Last Man Standing: Happy Birthday Willie Nelson

Happy 88th Birthday Willie. A tribute to the master singer/songwriter and American icon. Includes previously unpublished great story involving Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Billy Joe Shaver.

Happy 88th Birthday to the timeless legend Willie Nelson. I had the pleasure of profiling Willie for the Wall Street Journal. around the release of his excellent Frank Sinatra tribute album That’s Life. I’m sharing the story here, along with an unpublished part of my interview about his late, great Texas outlaw buddy Billy Joe Shaver. It also involves Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts. Please subscribe and share if you enjoy!

The story ran in the Wall Street Journal on February 27, 2021.

Willie Nelson Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again

As he chafes against the pandemic’s restrictions, the country legend has released two albums while overseeing a radio channel and two cannabis companies

You might think that Willie Nelson, at age 87, would enjoy a chance to slow down his constant touring, after decades of playing about 150 shows a year, two weeks on and two weeks off. But when Covid-19 shut down live performances last year, the self-proclaimed “road dog” didn’t repair to his Texas ranch or his Maui home to relax and wait things out.

“This is the worst time of my life,” he says. “I have never been this frustrated. I try to think positive, but I feel like I’m in jail—I can’t go here, I can’t go there—and that really pisses me off.”

Mr. Nelson remains strikingly prolific, averaging about a new album a year while also writing books. He also oversees a SiriusXM channel called Willie’s Roadhouse and two cannabis companies: Willie’s Reserve, which sells a range of products with THC (the principal intoxicating compound in cannabis) and says it operates “under a simple philosophy: my stash is your stash,” and Willie’s Remedy, which features hemp-based “wellness products,” including CBD-infused coffee, tea and lotions.

“That’s Life,” a big-band tribute to Frank Sinatra released Feb. 26, is Mr. Nelson’s second release of the pandemic, following last July’s sparse, elegiac “First Rose of Spring.” That album made its debut at number five on the Billboard country album chart—Mr. Nelson’s staggering 53rd top-10 album, making him the only artist to have a top-10 country album in seven straight decades, from the 1960s to the 2020s.

That run is particularly amazing for an artist who, early in his career, was sometimes considered too stark, idiosyncratic or downright weird to make it as a country performer. Mr. Nelson’s first triumphs were as a songwriter, most notably with Patsy Cline’s 1961 take on his ballad “Crazy,” which became one of the biggest jukebox hits of all time. He recorded as a solo artist from 1962-72 but didn’t find consistent success until he ditched Nashville, haircuts, suits and alcohol in favor of Texas, long braids, jeans and joints.

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Mr. Nelson also bypassed any concept of musical genres, proving equally comfortable in a duet with his “Outlaw Country” buddies Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, the pop crooner Julio Iglesias or the blues and R&B greats Ray Charles and B.B. King. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Sinatra called each other their favorite singers; both shared distinctive phrasing and an ability to make any song they sang their own.

That was clear on “Stardust,” Mr. Nelson’s 1978 album of American standards. Record executives thought that releasing the collection at the height of his country stardom was foolish, but it became a number one album and cemented his place as an iconoclast who transcends genres. “It was amazing that they thought I was crazy, because I can’t imagine anybody not loving those songs,” says Mr. Nelson. “They never get old and never will. There’s one thing about a good song—it’s always good.”

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Mr. Nelson had huge hits throughout the ’80s, including “On the Road Again,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (with Mr. Iglesias) and “Always on My Mind.” He also appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, starting in 1979 with “The Electric Horseman.” In 1985, he worked with Neil Young and John Mellencamp to found Farm Aid, an annual concert that has raised millions of dollars for family farmers.

