When Willie released “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” as a single on, of course, April 20, 2012, it became an instant fan favorite, and there are a host of reasons why. For one, it’s a great mix of three Willie hallmarks, namely a catchy melody, his insouciant wit, and weed, and concertgoers have been waving joints overhead when he plays it ever since. On the record, it’s a bright-line example of the wide net he’s always cast when it comes to collaborators: a Highwaymen-esque partnering with Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson . . . and Snoop Dogg. And then, for the real-deal Willie nerds who notice Buddy Cannon’s name among the co-writers, it’s a pivotal entry in his songwriting catalog, a crucial first step into the current phase of his career.

For Pulitzer Prize–winning author and Texas Monthly alum Lawrence Wright, however, it conjures something else entirely. Like a lot of fans, he first heard “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me” on its release date, though not on the radio or some streaming service. Rather, he heard Willie play it live at the unveiling of his larger-than-life statue in downtown Austin. A longtime resident of the city, Larry had worked with other local illuminati, people like screenwriter Bill Wittliff and blues pianist Marcia Ball, to get the sculpture created and in place, and his memories of that process—think of them collectively as “The Long, Hard Road to ‘Roll Me Up’ ”—are every bit as improbable and entertaining as the creation myth behind a Willie statue was bound to be.

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

The song may seem an odd choice for Larry, a New Yorker staff writer best known for tackling topics such as Scientology and the rise of radical Islam. But he’s also a native Texan who has written whole books on the state’s mythos, and he’s been going to Willie shows for nearly 45 years, all of which has led to deep, personal thoughts on the existential quality of watching Willie and Trigger grow old together, his outsized place in the Texas myth, and how wearing his hair in long, braided pigtails—in the seventies in Texas!—was the most subversive move Willie ever made.

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with audio editing by Aisling Ayers and production by Patrick Michels. Our executive producer is Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.


John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by Still Austin craft whiskey.

This week, we talk with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Lawrence Wright about a Willie hit of recent vintage, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” It’s a song Willie used to jokingly call “my new gospel song I wrote,” but it’s also a pivotal composition in his career, and one that he introduced to the world at the 2011 unveiling of the Willie statue in downtown Austin. [Editor’s note: the statue and song were first presented in 2012.] Now, as a longtime resident of the city, Larry was deeply involved in the creation of the sculpture, and he’s going to get into its suitably odd backstory, along with describing just how shocking it was—in the seventies in Texas—to see a man wear his hair in long, braided pigtails, the existential quality of watching Willie and Trigger grow old together, and Willie’s outsized place in the Texas myth.

So let’s do it.

[Willie Nelson singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”]

John Spong: We’ll start differently than usual. You are the first Pulitzer Prize winner we’ve had on the show. You don’t present as a major-league dope smoker, and yet we’re about to talk about “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Lawrence Wright: Yeah. Well, yeah, I am a Willie fan, so I do have some excuse to be here. But yeah, that song played a role. . . . I started this group in Austin called Capital Area Statues, or CAST, and we put up statues around town, and we got three of them now. The first one was of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb, these three founders of Texas literature, really. They used to hang out at Barton Springs, of an afternoon in the summer and cool off, and that was where, it was the first literary salon in Texas, and so we created a statue. Then, after that, we did the Lady and the Cannon, Angelina Eberly, down on Congress right outside your building, practically. And she was the woman who saved Austin as the capital of Texas when Sam Houston tried to steal it and take it to Houston.

And then, a third statue . . . we kind of violated our principles because we had resolved that everybody we put in bronze would be dead. But we figured at some point that Willie was too old to get in trouble, which is probably a false assumption. Anyway, we wanted to honor Willie, and we thought it would be nice to honor him while he’s alive. We worked with Clete Shields, a sculptor in Philadelphia. Elizabeth Avellan, the movie producer here in town, she and her former husband, Robert Rodriguez, worked with him, and she recommended him. And Bill Wittliff was on our group. Bill was a screenwriter, novelist, and mentor to a lot of people in Austin.

John Spong: And wrote a bunch of Willie movies.

Lawrence Wright: Yeah, he did.

John Spong: He wrote Barbarosa and Red Headed Stranger.

