This interview was originally published in November 2002.
Willie Nelson — looking exactly as we have come to expect him, with waist-long hair tied in braids, red bandanna, dusty jeans and sneakers — is in Honeysuckle Rose III, his tour bus, before a sold-out concert at Harrah’s Casino near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Nelson spends more time on the bus than he does at his 700-acre ranch near Austin, where he has a golf course and a recording studio. He’s no homebody. After all, he’s the guy who wrote “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
The bus, outfitted with satellite TV and DVD, a 30-speaker stereo and a satellite-modem computer, is parked in the shadow of Harrah’s. It’s smoky inside, the result of a cigar-size joint smoldering in an ashtray, another expected feature of Nelson’s traveling living room. (Nelson is a famous dope smoker and proponent of legalized marijuana, who even rolled a big joint on the White House roof when he was a guest of President Jimmy Carter.) As comedian Robin Williams cracked during his recent tour, “When he looks at Willie, even Buddha’s going, ‘That guy’s mellow.’”
Carter isn’t the only president to have hosted Nelson. Though Willie proudly inhales, his fans include President Clinton and both George Bushes. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Nelson. His enormously broad audience is visible when he leaves the bus to duck into a back entrance to Harrah’s. When he walks onstage, there’s deafening boot stomping and hooting. Nelson’s music crosses most genres and has near mystical appeal to all sorts of people, typified by tonight’s crowd: 20-year-olds in ripped clothes with pierced body parts, boozed-up cowboys, white-haired retirees, aging hippies, wild-haired Hell’s Angels and buzzcut-and-goateed entertainment executives up from Hollywood. “Anyone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is dead or may as well be,” according to Kris Kristofferson, a friend and frequent collaborator.
Born in 1933, Nelson grew up poor in Abbott, Texas, where he was raised in a family of musicians, including his grandparents and his piano-playing sister Bobbie (still a band member). His window on the world was the crystal radio on which he first heard Jimmie Rodgers, Benny Goodman and gospel music. “It was a hard life,” he says, “but we had music.” After picking up the guitar at six, he accompanied Bobbie at church recitals and began writing poems and songs by the time he was seven years old. As a teenager, he performed in Texas dancehalls and bars, covering songs by his heroes Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell. Before he recorded his own songs, he began selling his compositions — for $10 and $25 — to music publishers and musicians. His first hit wasCrazy, recorded by Patsy Cline. Next came hit songs for Ray Price (Night Life) and Faron Young (Hello Walls). Other singers had hits with his songs, including The Party’s Over, Funny How Time Slips Away, Good Hearted Woman and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.
In the early Sixties, when he moved to Nashville, Nelson performed with such country stars as Mel Tillis and Roger Miller; and while playing bars and clubs most nights of the year, Nelson broke into the country top 10 with Willingly and Touch Me. In 1975 he releasedRed Headed Stranger, a masterful concept album that established him as a first-rate country artist. The remainder of the century was Nelson’s with such hits as Georgia on My Mind, Whiskey River, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, I Gotta Get Drunk and, of course, On the Road Again.
In 1978, Nelson released a record with 10 of his favorite songs, standards like Moonlight in Vermont, Someone to Watch Over Me andOn the Sunny Side of the Street. The record, Stardust, remained on the best-selling album charts for more than a decade. Nelson had become a symbol of and hero to — as he proudly puts it — “cowboys, lowlifes, rednecks, hippies, bikers — hell, all sorts of misfits like me.”
Nelson’s life has been as bittersweet as a country song. He has been married and divorced four times. In 1990, the government sued him for tax evasion (the final bill: $16.7 million). Nelson blamed his tax woes on some bad investment advice, but the IRS seized much of his property and sold it. To help pay the bill, Nelson released a mail-order album titled Who’ll Buy My Memories?: The IRS Tapes. He suffered a personal tragedy in 1991, when one of his seven children, Billy, committed suicide. But Nelson’s family — blood and extended (including many of his band members) — remains close-knit. Willie’s sister, Bobbie, plays in his band, and two of his daughters and a granddaughter run his website (willienelson.com), where his fans congregate and CDs and other merchandise are sold. Nelson was once well known for his heavy drinking as well as his marijuana use. “I’ve toned down,” he says, “but toning down ain’t the same thing as quitting.” His friends say he is healthier than ever, running, playing golf and practicing martial arts and yoga.
