Free Willie

Reports of Willie Nelson’s exquisitely lined face someday gracing Mount Rushmore might be exaggerated. But then again, maybe not.

Over the course of his nearly five-decade career, this American legend has managed to become an astounding number of things to an astounding number of people.

He’s been called a mystic, a sage, a guru, a shaman. One rumor has Nelson healing the sick with the mere touch of his hand. Emmylou Harris, expounding on Nelson’s mysterious powers, once described an “aura that radiates out of him — you can feel it even after he’s left the room.”

But forget such ethereal, New Age stuff. Nelson’s worked tirelessly on behalf of struggling American farmers since he co-founded Farm Aid — a mega-concert that’s been staged 10 times since its inception in 1985, raising more than $14 million dollars for Midwestern farmers.

Then there’s the 65-year-old, four-times-married Nelson’s most legendary role: unabashed outlaw. Busted for pot (only once, amazingly — considering his famously unapologetic propensity for the stuff); busted by the IRS, to the tune of some $32 million in back taxes (Nelson struck a deal for a smaller amount, sold most everything he owned to come up with the cash, and put the whole shebang behind him); and busted early on by the Nashville music establishment for his waist-length hair, “hippie” headband and, especially, his eclectic blend of country, pop and blues that didn’t fit into that ultra-conservative town’s “hit” formula. His music and rebellious stage persona — along with his good buddy and fellow outlaw Waylon Jennings — proved, of course, to be a visionary venture that sparked a revolution and paved the way for such crossover superstars — and unlikely Nelson benefactors — as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, not to mention setting the stage for today’s “alterna-country” craze.

Oh, and one more thing. His obsessively favored hobby is golf. Can you picture Nelson — red pigtails flowing beneath his favorite weathered cowboy hat — amid pastel-clad, immaculately groomed putters on pristine, country-club courses? Neither can he. That’s why he built his own golf course, which fronts his recording studio just outside Austin.

Yes, Nelson is as contradictory as America itself. Perhaps that’s why Americans have embraced him with such possessive vigor.

He was born in 1933 in tiny Abbott, Tex. — a cotton-farming hamlet that no longer exists, subsumed by the suburban spread of nearby Waco. His guitar-playing grandfather bought Nelson a $3 Sears & Roebuck guitar when the boy was 6, and threw in a free music lesson, to boot. At age 7, the budding musician was writing tearjerker tunes inspired by Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and even Frank Sinatra, and singing in church and at family gatherings. By age 10, Nelson was a pro — playing in the colorfully named John Raycjeck’s Bohemian Polka Band, along with his sister, Bobbie (who still plays keyboards with Nelson in his famous, longtime band universally known as “The Family”).

Nelson did a short stint in the Air Force in the mid-’50s and worked as a disc jockey (his opening line for a daily show on Forth Worth’s KCNC was, “This is your ol’ cotton-pickin’, snuff-dippin’, tobacco-chewin’, coffee-pot-dodgin’, dumplin’-eatin’, frog-giggin’ hillbilly from the hill country”) and door-to-door Bible salesman to pay the bills while he honed his formidable songwriting skills; the first song he sold, “Family Bible,” fetched him a whopping $50 back in 1956. A move to Nashville in 1960 found him penning such monster hits for other musicians as “Crazy” (Patsy Cline) and “Hello Walls” (Farron Young). But Nelson’s Nashville house burned down in 1970, and he moved the family back to Texas. It was only after returning home — and shedding his then clean-cut image — that Nelson’s career as a performer began to take off.

A deal with Atlantic Records produced Shotgun Willie in 1973, finally exposing Nelson-the-singer-and-guitarist to a larger audience. But it was 1975’s Red Headed Stranger — a concept album marked by sparse production and simple instrumentation (flouting then-current Nashville standards) — that catapulted Nelson to stardom. The album’s crossover hit “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” garnered Nelson the first of a string of Grammies, and Stranger became the first million-selling country album, kicking off a country-music revolution. Nelson has recorded some 213 albums to date — and, in pursuit of a later-found calling, has starred or appeared in seven movies. His most famous screen appearance was 1980’s Honeysuckle Rose; most recently, he appeared in the eerily prescient political thriller, Wag the Dog.