Lawrence Wright: Yeah, and I’m sorry he’s gone. But he sure had a ton of Willie stories. Anyway, all of us worked with Clete and produced this statue. I remember so well that we went to Philadelphia when the clay was ready. And so our job then was to approve it. It was January, I think? It was cold as hell. Clete was working in an old trolley repair garage. The ceilings were like thirty feet high, there was no heat, it was frigid in there. The Willie clay was under a big plastic sheet, heated by a light bulb to keep it from freezing.

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Lawrence Wright: And so, he unveiled the plastic, and we were staring at it in awe, just loving it, but Bill Wittliff says, “You know, Clete, the guitar is too thick.” You know Bill. And Clete goes . . . 

John Spong: He’s a detail guy.

Lawrence Wright: “What are you talking about?” He said, “I bought a Martin guitar, I got calipers, I sized it up. I’m sure that it’s the right size.” Bill says, “Clete, it’s too thick.” Clete gets out his calipers, gets out the Martin guitar which is just conveniently at hand. It was three quarters of an inch too thick. Clete was a little embarrassed, more than a little I think. And so, he shaved off three quarters of an inch on the guitar. “Anything else?” “Well, yeah,” Bill says, “Willie’s hand on the guitar . . . it looks a little fey. It’s just not a Willie pose.” By now, Clete’s in a mood, and he chops off the hand. He says, “Somebody’s got to pose for me.” So, “Okay, I’ll pose.” I had to take off my coat and hold his Martin guitar, and put my hand over the guitar in a suitably . . .

John Spong: . . . in a manly way.

Lawrence Wright: . . . in a manly way, yes. No problem for me. I sat there as Clete made Willie’s hand again, and my fingers by that time were blue. Really. It had never happened to me before, that my fingers had turned blue. But anyway, the result is that we made this, I think, just majestic piece of art.

We brought it to Austin when it was in bronze and stuck it in Troublemaker Studios—Rodriguez’s old studio—and he put it under a parachute. And so we invited Willie to come over and take a look. The whole CAST group, Steve Harrigan, Marcia Ball, and the rest of us, we all were there, a small private gathering, and pulled the parachute off. And Amon Burton, one of our members, got us all assembled for a picture, and Bill says to Willie, “What we were looking for is this sense of engagement with the audience, so that when a person looks at that, they see you.” He said, “Now, you got to remember little children will be coming to the statue to ask, to seek your counsel, so you’ll have to decide what it is that you want them to understand about this.” And Willie says, “Do what I say and not what I do.”

Anyway, he loved the statue, but we couldn’t get him to commit to a date to unveil it downtown. Months went by, and it was annoying. We’d done a lot of work, raised a lot of money. We finally got a date from him, and he said, “April twentieth, I’ll do it on April twentieth,” a date that meant nothing to me. 4/20? No, that didn’t . . . as you observed, it’s not my world. But for some reason, Marcia Ball knew the significance of 4/20, and she guffawed when she heard it. There was a moment like, “Are we going to do that?” Then finally we think, “Let’s just go with it,” so we decided to unveil it at 4:20 on 4/20.

John Spong: Uh-huh. Lean in.

Lawrence Wright: It was a master stroke of publicity for Willie because of the date. The whole street was lined with news trucks and so on, and a massive crowd. It started to rain that day, but then it cleared up, like God wasn’t going to step on Willie’s toes. We had the best time. And then, after we pulled the sheet off of the bronze and presented it to the public, Willie sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

John Spong: His new song, released that day.

Lawrence Wright: Yeah.

John Spong: That’s pretty cool. Well, that’s a great jumping-off point. Will you listen to the song with me now?

Lawrence Wright: Sure. Yeah.

[Willie Nelson singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”]

John Spong: Pretty cool.

Lawrence Wright: You know, this song is not one of my favorite of his songs, but it illustrates a certain theme in Willie’s work that I’ve noted, which is mortality. That’s what it’s about. First, I remember, he had a concert we went to in 2004, and I think that’s about when Ray Charles died. He had just died. At the end, his last song, as I remember it, was “I’ll Fly Away.”

John Spong: That makes sense.

