Micah Nelson was two months from turning three years old when his dad released Across the Borderline in March 1993. Even hard-core fans may not remember that Willie was at a crossroads back then. It had been almost four years since he’d had a number one country single, and his label, Columbia Records, was talking about reclassifying him as a “legacy act.” Across the Borderline changed that, and, in a very real way, its closing track—the high-octane, Trigger-heavy anthem “Still Is Still Moving to Me”—powered the living legend phase of Willie’s career that he’s been riding ever since.
On this special Father’s Day episode, Micah, now a visual artist and leader of his own band, Particle Kid, discusses the indomitable energy in “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and how much fun he has playing it each night as the rhythm-guitar picker in his dad’s Family band. From there he goes on to describe the drive to constantly be creating that he inherited from his dad, one of his dad’s favorite Roger Miller stories, and the magic of discovering obscure songs Willie wrote and recorded decades before Micah was even born.
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 Jackie Ibarra 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, with Father’s Day just around the corner, we talk to Willie’s youngest son, singer-songwriter and visual artist Micah Nelson, about the song that closes his dad’s landmark 1993 album Across the Borderline, “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” It’s one of those great Willie songs that seems to have everything, and yet nothing, to do with the rest of his catalog; it’s equal parts mission statement and force of nature; and it prompts deep thoughts from Micah on the drive to create, one of his dad’s best friends—the great Roger Miller—and the magic of discovering old Willie records that others might have forgotten. So let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson playing “Still Is Still Moving to Me”]
John Spong: Where we’ll start is where we always start. What’s so cool about “Still Is Still Moving to Me”?
Micah Nelson: What’s so cool about it?
John Spong: Yeah. Why’d you pick that one?
Micah Nelson: Well, that song has always kind of stood out to me for a lot of reasons. One of them is like, it’s not a love song. It’s not a heartbreak song, or a drinking song, or a cheating song. It’s not even really a country song, but it’s got universal . . . It’s relatable in that it’s a song about being a being, like, moving through life, moving through reality, and kind of looking around, and just a person with consciousness trying to figure it out. Yeah. It’s really like, it’s like a psychedelic rock song, when you break it down. It’s got these existential lyrics and this driving beat and these kind of minor chords. And it’s a very different song, and it’s got that section where it just goes, “La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la.”
John Spong: Yeah.
Micah Nelson: It’s almost like, “Okay, I’ve given up on trying to explain this feeling in any language. English can’t quite—I can’t quite put it into words, so I’m just going to just go beyond language and sing gibberish, and maybe that’ll help express the feeling.” And there’s something really psychedelic about that to me, that is unexpected, and, yeah, it’s always resonated with me on many levels.
John Spong: That’s awesome, because, yeah, I hadn’t put it together like that, but the line is, you know, “It won’t come in words, but I know how it feels,” and so, you know what?
Micah Nelson: Yeah. “I know that it’s real.” Yeah.
John Spong: “To hell with words. Let’s go somewhere else with this and just express it,” and I like that. Well then, yeah. Can I spin it? Will you listen to it with me?
Micah Nelson: Let’s listen. Yeah, let’s hear it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Still Is Still Moving to Me”]
Micah Nelson: Yeah, so good.
John Spong: I just love that song.
Micah Nelson: Wow. I play it every night pretty much, with my dad on tour, but I realized I haven’t heard that original record version in so long. It’s very nostalgic; it’s so f—ing good. Oh my God. The guitar playing on it is just insane.
John Spong: I’ve heard you talk in places about how, you know, a two-note solo is what you need a lot of the time, and don’t shred to shred.
Micah Nelson: Yes.
John Spong: The guitar on this record, on this song—
Micah Nelson: Shredding.
John Spong: I’ve never . . .
Micah Nelson: It’s face-melting. And there’s a whole minute or so intro before any vocals even come in, where it’s just a guitar jam. It’s great. And there’s not that many lyrics. He’s really like, he’s just, he’s ripping. It’s just—it’s great. It’s not, you know, when you buy a country album . . . The only thing that’s making that song feel like a country song is maybe ’cause it’s got Trigger on it, and it’s got maybe a steel guitar somewhere, and that’s about it. If he was playing an electric guitar, that could be on any B side of a Can album or something.
