country music – first as a radio host and honky-tonk bandleader in the Forties and Fifties, then as a slick crooner in Sixties countrypolitan Nashville, then as the face of the outlaw country movement, something that happened after Nelson moved back home to Texas, grew his hair out and stopped caring about the charts. Nelson shook his career up once again by recording the first standards album, Stardust, against his label’s wishes. It went quintuple platinum.
None of this is on Nelson’s mind as he sits down to start recording, his cowboy hat resting on his guitar stand, a vape pen and his iPhone on the table next to him. After the room clears out, Nelson’s cursing can be heard in the control room. “Goddamnit,” he says, “I spilled my fucking coffee.”
Nelson’s pace is only surprising because just a few months ago he was questioning whether he would play in public again at all. In January, he walked offstage in California and canceled two months of dates, retreating to his place in Maui. Fans feared the worst. “I had the flu for, like, three weeks,” he says. “And that wasn’t no fun. I was a little uncertain about coming back and whether I could still do a show – it had been so long.”
The first show back was in St. Augustine, Florida on February 27th. The band didn’t know what to expect. “Willie came out of the gate just smoking,” says his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. “We were all a bit nervous coming back out after so much time off, but the first night felt like we had never stopped playing. I couldn’t have been happier. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ye of little faith.’ He blew us all away and all we had to do was hold on.” Asked what was going through his mind, Nelson is less sentimental: “I was just trying to remember ‘Whiskey River,’” he says with a smile. “We did it then; we did three or four more good shows shows in a row, so I got my confidence back.”
The tour wrapped at the Luck Reunion, a mini-festival at Nelson’s home, a mock old-West town he had built for the 1986 movie the Red Headed Stranger. After a day that included Kurt Vile and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nelson’s ’94 pickup could be seen snaking down his long dirt driveway, past fields of horses, pulling up next to the stage. Nelson strapped on Trigger and led an audience through singalongs like “Crazy,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” (I wondered if Nelson had any reservations about opening his home to 3,000 fans, and he laughed. “Nah, that’s cool,” he says. “It’s a good place to play because it’s close to the house.”) Nelson noted that a lot of young faces had probably never seen him play before. He also had fun because he was joined by his kids, Lukas and Micah. “There’s no better feeling,” he says, “than having kids working with you and doing a good job.”
Nelson’s sons have had to reckon what it means to follow in the footsteps of a country legend. Lukas makes what he calls “cowboy hippie surf rock,” full of twang and occasionally even a Willie cover. Micah strays into stranger territory, making albums ranging lo-fi freak-folk to prog-metal with his various projects. I once saw him stun a New Jersey crowd while he was opening for his father with insane volumes and a guitarist who did contortions between arpeggios. Micah says it all makes sense if you listen to his dad: “He was doing things that really weren’t considered mainstream. Like to me, Red Headed Stranger [from 1975] is a punk record. In the context of what country music was supposed to be back then: very overproduced and shiny and rhinestones and strings. And he came out with Red Headed Stranger, the label thought it was a demo. He was just breaking down those barriers and fearlessly doing his thing. For me I realized at a certain point, I’m not gonna try to conform to what people might expect me to be doing because of my lineage. That would be dishonoring it. For me to fearlessly do my thing and just be myself – I can’t think of any other way to respect and honor his legacy. Because that’s what he did.”
By his own quick math, Mickey Raphael has played more than 5,400 shows with Nelson since he joined 45 years ago. The harmonica player is essentially the bandleader, and the biggest piece of advice he gives to musicians sitting is, “You have to watch him.” Nelson does not technically have a set list – though he always starts with “Whiskey River” and ends with a gospel medley – and he will routinely cut songs short, extend solos, or even repeat songs if he feels like it. “Every night is a gamble, like walking a high wire without a net,” Nelson says. Adds Raphael, ”If you’re reading a chart or singing or playing it by rote – you’re screwed.”
Kevin Smith, the band’s newest member, learned this lesson when he joined mid-tour, after the death of longtime bassist Bee Spears in 2011. A seasoned Austin bass player, Smith was “just jobbing around town” when Raphael called him at 8 a.m. one day, asking him to play the gig that night. “They weren’t terribly kind to me – they just did their regular thing,” Smith says. “And it went well and Willie walked past me and slapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Way to go.’ And that was pretty great.”
Smith spent the days on the road furiously learning songs only to have his lessons upended. “Willie would bust something out just to throw me sometimes, I think,” he says. “Sometimes I think he may be testing me. There are times when we’re playing and he’ll throw a curveball.” Smith struggled with one intro in particular, with Nelson and his sister Bobbie on piano soloing simultaniously. For Smith, it was hard to find the tempo. So he boarded Nelson’s bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, and asked him for advice. “I said, ‘Where do you want me to come in – should I listen to the piano, or listen to you?’ Smith says. “He just looked up for a second and said, ‘Just come in when you feel comfortable.’ And that’s the most advice or input I’ve ever gotten in my time with the band.”