Lawrence Wright: He added the verse, “There won’t be many Willie days left,” and I had never heard him sing something like that. And as I followed him over the years and see him in occasional concerts, there’s this existential quality about it. His voice is different. He used to stand in the line with the band, and the last time I saw him at least, he stands in front of the band kind of alone, Mickey on his shoulder, as a shadow, but there’s an existential quality to it that I find very moving. It’s a different experience than going to the Willie concerts of the past when he was younger. He was seventy, I think, in 2004, right? I think he must’ve thought the calendar is against him. [But] he’s still here, still going.

But I’ve noted that. And I remember when we went to one of the July fourth concerts, and Mickey Raphael is a friend of mine and had invited me to sit with them and be backstage. Well, he took me on . . . Willie travels in several buses, not just one, but Mickey was on the dope-free bus, showing me around, and he reaches in a closet, and he said, “Oh, you’ll want to see this. It’s Trigger, the guitar. Here, hold it.” Well, that’s probably the best-known instrument in the music world right now. Like B. B. King’s Lucille . . . there were dozens of Lucilles. There’s only one Trigger. And I held it. The thing about Trigger . . . it’s really light, it’s been worn away. I mean, there’s the visible hole in the guitar, but the frets are all worn down, everything is papery thin, and it’s kind of wraithlike. There’s an existential quality about Trigger that I think sort of matches the Willie that we know now, and it adds a kind of profound note to who he is and his performances now.

John Spong: If you look at his career, there’s a quality within that vein, of rebirth. Repeatedly. Things don’t work out, and so he finds a way to get going again, somewhere else or in some other manner: coming to Austin, when he changed things up in the early nineties after the IRS stuff which looked kind of like the end, and then suddenly there’s this rebirth with the Don Was record he made. But even with this, because when “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me” first came out—I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I thought it was kind of a trifle. I didn’t hear the existential part, I just heard a dope joke. But what you just said is very much true, it’s thinking about life, and there’s some thought about impermanence there, or what’s next. But also, within the Willie career story, this is a huge song, actually. Do you know much about how it was written by chance?

Lawrence Wright: No, not at all.

John Spong: Okay, so it’s in 2011, right around there, Buddy Cannon has been Willie’s producer since 2011. He wrote this song with Buddy and a couple of other guys. But the deal with Buddy is, Buddy had just produced a version of “That Lucky Old Sun,” for Willie and Kenny Chesney, and that’s one of Willie’s old standards that he loves so much. And he thought he had never heard the song done as well as it was done by Buddy. So Willie starts thinking, “Maybe I want to collaborate with this dude.” [He] sends him a text one morning. Buddy said he woke up and he had a text that just had the chorus to “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me,” and then another text underneath it that said, “New song. Write a verse.” And so Buddy did and sent that to him. He said, “About twenty minutes later, I had got the first verse and I sent it to him, and then he sent me another verse, and then I sent him a scratch melody . . . ” and that’s pretty much the song, and that’s the way they’ve written ever since.

Buddy has produced seventeen of the last nineteen Willie records going back to 2012. They’ve written dozens of songs together. The one Buddy talked about on the show was “It’s Not Something You Get Over, It’s Something You Get Through,” which is a song that has really helped a lot of people through difficult stuff. It’s one of the songs in the canon now. This was the first collaboration by Buddy and Willie, and then here comes the next twelve years of Willie’s career.

Lawrence Wright: That’s fascinating. Well, I won’t defend it as a great song, I just think it’s a fun song; it works as a trifle. But also I think it skims over this deeper level that is a chord that you find in Willie’s performances for more than the last decade.

[Willie Nelson singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”]

John Spong: How’d you become a Willie fan?

Lawrence Wright: Well, I left Texas pointedly, when I was a young man.

John Spong: Abilene and Dallas?

Lawrence Wright: Abilene and Dallas. Many different places that we lived, Cairo and Nashville for a while, and then Atlanta for seven long years. I was in Atlanta—I liked Willie, but I was remote from him at that point. My wife, Roberta, was like, “Are you kidding? This guy is not on key.” She just could not . . . he always sounds a little flat to her. And so I was defensive about my affection for his singing. Then Stardust came out, and I bought the album, and Roberta just fell for it. I mean, it’s very emotional. It was, in a way, a breakthrough for Willie in the same way, I think, that singing country songs, for Ray Charles, was a breakthrough for him. He crossed a genre. I think Willie has a special affinity for those Hoagy Carmichael songs, “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind.” He does great versions of those. I think they’re classics.

