Cowboy Grace – An interview with Willie Nelson

By Douglas Heselgrave

It’s the middle of the afternoon and for the past few hours Willie Nelson has been talking to reporters about his new album, ‘Heroes.’  For a writer, it’s not the ideal situation, and as I bided my time in the middle of the queue, I worried that by the time it was my turn to speak to Willie, he’d be burned out and his answers would be perfunctory and clichéd. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I went away from our conversation realizing how little I really understood about this singer and songwriter that I’d been listening to for most of my life.

Over the years, the red headed stranger has slowly metamorphosized into a grey haired icon who has become as synonymous with American culture as Mickey Mouse or the Titanic. He’s been called one of the most recognizable people on the world, and millions of folks who never listen to country music know about his stance on marijuana, biofuel and the dangers of factory farming.  For many, Willie Nelson represents a way of life that has all but disappeared, so it’s not surprising that for the last four decades or so, his fans have created myths, images and expectations around him that have all but obscured the man behind them. 

If any of this bothers Willie in any way, it’s certainly wasn’t evident when we spoke.  Serene and imperturbable, open and empty of expectations, it was almost unnerving how utterly present Willie is in conversation.  At this stage in his life, he certainly doesn’t need to talk to anyone if he doesn’t want to, but from the beginning to the end of our chat, he exhibited a Bodhisattva-like calm that goes beyond any explanation that all the pot he’s smoked could account for.   So, when I asked him about his new album, ‘Heroes’, not surprisingly his first comments deflected attention away from himself and onto everyone else who contributed to the record. 

“You know Doug, there were really a lot of great moments in putting this album together.  Buddy Cannon, the producer, got such great talent together.  There were such wonderful musicians who worked on this album, and that’s really the key to every good record.  All those musicians on there were just incredible.  They played each song with exactly the right amount of feeling and emotion.   A lot of the success of this album goes to those musicians.  I can’t thank them enough for what they did.” 

He paused a moment, obviously lost in a private reverie before resurfacing with “so many great memories.  So many great songs.”  Picking up the thread, he continued, “A lot of the songs on this one came from Buddy and Luke, so I can’t really take credit except for the songs I wrote myself I guess.  ‘Heroes’ was one of those songs.  I wrote it for and about Billy Joe Shaver.  He’s one of my favorites and just a beautiful singer still” 

Like Slim, the cowboy Buddha in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the quality of silence between Willie’s sentences resonated as deeply as anything he says, and like that character he is secure in his own ego and reluctant, even after repeated attempts, to aggrandize himself, preferring to see himself as a conduit or a catalyst for the music rather than ‘anything special.’  In a culture defined by celebrity worship, where fragile egos live and die by what is written and said about them, Willie Nelson is a survivor who reminds us that of all the paths through stardom, the road less travelled is the one that leads to humility.

As we began to talk about the songs on ‘Heroes’, I remarked that the most interesting aspect of the record for me was just how good his son, Lukas’ songs have become.  Willie’s voice became warmer as I’d obviously brought up a subject close to his heart. “Oh yeah, I’m proud of Lukas.  I’m so proud of all of my children.  He and Micah – both of my sons – are on the album in different places.  As for Lukas, ‘Sound of Your Memory’ is a good song.  I really like that one and ‘No Place To Fly.’ I think they’re some of his best compositions” 

‘Sound Of Your Memory’, especially, sounds like a great, lost Willie Nelson song, and I wondered aloud if he had ever taken any part in writing any of his son’s music.  “ No, but when he writes something he sings it to me and I’ve always liked everything he’s written.  He’s never written anything bad, but of course some of them are better than others.  He’s just naturally a good writer.  The song, ‘Just Breathe’ by Eddie Vedder is one that Luke brought in.  It might be my favorite on the album. I think it’s a great song that just builds a great story.  Now, you know, I’ve noticed over the past few years that Luke’s band, Promise Of The Real, is just full of a lot of young guys that are just incredible musicians.  You could put them in with any band out there – Dylan or any of those guys - and they could hold their own.  There are a lot of great young musicians out there that really know what they’re doing and I wanted some of them to play on this album.  It makes me feel good.”

