Editor Evan Smith on Willie Nelson and what we could all learn from him.
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texasmonthly.com: When did you first come across Willie Nelson’s music?
Evan Smith: Definitely before I moved to Texas. It was probably something obvious, like “On the Road Again”—the kind of thing even a New Yorker could enjoy and appreciate. But I didn’t really hear Willie until he played a party celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Austin City Limits. That night, in that setting, the first few notes of “Whiskey River” were really pretty transformative for me. It was the moment that I really got him.
texasmonthly.com: What makes Willie Nelson an interesting person to interview?
ES: He can’t be “handled”—there’s no publicist or agent who would dare try to control him or stage-manage what he says—so he’s refreshingly candid. He’s also totally laid-back. He can’t be fazed, so you can ask him anything. And he’s extremely nice for someone who, if you think about it, has no real obligation to be. I mean, he’s Willie. He can get away with whatever he wants. But he doesn’t act even remotely like that.
texasmonthly.com: Despite the controversy, fame, and media attention, what do you think defines Willie Nelson?
ES: His attitude. He’s above it all without being aloof. He seems to be in a place of total peace. Certainly he’s comfortable with who he is to a degree that I’m not sure I’ve seen in anyone else, famous or unfamous.
texasmonthly.com: Willie Nelson has been dubbed an American poet whose music captures the emotion of heartache, struggle, and perseverance. What do you think Texas music would be like today had there not been a Willie Nelson breaking through country music traditions in Nashville?
ES: It’s hard to imagine what music, period, would be like without Willie.
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever met Willie, and if so, what is it about his presence that makes him legendary?
ES: I’ve met him a few times, and it’s definitely an experience you don’t forget—not because it’s exceptional, but because it isn’t. He’s like anyone else you might meet, only he happens to be Willie.
texasmonthly.com: Obviously, Willie has experienced a lot in his 72 years. How did you prepare to interview someone who has such an accomplished life?
ES: Read a lot about him, of course, and listen to his music. But more than anything else, remember that this is a guy who’s been interviewed hundreds of thousands of times before. So try to draw him out on less obvious topics.
texasmonthly.com: During the interview, Willie talks of his support for Kinky’s campaign for governor and jokingly mentions that if Kinky wins the race, he (Willie) could end up the head of the Texas Rangers. What role in government would you like to see Willie play?
ES: I’d really rather see him exactly where he is. He’s of more use to us in the general population.
texasmonthly.com: Willie Nelson has become an integral part of Americana. When you decided to interview him, what interested you more—the man or the legend?
ES: Definitely the man. It is easier to talk to a man than a legend, right?
texasmonthly.com: From a New Yorker’s perspective, would you say Willie is a true symbol of his birth state? Why?
ES: His independence is truly in sync with the spirit of Texas, as is his decency.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think we could all learn from Willie Nelson?
ES: Treat people with kindness and courtesy. Stay true to yourself. And every once in a while, would it kill you to ride the bus?