Nick Offerman is a distinctly unique figure in contemporary popular culture. In and of itself, the fact that he wears a lot of hats—screen actor, touring comedian, author, activist, outdoorsman, philosophizer—does not set him apart. But the way he achieved that status, and what he does with it now, is singular. His breakthrough role was playing the solitary, anti-government, America Firster Ron Swanson on the old sitcom Parks and Recreation, which may be the single most beloved series of the peak TV era. But in his various works since the show’s close, in 2015, he’s made his way by somehow both leaning into and knocking down Swanson’s often cartoonish sense of patriotism, in the process revealing what he, Offerman, believes is truly great about America. And as will be known to anyone who has read his book Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom With America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, Willie Nelson is one of his heroes.

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

On this week’s episode of One by Willie, Offerman explains how that came to be, tracing it back—as he does much of the joy in his life—to the influence of his wife, comedic actor Megan Mullally. But he’ll also get into why Ron Swanson loves Willie, and why, in the famous “Leslie and Ron” episode of Parks and Rec—the one where Swanson and Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope engage in a ridiculously bitter feud—the song that had to play through their reconciliation was an obscure Willie album cut from 1968, “Buddy.” From there, he’ll describe what it was like, as a kid in a small Illinois farming community in the eighties, to discover an iconoclast like Willie; the vital work of Farm Aid, both then and now; the magic of his first Willie concert; and why, when he eats a pie baked by Mullally, he always hears Willie singing.

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 to the great Nick Offerman. Yes. He’s a highly regarded actor and humorist, as well as being a best-selling author, noted woodworker, compelling agrarian thinker, and part-time shepherd.

He’ll be a little bit of all those things when he discusses Willie’s 1968 recording of “Buddy.” Now, even for this podcast, that’s a deep cut. But fans of Nick’s beloved sitcom, Parks and Recreation, will know it as one of the favorite songs of his character, Ron Swanson. Nick’s going to explain how they came to choose “Buddy” for a key moment in what he calls Parks and Rec’s most important episode, before describing the magic of his first Willie concert, the vital work of Farm Aid, the reasons he considers Willie one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, and why he hears Willie music when he eats a pie baked by his wife, the equally great Megan Mullally. Let’s do it.

John Spong: Where we start, Nick Offerman . . . What’s so cool about the song “Buddy”?

Nick Offerman: Gosh. I mean, the whole subject of Willie is a big one. It’s like asking me what’s so great about Romeo and Juliet. It’s a whole universe, but I’ll try and zero it in because we don’t have all day. Specifically, I mean, Willie’s songs are just a huge part of my household. My wife is an incredible singer and a great curator of music. She’s eleven years older than me, so one of the wonderful things about our relationship is, like, I bring her hip-hop and the Beastie Boys, and she brings her vernacular—and she’s from Oklahoma City, so she’s turned me on . . . she’s given me a deeper appreciation for Willie, for Glen Campbell, for the singers and songwriters of that ilk across the board.

And so any Willie song immediately evokes the romance that I have with my bride. And so, in my show Parks and Recreation, which I’m probably best known for, my character, Ron Swanson—there was a few times across the series where they would have me listening to something on headphones, and they would ask me what it would be. And the show creator, Mike Schur, and I agreed that it would be Willie Nelson. And for this specific episode late in the series . . . it’s a very unique episode. It’s like a one-act play between me and the lead of the show, Amy Poehler.

Our characters have a wonderfully rich partnership. We sort of start out the series as antagonists, but we grow to really rely on each other and have a really respectful relationship, even though we’re politically very different. It’s based on respect and work ethic, and it’s really kind of Norman Rockwellian to find itself in a twenty-first-century television comedy. And towards the end of the series, there’s an episode where you find out that we’ve been in a feud for some months, for a long time, and it’s really unlike us. We haven’t spoken. And our friends and coworkers lock us in the office overnight to make us get over it. They lock us together like a couple of ornery siblings. And eventually we do—we sort of hash it out; we talk out our disagreement. And then finally, as we’re kind of making up and making friends again, “Buddy”—Willie Nelson’s “Buddy” is the soundtrack, is the song that plays over that. And I mean, listening to it again, in preparation for this podcast, just really wells up a lot of emotions for me, because it’s so simple.