In addition to his music, Nelson has established himself as a champion for the family farmer with his annual Farm Aid concerts. With his friends Neil Young and John Mellencamp and other performers, Nelson has raised millions of dollars for the cause. Meanwhile, Nelson has also found time to write for and act in films, including The Electric Horseman (with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda),Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson) and Wag the Dog (with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman). This year he turned author, too, releasing The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes, which became a best-seller.
When we decided to sit Nelson down for an interview, we sent Contributing Editor David Sheff, whose last interview in these pages was with billionaire Larry Ellison. Here’s Sheff’s report: “Nelson is unique in the canon of American celebrities because he has crossed so many boundaries. When I said as much to him, he wrinkled up his I’ve-seen-it-all eyes and smiled. ‘I’ve fooled lots of folk, haven’t I?’ Then he let out a laugh — one of many that punctuated the interview.
“Much of the interview was conducted on the Honeysuckle Rose at a small dining table set with a bottle of Old Whiskey River, a family-size box of Zig-Zag rolling papers and filled ashtrays. The mood was generally light, but at moments Nelson became thoughtful and somber. They didn’t last long, however; with a twinkle in his eyes, there would follow some wisecrack and another fit of laughter.
“Indeed, when we first sat down for the interview, Nelson rubbed his hands together. ‘Most times I can’t tell interviewers the good jokes — only the G-rated ones,’ he told me. He grinned widely. ‘But this is Playboy. It’s gonna be fun.’ It was an opening if I ever heard one.”
Playboy: PLAYBOY: Well? Do you have a joke you’d like to tell us?
Nelson: [Beaming] OK. A lady went into a drugstore and asked if they had any Viagra. The guy behind the counter, the pharmacist, said, “Yeah,” and she asked, “Have you tried it?” He said he had and so she asked, “Can you get it over the counter?” He thought about it awhile and then said, “I think I could if I took two.” [Laughter]
Playboy: Do you….
Nelson: There’s one more thing about Viagra.
Playboy: What’s that?
Nelson: They say it can make a lawyer taller. [Laughter]
Playboy: Where does all this joking come from?
Nelson: Jokes help pass the time on the road and they help get through life. You got to laugh. I always loved a good joke.
Playboy: If you’re always laughing and joking, why are so many of the songs you’ve written sad?
Nelson: Those are the three-in-the-morning songs. That’s when you may not feel so much like a joke. Also, as a songwriter I’m challenged by sad songs. They’re harder to write.
Playboy: What makes them harder?
Nelson: I don’t know, but I can knock off a happy ditty pretty easily. Something real — something meaningful and deeper — is harder. You may not be feeling all that happy when a song comes in the middle of the night. You may not be feeling so good because you had too much to drink or stayed out too late. So the feeling might be there, but crafting it into a song is the challenge. And, of course, sometimes you’re fooling around on the guitar and suddenly you just played a piece of a new song and it wakes you up. You think, What was that? I just wrote a song. Of course, then you can’t remember it [laughs]. All those lost songs. So the sad songs may come from sad experiences, but not necessarily. You draw on your past — the stories that you’ve heard, your friends’ lives. If I write a song about breaking up with my girlfriend, it doesn’t mean I’m breaking up with my girlfriend. It means I thought it would make a good song.
Playboy: But to write or sing the blues, don’t you have to have lived them?
Nelson: If they’re real, yeah. But at the same time I wrote songs about love affairs when I was five and six years old and I hadn’t had any. I just listened to other songs and realized I could write ones, too. I had no idea what I was talking about even though I thought I did. But the truth is that you couldn’t sing songs and make them believable if you hadn’t experienced the blues. If they come across as real maybe it’s because they are real. It doesn’t mean I’m depressed when I’m writing, though I have been there. It’s not like I started writing songs as a way to express how sad I was. I wrote poems before I could play the guitar, and after I learned a few chords and put melodies to the poems. I knew I could make a rhyme and write songs, so I never really made the decision to start doing it. I just did it. I thought everybody could do it. I make records when I have enough songs to go into the studio. Then I go out and play — play the songs every night.
Playboy: You’re smoking a joint as we talk. Do you believe pot is harmless?
Nelson: Too much of anything is no good. Too much alcohol, too much sugar. I think pot is a lot less harmful than alcohol for most people. What happens to people on pot? They get mellow! People who are drinking can get dangerous, but not people on pot. People I know have quit every drug and even drinking, but they may still smoke a little pot to take the edge off. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t drink as much as I used to. I don’t get drunk anymore. If you take a couple of sips, there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Playboy: Does marijuana affect your memory?
