To the famously short list of things that are certain in life—death and taxes—you can confidently add another: Willie Nelson sells copies of Texas Monthly . The iconic singer, golfer, actor, bus rider, weed smoker, and all-around good guy has been on our cover more times than anyone else (seven, this month included) in our 35 years. The reason is simple economics. Our “Breakthrough in Country Music” cover, all the way back in August 1976, had a 73 percent sell-through, meaning various somebodies bought nearly three out of every four copies we put on the newsstands. Our “Where I’m From” cover, in December 2005, had a 66 percent sell-through. The four in between (IRS Troubles, May 1991; Willie at 65, April 1998; the Texas Century, December 1999; and Humor, January 2002) had sell-throughs from 54 percent to 64 percent. Our typical issue hits 50 percent (we hope). The magazine industry average is somewhere closer to 30 percent. For us, nobody else—not Lance Armstrong, not Matthew McConaughey, certainly not George W. Bush—is so consistently a top seller. I’m telling you, the guy’s an automatic teller machine.
You may ask why. Honestly, though, you know the answer instinctively. Young and old, hip and square, city and country, liberal and conservative, black, brown, and white admire him and love him, want to read about him and look at pictures of him, want to plug into his mellow vibe. To borrow an overused phrase, he’s a uniter, not a divider. It’s not about his music, or it’s not just about that. There are, to my amazement, people who don’t react emotionally, as I do, to the opening riffs of “Whiskey River,” but even if you’ve never seen him in concert or listened to a single note of a single song on one of his many records, chances are you still feel warmly toward him, toward the idea of him. His personality—upbeat, open, and generous—and his sense of humor—buoyant, sophisticated, and a bit bawdy—are the only reasons you need.
While it was a given that we would salute Willie on his seventy-fifth birthday, precisely how to do it wasn’t at all obvious. Over the years we’ve told his story time and again (and again and again) to the point that (a) none of us could bear to write, read, or publish another mini-biography, and (b) there was very little undisturbed ground. That’s why we shifted the burden from senior editor Michael Hall, who had drawn the redheaded black bean in this case, to the many people, mostly big names, who’ve known Willie intimately over the years: who’ve married him, performed with him, smoked with him, putted with him, acted with him, been checkmated by him. The result is a truly first-class oral history ( “‘Willie’s God! Willie’s God! We Love Willie!’” ) that runs at about 12,000 words but is an incredibly fast read. The insights, anecdotes, and commentary contained within reveal more about who Willie is than any narrative unpacking of his life ever could.
And if that isn’t enough, we collected, from our archive and elsewhere, as much about the man as we could lay our hands on and pulled it all together on our Web site. Die-hard and casual Willie fans alike will want to have a good, hard browse at texasmonthly.com/willie. Before too long, you’ll wonder where the hours went. Like the man said, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away?”
The best barbecue joints in Texas, the deer killers of Iraan, the kidnapping of oil company executives overseas, new fiction by Sarah Bird, and the father Paul Burka never knew.