Willie’s emotional songs, for me, are the most effective when they’re just quiet and simple. Another song that we use in the show is “Hello Walls.” And he has such a gentle, sort of even banal, way of communicating the incredible emotional depth of loneliness, or of heartbreak. And so that song, laid over this incredible episode of our show, was just really evocative. And for me, it encapsulates all of the gifts of the show, getting to work with these incredible writers and performers and crew. And then extrapolating outside of that, it represents my collaboration with my wife, and that I can always turn to her and say, “Does this shirt go with these shoes?” Or “What Willie Nelson song should I have for the most important episode of my TV show?” And either way, I know I’m going to get the straight dope.

John Spong: I think the song might be like two minutes and fifteen seconds long, and that is so much stuff packed into this little moment. 

Nick Offerman: No, it really is. It’s like that Hemingway short story, in six words.

John Spong: Yeah.

Nick Offerman: He packs a whole novel into a couple of minutes.

John Spong: Will you listen to it with me?

Nick Offerman: I would love to. Please.

[Willie Nelson singing “Buddy”]

Nick Offerman: Oh, man. For some reason, the loping intro this time immediately brought—it evoked “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” and it occurred to me that I just, without thinking about it, sort of free-associated picturing him in the saddle, singing this to his horse.

John Spong: Yeah, doesn’t it? I’d even wondered, I mean, Ron Swanson wasn’t nuts, or isn’t nuts, about people, and there’s an element of the song . . . Willie, during that period, I don’t know how much time he was spending on horseback, but I could see him singing it to his dog. He just got his heart broken. And so, “Buddy, I need somebody to talk to about this, and it would be better if they don’t talk back to me.”

Nick Offerman: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a pretty one-sided conversation. Early on, there was a scene where Ron was—I can’t remember if he was stealing power or cable, but he was up on a telephone pole singing “Wichita Lineman.” 

[Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson singing “Wichita Lineman”]

Nick Offerman: And so I do think that he was born a couple generations too late, and probably often was singing to himself in a soliloquy form, in a lovelorn way.

John Spong: And I wondered if there were reasons that he might like Willie, independent of yourself, because the two songs, the Willie songs that show up on the show, “Hello Walls” and this one—those are, well—I wonder if he was drawn to Willie before he became a hippie.

Nick Offerman: That’s a great observation. I think . . . I can’t help but think that Ron’s gateway into Willie may have been Red Headed Stranger. I think that Ron was also probably a big Johnny Cash fan, and any sensibility of a swaggering loner, a man of character who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I think Johnny was probably the gateway, and then he discovered the common sense of Willie’s heart, and was like, “Well, as long as I have my headphones on, I can listen to this poetry.”

John Spong: I’m surprised at how you would’ve even found this song. And if it’s through Megan, that’s awesome. But how did you find, do you know this album—when you talk about Willie and his character, can you picture this album’s cover? Have you seen it?

Nick Offerman: No. In fact, I mean, it’s one of the things that I often lament in the modern music delivery systems. I mean, Megan and I do have a vinyl habit, and we love putting on records, but we generally don’t get new records on vinyl. And it’s something we talk about a lot, about how albums used to be created to be consumed from beginning to end while you sat on your bedroom floor looking at the artwork and reading the lyrics. And it’s something that I really, when I say to somebody, “Oh, there’s this great new Tom Waits song”—and I don’t know the name of the song, and I don’t know the name of the album. Those files have atrophied in my brain drawers. And so no, I came upon the Willie records that I know and love . . . this came after when Megan turned me on to sort of these earlier songwriter moments. Do you have the album cover handy? [Laughs] Yes, I’ve seen this.

John Spong: Isn’t that awesome?

Nick Offerman: Yes.

John Spong: Everybody hit “Pause” and Google “Good Times, by Willie Nelson.”

Nick Offerman: That is so funny.