Nelson’s latest release, Teatro (Island Records, 1998), could well be his greatest masterpiece. Produced by sonic genius Daniel Lanois — whose recent successes include Emmylou Harrris’ Wrecking Ball and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind — the disc was recorded in a cavernous old Mexican-movie theater in Oxnard, Calif., in a record four days (the meticulous Lanois generally spends months on a release). Teatro — a shocking and brilliant departure for Nelson — is a stark, atmospheric ride through a sometimes-spooky, south-of-the-border-tinged musical landscape, marked by heavy, oddly hypnotic percussion and Nelson’s plaintive, soulful vocals, blended — on 11 of the disc’s 14 tracks — with the smoky, pitch-perfect harmonies of Emmylou Harris. Musicians as disparate as Cyril Neville; Latin-tinged rock percussionists Tony Mangurian and Victor Indrizzio; Lanois himself on bass and Les Paul guitar; Nelson’s sister, Bobbie, on Wurlitzer keyboards; and longtime Nelson cohort Mickey Raphael on bass harmonica populate the disc. Old Nelson songs from the ’60s, like “I Never Cared for You” and “My Own Peculiar Way” are interspersed with new Nelson-penned tunes and covers like Gypsy jazz-guitarist Django Reinhart’s “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour.” With Teatro, Nelson once again showcases his ability to transcend musical barriers with seemingly effortless ease.

At an age when many musicians are recording career retrospectives and trading their tour buses for quiet county manors, Nelson still tours approximately 250 days each year and still exclusively plays his ancient, battle-scarred Martin guitar — replete with holes and signed by a who’s who of music greats.

The following are excerpts from a phone interview with Nelson from — where else? — on the road, somewhere in Minnesota:

MX: In many ways, Teatro seems like a real departure for you, because it was so spare and moody and haunting. … Did you see the work as a natural progression, or did you intentionally set out to do something really different than anything you’ve done before?

WN: Well, I really had no idea what it was going to sound like, because I’d never worked with Daniel Lanois before. But I knew that he’d done some great work with Emmylou … and with U2 and Dylan, so I decided to go with it and see what came out.

MX: What do you like most about the end result?

WN: I think the total overall sound … it’s like you say, it’s such a departure from what I usually do, that gives the album its own personality, and the songs inside there are done with unusual kinds of arrangements, so it sort of puts a different light on those songs. Even the old ones you may have heard before become completely different songs. I think [Lanois] really put a new face on it all.

MX: A lot of the so-called “alternative” country bands name you as their biggest influence. What do you think of that?

WN: Well, first of all, I think it’s always a compliment to be liked by the young guys. There’s a lot of good young musicians out there who can play anything from rock ‘n’ roll to country to classical. And they get together in garage bands around the country, and they come out with some of the best sounds in the world. It’s strange, sometimes, to the ear, if you haven’t heard what the young minds are thinking, but it’s all very healthy.

MX: That outlaw image that people like you and Waylon started cultivating in the early ’70s seems like a really risky venture — in Nashville, anyway, at that time. Do you feel like that image still sort of defines who you are musically and personally?

WN: Actually, at the time I didn’t think it was really that risky, because we weren’t getting anything done or getting any attention anyway, so we really had nothing to lose. Nashville wasn’t opening doors in front of us and there were no red carpets. So we were just doing what came naturally and doing what we knew how to do — with or without [the Nashville establishment], really. We tried it their way for a little while and couldn’t do it: It wasn’t us.

MX: I know that Redheaded Stranger became the first million-selling country album and sparked this whole sort of revolution — and renaissance, really — both for you and for country music. What was it about that album that really struck a chord with people or that they really connected with?

