Willie at 65

What do the years do to a rebel? Sometimes they make him even wilder. The Red Headed Stranger long ago went gray, but his passion–for music, the road, and adventure–– hasn’t gone cold.

We’re sitting alone in his bus, me and Willie, drinking coffee and sharing a smoke, two geezers talking about how it feels to approach age 65, commiserating about the predictable decline of kidneys, eyesight, knee joints, rotator cuffs, and sexual appetites. We agree that when dealing with life’s vagaries—the hits, misses, insights, and sorrows—attitude is everything. “However you want things to be,” Willie assures me, “create them in your own mind, and they’ll be that way.”

The miles are mapped on his face and crusted in his voice, which seems less melodic by daylight. Willie traveled all day yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, 1997, arriving in Las Vegas from the Bahamas just before show time. When he was in the Bahamas in 1978, I remind him, they threw him in jail for smoking pot and then banished him from the island for life. So they did, Willie recalls with a nod. He was so happy to be free of that damned jail he jumped off a curb and broke his foot. The following night, his foot in a cast, he celebrated again by firing up an Austin Torpedo on the roof of President Jimmy Carter’s White House: “That was an incredible moment, sitting there watching all the lights. I wasn’t aware until then that all roads led to the Capitol, that it was the center of the world.” Also the safest spot in America to smoke a joint, he adds. Willie credits God and the hemp plant for much of his good fortune and openly advocates both at every opportunity. Without encouragement he begins to list the consumer items produced by the lowly plant—shirts, shorts, granola bars, paper products, motor fuel, not to mention extremely enlightening smoke. “Did you realize the first draft of our Constitution was written on hemp paper?” he marvels.

From the window of the bus we can see the afternoon players drifting through the front entrance of the Orleans Hotel and Casino. Though management has reserved a suite for Willie in the hotel, by long habit he sleeps aboard his bus, venturing out only to play golf or make it onstage in time for the first note of “Whiskey River,” his traditional opening number. Willie says that inside his head is a network of communication outlets, that he has a mental tape recorder that starts with “Whiskey River” and lasts two and a half hours—the time needed to complete a concert. He also receives messages from angels and archangels and several bands of broadcast signals, some in languages unknown to the human race.

This bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, is Willie’s home, office, and sanctuary, not only on the road but also at Willie World (his compound outside Austin that features a house, a recording studio, a golf course, and a western film set). The bus is the one place he truly feels comfortable. It’s as well equipped as any hotel, with multiple TV sets, a state-of-the-art stereo and sound system, kitchen, toilets, showers, and beds. Willie’s private compartment at the rear is as cozy and as densely packed as a Gypsy’s knapsack. One of Willie’s old aunts once confided to writer-producer Bill Wittliff, “That Willie, he can pack a trailer faster than anyone I ever saw.” On his king-size bed lie three guitars, and surrounding it are Native American paintings, beaded necklaces, and breastplates; a giant American flag; photographs of his two youngest sons, Lukas and Micah (by his fourth and current wife, Annie); a jump rope; some dumbbells; and a speed bag anchored to a swivel above the door. Willie’s elder sister, Bobbie Nelson, and his daughter Lana also travel on the Honeysuckle Rose. Members of the band and crew ride in two additional buses and a truck that make up Willie’s relentless caravan.

“I don’t like to be a hermit, but I’m better off staying out here by myself,” Willie explains, taking a drag and passing the smoke across the table. “El Nino,” a song from his new Christmas album, plays in the background. “Too many temptations. In the old days we’d stay in town after a gig and start drinking and chasing women, and some of the band would end up in jail or divorced. That’s when I started leaving right after a gig, driving all night just to get out of town. If it wasn’t for the bus and this weed, I’d be at the bar right now, doing serious harm to myself.”

For a man who’ll be eligible for Medicare on April 30, Willie appears fit, trim, content, and comfortably weathered, a man who has not only transcended his wounds and scars but also made them part of his act. In his unique American Gothic way, he appears semi-elegant, a country squire in an orange sweatshirt, jeans, and running shoes, his hair neatly braided, his eyes crackling with good humor. He looks ready to run with the hounds. Willie exercises daily, jogging, stretching, jumping rope. He can make the speed bag rattle like a snare drum. A few weeks earlier he went three rounds with former heavyweight Tex Cobb, and he is about to get his brown belt in tae kwon do. Onstage the previous night, without warning, Willie kicked a microphone off a stand higher than his head. This is a regular part of the show, and his audience roared its approval. How many geezers can high-kick like a majorette?

As we talk, Willie squeezes a rubber ball, releasing nervous energy. “I have so much energy that it gets to be a problem,” he says. “I don’t smoke weed to get high; I smoke it to take the edge off, to level out, so I’m not out there like a turkey sticking his head into everything.” Though this natural energy is part of his creative process, it must obey the laws of physics: the action of whiskey, women, music, and life on the road eventually produces the reaction of self-destruction. Anyone who has spent time with Willie knows that he is

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