A classic Willie Nelson portrait

Happy 87th, Willie Nelson!

April 30, 2020
5 mins read

GARY STEEL celebrates Willie Nelson’s 87th birthday today by reaching back to an interview he conducted with the legend in 1981.


Willie Nelson – mentor, legend

“I think first of all you really have to believe in what you’re doing, and once you’re convinced you’re right in what you’re doing, then I don’t think you should ever allow anyone to sway you off that path.”

This strong advice comes courtesy of Willie Nelson, at 47 one of the richest and most popular entertainers in America.

And yes, there are many very popular entertainers in America, but not many pot-smoking, country and rock’n’roll and blues playing, pig-tail and jeans-wearing, thrice-married ones.

Willie’s huge crossover hit, Stardust

Willie continues: “Each individual knows more about himself than any other person in the world, including the family doctor. A person knows more about what’s better for him than anyone else in the world, and you have to follow these instincts. And if you instinctively think you’re right don’t let anyone change your mind.”

Nelson states this philosophy with the candid, self-sure conviction of one whose life has been mostly an uphill struggle – a struggle only now reaping the rewards of success. But his craggy, aged features mirror the disillusionment and heartbreak of formative failures.

Nelson’s story begins in Abbot, Texas (population 375) in April 1933. He was six months old when his mother left home and he was raised by his grandparents, who taught him the rudiments of guitar playing.

Willie always seems to have had that “aged” look

After graduating from school, Nelson served in the Air Force, studied agriculture and business at university, sold used cars, peddled Bibles door-to-door and dabbled in many other professions.

Not until his second marriage in the late 1950s and a move to Nashville did his career gather momentum. His ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ has been recorded by over 80 different artists including Presley, Sinatra and Aretha Franklin.

Unfortunately, his sophisticated songwriting and reedy voice did little to appease an industry entrenched in producing the slick formula, sugary Nashville sound.

Nelson says of this period: “There was no way to reach the people except through the industry. Record-wise you had to deal with record companies before you could reach the people.

“On the other hand, we had been playing to the people by way of night clubs and personal appearances, so it was one of those cases where I felt that I knew more about what the people wanted to hear than the record company because I was out there with ’em every night.

“And the record company executives were sitting behind their desks making decisions about things that they really didn’t know much about. And they’re probably still doing that to a certain extent all over the world.

Willie as a younger man

“I think they should get off their backsides and get out there and listen and see what the people are actually going to see at night.”

Nelson’s turning point came when in 1970 he started working out of Texas and playing to rock music audiences.

“I more or less grew into that audience, I think, or they grew into me, or it was a kind of growing together.

“The younger people seemed to be more openminded about what they would listen to. It got to the point where the older people didn’t want to listen to rock’n’roll, but the younger people, who had been listenen’ to it for years were broadminded enough to branch out and listen to country. So I think the young people have a lot to do with bringing together country and rock.”

During the early to midi-1970s, Nelson gained new audiences with country-rock album masterpieces such as Red Headed Stranger and Yesterday’s Wine. He also formed his own record label, Lone Star Records.

A classic Willie Nelson portrait

“The Lone Star label is kind of inactive at the moment. The reason that I started it was to give some artists that I know a chance to go into the studio and do their own sessions and record themselves the way they thought they should be done.

“Maybe when some more talent comes along that I think needs exposin’ I’ll reactivate the label and get it started again.”

The Outlaws album Nelson recorded with Waylon Jennings in 1976 was the biggest selling Nashville album ever, and from this point, his success has snowballed.

Over the last few years, Nelson has kept up a daunting tour schedule of 200 to 250 gigs a year, as well as releasing an eclectic range of albums and inaugurating a successful film career with Honeysuckle Rose.

His album of pop standards, Stardust, virtually made him a household name in New Zealand, where it clocked up triple platinum (15,000 sales).

The Outlaws collaboration found a new, younger, rock oriented audience

Although he has enjoyed recording his recent, predominantly collaborative efforts, he says: “I think it’s time I did some things on my own again. I’m going into the studio on 1st March – my own studio – we’re just building it and it should be ready by the time we get back off this tour. And I’m doing another album there with the whole band, all original songs. These are all new songs.”

Aside from this, Nelson has just finished shooting a Western movie called Barberosa and has released a new album of old standards, recorded with Django Reinhardt styles, Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

Has his sound changed over the years?

“I don’t think so. I think my own sound has maybe with age grown older. Some of the musicians that I’m using are playing a little more progressive type music than the musicians of the ’50s and ’60s. I’m still sounding the same way but with a little heavier rhythm. I come out sounding maybe a little more blues or rock’n’roll than country on some songs.”

The admiration with which Willie is held is understandable

It is somewhat surprising to find that this mass-accepted hero of mums and daughters alike, guest of the White House and winner of numerous prestigious awards, is something of a renegade in some respects, one of which is smoking marijuana.

“I would like to see it more publicised. I would like people to really know about it rather than guess about it. I would like there to be a complete, and I really mean complete, investigation of it, because there are people spending their lives in prison over it, young people who are spending jail terms and having their reputation marred for life.

“People should look at it for what it is, judge it for its own merits and not throw it in with a batch of other questionable items that should be illegal, like heroin and things like that, that are obviously harmful for the mind and body.

“I don’t think it’s right that they should be thrown in the same category as marijuana which so far they have been unable to prove harmful.

“They’ve proved that cigarettes are harmful, they’ve proved that alcohol is harmful. They’ve proven a lot of things… sugar.

“I think they should allow themselves a little more investigative time and look into it before they start condemning it.”

Willie before he grew his hair

Of his forthcoming concert, Willie Nelson says: “Our shows run somewhere around two to two and a half hours so we’re able to do a lot more at a concert than we can really put on an album. We do ballads, we do uptempo songs, country, pop, rock’n’roll, old standards and new songs. We mix it up and doa  lot of different kinds of music.”

* I was only 22 when I interviewed Nelson and I wish I’d been more experienced and bold and able to ask him more interesting questions. I’d also yet to learn that you need to put something of yourself into stories. The sum total of my describing his voice is ‘reedy’, which is pretty sad given how much people love what he does with his limited vocal apparatus. Oh well. My late mother, who was a huge fan of Stardust, was really shocked by my story’s admission of marijuana use. At the time she was totally against its use, but later, her attitude towards it softened. I’ve never had the opportunity to have a rematch with Nelson but over the years, I’ve noticed that he’s one of the few artists you never hear anything bad about. The story was published by the Evening Post, Wellington on January 21, 1981. 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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