Nelson: What was the question? [Laughs] I don’t know if it does. I remember an awful lot about an awful long life, and I don’t know if I would want to remember any more [laughs].
Playboy: Do you think that there’s any chance the pot laws will be changed?
Nelson: They may be, someday. There is some momentum at least in terms of medical marijuana. I love that they don’t want people who are dying to smoke pot because — why? It will kill them? People smoke marijuana and their brains don’t fall out. It’s not a big deal and most people know that. I have cut down. [He smokes and laughs.] I am healthier now than I have ever been. I run almost every day, and if the weather’s good, I play golf.
Playboy: Do you ever worry that you romanticize pot and drinking?
Nelson: I hope I don’t. There’s a whole thing about romanticizing the lifestyle and I agree that it can be dangerous. Many of my heroes when I was a kid were alcoholics, which I think is a bad thing. What are you learning? Somewhere along the way you think if I’m going to be like Hank Williams I got to get drunk like Hank Williams. I sure tried it and I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore. George Jones drank. Bob Wills. A lot of them. I’m not blaming Hank or anyone. I would have drunk anyway. Most young people do at some point. But I admire the people who pulled themselves out. They are the real heroes. I admire the ones who survived and got sober. It ain’t romantic to be a drunk. Which leads to a joke Roger Miller told me about the guy kicking tires at a used car lot. The salesman came up and asked, “You thinking about buying a car?” The guy said, “No, I’m gonna buy a car. I was thinking about pussy.” That’s in my book.
Playboy: Why did you write the book?
Nelson: Just something I always wanted to do and there was a lot of interest. Thought it would be the best to do like a daily diary or journal. Whenever I got up in the morning I tried to remember where I was or guess where I was last night and write about all that and throw in a joke every now and then. Whatever I thought about at the moment.
Playboy: Do you keep journals?
Nelson: Never keep them, but if I did that’s what they would sound like.
Playboy: Was it similar to writing songs?
Nelson: Completely different, a lot easier. Songs have to have a form, to rhyme, to follow a theme, but when I write this other stuff I can go all different directions. When you run out of something smart to say it’s nice to be able to tell a joke, which is why I told all these stupid jokes in the book.
Playboy: Is it a struggle each time you write a song?
Nelson: It gets easier over time. You get better at it like anything else. You get pretty good at it and instinctively know what you have to do. One of the hardest things is keeping it within limits. It can’t be 20 minutes long — has to be two or three minutes. That’s the challenge.
Playboy: When you play your songs, do they bring you back to the time you wrote them?
Nelson: Depends on whether I want to go there or not. Sometimes it’s not that pleasant to make all those trips; sometimes you don’t want to feel it. But sometimes you do — the songs take you there.
Playboy: Do you know how people will like any given song? Can you predict which songs will become hits? Do you have a sense if a song has the potential to become a classic — an On the Road Again or Crazy?
Nelson: I wish I did, but you never know. A lot of songs I have written — 99 percent or more — have never been heard by anyone. I think they are good songs, as good as any. I have written more than 1000 songs, most of them never recorded. The timing wasn’t right or whatever. The songs that became the hits don’t tell the whole story. Most songs disappear without a trace. You never know how people will take to them, what will strike a chord. If you did, you’d always do it. You’d record only hits. No one can do that.
Playboy: Do you like to listen to your voice?
Nelson: Sometimes. I hear me a lot, so I can get sick of it. I listen in a different way than most folks probably do. I am critical, listening for when I’m on key and in tune and when I’m sounding like a hyena or something. Other than that, I just do it and don’t ask too many questions. It works best that way. I’m just glad people like it when they do. I am blessed they do. I don’t have an act. I’m like this all the time. I’m just me. I’m lucky if I can remember the words. If I can, that’s really all I have to do on any given day.
Playboy: In your book you recount the night when you forgot the words to Crazy.
Nelson: [Laughs] Yeah, I did. Never had before. The audience always likes it when I mess up. They think I’m ripped. I wasn’t. Just forgot.
Playboy: Your biggest hit song was On the Road Again. What inspired it?
