In the 100-degree heat of a Texas afternoon, hundreds of Willie Nelson fans make a pilgrimage to see their prophet, priest and king, in a particularly unassuming spot — Carl’s Corner, an interstate truck stop on a dusty plateau between Austin and Dallas. The stop, and the town to which it belongs (pop. 134), is presided over by Carl himself, a wheezy, unkempt Santa Claus with nine fingers — a rattlesnake has the 10th — and a knack for schemes to separate truckers from dollars. He tried a swimming pool, 24-hour restaurant, wedding chapel and strip club before turning to his good friend Willie Nelson, who had a notion that might work — and also help save the planet: a biodiesel station. Two years and several million dollars later, a large stainless-steel plant run by Pacific Biodiesel rises mightily behind a new wood-paneled juke joint, to supply the 14 gleaming pumps in front with 8,000 gallons of biodiesel per day. The stop is now named Willie’s Place.
In the typical Willie way, the scene is chaotic at today’s 10 hours of concerts by Willie and friends — including Ray Price, Johnny Bush and David Allan Coe — with cowboys patting pockets for drink tickets and bum-rushing a bullet supper. Yellow caution tape has been run around all the pumps, which, it turns out, aren’t yet hooked up to biodiesel. “Oh, they’ll get around to putting it in those pumps for folks eventually,” says Willie, grinning a bit. Though his face is deeply creased, his brown eyes a little cloudy and his beard and eyebrows completely white, the cosmic cowboy-Buddhist is dressed today like a kid at play: black T-shirt with the sleeves cut oil, worn black slacks and gray New Balance sneakers. Age has made him even mellower than he used to be, say bandmates. He’s become almost pathologically attached to surrounding himself with positive vibes, but there’s a hitch: Willie likes to stir up trouble. In fact, the more things that go wrong, the happier he is.
“A lot of Willie’s life operates on the chaos theory, which doesn’t often happen in entertainment — or happen artfully in entertainment,” says Joe Nick Patoski, author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, a biography of Willie. “He’s a lot more complex a person than people give him credit for, and it’s a complex world around him. But he’s been very good about sailing above it all by sticking to what he does.”
What he does, first and foremost, is work. Willie, who has sold more than 50 million albums in his lifetime, has been busy with many projects this year: In addition to lending his support to causes like Myanmar relief, he has kept up his long-term work with Farm Aid and equine-rescue outfit Habitat for Horses; a collaboration with Wynton Marsalis; a co-authored Western novel; as well as an appearance in the 2008 Toby Keith film Beer for My Horses, a cameo in Snoop Dogg’s song “My Medicine” and a new song for an upcoming film, Tennessee, with Mariah Carey. In February, he is releasing an album of Western swing songs with Asleep at the Wheel. In fact, he’d like to rerecord a lot of his own work. “There’s songs that I’ve had, good songs, that never got their due,” he says, nodding his head firmly. In March, Naked Willie, an album of Willie’s recordings on RCA from 1966 to 1970, without the strings and schmaltz, produced by his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, will be released. “For the album cover,” says Raphael, “Willie took a picture of himself with his iPhone while he was in the bubble bath, and sent it to me.”
Yes, Willie has an iPhone.
The hardest work of all — or the most fun — is touring. At 75, Willie travels about 200 days a year with the “Family Band,” a group that includes his 77-year-old sister, Bobbie, a pianist. Though he gets the occasional bout of heatstroke, he tries to stay in shape on the road: He bikes, practices yoga and bowls on his Wii with his teenage sons, Lukas and Micah, a guitarist and a percussionist who tour with him in the summer.
“I’ve heard that lots of senior-citizens centers are getting Wiis, because it really does work,” Willie says, eyes glittering with excitement. He leans in. “You know, most 75-year-olds already decided to hang it up a long time ago. I would never be in that mind-set, because I enjoy what I’m doing. As long as I’m healthy, I’ll never leave the road — well, if people stopped showing up, that might be a reason to quit it. But I’m watching people like B.B. King, or Ernest Tubb, who toured until he died. I’m not ready to quit.” He juts his chin forward. “I’m not ready to die, either.”