When I remarked that there were a lot of older players of his generation like Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price singing on the album, too, and wondered if that was a conscious choice, Willie may have thought I was over-analyzing his process and preferred instead to reminisce about his time with Ray Price. “ Well, I do know that Ray Price and I go way back.  Those are some good memories. I played bass with him in the early sixties.  We were on the road for a while.  He and I were good buddies and we enjoyed being on the road together riding on the bus.  He’s still the best country singer out there.  He really is.” 

We spent a few minutes discussing some of his song choices for ‘Heroes’, and I admitted to being baffled by why he had chosen to record ‘The Scientist’ a pop song originally sung by ColdPlay.  I told Willie that it was a song that I couldn’t stand when it was on the radio, and I was interested in what he heard in it, and how he was able to unearth the beautiful melody that was so deeply embedded in the original.   He laughed for several seconds before saying, “Well, you know I always rewrite every song I sing so that it suits me!”  “But,” he continued, “I liked the idea of a commercial first of all which was for the small family farmers against the big corporate farmers.  I’m just glad that there was a song and a video and a commercial that talked about that, and I was glad to sing the song because I thought it fit the whole thing perfectly.” 

As our conversation began to naturally wind down, I realized that I hadn’t asked him about ‘Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die’, his duet with Snoop Dog that celebrates everyone’s favorite weed.  Willie laughed and offered, “I thought I’d written it, but just the other day I came to find out that there was another song with the same idea around.  There were I don’t know how many writers on it and I just don’t know.  You can have part of it if you want!"  Once we’d stopped laughing, he continued, “But, it’s a song that was a natural I thought and the timing was right.”

Still, I remembered how Walmart refused to sell his ‘Country Man’ album in its original format because of the marijuana leaves on the cover, and I wondered if he felt a song like that would alienate a portion of his audience.

“No, in fact I close my show with the song every night and it’s a great sing along.  It was funny to see, but we had an 84 year-old lady celebrating her birthday in the house last night.  She was right down on the front row and she was standing up and singing right along with ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die’” 

With visions of Keith Richards snorting up his father’s ashes mixed with cocaine, I asked him what kind of high he think I’d get if I had the chance to roll him up and smoke him when he died, and Willie didn’t skip a beat before answering, “Oh, I don’t know, but I’d go and get a shot real quick.  There’s no telling what you’d catch! Don’t take any chances out there!”

We shot the breeze for a few minutes as our time together drew to a close, but just before moving on, Willie offered, “Doug, I am a lucky man and I have to tell you, thinking about this record, and the time I spent making it, it was just as good as it gets to have my kids in there with me.  What more could you want?”



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Tags: dougheselgrave, lukasnelson, rayprice, snoopdog, willienelson

Comment by Carolyn Victoria Mill on May 30, 2012 at 1:40pm

Great interveiw with a living legend. Willie's combination of classic, quality songwriting and unique performance chops, alongside his willingness to stand up for what he believes in, make him a human worthy of our admiration -whether he was looking for it er not.

Comment by Almost Out of Gas on May 31, 2012 at 10:51am

Doug! Thank you for this wonderful piece. Very inspiring and warm....


Comment by TenLayers on May 31, 2012 at 12:31pm

Yes, thanks for this..

Comment by JP Flynn on June 5, 2012 at 7:08am

 I met & talked with Willie more than 20 years ago & I too was struck with his Buddha-like calm & gift of being able to utterly focus in & concentrate on me as if I was a long lost friend & not just another passing moment.

Thanks for describing this so accurately & making me realize the real art isn't just the songs & performance but the soul of the man.

Comment by Tommy Lagniappe on June 6, 2012 at 11:15am

Thanks Doug it was fun reading your interview with Willie and I feel as if I know his personality better through your words.

Comment by Miss Holly on June 6, 2012 at 2:43pm

Beautifully written interview, Doug!  Just yesterday I started reading his 1988 autobiography ("Willie" with Bud Shrake) and already I am impressed with the eloquent, almost spiritual quality in his reminiscences.  He's clearly embraced Life to the fullest.  Willie has been one of my Heroes for many years, for his music, his passions, and for being an authentic, good person.  His presence blesses us all! 

Comment by Jim Farlow on June 6, 2012 at 5:20pm

Absolutely great interview , The world loves Willie! :)

Comment by Kathryn Elich on June 8, 2012 at 1:51pm

Thank you for this piece on Willie Nelson~ I will share it with others.

Comment by Terry Roland on July 1, 2012 at 2:09am

I missed this when it originally posted....great interview!


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.