John Spong: Care to describe it for those without Google?

Nick Offerman: Yes. I don’t know who he is helping, but Willie is giving some putting instruction to an attractive lady in a mini skirt. He’s wearing a crushed bucket hat, a polo shirt, and some chinos, with some sort of slip-on—some sort of casual, slip-on sneaker-loafer. And they’re on a putting green, and in bright green and orange letters, it says, “Good Times: Willie Nelson.”

John Spong: That you picked—that y’all would put that one on the show . . . obscurists can appreciate it, but so can everybody else.

Nick Offerman: Well, it’s an interesting thing, as a creator and participant in film and television, living through the incredible soundtracks, where Tarantino springs to mind, and Steven Soderbergh, or the sort of Blaxploitation films—the idea of these incredible soundtracks, of curating a mixtape, bringing back songs from earlier eras, quite often forgotten treasures, where we think, “Oh my God! Sammy Johns’s ‘Chevy Van.’” We’re just like, “Holy cow!” And we’ve gone through a couple decades of that now, where—the Guardians of the Galaxy films are a recent example, where they have an actual mixtape storyline, and they bring back these great old sort of classic rock hits.

And I don’t know, as I’m formulating, as I’m trying to create the next projects in my life, something that I think about, especially now that I’ve come to know musicians like Jeff Tweedy . . . I always try and find places where I can collaborate with the musicians that I know. The Milk Carton Kids, Aimee Mann, Rhett Miller and the Old 97’s are people, friends, who I love and admire. And so, when you have them in your phone book, you think, “Oh, how can I get Aimee Mann to play over the credit sequence?” And it’s interesting. I feel like we’ve sort of burned out all of the popular, and the second-tier, songs. If you put an Al Green song, or “I Can’t Fight This,” what’s that—“Ooga-chaka, ooga-chaka”?

John Spong: Oh, from—Ally McBeal used it to great effect, once upon a time.

Nick Offerman: There’s a handful of those that if you use them now, the audience will groan. Because it’s become such a trope. And so, that’s something that I really love and appreciate about Mike Schur and the brains behind Parks and Recreation, is that sensibility of looking beyond the obvious, the sort of populist choices, and saying, “Well, we’re going to give you the comfort and recognizability of Willie and his voice and his sound,” but probably 96 percent of the audience is like, “What is this Willie Nelson song?” And just the whole . . . one thing Mike loves to do with his shows, Parks and Rec and The Good Place, is, he loves to, as a sort of Harvard big brain using comedy as a values delivery system, he’s always trying to explode the sense of genre and trope. And so this one episode that we used “Buddy” in was a real stand-alone—I forget what they call it; there’s a term for it.

John Spong: Like your Last of Us episode. It’s its own thing.

Nick Offerman: Yeah, like it’s on an island, or something.

Nick Offerman: And so I mean, when that script was turned in—and Mike wrote that himself—it was just this one-act play between the two of us, sort of taking all of the cachet and all of the investment that they had made in our relationship over seven seasons and playing on it, playing on the ways in which it was like a marriage torn asunder, and something that they had to fix, that they had to bring back together. And so the fact that the glue of that was this beautiful Willie Nelson musing was just really gratifying.

[Willie Nelson singing “Buddy”]

John Spong: How’d you become a Willie fan? What’s the history of your relationship with his music?

Nick Offerman: I mean, I’m an American who grew up in the seventies and eighties, and I’m not an idiot, I think is the main checklist. I grew up in a farming family in Illinois, and we didn’t have a lot—like most of the country, we didn’t have a lot of channels of culture. When you get outside of the city, you had only, sort of, mainstream stuff. And so Willie was one of the highest quality purveyors of songs that came across. If you’re getting Top 40 radio, you’re getting the Eagles, and all of the Beatles and Top 40 stuff, and Willie would sneak through. And there was just a sensibility, there was a sense of values, with a sense of humor and romance that just stuck, [and] is what made him the philosopher-wizard-king that he is. And then over the years, as I continued to matriculate in the kind of music that I love and learned about his songwriting career—I think it’s a huge epiphany in the world of any kid who is learning about Willie when you learn that he wrote songs like “Crazy.”

