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.