A soldier the size of an oak tree stands in the Texas heat, sipping from a red plastic cup of warming beer. He tells me his name is David. His intimidatingly huge tattoo of a shrieking bald eagle and waving American flag on his equally massive bicep suggests David leans conservative. But he's reluctant to admit this to me. The reason may be that I'm one of the few black faces at a country show in the rural exurbs of Austin. David assumes we'll disagree, politically. After he enjoys another swallow of beer, David seeks common ground. He happily confides this is the first time he's ever seen Willie Nelson perform live. He and his girlfriend have driven across Texas to see this show.
We're at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack. It hosts Formula One races, and just like Texas it's a big open space. Under the high sun and thin clouds, a hot, hollow wind whips across the track. Throughout the early afternoon, the music emanating from multiple stages gets caught and garbled by sudden gusts of air. If you've never been down in Austin in July, it's hotter than the Devil's balls. The heat forces people to huddle together in small spots of shade. Any direction you look, strangers share the cool.
Thousands of fans––both brand new and diehard––traveled here, like David, for Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July picnic. There are American flags everywhere. You spot flags on the sweating cans of domestic beers. They decorate T-shirts that stretch across the bellies of fans, they unfurl and sag under the heft of a breast suspended by a tank top and nothing else; as a bandana, a flag holds back the hair of a blonde boy. The unmistakable skunk smell of pot wafts through the crowd, lacing the event with a hippie vibe. Meanwhile, families gather on picnic blankets on the grass. Baby-boomer grandparents huddle with grandkids in the stands of seats. They clap along together to an opening act. It's proof that as much as things change, some things stay the same. Budweiser wets the smiles of sun-baked fans whose shoulders are already the color of cooked lobsters. But they don't care about the sun. Not today. They're eager to see the outlaw country legend take the stage.
Behind a food truck, on her break, a young black woman smokes a cigarette. We nod and smile like two travelers lost in a strange land. Her name is Crystal Banks. Twenty-five years old, she's come from Daytona to work this event to raise money for her non-profit group back in Atlanta, Georgia–Soul Kids. She travels all over America selling food at concerts. Her face is proud. You sense what she does matters to her. When I ask her about the show, Crystal admits she's not super excited to see Willie perform. But she likes that he smokes pot. She credits Willie as a leading advocate for legalization. Like him, she's dedicated to social justice. Crystal mentions her active involvement in #BlackLivesMatter. It excites her about our future: the idea everyone can come together and change. Like a missionary for his music, I attempt to explain why Crystal may really enjoy Willie's songs. She listens, says she'll check out his show.
Whether it's disdain for the corniness of modern country music or the constant search for something new, lots of millennials fail to appreciate the legendary Willie Nelson. Yet the dude is a musical treasure—and a uniquely American one at that. Like, have you ever heard "Crazy" by Patsy Cline? Willie wrote that. You know his most famous song, "On the Road Again"? He was starring in his first Hollywood movie. They needed a song for the film. Chatting with the producer on a flight, Willie wrote the lyrics on an airline vomit bag. (Not the way most people would use a vomit bag while talking with a Hollywood producer.)
His songwriting conjures deep emotions with often simple phrases. Consider his song, "Funny How Time Slips Away." He sings about the perpetual slip of time, the long leash of memory. But rather than languish in sadness, Willie relies on perspective to see the tragic nature of life as something that can be painfully funny. He's like a zen cowboy singing the blues. The song is so relatable that Elvis, Al Green, and The Supremes all covered it. Check how he changes the definition of time. First it's proof of a lover's bond; then, paradoxically, it becomes a way to be released from love's grip.
How's your new love
I hope that he's doin' fine
I heard you told him
That you'd love him till the end of time
Well you know, that's the same thing
That you told me
Seems like just the other day
Yeah, ain't it funny how time slips away
As a singer, Willie boasts one of the most immediately recognizable, soulful voices. Fellow country legend Loretta Lynn says, "you can't miss who he is when he starts singing. That's what makes an artist." And no doubt, Willie is a great artist. Check the complicated moral world of his album Red Headed Stranger for proof of that.
Willie loves to stay behind the beat, literally singing to the sound of his own drummer. His phrasing is as emotionally evocative as Sinatra's. His playing is loose, like Django. His voice can make you ache, or laugh—sometimes in the same song. At South By Southwest in 2014, Lil Wayne said in a keynote interview, "I wanna just be remembered as 'Man, that nigga was cool. He did great ass music and that's who he is. Period." His example of what that looks like, "You know what I mean? Like a… a Willie Nelson."