And you’re like, “Oh, wait a second—Willie? ‘On the Road Again’? Farm Aid?” He also was this incredible intellectual sort of creator, before he became this long-haired, bandanna-wearing figure. And then when I got together with Megan, in the year 2000—we’ve been together 23 years—Willie was just one of the sticking points. And early on, we went to see him play at Royce Hall, in Los Angeles, and it was just a glorious show. And I’ll never forget—we had seats in the front row of the balcony, and Willie was so incredible. It was the first time I’d gotten to see him live. And what kept blowing us away was seeing him, witnessing him play his guitar. We walked away from that saying, “Holy cow!” I mean, he’s such a superstar that it doesn’t occur to you that he’s also a virtuoso guitarist.

And there was this one fan, two-thirds of the way through the show, who came . . . We had the perfect point of view because we were right above the aisle down in the orchestra, and this fan came dancing down the aisle. It was beautiful—a middle-aged, sort of overweight guy, with a sleeveless T-shirt and cutoff jeans, just dancing and lost in a reverie, and danced all the way up to the stage, and standing there dancing, in a sort of—which makes sense, because we’re all seated in a sort of beautiful orchestral hall, and this guy is representing what all of our souls and hearts are doing, where we should all be on our feet, smoking a fatty and dancing to Willie. And it was funny because it had a tension to it, where it was like, “Well, what’s security going to do?” Like, this is clearly breaking some of the comportment of the room. And it was just beautiful, and everyone really enjoyed this guy. And towards the end of the song, Willie walked over to the front of the stage and handed the guy his bandanna. And everyone cheered, and it was just such a beautiful celebration of, you know, all things are permissible in the celebration of love and good music.

John Spong: Absolutely. But walk me through this. At some point, Willie becomes more to you than just a musician you dig. And to tie it in too, because you’re putting out the paperback version of your latest book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play . . . Willie became a role model for you, too. And you’ve got the previous book, Gumption, and there’s a whole chapter on Willie. 

Nick Offerman: Well, when I started writing books—which was a surprise to me; it’s been a very nice surprise—my second book, my editor and I were sort of spitballing ideas of what the second book could entail, and we came up with the idea of twenty-one . . . I believe the subtitle of that book is Relighting the Torch of Freedom With America’s Greatest Troublemakers, or something like that.

John Spong: Precisely.

Nick Offerman: Or “muckrakers.” And so it was me, it was passing along—in a way, actually, I liken that book to a mix tape, where it’s like when you’re at a party and you meet somebody who you really hit it off with, and you’re like, “Oh my God, you’ve never heard They Might Be Giants?” Where you’re just like, “Oh, you’re in for such a treat. Let me recite ten of their songs for you immediately.” And so the book has that sensibility of picking twenty-one Americans who really inspire me, and usually for reasons of thinking outside the box. Of being true to themselves and living in a way that put forth their unique sensibilities and, ultimately, they were rewarded for it.

Willie, in his life, several times sort of had to buck the system and say, “No, I could easily just fall into the Nashville system and just become part of the machine churning out these country songs, but unfortunately for you all”—and ultimately, fortunately—”I have a gift, I have a voice.” And so that sensibility, to . . . again, I was raised Catholic in this conservative little farm town by a wonderful family, but a very conservative family, culturally. Very taciturn, very shy. And so it was a real challenge for me to find a way to sort of communicate my sensibility to the world, to an audience, or to a readership. And Willie was one of the signposts that said, “Look, you can be known for thinking outside the box, for new and creative sensibilities, while still being taken very seriously.”

And he was a great sort of torchbearer on the path of “You don’t have to adhere to the set of square values that your small town upbringing would prefer you did.” And if you’re true to yourself, and you’re a good person, and you have a great work ethic, and you sing about subjects of character, then you can succeed to the point [where] you will be received with approbation, so that the members of that little town will say, “Well, yeah, I love Willie Nelson.” And you say, “Well then, would you like to buy some of my marijuana?” And they say, “Well, now,” and you say, “Well, you might not want to take a hit off my joint, but please understand that we Americans require nuance, and that as long as we’re not hurting each other, that we have citizenship in mind, maybe we can have a little more empathy for one another. Even if we think a little differently.”