So, it helped that Roberta was won over by that album, so she began to see Willie’s appeal as a singer and as a persona is more than just being a . . . he’s not like one of those golden-voiced, Frank Sinatra singers. He’s got a personality that comes from someplace. And when you hear him, you hear the roots, the soil that he grew up in. The great singers oftentimes have . . . they all go to the same school, or they come out aspiring to sound towards an ideal. And Willie never—I don’t know, it’s something about him is more than a singer. There’s a human quality inside his voice that is not something you can learn in the music school.

John Spong: For me, it’s like, I think probably the prettiest voice I’ve ever heard is Ella Fitzgerald’s. And she clearly . . . she was a jazz singer, she could phrase, she did all those things, but what I hear when I listen to her is an objectively beautiful voice. Billie Holiday’s voice took me a little bit to get used to, like Willie’s did. Not that there’s no emotion in what Ella sings, but when Billie Holiday sings, I can hear pain, I can hear struggle, I can hear things in her, and I can hear her choices more. It’s like with Willie. Billie Holiday is one of the few singers that, to me, kind of does what Willie does.

Lawrence Wright: Yeah, she . . . it’s an interesting comparison because it depends on who they’re singing to. Ella was crossing the racial divide. And so she had, whether it was her intention or not, her classicism forced its way into the room. 

But Willie is a counter example of that. I don’t know what it is. There’s something about Willie that has always been very transgressive. For instance, let’s not even speak about the pigtails yet, we can get to them. But having a beard was . . . when he grew a beard, I mean, I grew up in Dallas and the only bearded man in the city I knew of was Stanley Marcus, who owned Neiman Marcus. And he once gave a party for bearded men only, which was so unusual in Dallas, a bunch of SMU graduate students came. But there weren’t any people with beards. And then Willie was an early beard. And, also, well-known for his drug use, which was illegal and a little out of bounds, but nothing touched the pigtails.

Can you imagine coming to Austin, which is . . . even hippies didn’t have pigtails. But here he is, bearded and pigtailed, and there are a lot of shit-kickers around, and he was this powerful unifying force. He set a lot of people free, because he stood on his own ground. There was something so cool and daring about his presentation. I remember when we unveiled the statue, the W Hotel is right behind it, and they hung these giant pigtails that went like seven stories down. They still stand for Willie. But he was defiantly who he is.

[Willie Nelson singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”]

John Spong: You talk in God Save Texas also—or I’ve heard you talk about the three levels of Texas culture. Can you explain that a little and then place Willie in there?

Lawrence Wright: Well, the concept was that there’s. . . . Any great culture has a Level One, which is the kind of mythic level. And God knows we have that in spades in Texas. I think of Texas being a little like Egypt, another country where I lived, where it has this past—the Pharaohs, all that sort of thing—that looms over modern-day Egypt like a ghost. Texas has a much foreshortened version of that, but it is the myth of the cowboy and the oilman and all of that, these are . . . that’s Level One culture. You can imagine the trail drives, they would take, harvest the beef and take some native sage and rub it on there and grill it, and then you get barbecue. The beans from Mexico come up and chiles arrive and so on, and so eventually you’re beginning to create what I would call a Level One cuisine, which is still very much a part of Texas culture.

Then Level Two is when you begin to have enough money to look around the world and see what else there is. So you go to restaurants in New York, you send your children to school outside of state, you travel and you see Paris. When you’re building an office, you hire an architect from some far-off country to make a statement. All of that is built out of envy and insecurity. You’re looking over your shoulder at other people. But it’s also enriching. You learn other languages, you learn things about other peoples. You begin to add spices to your food that you didn’t know exist. You read books in translation. You’re exposing yourself to the rest of the world, and this is wonderful—but it’s not you.

