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A conversation with Willie Nelson: Austin icon talks about new album, book, SXSW and more

Willie Nelson's first SXSW keynote is set for Wednesday.

“It’s been exactly a year that I haven’t done anything, been anywhere.”

It’s almost impossible to fathom this quote coming from Willie Nelson, who’s done everything and been everywhere for the better part of his nine decades on the planet. But pandemics have no exceptions for living legends, which means the man who wrote “On the Road Again” has been off the road since March 4, 2020.

“We played the Houston Rodeo,” Willie says, bittersweetly recalling the last full gig he played with his band before the coronavirus pandemic took over the world. “We had 80,000 people there. It was one of the best shows of the year. I remember it well.”

Speaking by phone from Luck, Texas, the sprawling horse ranch about an hour west of Austin that has been his home base for decades, Willie is in good spirits on a late February afternoon. (It’s about an hour past 4:20, for what that’s worth.)

We have lots to discuss in our 15-minute window: a new album of songs that Frank Sinatra made famous, his first-ever South by Southwest keynote address, possible plans for an in-person Fourth of July Picnic this year, a new book written with his pal Turk Pipkin, and more.

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But first, we talk a little bit about the pandemic, and the toll it has taken. Willie wants to make it clear that he knows it’s been hard on everyone.

“I’m not the only musician who’s hating this,” he says. “There’s a lot of them out there, not only musicians, but everybody. Promoters, audience — everybody associated with music is really tired of this, and ready for it to go away.”

As for when that might be, your guess is as good as Willie’s. Check his website, and you’ll find four shows scheduled for April and May that seem questionable. But other dates in August — plus two October shows at Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels — feel more in reach.

“Well, you've got to be optimistic,” he says of the April dates, not giving up hope yet, even as he acknowledges the odds. “Personally, I’m thinking more about August-September.

“I know we set up Farm Aid for September 26, I think up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I think for sure by then we’ll be able to go out. Between now and then, I don’t know; we’ll have to look at it and see. I’d love to do them all, you know.”

Willie Nelson smiles as he takes in the crowd at an ACL Live concert in December 2018.

FARM AID BECAME a virtual event in 2020, following the lead of both Willie’s iconic Fourth of July Picnic and the Luck Reunion mini-festival, a newer tradition that’s taken place during the week of SXSW over the past decade. The Luck Reunion livestream was a ramshackle but remarkably enjoyable affair, especially given that it was thrown together in a matter of days after SXSW got shut down in early March.

Willie’s hard-working Luck Productions crew spent the spring honing their livestream skills with a series of large and small events before an ambitious Fourth of July Picnic that blended live performances at Luck with recorded submissions from luminaries including Lyle Lovett, Ziggy Marley and Margo Price.

LIVESTREAM PICNIC REVIEW:Willie Nelson reinvents July 4 bash online

The Picnic, which began in the Austin area in the early 1970s and then hopscotched across the state and country for several decades, returned home in 2015 for a five-year run at Circuit of the Americas. Nelson says he has no plans to move it out of the area in the future. He fully expects to bring it back as an in-person event, perhaps by this summer if the dominoes line up right.

“We might have it here in Luck,” he says, intriguingly. When the pandemic hit last March, a 2020 Picnic site had not yet been announced, so it’s unclear as to whether Circuit of the Americas may still be in the cards.

“Last year I threatened to not do the Fourth of July Picnic until December, but I was just kidding,” he says with a chuckle. “But we’ll see. We’ll take it a little at a time and see what happens. Hopefully we can do the Fourth of July Picnic (this summer), and then everything around that.”

READ MORE:The (almost) definitive chronology of Willie’s July 4th Picnics

Willie Nelson, shown here at his 2019 Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas, says he's hopeful about an in-person Picnic for 2021.

SXSW 2021 Keynote Address

IN THE MEANTIME, there’s the matter of the SXSW keynote, which is set for 1 p.m. on Wednesday and is open to official registrants only. It’s been 29 years since Willie was scheduled to deliver the event’s keynote in 1992, only to miss it when he was late getting back to Texas after an out-of-state gig. He did arrive in time to perform a hastily arranged free show at Auditorium Shores that evening as a make-good of sorts.

