Willie Nelson once tried to smoke weed on the roof of the Texas governor's mansion
On Thursday, Willie Nelson will celebrate his 88th birthday by delivering a 4:20 p.m. keynote address to cap off his new cannabis conference, Luck Summit: Planting the Seed. Nelson, author of the ode to funny cigarettes, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” has long been an outspoken cannabis advocate. In recent years, he has also become a successful cannabis entrepreneur.
The conference kicked off on April 26 in a virtual version of Nelson’s Austin-area Luck Ranch. Its primary aim is to destigmatize cannabis culture. For three days leading up to Nelson’s closing remarks, his in-house production team has hosted a series of keynotes and panel discussions covering everything from legislative policy to glaring inequities within the cannabis industry.
Tuesday’s programming included a session titled "Country & Cannabis: A Contextual Retrospective of Willie Nelson’s Weed History." Hosted by Abdullah Saeed and David Bienenstock of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History," the panel included Nelson’s longtime friend, documentary filmmaker and author Turk Pipkin, and John Spong, writer and host of Texas Monthly’s “One By Willie” podcast.
The hilarious discussion was loaded with colorful details about the relationship between Austin’s patron saint of intricately crafted story songs and mellow vibes and a plant he considers medicine. Here are five things we learned:
5 fun facts about Willie Nelson’s relationship with cannabis
1. Nelson first smoked marijuana in a roadside bar in Fort Worth in 1954. Nelson was 21 and a big bourbon drinker when his friend and fellow musician Fred Lockwood suggested they “blow tea.” When Nelson turned him down, Lockwood handed him a joint and told him to “Get high and be somebody,” Nelson wrote in his autobiography. That phrase has a storied history in the annals of American music and cannabis. It was a slogan of jazz musicians in Harlem in the 1930s. Nelson’s first smoking experience, however, was a failure. He waited until he was alone and smoked the joint, but didn’t inhale deeply enough to feel it. Over the next six months, Lockwood continued to kick Nelson the occasional joint before, as Nelson wrote, “One night I did it right.”
2. Nelson snuck his first veiled reference to cannabis into a song in 1971. If you look back at photos of Nelson between 1969 and 1971, there’s a dramatic evolution in his look. At the end of the ‘60s, Nelson was a clean cut crooner, sporting classic Nashville country duds. By 1971, his evolution into an outlaw country legend had begun. His hair was longer, his beard was growing in and his Western wear had a more casual slant. Spong said Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski tipped him off to what he believes is the first time the country icon sang about cannabis culture. In the song “In a Memory” off the album “Willie Nelson and Family,” he sings, “I'm a love that you know from a song/ I'm a voice on a green telephone/ I'm a day that lasted so long.”
The “green telephone” is a cryptic as it gets, but at the time marijuana use was so secretive country music artists hid their habits from each other.
3. For years, Nelson’s cannabis use was treated as a joke, but he always took it seriously. In the ‘80s, late night talk show hosts like Johnny Carson tended to reduce Nelson’s love of the devil’s lettuce to a Cheech and Chong punchline, but Nelson firmly believed in the plant’s healing powers. “He always felt this debt to the discovery to the herb, you know, and it changed his life. It ‘saved his life’ is the way he puts it,” Spong said. Nelson was a heavy whiskey drinker and by all accounts an unpleasant drunk.
“Willie learned over the years that all his friends who drank whiskey aren't with us anymore, but he's gonna be 88 in a couple of days,” Pipkin said.
4. Nelson tried to sneak up to the roof of the Texas governor’s mansion for a smokeout. A longtime friend of former President Jimmy Carter, Nelson was invited to perform at the White House in September 1980. That night, Carter’s son Chip and Nelson snuck up to the roof of America’s house to share a joint. It’s a story Nelson wrote about in his autobiography that Carter has recently confirmed.
Roughly 10 years later, outgoing Texas Gov. Ann Richards invited Nelson and Pipkin and their wives to a final dinner at the governor’s mansion. As Richards led the couples on a tour of the mansion, Nelson began inquiring about roof access, Pipkin recalled. Determined to repeat his rooftop smokeout, Nelson snuck off with Pipkin.
“We're looking around and pulling on windows and looking for a door and and Ann comes in (and says), 'Would you quit (expletive) around and come down to dinner?’” Pipkin said. Nelson waited a while, and then, claiming he needed to use the restroom, he grabbed Pipkin for one last shot at his rooftop pipe dream.
“We're pulling on the window that leads on to one of the little rooms up there and it's screwed shut with about 1,000 screws. There's no way we're getting outside of that thing, probably because Ann knew Willie was coming,” Pipkin said.
5. Nelson smokes everyone under the table, even Snoop Dogg. In 2008, Snoop asked Willie to guest on his track, “My Medicine.” Willie agreed on one condition: It had to be in Amsterdam on 4/20. The two cannabis icons hit up every coffee shop in the European city before ending up stoned out of their minds at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. According to Willie, the two had a smoke off and Snoop “crawled away.” The Doggfather confirms this account, saying Willie is the only person who ever outsmoked him.