Smith laughs. “I was talking to Willie one day about planning ahead when you’re playing And he said, ‘I know I’m doing good if I can’t remember what I’m doing.’ I think that’s a big part of his shows and who he is. When he gets out there, he really lets go of everything. I think he really goes into that other space that is fed by the music and fed by the energy and the people in the crowd, That’s where the really beautiful crazy accidents and lift offs and crashes come from.”
Other variables can affect Nelson’s performances too. He recently started his own cannabis company, Willie’s Reserve. Since he considers himself the “CTO” (Chief Tasting Officer), Nelson was trying out several strains before a show. This may be why, Raphael says, Nelson unknowingly re-started his set toward the end of a show. “We were three quarters into the show and he does ‘Stay all Night,’ which might have been the second song,” says Raphael. “He just lost his place. Then he does that by rote, so he did, like, the first 15 minutes of the show again. I didn’t tell him till he asked me. He said, ‘Have we done, ‘Good Hearted Woman?’ ‘Yeah.’ I don’t say anything unless he asks me.”
“He’s also 85,” says Raphael. “I’m surprised he remembers what he does without the dope.”
Mortality has always been one of Nelson’s least-favorite subjects. “He doesn’t talk about it at all,” says Raphael. “He didn’t go to Roger Miller’s funeral. He didn’t go to Waylon’s funeral. We just don’t talk about death around him, especially because a lot of his friends are punching out.”
So it was surprising when, during the sessions for Last Man Standing, Nelson introduced a new song, “Something You Get Through.” Nelson had sung about death jokingly on recent albums – on last year’s great “Still Not Dead” (“I woke up still not dead again today / the Internet said I had passed away”) or on another new song, “Bad Breath” (“Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” “Bad Breath”prompted critic Steven Hyden to observe, “Apparently, someone dared Willie to write a perfect, heartbreaking lyric about halitosis.”) Still, Raphael was unprepared for “Something You Get Through,” which begins:
“When you lose the one you love / You think your world has ended / You think your world will be a waste of life / Without them in it / You feel there’s no way to go on / Life is just a sad, sad song / But love is bigger than us all / The end is not the end at all / It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through.”
“I got chills,” says Raphael. “I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be a classic. I don’t care about any of the others.” Raphael left the studio, both to give Nelson space and because Raphael was raw from the losing of his longtime girlfriend to cancer. The lyric – “It’s not something you get over / But it’s something you get through” – was just the latest example of what Raphael sees as Nelson’s gift: “That’s his genius. That’s why he can write ‘Night Life and I can’t. I knew ‘Night life ain’t no good life but it’s my life.’ But I didn’t write it. He just sees things that are just there. You often can’t see the forest for the trees – sometimes things are so blatantly obvious and you miss them. He just knows how to look and see things.”
A few years ago, Raphael mined Nelson’s late Sixties RCA catalog – full of great songs Nelson wrote as his personal life fell apart – to produce Naked Willie, which took out the sappy orchestration and background vocals of the era. “I use Willie’s writing as a shrink,” Raphael says. “He’s a good place to go for comfort, or to see how he handles a situation. I’m able to tell him, ‘I needed some guidance, and I got it from your song.’ He’ll just raise his eyebrows. But he’s gone through so much – what, four marriages? I learn from his experiences and that he came out okay.”
Before he starts recording Sinatra songs in the studio, Nelson sits down with producer Buddy Cannon to talk with Nelson’s daughter Paula about Last Man Standing for a special that will air on SiriusXM’s Willie’s Roadhouse. Doing an interview with Cannon makes sense; they have made 12 albums together. Cannon has helped Nelson start writing new songs again. The two co-write almost entirely via text message. Nelson will send Cannon an idea from his bus, and Cannon will respond and help shape it. “We never talk – we just send sections back and forth,” says Cannon. “Whatever he sends me, I consider to be good. We never discuss changing stuff. It’s just fun.”
Paula asks how they wrote “Something You Get Through.” Cannon says that he was on Nelson’s bus one day and saw Nelson comforting a female friend who had lost someone. “She was crying,” Cannon says. “I remember her saying, “I don’t know how I’ll ever get over this.’ And Willie said, ‘It’s not something you get over. It’s something you get through.’ That stuck in my mind, and I carried it around for a couple years thinking, ‘That’s gotta be a song.’” Nelson, who was otherwise reserved throughout the interview, interrupted: “Let me tell you about the song and how it came to be.” He’d heard the refrain while having an emotional conversation with Dr. Gerald Mann, a pastor at the Riverbend Baptist Church in Austin who had married several of his children. “We were talking about death and divorces and things like that, and he told me, ‘It’s not something you get over, it’s something you get through.’ So I immediately ripped him off. I ripped off the Baptist preacher.”
Paula calls the entire new album “a middle finger to loss.” This leads Nelson to tell an old joke about how he wants to go out. “I kinda like the story that said, ‘When I die, I wanna go like my granddad did,’ ” he says. “Passed out in his sleep. Not like the other screaming passengers in the car.” He lets out a huge cackle. Paula has no more questions, so the studio clears except for Nelson, who picks up his guitar and gets to work.