It’s a way of enlarging your perspective, but it can be very disorienting as you drift away from Level One and oftentimes look down your nose at the kinds of things that characterize that primitive incarnation of your culture. And then finally, there is a point achieved sometimes, not always, but where you find a culture beginning to reintegrate itself with its origins. I think in Texas you can see that. . . . I had this realization at Cafe Annie in Houston, when I ordered this rabbit enchilada, which was with crème fraîche. I mean, there were a lot of things about it that would, like, “Come on now.” But on the other hand, it was wonderful. I thought this is an homage to where we came from, and seen through the lens of Level Two, and it arrives at a Level Three.

I think that a lot of our music, I think one of the things that Willie, in terms of musically integrating Level Two and Level One, I think of his interest in jazz, in Django Reinhardt, and that sort of thing. I think that was what really captivated him and drew him out of the Level One . . . music on the radio, the Ryman Auditorium, the sounds coming from WWL, the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, which I used to listen to. Those kinds of things exposed you to a sound that was not native, but was important. I think out of that, we got western swing, we got Bob Wills and all of that. That all drew from the jazz canon. I think if there’s anything that profoundly elevates Willie outside of that kind of Level One music is the fact that he is a thoroughgoing jazz musician, and he is able . . . even though I’ve heard it said from some other musicians who played with him, that he can’t tell you sometimes what chord he’s playing, it’s the kind of thing that even I would know, but . . .

John Spong: Piano player, Larry Wright.

Lawrence Wright: Yeah, right, but he knows what’s appropriate for that song, and that’s far more important than knowing how to call it.

[Willie Nelson singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”]

John Spong: The one thing that I didn’t get to, which we probably don’t even need, but when we were talking about Texas culture, and then there’s also this idea of the Texas myth . . . where does Willie fit in? What’s his relationship to the Texas myth? I mean, he travels with a huge wooden Texas flag that he puts at the back of the stage. He throws his arms all the way around his Texasness. But as you’ve written and argued—you’ve shot holes in much of the Texas myth. Not all of it, but in parts of it. Where does Willie fit with that?

Lawrence Wright: I think that for one thing, Willie is an argument for Texas, where there are a lot of arguments against.

John Spong: I love that.

Lawrence Wright: He makes Texas more forgivable than it might otherwise be. I’m glad that he’s that kind of ambassador to the rest of the world. He’s not apologetic about Texas. He wanted to change things. He’s clear about his politics, but the fact that he can live in Texas and be a spokesperson for his causes and have people respect him for that, regardless of what his beliefs are, that’s the kind of Texas I want to see. I think that Willie does a better job of embodying that spirit than anybody else on the public stage. And you know, after he’s gone, then we’ll look back at his legacy and, first of all, look at his songs and stuff like that. But it’s the person that’s irreplaceable. The songs will continue to go. But some of the other people that we’ve lost in our lifetime here in Texas, Ann Richards and Molly Ivins for instance, have never been replaced. They’re remembered by people of our age, but they were irreplaceable personalities. And he is one of those people. There’ll be stories about him, because God knows he has generated. . . . You’re an expert. How many books on Willie Nelson have there been?

John Spong: Oh, there’s a great many. Yeah. S—, there’s four autobiographies.

Lawrence Wright: Well, he’s managed to secure a legacy, and it’s going to be up to the Texans of the future to figure out what that’s going to be, but that’ll be there. In that regard, I’m glad we’ve got that statue up. Because if you stand in front of it, he’s looking right at you. There’s a sense of engagement. Bill Wittliff used to say, “All of our statues have a story. They’re narrative statues.” The narrative of Willie is that “I am one of you, and I’m looking at you, and I’m hearing your story.” I think that quality carries on in every part of his personality.

John Spong: Yeah. There will not be a time when we can’t learn from that lesson.

Lawrence Wright: Yeah.

[Willie Nelson singing “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”]

John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Lawrence Wright talking about “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” A huge thanks to him for coming on the show, a big thanks to our sponsor, Still Austin craft whiskey, and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe, maybe tell a couple friends, and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Oh, and please also check out our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.

Oh, and be sure to tune in next week to hear singer-songwriter and producer Bruce Robison talk about one of the songs that first taught him how deep and emotionally sophisticated country music can get: “Walkin’ ”—off 1974’s Phases and Stages—before Bruce goes on to describe what it was like to grow up in Bandera, Texas,  a small Hill Country town that looms large in Willie folklore.

We’ll see you guys next week.