What does he remember about that day? “Not much,” Willie confesses. “I kind of remember that I was supposed to get there, and we couldn’t make it.”

South by Southwest director Roland Swenson recalled the day’s downs-and-ups more vividly in “SXSW Scrapbook,” published in 2011 (I was one of three editors on the book). When he got an 8 a.m. call that Willie wouldn’t make the 11 a.m. keynote, “I was too stunned to say much, except to ask if there was a chance he would appear later in the day,” he said.

Later, Swenson’s contact for Nelson invited him to visit Nelson’s bus at Auditorium Shores before the show there. “Climbing aboard, I immediately had a serious contact high,” Swenson wrote.

Willie was seated at a small table and reached out to shake Swenson’s hand. “I had no idea what to say, except to tell him, ‘We have the same birthday, April 30.’ Willie replied, ‘Then you must be a very stubborn man.’ … He smiled beatifically as we exited the bus. A few minutes later, Willie went out by himself and did a short, great set of songs as the sun was setting.”

Willie Nelson waves to the crowd during a 2001 Farm Aid event at Auditorium Shores. Nelson performed at Auditorium Shores during SXSW 1992 after missing the keynote he was scheduled to deliver earlier in the day. Nelson will be a keynote speaker at this year's online version of SXSW.

The 2021 keynote  will be in a different format than the solo speeches that were de rigeur back then. Willie convened remotely with local media personality Andy Langer for a conversation that was recorded ahead of time.

When I spoke with Willie, he wasn’t sure what he and Langer would talk about — or whether they might already have taped it. “I’ve got so many interviews,” he explains. “I may have already done it. Or it may be coming up in 10 minutes!”

I checked in with Langer a few days later, who confirmed that by early March, the keynote had been completed. “He was in storyteller mode — talkative, loose and funny,” Langer recalls via text.

Langer decided "to go a little broader than I usually do, specifically because it’s his first keynote and there’s an international audience that’s probably not read every Willie Nelson interview ever and wouldn’t know or care if it’s stuff Willie’s talked about before," he says. "I felt like scope, instead of digging hard for new takes, was more important for this one, though we do talk about COVID, the upcoming book and what post-pandemic life looks like."

VIDEO:Willie Nelson & Edie Brickell duet on "Sing to Me Willie"

Having the conversation virtually was not really a problem, Langer says. “I was worried going in that it was remote, but I think at this point in the pandemic, Willie and I have both done enough Zoom interviews that a lot of what makes those things feel so weird at first, we’d already worked out on our own.”

Zoom interviews have indeed become commonplace for Willie, who did one for NBC’s “Today” show just before last month’s storms. (He says he didn't lose power or water at his ranch but had a couple of pipes freeze.) Nelson joked with NBC interviewer Willie Geist about possibly taking up skydiving, but his wife Annie was in the room, just out of camera range. “She just said no,” Nelson relayed with a laugh.

When asked by Geist if he had any regrets about his career, he turned philosophical. “If I changed anything in the back, it would change where I am now,” he said. “And I really like where I am now. So I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Skydiving lessons

Skydiving lessons may be on hold, but Willie says he hasn’t had much difficulty keeping busy during the pandemic. “I’ve been lucky enough to be able to kind of do what I want to do — travel if I want to, but not if I don’t want to,” he says.

He’s not been to his residence in Maui, where he typically has spent the holidays in recent years. But he traveled to Los Angeles, where sons Lukas and Micah Nelson have been based as their careers with the bands Promise of the Real and Particle Kid took off during the last decade (along with their roles in Neil Young’s band).

And, Willie adds, “I’ve gotten into the studio a lot.” He and producer Buddy Cannon have been writing, gathering songs and recording tracks for a follow-up to last year’s “First Rose of Spring,” the latest of more than a dozen records Nelson and Cannon have made together since 2007.

The pandemic has meant relying on remote procedures, but that’s largely how Nelson and Cannon, who lives in Nashville, already had been operating for several years.