John Spong: [Laughs] Can doesn’t come up on this show much; I love that. But that’s it: I remember when that song came out—and it was with Don Was, and so it’s a different production style anyhow—but that part you referenced, the “la-la-la-la,” that’s poppier, or it struck me as that way. It really was this kind of whole new place, it seemed. And the guitar, that was the first thing I was going to ask about. But this song, for me, kind of unlocked so many of the things people had always said about Willie that, not being a musician, I didn’t quite get. Phrasing is one of them. I didn’t notice for the first twenty years of listening to this song a lot, the way . . . People always say, “[He] sings behind the beat,” or whatever. The way he goes, “Still is stiiiiill moving to me,” I’m like, “Oh, that’s what they’ve been talking about the whole time.” This song is so accessible. I never even noticed that.
Micah Nelson: Yeah. He’s always stretching the pocket, pushing and pulling, playing with time. This song demonstrates all that really well. The jazz influence, yeah, not just in his vocal phrasing, but in his guitar playing. And I love the section where it breaks down, and he just repeats “Still is still moving to me,” almost like in a trance.
John Spong: Yeah.
Micah Nelson: Yeah, it’s great. It’s a great-sounding recording, too. I remember—it takes me back, because I was a little kid when that came out, when that album came out. Apparently, I think my mom told me one time that he wrote it . . . We were on tour, I think in Europe or something, and he was out riding bikes around with my mom, maybe with me and my brother on the back of the bicycles or something, and that’s when the lyrics came to him, riding his bike. “Still is still moving.” It’s really kind of a road song too, I think, about being on the road, because on tour you’re in this big metal spaceship, and you’re sitting there but you’re constantly moving, even when you’re sitting still. And I like the idea of the kind of mystical aspect of it too; you could be sitting with yourself in a room, and because you have consciousness and you have an imagination and you could travel space and time, you’re still moving. Even just sitting in your room, you can go anywhere.
John Spong: You can come up with a song.
Micah Nelson: Yeah. Yeah. You can come up with a whole record, sitting there.
[Willie Nelson singing “Still Is Still Moving to Me”]
John Spong: Well, to pivot slightly, can you talk a little about your dad? Since it’s Father’s Day and all, can you talk a little about your dad as a dad?
Micah Nelson: Well, you know, he’s never been a textbook parent. He never read the book, Parenting Book 101, but as far as someone who’s setting an example of integrity and compassion and of perseverance and resilience in the face of just the worst things you can imagine, and using your talents to make something of your life, and treating people with respect, and all these things that he represents, I just—he’s great. He’s a great dad. I’ve learned so much from him. But yeah, like, my poor mother, she’s the parent. She’s the only one who was ever . . . She was a single married parent, as far as that goes. But yeah, I feel so lucky to have him as a dad and to have grown up with him at a point in his life where he’d kind of gotten most of the just reckless, crazy s— out of his system, and was kind of a little more ready to at least try to . . . not settle down, but he’s mellowed out, let me put it that way.
He had a lot of hindsight and wisdom that I could pick up on. And also, it was at a point, lucky for me and my brother, where we could afford to go out on tour with him. We could afford the help, and it’s like, there were times where, yeah, he was gone a lot, but generally, we made great effort to be there, and we kind of got to grow up in the band with him and grow up on the bus. Once we were old enough to where it was like, “Okay, you have to go to school; you can’t miss that much school,” we would still, in the summers, we’d go out on tour with him.
John Spong: And you started playing harmonica at, what? Three?
Micah Nelson: I was three. Yeah. Yeah, Mickey handed me a harmonica, said, “Here’s left, and this here’s right. See the low notes, that’s left. And the high notes, that’s right.” That’s how I learned left from right, playing the harmonica. Eventually, he’d hand me the microphone and I’d take a harmonica solo, once I got good enough.
John Spong: Oh, wow. How old was that?
Micah Nelson: That was kind of my first musical training. I don’t remember how old I was. I was a little spud. But the harmonica taught me—because, no matter whether you suck or blow, if you’re in the right key, all you need is rhythm and a sense of phrasing. That’s why it’s a great instrument to start, because you’ll just start imprinting your nervous system with the feeling, physically, of playing and hearing what happens when you hit this and that and how it interacts, and developing an intuition first, which is better than “Here’s the rules,” you know?
If anyone’s out there thinking about getting into music, I would say, if you’re learning the guitar, it’s like, “Okay, just learn to play songs; learn to sing songs and play them. Learn two chords. That’s a million songs.” Anyway, that’s what I did early on; I played the harmonica. And I just wanted to be with my dad, so that was like, I got to be onstage with my dad and kind of be in the band and play, but it was actually, I think, a good initial training for being a musician.