WN: I don’t really know. I think that, at the time, there were a whole lot of young people listening to music, period. And we managed to infiltrate the young people a little bit in the places that we played in various parts of the country, like the Armadillo World Headquarters in Texas [a legendary rock club], and so forth. … And what we were doing was a little bit on the edge — and, again, not necessarily what the folks in Nashville were looking for. But the kids recognized it as being free, independent music, and that’s what they’ve always liked.

MX: I think there are a lot of people who may not realize that you wrote these mega-hits for other people, like “Crazy.” How did it feel to have your songs go on to become such huge hits for other people when you were trying to have your own success, singing and recording your own songs?

WN: You know, you’ve got mixed emotions about it. You’re really happy that some dollars are coming in, and you’re getting some recognition as a songwriter. All that’s very nice and very good. On the other hand, I played guitar and sang and I wanted to do that also, and I had to wait around for a while to get to be able to do that with any kind of major success at all. But that’s OK, because the songs were doing good, and I was still doing the same thing then as I am now. The crowds just weren’t as big as they are now.

MX: Was the impetus for your move from Nashville back to Texas after your house burned down partly because Nashville just wasn’t as receptive as you would have liked them to be?

WN: Sure, that was part of it. … I was already working a lot in Texas and had actually stopped playing at the Grand Ole Opry because I couldn’t afford to come back there every Saturday night. I’d be down in the middle of Texas or Oklahoma or Arkansas somewhere, and the rules of the Grand Ole Opry, said in those days, if you were a “regular,” you had to be there 26 weeks out of the year. So I just had to drop out: I couldn’t afford it. It was kind of a geographical thing, too. I knew that I could make a living in Texas and the surrounding states, and I wasn’t quite sure whether I could continue to travel around the world with a six-piece band. We were spreading ourselves thin. So I decided to pack up and go back home and see what I could do.

MX: What does it feel like when people call you a legend and an icon? What do those words mean to you?

WN: It means I’m gettin’ old. [Laughs] There are very few young legends. [More laughter] If you live one day beyond this particular deadline, then all of a sudden you’re a living legend. [laughs uproariously], instead of a dying something or other.

MX: What career accomplishment are you most proud of?

WN: Farm Aid.

MX: What was your initial impetus to create Farm Aid?

WN: I spent all my young life working on farms and ranches in Texas, around Abbottville County. It was a farming-and-ranching community, and I was a hired hand or a farm worker or a cowboy, or whatever you want to call it. And it was a long time before I ever owned any property myself. But I always thought, ‘Boy, this is what I want to do one day — get some property and be a rancher.’ And I knew there wasn’t a lot of money to be made, but it was a great way to make a living, a nice way to raise your family and feed them great organic food out of the garden and all that good stuff. … It was a great way to live, and I loved it. But as the years went by, I got away from it. But I was listening to a concert called “Live Aid” … and Bob Dylan said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if some of this money could help American farmers?’ So I asked some of my friends in Texas and they told me things weren’t bad there yet, but it was really rough in the Midwest. One thing led to another, and I was doing a concert at the Illinois State Fair, and the governor was a friend of mine, and we were having a beer on the bus and a bowl of chili — it was kind of a ritual thing with us — and I asked him about the farmers. And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s been kind of rough around here.’ So I said, ‘If you’ll find us a building, we’ll do something and call some attention to the problem.’ So he got us the venue there in Champaign, Ill. … The problem still exists, but at least we’re contributing.

MX: When you won your first Grammy in 1975 for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” did that change the way you viewed yourself, since it sort of symbolized the acceptance of the mainstream music community?

WN: I think there was sort of a feeling of success and that I was being accepted for what I did, and there was a certain amount of gratification there.

MX: Are you still enamored with being on the road so much? What’s great about being on the road?

WN: Well, it’s a pretty good life. You work two hours a day. [Laughs.] And you ride around in the bus the rest of the time. It’s not bad.

MX: Of course, I know little bit about your political views on certain things … [Nelson breaks in with laughter] so I wanted to ask you, what do you think are one or two of the most outrageous or unfair laws American citizens have to abide by right now?

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