“The way Buddy and I work, he records in Nashville, with the Nashville musicians,” Willie explains. “He puts his vocals on there, a scratch vocal. He sends them to me down here at my studio, and I go in and I put my voice on there. It’s really easy to do that way.”

The way they write follows a similar model. Cannon told me in a 2017 interview that it’s “the strangest way of songwriting I’ve ever heard of: We write the whole lyric via text, and then we’ll figure out the melody later.

“We’ve never sat down and held a guitar and written a song. We’ve talked about trying that, but neither one of us want to mess up what we’ve got going.”

Producer Buddy Cannon in the studio with Willie Nelson, years ago.

CANNON ALSO JOINED Willie and co-producer Matt Rollings for a second tribute set of Sinatra songs that came out last month. “That’s Life” follows 2018’s “My Way,” which won a Grammy in the traditional pop vocal album category.

The two albums came from two different sessions. I asked Willie if he knew when they were making the first one that they’d do another so soon.

“Naw, we didn’t,” he says. “We were just glad to get one out there, and thought it was sounding pretty good. And then it sold real good and got a Grammy.

“I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and it wasn’t that hard to come up with more songs to do for a second record. The record company wanted one, so we said, ‘Why not?'”

REVIEW:Willie Nelson salutes Frank Sinatra with 'That's Life'

He might not be done with the Sinatra songbook. “Oh, there’s several hundred (songs) I haven’t done, and I loved everything he did,” Willie says. “It wasn’t hard to pick out the first album, it wasn’t hard for the second, it wouldn’t be for the third, either.”

Sinatra has such a strong identity as a singer that doing albums of songs he sang almost necessarily requires a distinctive voice. Willie certainly fits the bill. When the two shared a bill in Las Vegas in the 1980s, Sinatra reportedly said that Nelson “can sing my stuff, but I don’t know if I can sing his.”

Willie’s greatest claim to fame is as a songwriter of American standards such as “Crazy” and “Night Life,” and he’s also widely respected for his inventive, jazz-informed guitar style. I asked him if he’s always felt his voice also was part of his identity as an artist.

“I think I realized pretty soon that some people liked my singing,” he says. “And maybe some people don’t, but that’s cool. Enough of them seem to like it that it’s kept us pretty busy.”

Book collaboration details

Also keeping Willie busyduring the pandemic was a book project with Austin entertainer and entrepreneur Turk Pipkin, with whom he collaborated on the 2006 book “The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart.” Their new “Letters to America” is due in June from Harper Horizon.

“Turk and I are old buddies and we’ve done a couple of things together,” Willie says. “I always have a lot of fun doing it. Somebody wanted a book, and I said, 'Well, let’s see if we can give them one.' And I thought Turk did a good job.”

Turk Pipkin with Willie Nelson at SXSW in 2013.

“Letters to America” is different from last year’s “Me and Sister Bobbie,” a biography of his lifelong ties to his older sister and longtime pianist Bobbie Nelson, and 2015’s memoir “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” both of which he wrote with author David Ritz.

Via email, Pipkin reports that this one “is a more personal book and is essentially pure Willie. We wrote the book during the pandemic, by text, email and phone. The long text exchanges gave me lots of opportunity to ask questions about his life, and for Willie to tell me great stories that had never come up in 40 years of friendship.

“Working remotely presented some challenges. It would have been fun to be playing chess and dominoes while we were working, but I think the book was made stronger by both of us having so much time to devote to getting it right.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with Willie at concerts, on television, film, fundraisers, magazines and books — and with every project. I’ve been more and more astounded by his talent as a great writer, an incredible musician and a wonderful human being who always manages to carry love in his heart.”

Austin360 On The Record:Willie Nelson salutes Frank Sinatra with 'That's Life'

SXSW Online is here

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic canceled South by Southwest. This year, the festival has reimagined itself as SXSW Online, March 16-20. Austin360 will be covering all the big-name panels, emerging films and up-and-coming music acts. Find the latest news and our critics' picks at austin360.com.

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