Many of his peers are dead, and countless others haven’t picked up a guitar since their arthritis kicked in. But on April 29, two days after releasing his aptly titled seventy-third studio album, Last Man Standing, Willie Nelson turns 85. A few weeks later he’ll be, as per usual, on the road again.
He’s got plenty of cash and a legacy that rivals any musician who’s ever lived, so no one would blame Willie if he spent the rest of his life doing nothing but lounging on a beach near his home in Maui or enjoying edibles at his ranch outside Austin. Yet he’s still writing songs, playing guitar, and making music nearly every day. We joined him on his tour bus ahead of a show at Austin’s ACL Live at the Moody Theater to ask the big question: Why does he still do it?
Because it still makes him happy. “I think I need to keep being creative, not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it,” Willie says. He partially credits doing what he loves for keeping him animate into his eighties. “I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.”
Because what else would he do? Over the past couple of decades, whenever Willie was asked about retirement, he’d reply, “All I do is play music and golf. Which one do you want me to give up?” And Willie doesn’t play as much golf anymore.
Because he’s never been good at sitting still. From his initial move to Nashville, in 1960; to his return to Austin, in 1972, growing out his hair and bringing the hippies and rednecks together; to his first turn in Hollywood in 1979 to try his luck on the silver screen, Willie has spent his life on the move. Like he says in 1993’s “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” the closest thing he has to a spiritual manifesto: “I swim like a fish in the sea all the time.”
Because he’s a generous person. Playing music is how Willie gives back. He fights for American farmers with Farm Aid—the annual fundraising concert he first organized with John Mellencamp and Neil Young—he plays benefits for hurricane and fire victims, and he performs gratis shows for wounded soldiers. For years, Willie’s handlers have tried to insulate him from outsiders asking him for help because, they say with exasperation, “Willie can’t say no,” a character flaw that we are all thankful for.
Because the people keep coming. “The fact that people still show up and like what we do is a good enough reason to keep doing it,” Willie says. His concerts over the past few years haven’t been his best; he’s been sick (colds knocked him out of several gigs last year, and the flu forced him to cancel two months of shows this winter), and he doesn’t perform as long as he used to. But when he walks onstage, waves at the crowd, and greets them with a “How y’all doin’?” he’s repaid with adoration. His fans come for the music and the ritual: “Whiskey River” first; the medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life,” in the middle; gospel songs at the end. But mostly they are there just to be in the same space as Willie, and he feeds off of that energy.
Because he likes to win. For a born competitor like Willie, staying relevant has remained a priority. “It’s all a game,” says his friend and frequent collaborator Ray Benson, the front man of Austin-based Western swing group Asleep at the Wheel. “It’s all a bet. He loves to win a game, whether it’s golf, chess, or poker. I was in Maui recently, and he said to me, ‘You should’ve been here last night—I beat Woody [Harrelson] out of $3,000 playing cards!’ ”
Because all of a sudden he’s writing songs again. Until recently, Willie, who has penned some of the greatest tunes in the American songbook, seemed content to re-record old classics or pay tribute to other songwriters. As he admitted in 2012, “I haven’t had time to write anything new.” But then, later that year, he started working with Nashville producer Buddy Cannon and rediscovered his writer’s voice. Their first co-write was 2012’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and the partnership has been thriving since.
Because it’s a family affair. Sure, he’s shared the stage with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, such as Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, but nothing pleases Willie more than playing with family. Every night on tour, his sister, Bobbie, 87, whirls through the instrumental number “Down Yonder” on piano, while Willie looks on in admiration. And he gets special joy from performing with his brood: his sons Lukas and Micah and his daughters Amy and Paula. “There’s nothing better than having your kids get up onstage and play music with you,” he says. “You can’t beat that.”
Because his body lets him. He’s certainly had health issues over the years: one of his lungs collapsed in 1981 and again in 2008, and in recent years he has ruptured a bicep and torn a rotator cuff. But Willie stays in shape. He used to run; now he bikes, swims, lifts weights, and does tae kwon do. “I think Dad’s gonna live to be 108 years old if he wants to,” Lukas says.
Because it’s how he can best prove the death rumors wrong. In February 2015 a fake news site proclaimed that Willie was dead. Two months later it followed with a report that a gardener had found him lifeless in the front yard of his Maui home. On the morning of August 3, 2017, various radio stations began tweeting rumors that Willie had died. When Willie heard about his demise, he laughed.
But he knows that one day the rumors will be true. Last Man Standing, like last year’s God’s Problem Child, is about mortality. “I don’t want to be the last man standing,” he sings on the title track, “but, wait a minute, maybe I do.” As with loving and longing and drinking, Willie’s interested in death when he can turn it into a song. “I don’t think about dying,” he said in 2012. “It’s inevitable, so why worry about that shit?”