Nelson: I was asked to write a song for the movie Honeysuckle Rose by the producer, Sydney Pollack. I asked, “What do you want the song to say?” Sydney said, “Something about being on the road again.” So I said, “How about this: ‘On the road again, on the road again, I just can’t wait to get on the road again. The life I love is making music with my friends, and I can’t wait to be on the road again.’ How’s that?” He said, “Something like that, sure.” He wasn’t that impressed.
Playboy: Honeysuckle Rose was one of the few major movies you’ve done. How have you chosen them?
Nelson: You can trap me with a guitar or a horse. Write a story about those and I’ll jump it. I’m doubtful about anything else. Wait. I have a little joke. Did you hear about the duck that went into the bar and said, “You got any grapes?” And the bartender says, “No.” So the duck left, then came back the next day and said, “You got any grapes?” Bartender said, “No.” Third day he came back, said, “You got any grapes?” The bartender said, “No. I didn’t have none yesterday, the day before, today don’t have none. I won’t have none tomorrow. If you ask me again, I’m going to nail your feet to the bar.” The duck comes back the next day, says, “You got any nails?” The bartender says, “No.” And the duck says, “Well, you got any grapes?” Sorry. What did you want to know again?
Playboy: Some musicians complain that they’re pigeonholed in one musical genre. You record and sing everything. How have you gotten away with this?
Nelson: Fooled an awful lot of people an awful lot of the time [laughs]. I’m lucky, I know it. I just play music I like. Many people can’t do that. People are always worrying about if I am country, rock and roll, blues or whatever. They don’t know where to put the new Willie Nelson CD in the record stores. When I came out with Milk Cow Blues, working with people like B.B. King, Dr. John and Susan Tedeschi, they were worried that it shouldn’t go in the Willie Nelson bin in country music because it didn’t fit. It was blues, but what about the rest of the Willie Nelson records? Where do you put Stardust? That ain’t country or blues. Where the hell does my new record,The Great Divide, go? It’s one of the reasons I like the Internet. People can listen in and see what they think and are more likely to try new things. A kid into rock and roll ain’t going to go hanging out in the country section of a record store, but maybe he would like a song filed away over there. Gospel, reggae, classical — whatever. It’s why I collaborate with everyone from B.B. to Merle Haggard to Sheryl Crow. On the new record, I’m doing songs by Bernie Taupin and Matt Serletic, and Lee Ann Womack sings with me. So do Bonnie Raitt, Brian McKnight, the Jordanaires and Kid Rock. It’s a hell of a good time. But it’ll drive you crazy if you want to classify it.
Playboy: After all your collaborations, is there anyone left you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
Nelson: I would like to sing with Barbra Streisand and I haven’t done that. Maybe if I say it enough times it will happen.
Playboy: What inspired the collaboration with Paul Simon?
Nelson: I’d cut Graceland with Paul. I love that song. I know that some people think it’s strange when they hear me playing with someone like Paul Simon, but I don’t make those distinctions. To me, we’re all musicians. What’s the difference between a rock musician and a country musician? I can relate to reggae musicians or classical musicians. We’re all just playing music. I’ve done it with just about anybody. Bob Wills, Bob Dylan. Waylon Jennings. Johnny Cash. Julio Iglesias.
Playboy: Including rapper Lil Black, who made a wild version of On the Road Again?
Nelson: It just happened that we were all in the same place in Texas and they asked me to do a rap on On the Road Again with them. It was fun. I’m always interested in something new.
Playboy: Do you like rap?
Nelson: I like some of it, don’t like some.
Playboy: Some people criticize rap and hip-hop for violent and misogynistic lyrics.
Nelson: I don’t like that shit and don’t necessarily want to encourage it. But I understand it’s the way people are speaking. Rather than worry about trying to put an end to Eminem or some other rapper, Lil Black or Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg, whatever or whoever, politicians should think about why they’re rapping. If they are growing up in a violent ghetto, do people expect them to sing about flowers and — whatever the hell? It’s a lot easier to try to censor some kid swearing about the poverty on the street or whatever it is than to stop the poverty on the street. Solving problems is harder.
Playboy: Yet you try. What brought you to the issue of the family farms and the founding of your charity, Farm Aid?
Nelson: I started Farm Aid in 1985. I worked on farms and ranches growing up, but I didn’t know there were any problems. Neil Young and I were just talking. After all these concerts, you’d think the farm situation might be better.
Playboy: It’s not?