[Willie Nelson singing “Buddy”]

John Spong: So let’s talk about Farm Aid, which Willie starts in 1986. You’re on a small farm in Minooka, small-town Illinois in the mid-eighties, right in the middle of the farming crisis. Was that crisis something that was real for your family?

Nick Offerman: It was. My relationship with agriculture has been really interesting over the years, because it’s my mom’s side of the family. And so her two brothers, and her parents, while I was growing up, they farmed soybeans and corn, so they’re part of industrial agriculture. They farm the raw materials, the monocultures that supply so many food systems, as opposed to row crops, as opposed to more agrarian efforts. But I didn’t learn any of that stuff until later. I mean, growing up, my uncles especially were like a couple of Han Solos to me. There were these incredible, heroic guys—and they still are—who managed to eke out a very healthy, robust living by growing things in the soil, by being so incredibly self-sufficient.

And so then later on as I began to read writers like Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, agrarian minds, then it became complicated, where I said, “Oh gosh. My family, who are heroic to me, are part of this system that we’re learning was actually not a great idea.” And as so many things in human history were like, “Oh! Cars, fantastic! The internal combustion engine, wonderful! This is going to make our lives terrific for a certain amount of time.” And then we’re going to say, “Oh, hang on. Oh, hang on.” Coal. Coal seemed heaven sent, until eventually we had to start chopping off the top of mountains.

And so our farming system sort of falls into that as well. And so the important thing that I take away—because I have a vested interest, it’s something that I continue to learn about and write about—is simply paying attention to our farmers . . . which, I love Willie and Neil Young and John Mellencamp and the others involved in that effort for that. Because one thing that consumerism wants us to do is not worry about where our food is coming from, or any of our products. That’s one of the most heroic things for me about Willie’s life and messaging and activism, is reminding us that somebody is growing our food. And that we need to think about their health, and we need them to think about the health of the soil, and the health of the food they’re making us. And I’m very glad to sort of be in Willie’s parade. I’m the third baritone sax towards the back.

John Spong: It gets at so much about him. I mean, it’s who he is. And so he’s gone on to have all the success and be one of the most recognizable, famous people in the world, blah, blah, blah. When he was a little kid and needed to get a calf in the 4-H Club or the FFA, whatever it would’ve been in Abbott, the community pooled together sixty bucks and got him that calf. And that was not charity. That was the community coming together. I mean, I used to live out in the country, and I remember one of the farmers’ little girls had gotten cancer or something. So they had this huge potluck and raffle—this is like just twenty years ago—to raise money for that kid. That’s not charity; that’s taking care of your kind, or your people. And Farm Aid is essentially that. Suicide rates among farmers were through the roof. All these farms were foreclosed on. And then, so, Willie is still doing it, whether people—it doesn’t have the awareness that it did that first show, ’cause it was a twelve-hour show with everybody you ever heard of playing. It doesn’t have that kind of awareness, but it has not slowed him down a bit. And he still signs every single check that Farm Aid sends out, be it to a farmer, or to the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, or whatever. It still means that much to him, and he never slowed down.

Nick Offerman: Well, and that is something that I am so grateful to have that example set for me. And it’s really, what it all comes down to is that we all rely on the agriculture of our country. And thanks to Willie and other heroes of this ilk, we need to keep reminding ourselves of that, because the suicide rate has not gone away. We continue to lose our small farms, and until we turn that boat around and we begin to appreciate the stewards of the land, we’re going to continue to be in trouble and have health crises. Everything is attached to it; everything is attached to the way we treat these natural resources. And so, for me personally, I’m grateful for Willie’s instruction in where to focus my attention and my patronage so that I don’t become an asshole with a yacht.