Still performing at 83 years old, Willie Nelson seems most at home on the road, in front of a crowd, sharing music with his fans. But over the years Willie's expanded his creative pursuits. He's appeared in 40 films. He's written nine books. His latest one, Pretty Paper, tells the story of his beloved Christmas song of the same name. He's been a longtime force for philanthropy, raising millions with his annual FarmAid concerts. He's also started future-minded business ventures like his biodiesel company called BioWillie. And after his decades-long advocacy for marijuana legalization, he has his own brand of recreational marijuana called Willie's Reserve. With California passing Proposition 64 to legalize recreational marijuana––which many believe will prompt a change in federal law––Willie Nelson, known for his occasional pot bust, looks to be the rare outlaw who's lasted so long the law will eventually change to accept him. He's a rare one, all right. He's also one of our best examples of an American.
Standing backstage, waiting for his tour bus to arrive, I chat with his manager Martin and his PR rep Elaine. They both mention how you can't help but feel this "Willie effect" when you meet him. Elaine says that he's one of those rare human beings: More so than meeting the president, you feel something very special about Willie Nelson. The people close to him all say the same thing, that just being around Willie makes you want to be a better person. Even those never lucky enough to meet the man can sense this quality. Whether Republican or Democrat, red state or blue, everyone loves Willie. His voice, his songs, his easy country charm—these all remind us of our better selves.
When Willie steps out of the back room of his tour bus, he smiles. It's Willie fucking Nelson. Martin does the introductions. Shaking hands, Willie's grip is powerful. His arms are long and strong. His clean-shaven face is speckled with a day's growth of short white fuzz that dusts his cheeks and chin. Over his shoulder, as he sits down at a table with me, is a framed cork board filled with a mosaic of his family photos. There's so much to take in. But mostly, you want to focus on his face––his famous grin, as it lifts with a mix of mischief and playful curiosity. Willie gets comfortable. His grin spreads wider. He's ready to answer some questions. He's heard them all.
Noisey: You're 83 years old, and you stay busier than most 30 year olds. How many shows do you think you'll play this year?
Willie Nelson: Oh I don't know, uh… I don't really count them. ( Laughs)
What keeps you out on the road, year after year?
We enjoy playing, and the crowds keep coming, and they enjoy our music. So long as they keep coming, we'll keep coming out here.
You've been to every single Willie Nelson show there's ever been. What keeps it special for you?
Fortunately I have a short-term memory. ( Laughs)
You once said the best advice you ever heard was from a guy who told you, "Take my advice: Do what you want to." Would you say that's pretty much been your life philosophy?
Pretty much. As long as you aren't hurting anybody else.
You can't interview Willie Nelson and not talk about marijuana.
You got some?
Honestly, I had to fly here from California and couldn't bring any on the plane.
Yeah, I know how that is.
Do you still smoke every day?
Hmm, let's see… um, yeah! ( Laughs). I had to think about that. Yeah, I do. (Laughs harder).
Even famous people love to say they've smoked with Willie Nelson. Like, for rappers, it's legit street cred to say they've smoked with you. So, let's flip it. Who's your favorite celeb you've ever smoked with?
Oh, I don't know. Snoop. He and I are… real good friends.
What about Kris Kristofferson?
Yes… He and I used to burn 'em down. ( Laughs)
There's a story you once smoked pot on top of the White House. And I've always wondered: How did you get up on the roof?
That short term memory loss makes it hard to remember. I don't exactly remember how I got up there. I did notice that all the streets come at you from every direction when you're up on top of the White House.
What is the view like from the roof of the White House?
It's like you're at the center of the world.
You've said you never thought you'd live to see legalized marijuana. And now you own a brand of your own recreational pot called Willie's Reserve that you can legally sell in states like Colorado. Do you ever get tired of knowing what's best for America and having to wait for everyone else to catch up?
(Laughs hard) Yes! But, fortunately, the world does catch up. Like, even the farmers are realizing they can do pretty good with organic farming, and the farmer's markets are doing pretty good. People are realizing they can buy from the local farmer without having their breakfast trucked in from 1500 miles away. So, yeah, I think people are getting educated, and they're concerned about what they eat, what they drink, what they smoke. I like to think we're getting a little bit smarter.
