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.
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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.
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, “The Sound of Your Memory,” was co-written by Lukas.
WN: That’s a great song. As much as I love my sons, I still wouldn’t make them a part of the show if I didn’t think they were pretty good. For years Lukas and Micah would come out and play—we’d jam a lot, ever since they’ve been old enough to play music together. And there’s nothing better than playing music with your kids.
MH: How did you get Snoop Dogg to sing on “Roll Me Up [and Smoke Me When I Die]”?
WN: He’s an old buddy of mine. We met when he had a song called “My Medicine” and asked me to sing on it. This was a few years back. I was in Amsterdam, and he called me and asked if I’d sing on the record. I said, “Yeah, but I’m in Amsterdam. Where are you?” He said, “I’m in New York, but I’ll be right there.” He flew over, and we did it.
MH: Did you hit any of the coffee shops?
WN: We did allthe coffee shops. We had a lot of fun. We started hanging out together a little bit. When I did “Roll Me Up,” it was natural to get Snoop on it.
MH: Did you see the quote from him after the Sierra Blanca bust? “They better leave Willie the f— alone! Willie Nelson is a legend, man. . . . Willie Nelson is our elder. He’s somebody who lived through many decades of music, and hard times and whatnot, and living good, and going up and down. So give him that respect.”
WN: He was upset over that. They f—ed with him around the world too.
MH: He was busted in the same place, at Sierra Blanca. If you’re going through Texas on I-10, you have to go through that checkpoint.
WN: That’s right. Every time you go through there, you think about it—whether you get stopped or pulled over or arrested or not, you definitely remember when you were. I like to go through there when it’s real cold and bad, so they don’t want to open the door. They just say, “Move on.”
MH: Is it all over now?
WN: Yes, I paid a fine, and we moved on.
MH: “Roll Me Up” was a big hit at the CMT Music Awards, in June.
WN: I was surprised they requested it. The opening of the song, they had smoke coming out. I said, “Hell, Nashville’s turning around!” The town has definitely done a 180. The song has become pretty popular. Every night I play it, it becomes a sing-along. It gets everybody moving and laughing.
MH: Have you been writing any new songs?
WN: I haven’t had time to write anything new. I’ve gotta take some days off and write. When I get an idea, I have to write it right then. I don’t know, I’ve got probably a dozen half-written ones lying around. The last thing I wrote, I put down a title: “You Don’t Have to Say a Word.” And the more I looked at it, the more I laughed and realized, I don’t have to say a goddamn thing.
MH: You’re turning eighty in April, and you recently suffered a ruptured bicep. How is that healing up?
WN: It’s all right. Not 100 percent, but it’s okay. I can still play and everything.
MH: Do you still run?
WN: Not as much as I’d like to. I do quite a bit of biking now.
MH: A lot of good friends of yours have died in the past decade—from Johnny Cash and Ray Charles to, more recently, your longtime stage manager Poodie Locke and bassist Bee Spears. Has this made you think more about dying?
WN: No, I don’t think about dying. It’s inevitable, it’s gonna happen, why worry about that shit? Remember the song “Let’s Think About Livin’ ”?
Let’s think about livin’
Let’s think about lovin’
Let’s think about the whoopin’
And the hoppin’ and the boppin’
And the lovie, lovie dovin’
Whoever sang it, he died.
MH: You’re still writing songs, putting out albums, going on tour, making movies. With all the stuff you’ve done, what do you feel like you still have to prove?
WN: I’d like to get another degree in tae kwon do. I don’t know what’s required for that. I have a first-degree black belt and a second-degree black belt. I’d like to get another.
MH: You have a big role in the recently filmed Christmas movie When Angels Sing. How did that come about?
WN: Turk Pipkin [who wrote the novel that the film is based on] and I are old buddies. When he was writing the novel, he told me if they ever got the movie together, he’d want me to do it. I liked the idea of this one—a family movie, it was time for one of those. I don’t do that many movies, but when one comes along that sounds good, it’s a no-brainer. The character I play is a good one, plus it has Kris [Kristofferson], Harry [Connick Jr.], and a good cast and director.
MH: Your character is a kind, bearded man named Nick who brings joy to a family. In real life you are a kind, bearded man who brings joy to millions. Are you, in fact, Santa Claus?
WN: Well, I won’t come down your chimney, I can promise you that! I like to think I treat people like I want to be treated: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If everyone did that, it would put everyone in the same place. I’m not Santa Claus, but I do what I can.