John Spong: When you list some of the characteristics that you admire from your dad and hope you have picked up from him, I was thinking . . . because clearly, well, you’ve got this innate musical ability. I mean, you’ve just described how you got there, but I mean, I’ve tried some of those things too, and I can’t do any of them.
Micah Nelson: Well, how long did you try? I’m obsessed. That’s the difference.
John Spong: I wasn’t obsessed enough with that. Yeah.
Micah Nelson: Yeah. That’s the only difference, I think. I mean, I have an imagination; that helps. But I sucked at all this stuff for a while until I was better. And you have to be frustrated, and want to quit, and then just—but love it so much, and love the feeling, and be so obsessed with the ideas in your head and want to make them happen so badly that you just can’t give up. You just have to keep going, even if it drives you crazy. Yeah.
John Spong: And that’s where I was headed. I’ve seen you describe yourself, for whatever musical talent you were born with or honed, you’ve always said that you kind of feel defined by your curiosity and the drive to create, to take an idea and turn it into a thing, and you do that with animation, and you do that with film, and you do it with painting and visual art, and there’s something about that drive. It’s what we’ve been talking about with your dad, about how he just never stops, and just keeps going. I wonder if that’s the big thing maybe you got—but what do you think?
Micah Nelson: Sure. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. That’s, I think, maybe the root of it all, is just curiosity and obsession that just drives . . . It’s like, I hear something and I love it, or I see something and I love it, and I’m like, “I want to do that. I could do that.” And then I start fantasizing about it, and I know, okay, well, maybe I can’t actually do that, but I’m going to try really hard and it’s going to be some version of that. And how interesting to see what it becomes, what my version of that would be. It’s just—and there’s a million different variations on that theme of the possibilities of just things you could do with your life.
[Willie Nelson singing “Still Is Still Moving to Me”]
John Spong: It seems like, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re playing with your dad more often at the moment. I know it comes and goes because of your own band and other stuff you’re doing, but it seems like you’re doing it a little bit more in recent years. Can you talk about what that’s like these days?
Micah Nelson: Yeah. Since Aunt Bobbie passed away, there’s obviously been a big gap sonically, and just in many ways, in his band, and I decided that, yeah, I’ve got my career and my band, but I said, “Dad, I’m there. Anytime you go out, I’ll play rhythm guitar.” So I’ve been playing acoustic rhythm guitar and singing backup with him, and just kind of helping drive the sound. It’s been really, really fun. We played some great shows. I just did this tour with my band, this little West Coast run, and my brother and Logan, from his band, they went out—because they were off, so we could kind of tag team; he could go out and play in my dad’s band for their tour. So we try to do that. Anytime I can’t make it, I’ll see if he can do it. But yeah, it’s been fun. It’s cool. We play a lot of dominoes, and we play the show, and then we play dominoes again.
John Spong: I didn’t put it together until recently, but your—the rhythm guitar, so much of the rhythm was going to be Bobbie’s left hand, and what she was doing, your aunt’s left hand. And so, it’s an important piece, musically—it needs to be there to fill things out—but it’s spiritually too, it’s family. It’s been a “family band” since your dad hooked up with Bobbie in ’72 or whenever it was, to finally, well, to become the artist that we all love so much. That was the key, right there.
Micah Nelson: Yeah. She’s been over to the right of him for—forever. So yeah, it’s different. But I’m trying to be as much of that pillar as I can. Like, I always thought of her as the tree that’s rooting everything, and he’s this crazy bird flying around the tree, and nobody knows how he’s going to land, but he looks over and there’s the branch. It’s always right there, and somehow he’s always able to . . . You know, and Mickey is like the wind that’s pushing his wings around, and Mickey’s still there. So I’m just trying to be as much of a tree as I can, keeping it simple and driving, and locking in with Kevin and Billy, and the shows have been great. I mean, and Aunt Bobbie’s there; she’s always there. It’s a different sound, but the songs are so great, and he’s singing and playing so great. He might be a little out of breath the first couple songs, but after that, it’s just amazing. Like, I just start laughing sometimes, listening to him play. It’s like, wow. It’s incredible. He’s a genius.
John Spong: Yeah. Are y’all always making music? I mean, there’s like a bluegrass record that they’ve been trying to put out for months. It’s been ready forever, and it sounds like there’s more records that you’ve recorded with your brother and your dad that are just kind sitting around, whenever the label says, “Okay, it’s time.”
Micah Nelson: Well, the bluegrass record, I did the album art for that—which, they sent the mock-up and, “Cool, looks great.” I heard the record. It sounds awesome. “Still Is Still Moving” is on it—bluegrass version.
