'It's all cosmic': Willie Nelson talks God and pot
A mere 29 years after Willie Nelson was first booked for a keynote at South by Southwest, it finally happened.
The Texas icon's 40-minute conversation with journalist Andy Langer, which was taped in late February, was the top draw of Wednesday's SXSW Online programming. Nelson spoke via Zoom from his ranch just west of Austin about subjects ranging from family and friends to farmers and weed to poker and dominoes — and, of course, music.
Nelson missed his 1992 keynote when his bus didn't get back in time for the morning speech, but he played a show at Auditorium Shows that evening. On Wednesday, his answers were generally short and simple, but insightful.
Asked about how he knew when he'd written a good song, he replied: "I know what I like, and I have to trust what I like as being good. And so far, that’s the way it’s been. I trust my opinion.”
There's plenty of evidence that his opinion has long been on-target, of course. Willie wrote the American standard "Crazy" 60 years ago, and kept his momentum for decades with songs such as "Bloody Mary Morning," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" and "On the Road Again."
Asked about being OFF the road for an entire year, Willie admitted that it's been "really tough" but stressed that he knows it's been hard for all his fans, too. He added that his tour bus was parked just outside, and that "every now and then, I go and sit in it, just to pretend I'm going somewhere."
He'll turn 88 next month, but when asked about his very first performance, Willie remembered it like it was yesterday. "I was about 5 years old, and my grandmother had dressed me up in a little white sailor suit, short with red trim," he recalled of his childhood years in Abbott, just south of Hillsboro.
"I had a poem I was going to recite. but I started picking my nose, and my nose started bleeding all over over my suit," he continued. He persevered, and finally recited his poem: "What are you looking at me for, I ain't got nothing to say. If you don’t like the looks of me, you can look the other way.”
Langer noted that Nelson's older sister Bobbie, who Willie said "knows me better than anybody in the world," had written in their recent dual memoir "Me and Sister Bobbie" that Willie always had a wandering spirit. So where did he wander when he was a kid?
"I’d wander off down toward the barn or out to the cornfield," he said. "The next thing I’m over by the railroad tracks, and the next thing I’m catching a freight train over to Hillsboro.”
Nelson, who co-founded the organization and concert series Farm Aid in the 1980s, saved some of his most eloquent words for defending American farmers who have struggled during the pandemic. Texas farmers took another hit with last month's winter storm, one reason Willie is taking part in Sunday's star-studded livestream fundraiser organized by Matthew McConaughey.
“They’re in a terrible situation," Nelson said. "They always were on the bottom rung of the economy. First of all, with out the farmers, we don’t eat. So they’re very important. They haven't been treated as important, and they should be.”
More nuggets of Willie wisdom dropped along the way:
"What I believe is that God is Love, period. Love is God, period. You can't have one without the other." And: “It’s all cosmic. I’m not responsible for anything I do."
On his pastimes, and how they help him:
"I’m hard to beat at dominoes. Anybody can beat me at chess and golf. I do all right at poker. … I think it's important to do things that make you think. Because with your brain, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Whatever you need to do to challenge yourself, do it.”
On how he keeps his temper at bay:
"I smoke a lot of pot. It keeps me from killing people, or keeps me from getting killed!"
On giving and taking advice:
"I always tried to remember some advice that an ex-father-in-law of mine gave me. He said, 'Take my advice, and do what you want to.'"
On politics and ethics:
"I think you have to ask yourself, 'What do I feel? What do I really believe?' And then live that way.” And: "I hope everyone out there is independent. Whatever they want to be is cool with me. As long as they like 'On the Road Again,' we can be happy.”
As for when Willie will be on the road again: His website shows a few dates in April and May that may or may not still happen, followed by some shows in October (including at New Braunfels' Whitewater Amphitheater). The guiding principle for Willie, he says, remains the safety of his audience.
"I don’t want to do a show anywhere at any time where there's a danger of someone getting sick" he said. "So that’s going to have a lot to do with when I get back to work.”