Since you tend to be on the right side of history before it happens, what do you see on the horizon for the next ten to 20 years? What's exciting you? What's giving you hope for America?
Well, I think fortunately we're not in control. The Earth is going to do what it wants to do—with or without us. We're just kind of along for the ride. I think we should be more concerned about how we treat it. Just as self-defense, if nothing else. Because if the Earth don't like you, your ass is gone. If the planet thinks you're a flea biting it on the foot, there's a little earthquake and you're out of it. The Earth is going to be all right.
"I don't think I'm that deep. I just hope I remember 'Whiskey River.' And if I forget the words, I can always just play an instrumental. That's where Trigger comes in."
On a sunnier note, a lot of millennials have gotten into vinyl over the last few years. What legends of country music—like Bob Wills, Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline—should millennial record collectors get to know?
Those are all good. I'd mention Hank Williams, Ray Price, Vern Gosdin. These are guys from the early country music days. Bob Wills is good. Ray Pruitt. Charley Pride.
You named your guitar Trigger after the name of the horse of your favorite singing cowboy hero, Roy Rogers.
Do you think sitting in a theater watching all those white hat cowboy movie serials as a little boy imprinted you with the basic notion that the universe arcs towards justice? You know, the way it did in those 30s and 40s cowboy movies?
I think they taught right and wrong. Obviously, they simplified it to the point the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. That's over-simplifying it, but it made it simple enough that a young kid growing up who liked to ride a horse and shoot a gun and sing a song and play a guitar, he could relate to Gene (Autry), or Roy (Rogers), and those guys.
Trigger has been kept alive with decades of work from a luthier, at this point, how long have you and Trigger been together?
Oh, I don't know. Fifty years, maybe.
Willie's manager: Coming up on 65 years.
How do you relate to your guitar at this point? Is it like as soon as you feel it in your hands you're ready to make music?
Willie Nelson: Well, I don't think I'm that deep. ( Laughs hard) I just hope I remember "Whiskey River." And if I forget the words, I can always just play an instrumental. That's where Trigger comes in.
You specifically picked Trigger—a classical-style guitar—so you could sound like your favorite guitarist, Django Reinhardt.
I've just always really liked Django's sound. His playing is incredible.
The looseness of that gypsy sound seems to match your free-wheeling spirit.
Well, you know, Billy Joe Shaver wrote a song about me called "Willie the Wandering Gypsy."
Great song. What are some of your favorite ones by Django?
"Nuage" is a great song. "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight" is a great song of his. In fact, I think I'll play that one tonight.
You and Waylon Jennings had a special friendship. It sure seemed like you guys had a ton of fun when you were off the stage. What's one of your favorite memories of Waylon, a story that doesn't involve music?
One that doesn't involve music? That would be difficult. We once did a movie together. Stagecoach. It was John (Cash), and everybody, Kris (Kristofferson). It was a real good time. We all enjoyed it. We got to build an old west town, pick together, ride a horse, just have fun.
You were also close friends with Johnny Cash. The dude's an undisputed country legend. What's one of your favorite memories of Johnny? Something no one else knows about him.
Well I don't know what everyone else knows. All I know is we toured the world together. Did a couple of world tours together. Every day, I was amazed at how straightforward he was. And how he stayed on the path. How he stayed Johnny Cash. All the way. He always did what he wanted to do. And he always did it well.
Like you, Johnny Cash was a man with a strong sense of social justice. He fought for prison reform. He fought against prejudice of every stripe. He was an activist for Native American civil rights. Both you and Johnny Cash have always looked out for the oppressed, the struggling, the ones ground down by society. In Johnny's case, he'd likely say it's the Christian thing to do. But that attitude is falling away in American culture. Why do you think so many American Christians forget their Christian values as soon as we're talking about a national crisis like refugees?
I don't know. I don't think it's just Christians that forget about their faith–
Oh definitely. I don't mean to pick on Christians. That habit of forgetfulness goes across the board.
Yeah, I think it does. We all have a tendency to get fat and lazy and forget where we come from and how it used to be and how other people are going through what we used to go through.
In the 80s you ran into serious money trouble. Your accountants tanked your books, didn't pay your taxes for years, and you wound up owing Uncle Sam $16 million dollars. But rather than declare bankruptcy, like most rich people would, you struck a deal with the tax man and said let's make some albums. You called them The IRS Tapes: Who Will Buy My Memories . It's a great story, but why did you do it?
I do not believe in bankruptcy. I would never do that. Because I don't want people going away and saying I screwed them out of some money. That's not what I do.
