Poor Willie

The IRS nailed him for millions, only to find that Willie Nelson had already given it all away.

Last November, while Internal Revenue Service officers in Austin made plans to auction off nearly everything he owned, Willie Nelson golfed in Hawaii. After flying to California to spend Christmas with relatives, Willie drove the long, leisurely road to Texas, stopping first to play poker with his pals in Hillsboro before arriving in Austin, where he jammed at the Broken Spoke, taped a television show with Jerry Jeff Walker, and got ready to shoot the TV movie Another Pair of Aces . With friends on the set he shared his favorite new joke: “What’s the difference between an IRS agent and a whore? A whore will quit f-ing you after you’re dead.” To folks in a hotel elevator who asked him for an autograph, Willie grinned and said, “Only if you don’t work for the IRS.” By the time he saw fit to saunter into the federal building on January 7 and meet his persecutors, anyone who didn’t write for the National Enquirer could see that Willie wasn’t going to commit suicide over this one.

Aboard his touring bus, Honeysuckle Rose II, surrounded by a gaggle of followers, Willie spoke of his $16.7 million tax debts as if it were just another busted guitar string. He would fix the matter, he explained, with Who’ll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes, a collection of old recordings that he intended to release and market through an 800-number promotion scheme. “I think that if we give it enough publicity, there’s no limit to what we could sell,” said Willie as his followers listened intently. “Within four or five months, the whole debt could be wiped out. We’d take a negative thing and turn it into a positive thing for everybody.”

It was a classic Willie Nelson brainstorm, elegant in its simplicity and so wonderfully expressive of the belief that to any question—including a financial question—music was the answer. It was also a foolish notion. Neither Willie nor his managers had bothered to figure out just how many copies he would have to sell to relieve his debt. Nor did anyone seem willing to ask whether Willie Nelson, in today’s market, could achieve such sales. When I later relayed the IRS Tapes plan to an old friend of Willie’s, he shook his head and said, “That’s just crazy. Even Michael Jackson in his heyday couldn’t raise that kind of profit.”

But no one on the bus voiced that sentiment. Willie’s followers merely sat there, saying nothing, adrift in their leader’s calm but compelling melody, and roused only when my questions suggested skepticism, at which times they would stare at me darkly. O ye of little faith, their scowls seemed to say, just as their awed reaction to Willie’s solution recalled all the old bumper sticker slogans: “In Willie We Trust,” “Where There’s a Willie There’s a Way.” Willie needed their faith now. For all his public buoyancy, privately Willie Hugh Nelson was an angry and worried man. Until he could satisfy his debt, his money and his property belonged to the IRS. The dozens who depended on him—including practically everyone in the bus that afternoon—were now out of work and stood to lose their homes as well. Willie had heard somewhere that an IRS agent had been assigned to sit on one musician’s tour bus and shadow his every movement. “I’m not about to let that happen,” he told a friend, but the prospect obviously unnerved him.

“As long as I got my guitar, I’ll be fine,” Willie has often said, referring to Trigger, the legendary retooled Martin six-string he rescued from his burning Tennessee ranch house in the late sixties. Willie’s attachment to his old guitar was a bond that bordered on spiritual. “When Trigger goes, I’ll quit,” he has been heard to say. But what if the feds came after Trigger? They had done it before, he’d read somewhere—taken an entertainer’s guitar and auctioned it off for $45,000. It was one possibility that truly worried him. Two weeks before the IRS raid, Willie began to sense that negotiations with the agency were faltering. He asked the person he trusted most—his eldest daughter, Lana—to remove Trigger from the studio and personally deliver it to him in Hawaii. Lana did so, and Trigger was now in Willie’s hands—but for how long? Willie could manage without his recording studio, his golf course, and his Hill Country acreage. Without Trigger, though, all bets would be off.

How did Willie Nelson get into this mess? Three villains are commonly cited: the IRS; Neil Reshen, the manager during the mid-seventies who, according to Willie, left the Nelson organization in financial shambles; and Price-Waterhouse, the Big Six accounting firm that from 1980 through 1983 guided Willie’s money into several disastrous investments. All three have been sued or are currently being sued by Willie’s attorneys.

Amid the finger-pointing and the brief-filing, one curiously overlooked fact remains. Bad management and lousy investments notwithstanding, Willie Nelson had a golden opportunity to end the tax crisis several months ago, but he couldn’t pull it off. On June 6, 1990, Willie’s attorneys negotiated a settlement with the IRS. A tax order was signed that day, ordering the man with the greatest earning power of any country and western entertainer who has ever lived to come up with a mere $6 million.

But Willie couldn’t. He didn’t have six million. “He didn’t have one million,” said Lana Nelson. “He probably didn’t have thirty thousand.”

Short and wiry like her father but with her late mother’s dark Indian features, Lana has handled the family books for more than a decade. Stoically, she has done her father’s bidding, writing check after check, watching her inheritance dry up. And she has watched numerous financial managers try to halt the flow of reckless spending—to little effect. “Sometimes he’s his own worst enemy and simply will not take their financial advice,” said Lana.

The revelations of Willie’s da ughter aren’t altogether shocking. After all, Willie Nelson’s whole life has been

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