Evan Smith: Could there have been a Willie Nelson without an Abbott?
Willie Nelson: I doubt it. I’ve always felt like Abbott was a special place. It was the perfect place for me to grow up because it was a small town and because everybody knew everybody. Everybody there was friends or family or worked together or went to school together. There was something real positive about that.
ES: In a lot of small towns, everybody gossips about everybody else; there’s nothing positive about that. But not in Abbott?
WN: If it’s gossip that bothers you, you’re in trouble, because there’s gossip everywhere, in little towns and big towns. I was a telephone operator in Abbott back when they had telephone exchange operators. My sister was really the one who had the job. Whenever the operators would take a vacation, they would hire her to run the board, and I would come in and help her. All the time I was sitting there, I’d be listening in to the conversations going on all over Abbott. I tapped every phone in town! I knew everything about the whole county.
ES: What’s your earliest memory of Abbott?
WN: Playing in the mud and the creeks and the water and the cotton patches.
ES: Did you have any sense back then that there was a whole other world out there, and were you interested in seeing it?
WN: No, I didn’t think there was a lot out there for me. I was surprised when I left Abbott that there was another world out there, because I thought we had it all right here. In a way, Abbott was a little bitty picture of the whole world. You had nice people, you had assholes, and you learned to live with them and like them and work with them. I thought it was a good education growing up there.
ES: Tell me about the house your family lived in.
WN: The first one was down at the edge of town. We had a house with a well where we got our water. We had a garden we grew vegetables in. We had a hog pen where we raised hogs and cattle. We had a barn where we fattened up calves. I was with the Future Farmers of America, so every year I had a project. I loved being outside.
ES: Big house or small house?
WN: Very small house. My parents were divorced when I was six months old, so it was my sister and my grandparents who raised me. My grandfather was a blacksmith. I hung out with him every day in his shop. After he died, we moved to another house just a couple of blocks to the north, and my grandmother started teaching school and cooking in the school lunchroom. The house was a little bigger and a little nicer. It was right next to the church tabernacle, so we got religious services through the summer. We were pretty well soaked in religion.
ES: Did it take?
WN: Yeah. I realized there’s a higher power. There’s somebody smarter than I am out there, and I’m not picky about who it is. It’s like Kinky [Friedman] says: “May the God of your choice bless you.” If you’ve got one, you’re all right.
ES: You’ve been back to Abbott a bunch of times over the course of your life, right?
WN: I still go back a lot. I just bought another house there—the doctor who delivered me used to own it—and we fixed it up a little bit. That’s where I spend some time every now and then.
ES: Could there have been a Willie Nelson without a Texas?
WN: I don’t think so. Texas suits me so well. I love the freedom, the wide-open spaces. Now, a lot of people out there might say, “That’s a load of horseshit, because I live in Oklahoma, and we’re just as crowded as you are.” I’m sure that’s true.
ES: Is Texas a good place to make country music, or do you have to go to Nashville?
WN: I went to Nashville because that’s where I thought you went to sell your product. Maybe it still is. Maybe you take care of your business in Nashville because that’s where the store is—that’s where they pay you off, that’s where your publisher and your record company are. In my day, Nashville was where you needed to go to get some recognition, so I did. And then, when my house burned up there in Ridgetop, Tennessee, I thought it was a good time to go back home.
ES: Did it ever occur to you while you were in Nashville that Tennessee had become your home, or was it always just another stop along the way?
WN: Well, I have a lot of friends in Nashville and all over Tennessee, so it really was my home for a while. But I always thought I’d probably go back to Texas one day. I didn’t realize it would be sooner rather than later.
ES: Do you respect the popular strain of country music that comes out of Nashville now?
WN: I respect songwriters and musicians probably more than anybody. It’s difficult dealing with the record company. You’re supposed to be commercial today and tomorrow. That was always one word I couldn’t get along with, “commercial.” I never could fall into any of the categories that they would say were commercial.
ES: Was there ever a point in your career when you thought, “I need to get with the program and figure out a way to be more radio friendly or album friendly or I’ll never be successful”?
WN: Never. I always thought that if I was having fun doing what I was doing and making a living doing it, then I was already successful. I didn’t have any idea I’d be this successful, but the first night that I made money making music, I knew that I had succeeded.