When the IRS auctioned off some of your possessions that they'd seized, your fans showed up, bought all your stuff, and then unlike most fans they gave it all back to you. How did that moment feel for you?
Well, you know, there have been a lot of moments when I felt like the richest guy in the world. That was definitely one of them.
Sure some of those fans weren't necessarily well-off; they were likely making sacrifices, spending money that was needed in their own lives, but they wanted to give it to the iRS for you.
Absolutely. (He grows quiet, seemingly humbled at the memory) It's nice to know there's still good people out there who want to take care of you and themselves and each other. And that we're all concerned about each other. It's back to the old adage: Treat other people how you want to be treated.
I spoke with a lot of your fans before the show; nearly everyone of them mentioned the generosity of your spirit. How do you stay sensitive and open in a world that can be so brutal?
Well, really it's a selfish thing. I feel good doing it.
"A certain percentage of people... believe the worst in everybody and like to hear about it, and they think we ought to go around the world making other people do what we want them to do, and I don't believe that way."
Do you have a secret to feeling good on those days when you don't feel good? Like, do you have any personal mantras, little things you tell yourself?
Shut up… is a good one.
You've always been a very spiritual person. Although you're never overtly religious. At this point, what is your relationship with God? Are you believer? And if so, how do you imagine God?
I do believe there is a higher power. I believe that somebody put this all together. It didn't just happen one morning. So yeah, I have my own experience of and relationship to a higher power that I feel that pretty much knows what I'm doing and if I'm doing something wrong I pretty much feel it.
Like the little voice inside?
Yeah. I definitely say it's a feeling. And a belief that there is a higher power. That you're not the only thing.
Back in 2012, when Roseanne Barr ran for president, she asked you to be her vice president and you said yes. How did that come about?
I was drunk. (Laughs really hard) And I sobered up the next day and I was like, fuck this. I have to get out of this race. (Laughs hard)
If only more politicians had your wisdom. Now we have Donald Trump running for President. His candidacy isn't seen as a political stunt. He's the Republican nominee for President. [And will go on to win the election.] What do you think has gone wrong in America that we've come to this—that millions of people are willing to accept and or support Donald Trump as the leader of the free world?
I think there's always been that element. I'm not sure what the percentage is but a certain percentage of people who believe the worst in everybody and like to hear about it, and they think we ought to go around the world making other people do what we want them to do, and I don't believe that way.
You have a new book out, Pretty Paper . It's the story of your Christmas song of the same name. As far as your creative process, when you sit down to write a story is it a much different process than when you're writing a song?
Well, it's much easier to write something that you don't have to rhyme. (Laughs)
You like to say that sometimes you'll get in a car, start driving and a song will come to you. Do you find that it helps you to be moving?
I think it helps me. I don't know about anyone else but for me if I really wanted to write a song, like real bad and real quick, I think I could jump in a car and take off down the road and come back in a hundred miles and I'd have a song—maybe an album!
You seem to have a lot of fun as an actor. Which one is easier for you—acting or songwriting?
Well, naturally songwriting is what I do. For me, it's hard to do the same thing twice. That's where acting is a challenge. You've go out and do it over and over and over again. The same tempo, the same way, the same expressions. And that can get boring.
One question about Hollywood versus Nashville: Which executives are worse to deal with
The ones who don't agree with me. ( Laughs)
In a career as long as yours, what makes you feel the most pride at the day-to-day level?
Oh I don't know. The music is always important. If the crowd comes out to hear some music and we play it for them then I think you've completed the contract. Everybody's happy. And then you go away and do it again tomorrow night.
Thank you for your time, Willie. Nice talking with you.
It was nice talking with you. (A mischievous smile lifts his cheeks) Do you wanna burn one?
Willie turns, slides open a drawer, lifts out a green plastic tube. He pops it open and pulls out a pre-rolled joint from his Willie's Reserve. He grins, lights it. A soft cloud of pot smoke fills the tour bus. In the distance, you can hear the waiting crowd cheering his name. They'll have to wait. Willie takes another long pull on the joint and passes it.
That's how you roll when you're Willie Nelson. Long as no one gets hurt, you always do things your way. And the world loves you for it.
Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage
Illustration by Nicholas Gazin. Follow him on Twitter.
Zaron Burnett is a roving correspondent for Playboy and freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He's currently finishing his first novel. (But they all say that.) Follow him on Twitter.