John Spong: No! Bluegrass?
Micah Nelson: Which is so good.
John Spong: Oh, wow.
Micah Nelson: Yeah. I mean, as far as I know, that’s the next record coming out, but I’m not super in the loop, I guess, lately. We did a few records over the pandemic. Most of them, I think, came out, though.
John Spong: The Family album, with the spiritual stuff on it, came out.
Micah Nelson: The Family album came out, and we did a Roger Miller tribute album.
John Spong: Really?
Micah Nelson: That has not come out.
John Spong: Oh, wow. Was it just the three of y’all, or more people, or . . . ?
Micah Nelson: I think it was just the three of us. I played drums and bass, and my brother played guitars and sang with my dad. I might have sang a little bit. Just trying to think of stuff that we did. That’s one that we did that I thought was really cool. I don’t know.
John Spong: Can I ask about it? ’Cause, I mean, aside from being a huge Roger Miller fan myself, I know how tight he was with your dad. And so the first time I ever interviewed your dad, or one of the first times, I wasn’t going to ask him a question he hadn’t heard before. But where it became an interesting conversation was kind of when we were about done, and I said, “Can you tell me about Roger Miller?”
Micah Nelson: That’s a good question to ask him.
John Spong: Everything changed. Can you tell me about Roger Miller? What has your dad said about him and that friendship and those times—or has he?
Micah Nelson: Oh man. He’s got so many Roger stories. Roger was just a constant source of just hilarious genius, all the time. I never really knew Roger that well. I don’t remember him.
John Spong: I think he died before you were born, or right around there.
Micah Nelson: He probably died before I was born, yeah. But I just have a slew of anecdotes about Roger that—I’m sure my dad told you a bunch of them. You know, they’d be driving down the highway, and it’d be this beautiful sunset, and Roger would go, “Just think if God had money.” You know? My dad’s like, “Wow, beautiful sunset.” “Yeah, just imagine if God had money.” Just so hilarious and irreverent. He was just like Robin Williams or something. He was just nonstop, just a character. But then he could write the most beautiful, heartfelt songs too. He had his funny songs, his quirky songs, but yeah, he was just another li’l genius hanging around.
John Spong: That song that he did with your dad and Ray Price, “Old Friends,” was always one of my very favorites of any of the three of them. That’s just such a powerful and genuine song about old buddies—and they weren’t old yet.
Micah Nelson: Yeah. Yeah, they were old buddies.
[Roger Miller singing and Willie Nelson playing “Old Friends”]
John Spong: At the birthday shows in Hollywood in April, the big ninetieth, you played “The Ghost” on the first night with Daniel Lanois. That song is [twenty] years older than you. It’s about as deep a cut as you can get, you know? How’d you find that?
Micah Nelson: It was actually around the time I wrote “Die When I’m High.” It was Christmas of 2020, I think. I was hanging out with my dad a lot. We were in my garage . . . ’Cause, I was just trying to—we were all trying to just come up with excuses to work on something, and also to get him to sing, keep his voice going, so we weren’t just sitting around rusting away. And I don’t remember how we started listening to that album, The Party’s Over . . .
John Spong: Oh yeah, from —
Micah Nelson: . . . but it’s the most depressing album ever written. It’s the saddest—like, songs to slit your wrists by, as my dad would say, and some of them are so good. These little lost gems. And I think he was just like, “Did you ever hear this one?” He played “The Ghost,” and I don’t think I’d ever heard it. It was so—he always manages to take something just generic, like lost love or a broken romance or something, and give it this superunique twist, some angle on it that nobody’s ever done. It was like the idea of the memories of the broken relationship, the lost romance, revisiting you each night as an actual specter, like an apparition coming into your room.
[Willie Nelson singing “The Ghost”]
Micah Nelson: [Laughs] That phrasing. It’s like a David Lynch film. Sounds like something from Blue Velvet or . . .
John Spong: Yeah.
Micah Nelson: It’s such a weird, dark song, haunting song. Ahead of its time, I would say.
John Spong: It was one of those songs that made me think, “Oh, yeah, maybe the timing just wasn’t right.” The world needed to catch up. Because like you were saying, the look on your face—”The silence is unusually loud tonight. The strange sound of nothing fills my ears.”
Micah Nelson: What the? That’s the greatest intro to a song ever. It’s like, “Okay, I’m in. What’s happening here?”
John Spong: Oh, and “The ghost laughs as I listen for the breaking of day.” That was what was so cool about you and Daniel, because like you said earlier, there’s something spectral about that imagery, and that’s exactly what y’all brought to it.