Nelson: It’s not. It’s getting worse. I always knew about farming — grew up on them. Knew it was hard and knew that farmers didn’t always make ends meet. Later I saw the Live Aid concert, Bob Geldof’s benefit held the same day in England and the U.S. The money was for the famine in Ethiopia. Everybody played — Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Madonna. I was in a motel somewhere and was watching when Bob Dylan came out and played. He said, “It would be nice if some of this money that’s going out all over the world could stay here at home. Our family farmers are in trouble.” I started checking around and learned more. I discovered that it was a serious problem. I was working in Springfield for the state fair and ran into the governor, who came by for a bowl of chili. We were talking about the farm problems and he told me more. We started talking about a concert. The first Farm Aid show was in Champaign, Illinois. I thought politicians and Americans would learn about the plight of farmers. I thought we’d do a show, raise some money and it would be solved. I called up Neil Young and John Mellencamp and thought we would take care of the problem. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that. We once had 8 million family farms in the Fifties, and now we’re down to less than 2 million and we’re still losing them — losing 500 a week.
Playboy: Why are small farmers better?
Nelson: The huge companies are destroying the environment. We’ve seen what happens when you aren’t careful. Look at the mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease. Small farmers have to take better care of their land, have fewer animals grazing. We also need to stop producing genetically engineered food, another fiasco introduced by agribusiness. They only care about volume, not health, and never mind taste. I want a tomato that tastes like a tomato, not one that tastes like a piece of — I don’t know — cardboard.
Playboy: How would you help farmers?
Nelson: Farmers should get fair prices.
Playboy: Does that mean subsidies? Why should farmers be given special federal subsidies and special help from the likes of you?
Nelson: They don’t really want subsidies. They want enough money to make a living without subsidies. They want enough money for their product and don’t want giveaways or welfare, but they can’t compete with the corporations subsidized by the government. America was founded as a place for everyone, where everyone has an opportunity. Do we want it to be a place only for the rich? I don’t. It’s worth fighting for and that’s the American way, too. After September 11, everyone forgot what it is we’re trying to protect. It’s understandable that we want to be safe, but let’s not lose the America we love. After the terrorist attack we’re not supposed to criticize America. It’s viewed as unpatriotic. But true patriotism is wanting America to be the best place it can be.
Playboy: How did September 11 change your life?
Nelson: Like everyone. I watched it and at first thought it was a movie they were promoting. I hear that kids saw that over and over again and didn’t understand that it was a single attack — they thought that it kept happening every time they showed it on TV. I didn’t like the way the news media exploited it. No wonder we’re toughened to things like that. We see it and don’t know it’s real because we are bombarded with images. Every time you see it, it starts looking more and more unreal. How long are we going to exploit it? When are we going to let it become what it was? Are we going to learn lessons from it or keep making the same mistakes?
Playboy: What lessons?
Nelson: Are we going to look at poverty, disproportionate wealth and the horrors in the world or ignore them? The poorest places are the ones where terrorism breeds. If someone wants to kill me bad enough to kill himself at the same time, there has to be a reason. People jump all over you if you ask the question, but if someone in America murdered 10 people or 3000, the first thing we would ask is Why? Nothing can justify the attack, but there might have been something we could do to prevent an attack in the future. I’m not talking about giving in or negotiating with terrorists. I’m talking about looking at the complaints of people in the world who hate us. Is it because our troops are over there? Are we afraid to say that? Anything else? Our policies regarding Israel? I’m not saying we should stop doing anything they don’t like just because they don’t like it, but we should understand why and try to acknowledge that people in other parts of the world have rights, too. That they matter. What arrogance to say it doesn’t matter what they think. It’s not un-American to ask these questions. It’s un-American not to ask them. America really stands for human rights and freedom. Let’s apply it everywhere.
Playboy: What led to your performance at the benefit for September 11 victims at which you sang America the Beautiful?
Nelson: Just got a call and they asked. Of course I would do it. Everybody at the show felt helpless and wanted to do something. If any of us could have gotten ahold of Osama bin Laden, we would have cut him into a million pieces, but we couldn’t get ahold of him. We are still frustrated. We may have gotten a whole lot of people, but not the ones who actually did it. Where is Osama? How do you stop terrorism when your enemy is scattered in 80 countries? At least they stopped pretending that we have won any wars. For a while they were saying it: We won the war, blew Afghanistan sky-high. Big deal. Blew up a lot of dirt. I can’t see that we have won any wars. The information you get from the people in charge is frustrating; they lead you to believe that they don’t know any more than you know. All the alerts — trying to scare the hell out of us — don’t seem much good. I’m not sure what good there is to try to scare the death out of every man, woman and child in this country saying the bogeyman is coming. If they know for sure, that’s one thing. But the more times you hear them say “Be alert,” the less alert you get. You can only stay so alert. When you say something and it doesn’t happen, you’ve lost the crowd.
