The Red Hooded Stranger

Willie Nelson on getting old, getting busted, getting along with Pat Robertson and Snoop Dogg, and getting mistaken for Santa Claus.

Is Santa Claus real? The question has tormented children and adults alike for generations. But what if the answer is right in front of our eyes? What if he walks among us year-round in the guise of a relatively jolly 79-year-old country singer with a white beard and a twinkle in his eye? What if Willie Nelson is Santa Claus? Think about it for a second. Like Santa, Willie is known for his generosity and his ability to bring joy to millions. He travels the world in a customized vehicle.

A detailed mythology surrounds them both. For Santa: the home and workshop at the North Pole, the retinue of reindeer and elves, the list, the ability to slide down chimneys. For Willie: the ranch and recording studios at his Pedernales spread, the retinue of roadies and band members in the Family, the annual picnic, the ability to slide out from under pot busts. And then there’s Trigger, the weathered and beaten guitar Willie has played for 43 years—his sidekick, his Rudolph.

Willie, of course, is a lot more complicated than Santa. He smokes a ton of marijuana, for one. He records with country goofballs like Toby Keith and jazz classicists like Wynton Marsalis. He’s an outlaw and a hero—which is to say, he’s naughty and nice. Two years ago he was busted for possession of marijuana (for the fourth time) in Sierra Blanca and faced two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Last April 20 (an unofficial holiday for weed-smoking), he was honored with an eight-foot bronze statue in downtown Austin—on Willie Nelson Boulevard, a block away from city hall. The mayor gave a speech, city leaders stood in line to shake Willie’s hand, and hundreds of people applauded when Willie spoke and played. The statue was no sentimental riff on how our heroes have always been cowboys. It was a nod to the fact that without Willie, who moved to the Austin area in 1972, the city wouldn’t be an internationally renowned musical mecca—and Texas wouldn’t boast a multimillion-dollar music industry.

Willie turns eighty in April, and he isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon. He’s got songs to write, drugs to legalize, and black belts to earn. And, for all we know, stockings to fill on Christmas Eve.

Michael Hall: Great cities have statues that personify them. Austin has you. What does that say about you—and the city?

Willie Nelson: That we’re f—ed! I’m just kidding. I was honored, though I’m kind of surprised the people who run the city would think it’s a good idea to have a statue of me.

MH: Why?

WN: All the controversies and things. Maybe you don’t want to be known as a “pot town.”

MH: Apparently people could smell the weed in the air at the unveiling. There must have been police there.

WN: There were cops standing around, just looking and laughing. 

MH: You’ve been active in all kinds of ways, trying to change the marijuana laws. You recently campaigned for an Oregon cannabis law. 

WN: Yeah, they want to make it completely legal across the board. That’d be great. We could stop a lot of crime by getting rid of that law. [Note: The ballot initiative was defeated on November 6.]

MH: At the Summit of the Americas, in April, world leaders openly talked for the first time about legalizing drugs.

WN: It’s ridiculous to have all those people down there on the border killing each other, trading drugs and guns. There’s a huge industry down there, and the prisons are full, and the people who own the prisons are very happy about it. 

MH: You yourself have gotten busted, and then—

WN: And then I do my two-hour show without missing a line or a note. And I’ve already proved, at least in my instance, that I can either smoke or not smoke; it’s no big deal. I know a lot of people who can’t. They have no tolerance for it. They take a couple drags, and they’re in a coma for the rest of the day. There are some of us that have a higher tolerance. It’s definitely a stress reliever, and stress is the biggest killer on the planet. My old buddy Pat Robertson—remember him? The preacher? He said some interesting things about it. He came down to the studio to do a promo thing. I like him a lot. I think he’s about as extreme one way as I am the other, but he was saying it’s crazy to send a teenager to prison for smoking a joint, when he goes in an innocent kid and comes out a hardened criminal. And he’s right, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

MH: For years you’ve helped American farmers, mostly through Farm Aid, and lately you’ve reached out to the Occupy people, talking about occupying the food system. Did that go anywhere?

WN: Well, it’s a work in progress. More people are waking up to the fact that companies like Monsanto are not our buddies. They’re ruining the environment and they’re forcing farmers off the land. They’re not the only corporation doing it, but the big corporate farmers are happy when a farmer has to sell to them. Farm Aid was started because of that fact, that we are losing so many of our small family farmers. I think our food is the most important resource we have, and if we can keep it from being poisoned and pesticided and chemicalized, it will be healthier for us and our kids. The farmer who raises his own food and drinks the water, feeds his family, lives on the farm, takes care of the land, and is the steward of the land, these are the guys that need to stay there. 

MH: Let’s talk about family. Two of your sons, Lukas and Micah, are on Heroes, your latest album, and one of the best songs,

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