Micah Nelson: Thank you. That’s good. That’s what we were going for. Yeah. I mean, it’s like, you don’t always get the opportunity to play a song like that for that many people, in that situation, where it’s like, okay, yeah, we could do a song that everybody already knows, or we could say, like, “You think you know Willie Nelson. You don’t know this one, but you should.”
[Micah Nelson singing “The Ghost”]
John Spong: Back to “Still Is Still Moving to Me”—the other thing that floors me about this, has always floored me about this album, but this song in particular: it comes out in ’93, and it is just finally getting to the other side of a really tough stretch of time for the whole family, right? And the IRS stuff, and all kinds of other things, and the record label’s talking about “heritage-act time,” or whatever they would call it in the business. And so, to make this record—it brings in a lot of new fans, because it brings in rock fans and pop fans. Don Was, when we talked to him and he was explaining how the record, the album, was made, he said that it kind of launched Willie on the “living legend” part of his career—which has lasted thirty years. But the thing there that gets me with this song is that the whole album does that: it establishes him as this ever-changing artist. But then this song has so much energy. This is actually the momentum that takes us up to ninety-year-old Willie still doing his thing every night.
Micah Nelson: That’s it. Well said. Yeah. I think there’s a reason why he plays this song every night. It’s usually the second or third song that we kick off in the show, ’cause it’s got such energy, and it probably, for him, you know—just like you said, being in that kind of crucial crossroads moment of a career, where it’s like either you’re going to be washed up and you’re going to be a legacy act, or you’re going to channel something fresh and energetic and kind of dangerous and edgy and catchy, and you’re going to ride that into the next several decades and keep the thing going. And this song, I imagine, is part of that. It represents that triumphant renewal, that reenergization of his career, and—and it’s fun to play.
John Spong: [Laughs] I was going to ask.
Micah Nelson: It’s a rocker. It’s just, it’s high energy, and it gets the show started. You want to kind of kick it off with a one-two punch. You know, we’ve got to start with “Whiskey River.” That’s just—
John Spong: Yeah, you’re locked into that one.
Micah Nelson: It’s the law. But then, he always—if it’s not the second song, it’s the third song. He’ll kick off “Still Is Still Moving.”
John Spong: So there’s this guy, Dave Kirby. He’s a poet from Louisiana, and he just wrote this essay about your dad. Although really, but it was in the shape of a review of a show y’all did in Tallahassee earlier this year. He went bonkers for you. He really loved what you were doing up there.
Micah Nelson: Was this . . . Yeah, was this . . . It was really beautifully written, like—
John Spong: It was in the Oxford American a couple months ago, I think.
Micah Nelson: I think I remember reading that and—yeah. If that’s the one I’m thinking of, that was great. Yeah.
John Spong: Yeah. That was the thing, there was a lyrical quality to it. It wasn’t written by some journalist. It was really beautiful. But the thing that I found in it that got me, he closed it by talking about “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” For everything else that happened that night, that was the thing, the song, the moment that really got him, and he described it as . . . He said, “It begins with a frenetic Django Reinhardt–style intro that would make dead people dance. With the allusiveness but also the duende of a Lorca poem, the lyrics intimate that life is short, but while we still have it, life is about freedom, and freedom means staying in motion.”
Micah Nelson: Wow.
John Spong: Whatcha think?
Micah Nelson: There you go. He nailed it. Dang.
John Spong: That’s the song y’all play, right?
Micah Nelson: Yeah. That’s why we play that every night. It’s a tone-setter. It’s a reminder. Got to keep moving.
John Spong: Yeah.
Micah Nelson: Use it or lose it.
[Willie Nelson singing “Still Is Still Moving to Me”]
John Spong: Do you have a Father’s Day message for your dad, or for all the dads?
Micah Nelson: [Laughs] Get some rest.
John Spong: [Laughs] You saved my shit-ass question. That was the f—ing worst, man.
Micah Nelson: [Laughs] You’re welcome.
John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Micah Nelson, celebrating Father’s Day with us and talking about “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” 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, when we will visit with the great Amanda Shires. She’s fixing to release a duet album, which she recorded during the pandemic with Willie’s sister Bobbie, and she’s going to talk to us about the title song, “Loving You.” It’s the only song Sister Bobbie ever wrote, it’s beautiful, and Amanda’s description of working on it with her hero, Bobbie Nelson, is unforgettable. We’re gonna see you guys next week.