Playboy: After the concert, some people were saying that the money wasn’t reaching the victims of the attacks. What was your view?
Nelson: I hope the people who deserved the money got it. After Farm Aid, I know the types of problems you can have with a charity. You get a lot of calls and letters asking for money. Most are legitimate requests but some are not. I’m sure with the millions we took in at all the shows, there were criminals trying to figure out how to get the money. I can understand why you would want to take your time. Maybe they took more time than anyone thought it should.
Playboy: In our interview with Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, he was particularly incensed about this issue.
Nelson: Bill O’Reilly screams because it gets more people watching him. I used to pull tricks like that when I was in radio. I used to read letters from the one listener who was saying what a horrible disc jockey I was and how did I ever get into this business. I’d get 20 more letters from listeners telling me how good I was. I know what O’Reilly is up to. He’s building his ratings. He ain’t bullshitting anybody. He would build ratings any way he could — by putting down whoever on the way.
Playboy: He maintained that celebrities who asked the public to give had a responsibility to make sure the money got to the intended recipients.
Nelson: We did, and as far as I know it did.
Playboy: He also complained that celebrities wouldn’t discuss it on his show.
Nelson: And help him with his ratings? Why? That’s one show I won’t be doing.
Playboy: Let’s talk some about your background.
Nelson: I can’t remember. You know, all that pot….[Laughing]
Playboy: What are your earliest memories of music?
Nelson: I was raised in the cotton fields around Abbott, Texas. There were African Americans and Mexican Americans and we listened to their music all the time. I also heard gospel music, Hank Williams and whatever else was on the radio — country or jazz or blues. There was music in the family, too, since my grandparents, who raised me, played. They took music courses by mail. My older sister Bobbie played piano and I got a guitar when I was little. She played and I’d play along. Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. The first song I ever sang was Amazing Grace. Since early childhood, we played together in church, sang in school and went around to talent contests. Still playing together.
Playboy: When did you begin to write songs?
Nelson: I wrote poems before I wrote songs and then I put them to music. My first guitar had strings so far off the frets that they made my fingers bleed, but I played all the time.
Playboy: When did you have your first professional gig?
Nelson: I played around when I was pretty young, playing some of the roughest joints anywhere. The best was the Bloody Bucket in West Texas when we carried pistols in our guitar cases. I went from Texas to Tennessee, Nashville, to try to break into the business. I was writing songs but it wasn’t until I went back to Texas that I found an audience for what I was doing. Sold my first songs. I got $50 for Family Bible and $100 for Night Life. It was like getting a million bucks.
Playboy: Who was coming to see your shows?
Nelson: It changed over time. The audience for country music was changing, expanding. I had grown my hair and was playing just when the hippie-redneck thing was a big deal in Texas. The long-haired hippies over here liked country music by Hank Williams and Waylon and other people, and the old redneck cowboys liked the same thing. I sort of put them together with Red Headed Stranger, which was the first big success I ever had. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was a single that did well, too. The look I had until then was me trying to look like I was supposed to look: putting on a suit and tie and short hair. There was a show business look and I tried to do it, but I never felt comfortable. It took a while for me to figure out exactly who I was.
Playboy: What inspired Stardust?
Nelson: There were more pop songs being brought into country music and more strings and more arrangements. It was just an idea. I wanted to bring back Stardust, All of Me and those songs. I played them in clubs and people liked them. It didn’t matter that they weren’t so-called country music. It’s just music and those are beautiful songs.
Playboy: Were you surprised by the success?
Nelson: Of course. All I ever wanted was to make a living playing music. I did that pretty young. I wanted to be like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, my heroes. The rest is gravy. Good gravy, I admit.
Playboy: Where did you meet Waylon Jennings?
Nelson: In Phoenix one night in a club. He was at an all-night cafe. He’d been playing over in another club, and we started talking and found out that we were both from Texas. We became good friends. I miss him, but he’ll always be around. We wrote Good Hearted Woman together. What a great man, a good friend.