That era of stardom hit a wall in 1990 when the IRS seized Mr. Nelson’s assets, estimating that he owed $32 million in back taxes. Mr. Nelson even feared that the government might auction off his beloved guitar Trigger. He refused to file for bankruptcy; instead, he recorded a two-disc album (“The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?”) of some of his favorite songs, sold initially only by mail order via TV ads and later released in stores. He recorded it alone, featuring just his voice and guitar, primarily to keep costs down, but in the process created a sparse fan favorite. Proceeds from the sale helped him settle his debts by 1993.

Mr. Nelson, who has been married since 1991 to his fourth wife, Annie Nelson, is a sparse but genial conversationalist—until you tiptoe up to the topic of any of his friends and musical collaborators who have died in recent years. He has faced a relentless series of such losses, most recently with the deaths last fall of fellow Texas singer-songwriters Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker. “Yeah, it’s horrible,” he says in a tone that sounds like a door slamming shut.

Mr. Nelson seems to prefer thinking forward, looking toward his next project—and he always has something in the works. He is currently excited about a gospel album that he cut with his sons Lukas and Micah and his daughters Paula and Amy. In June, his 10th book, “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America,” will be published.

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That follows up last September’s “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band,” co-written in alternating chapters with his big sister, who was his first musical mentor and has been his piano player since the early ’70s. The two were raised by their grandparents in Abbot, Texas. “She taught me so much,” says Mr. Nelson. “When I was 8 years old, I’d sit next to her on the piano bench and try to learn what she was doing as she played songs like ‘Stardust’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont.’ I look forward to hearing her play every night and take so much comfort knowing she’s over there on the right side of the stage.”

Mr. Nelson has been an outspoken marijuana advocate for decades. He credits replacing heavy drinking and a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit with marijuana in about 1971 with changing his life—and maybe even saving it. Mr. Nelson says he dumped out a pack of cigarettes, filled his empty Chesterfield pack with 20 freshly rolled joints and never looked back. After decades working with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a Washington-based nonprofit group, Mr. Nelson says that he is happy to see more of the country coming around to his way of thinking, including legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Nelson’s other key to longevity is probably more mainstream. “If you want to live a long time, you have to take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to pay for the day, every day. As you’ve always heard, if you don’t use it, you lose it. You need to move. So every day, I’ll jog or walk, do some sit ups—just a little something to pay for the day!”


The following part of my interview, focusing on the great Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, a running partner of Dickey Betts, Waylon Jennings and, of course, Willie, has never been published. Enjoy it.

I talked to Gregg Allman about life on the road, and he said to do this road, you have to have a little bit of a gypsy in you, to enjoy it. Have you thought about it in that regard? As having a little bit of gypsy in your soul and just wanting to be on the move with the wheels turning? 

WILLIE: Well, yeah! You know, Billy Joe Shaver wrote a song about me called "Willie The Wandering Gypsy." And that's me. 

I love "We Are The Cowboys,” the Billy Joe Shaver song on your last record.

Great song. That was about America, shows all the faces of America, and shows how we're all cowboys trying to get things done.

Billy Joe, of course, we just lost, which is just a giant loss. The people who understand, understand what a giant of American music. 

Yeah, it's horrible. 

Yeah. You testified as a character witness for him, not that long ago. 

Yeah, in Waco when he shot someone. [laughs] Me and Robert Duvall both were witnesses for him at his trial. It was kind of funny because when we got to the courthouse, we all went up on the same elevator and stairs, me and Robert Duvall with all the jurors. And we signed autographs and took pictures all the way up to the top. And, when we got there, we knew they weren't going to vote Billy Joe guilty. But one of the funniest things I've ever heard was, when he was there, he told the old boy that he shot, that "I want my bullet back." [laughs]

His wonderful memoir is filled with great stories, one of which involved walking out of a bar and getting cold-cocked by a guy he'd never seen the guy and he said, "What was that for?" The guy said, "I owe Dickey Betts one and I know you're friends with him." 

Well that guy's lucky that Billy Joe didn't, you know, hurt him. Really hurt him.

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Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and  One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band  – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions.  He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.