Recording of Willie Nelson at Farm Aid: Thank y’all very much and welcome to Farm Aid, the concert for America! And now how ’bout a nice hand for Mr. Roger Miller!

[Roger Miller sings “Old Friends”]

John Spong: So there’s a great moment in your Deer and the Antelope Play book with James Rebanks, your buddy in Scotland, who at this point I guess I can say is the world’s most famous sheep farmer.

Nick Offerman: That’s right. And he would want me to just correct you, he’s just below Scotland, in the northwest of England, in Cumbria.

John Spong: You’re a good friend.

Nick Offerman: They take those things personally.

John Spong: F— yeah.

Nick Offerman: Especially in the days of Brexit, and so forth.

John Spong: When he gets you to come help him put together—I’ve always called it a dry-stacked wall, but he had a different name for that too. But y’all work on rebuilding, repairing this centuries-old rock fence, rock wall, and you talked at the end; you said, “He didn’t do it because he loves making fences. He doesn’t love the process of making a fence. He loves his farm, he loves his animals, he loves his life there. So what he’s doing is something that he loves.” 

Nick Offerman: I recently, I wrote up a piece—I write a column regularly in Outside magazine, and it’s usually short, couple thousand words, with a little bit of humor—but the one that I’m just finishing, I was with James Rebanks, my shepherd friend, recently, and he woke me up at six in the morning and said—he always says, “Offerman, you want to do some farming?” And it’s pouring rain. I haven’t had my cup of coffee or a tea or anything. We throw on a jacket, we head out on his ATV because some sheep have escaped.

They’ve gone under—impossibly, they’ve gone under a section of wire fence. So we take some two-by-fours and some posts, and we go out into this pasture—his miraculous sheepdogs, after a few whistles on his part, they round up these twelve errant sheep. They corral them, I mean, just like a rocket—less than a minute. They gather them, they scare them back under this hole in the fence. And we are going to pound in a couple of huge posts and then slap up some two-by-fours to basically occlude this escape spot. And it’s raining, and he stands up on the seat of his ATV, and I’m holding this post, it’s like five inches in diameter. It’s six feet tall with a sharpened end. It’s just a log post. And he’s pounding this thing with a sledge in the rain, and I’m just thinking, “There’s no ride at Disneyland I would rather be on.” This is what I love, is—his farm needs this. And he understands that that also thrills me.

And so just anybody else would just say, “Are you an idiot? You could have stayed in bed.” And I just thought . . . and we’re also doing this thing that’s totally dangerous. The safest way—we both learned this from our dads—the safest way to do what we’re doing is to trust each other and relax. And trust that his sledgehammer is going to hit the post and not my wrists. And it worked. And I mean, I wish someone had filmed it, because he was so heroic in that moment, and in the gloaming of the early morning, watching this eighth-generation shepherd drive this post, and getting to be of service to that tradition . . . that’s what Willie’s music is all about for me. He understands. He’s not selling shopping malls. He’s not selling sneakers. He’s selling the beauty of human tradition.

And I mean, that’s the thing, is when I get to engage in farming with friends of mine, or when I get to succeed as a woodworker, or when I paddle a canoe that I’ve made across a river, it might as well all be to the soundtrack of Willie’s music. Because it’s chasing the same brass ring. Megan, in the pandemic, has become obsessed with cooking, and she’s become an incredible chef, and master specifically of the pie, which has its pros and cons, as you might imagine. The pros are in the taste bud region; the cons are in the waistline. But all of those things are celebrating the same things. But when we taste her third attempt at perfecting a peach pie, we might as well be turning on some Good Times, by Willie Nelson.

John Spong: That’s magnificent. 

[Willie Nelson singing “Buddy”]

John Spong voice-over: All right, Willie fans, that was Nick Offerman talking about Ron Swanson’s favorite song, “Buddy,” and a whole lot more. 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. And please check [out] also our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.

Oh, and be sure and tune in next week to hear the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg talk about how she went from being a longtime but fairly casual Willie fan to a full-blown true believer that first time she heard his cover of “Stardust” floating in through an open window. We’ll see you guys next week.