Playboy: When you play his songs do you miss him?
Nelson: Sure. It takes time when your friend dies. You want to hear a joke?
Playboy: Are jokes your way not to deal with emotions?
Nelson: Maybe. Hell, I deal with them. I been dealing with them all my life. Do you want to hear a joke or not?
Playboy: Why not?
Nelson: A man and a woman who had been married forever were having breakfast and the wife said, “Honey, do you remember our wedding night when we were sitting here 50 years ago? Afterward, we were sitting at this same breakfast table without any clothes on.” He said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Do you think we could do that again? Sit here without clothes on?” “I guess so,” he said. So they took off their clothes and she said, “Honey, my nipples are just as hot for you today as they were 50 years ago,” and he said, “I don’t doubt it, since one’s hanging in the oatmeal and the other’s in the coffee.” [Laughs]
Playboy: Is it tough to be reaching an age when you’re watching your friends pass away?
Nelson: You got another choice? Sign me up. You just keep breathing and that is all you can do. And there’s a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about. I mean to see the changes in the world — not only the bad ones, but also the good ones. Look at the Internet. Now we’re communicating with people around the world without having to go through a record company or publicity machine. We’re sending songs out in digital form. Amazing shit.
Playboy: Part of sending songs out on the Net has raised controversies about copyrights. Are you concerned?
Nelson: I think it’s all good. I’m for the people and this is giving them a new way to listen to music. It’s good for artists, too, especially breaking artists, because it’s a way to get heard even if they haven’t been signed by a big label. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to get paid for my work, but I do all right. Things are shaking out and the Internet may work like the radio or something so artists get their royalties. I’m not worried. I put samples of songs on the web all the time. You ain’t gonna hear this stuff on the radio. They’ll sort it all out — royalties, whether you’re gonna have to pay taxes on the Internet.
Playboy: Taxes must be a sore subject for you after your widely publicized IRS audit.
Nelson: The Infernal Revenue Service.
Playboy: Which in 1990 presented you with a bill for tens of millions of dollars.
Nelson: An impressive sum. I got an official letter. I owe what? We knew it was coming, actually. It was happening to other people who invested in the same things I invested in — these shelters we were sold on — and we were told to expect it. They seized everything I had. I was angry, of course. Especially angry at the people who advised me and got me into the mess.
Playboy: Were you thumbing your nose at the IRS by releasing The IRS Tapes album?
Nelson: I was just trying to test their sense of humor, I suppose. I actually heard that they thought it was pretty funny. The funniest part was that it was the best promotion for an album I ever had. People heard about it everywhere. The more people heard about my troubles, the more they came out to help. I got phone calls and letters from people wanting to do everything you can think of. At shows, people would try to give me money. Friends bought my stuff so I could buy it back from them.
Playboy: What lessons did you learn from your IRS debacle?
Nelson: A couple of things. First, not to trust other people with things that are your responsibility. I just didn’t want to know and I let people make decisions and nodded, thinking, I’m just playing music. “You deal with this other shit.” That was a mistake and I want to know what people are doing in my name and with my money or anything else. Second, it made me think clearer about what I really want in my life, what I need. You can get caught up thinking you need a lot more than you do. Then it can be like a weight on you, keeping you down. The IRS didn’t mean to do me a favor, but in a way they did. They helped me clean house. I didn’t need all that stuff anyway.
Playboy: Stuff like?
Nelson: Stuff like a jet. That’s what can happen and then you have all this shit and think, Now I have to pay the bills. I prefer the bus anyway. Everybody thinks it was this hell in my life, but it wasn’t. It was just something I had to get through. There has been worse.
Playboy: Presumably the worst was when your son Billy committed suicide.
Nelson: That was the worst. Everything is insignificant when you have to face something like that. Billy’s with us though. That’s the way I feel about it.
Playboy: After four marriages, have you given any thought to a fifth?
Nelson: My lifestyle isn’t conducive to marriage. It took four times because I guess I’m a slow learner. Maybe they didn’t like my sense of humor. How do you change a dishwasher into a snowplow? Give the bitch a shovel [laughs]. Still, every one I was married to was a wonderful woman. My lifestyle’s a little hard. I’m on the road so much.
Playboy: Did you miss anything because of all the miles you’ve logged?
Nelson: Did I miss anything? I’m sure I did. But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same. Wrong or right, it’s my life. Sounds like a song, doesn’t it.