The 82-year-old outlaw-country-music king and gay-rights advocate Willie Nelson isn't just alive and kicking, he's kicking through boards. For his 81st birthday, Willie earned a fifth-degree black belt in the Korean martial art called GongKwon Yusul, where feet smash boards like they're matchsticks. (Willie says it's more about mental strength, though.) His musical footprint is substantial, with more than 60 studio albums released and more than 40 million albums sold in the United States. This month, Willie released his latest album, Django and Jimmie, with his longtime gunslinging homey Merle Haggard.
To date, Willie has 11 Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993. Rolling Stone has him in the top 100 singers and the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. They also have "Crazy" (made famous by Patsy Cline, penned by one Willie Nelson) at number 85 among the 500 greatest songs of all time. To me, though, the most impressive Willie Nelson number is $37,000. That's how much someone paid for his snipped-off braids when they went to auction last year.
Willie spoke from his bus, driving toward Kalamazoo. When he got on the phone, I broke into the chorus of his song "On the Road Again."
Did you smoke weed today? Yes I did. I do the vaporizer now. Better for the voice. You don't get any of the smoke or heat with the vaporizer.
Would you consider yourself a wizard? I'm not sure. I'd consider myself an entertainer, a songwriter, and a guitar player. I try to stand up for what's right and fair. You mean like a wizard that casts spells with a wand? I only have my guitar, Trigger. Do you consider me a wizard?
I think you're getting toward wizard status, yes. Especially with your fifth-degree black belt. Who's the better wizard, Gandalf or Dumbledore? Let me think. That's tough. You're hitting me with the difficult questions. Are those guys from Star Wars? I would have studied up on wizards if I'd known this is how it was going to go. Usually, someone will have a question about me being a radio disc jockey in the '50s.
You smoked marijuana on top of the White House when Jimmy Carter was president. Were you scared the Secret Service would shoot you up there? I probably should have been. I was too busy looking at the way the roads all come together. Was that a wizard question?
That was very much a wizard question. I see. Well, the city planning in Washington, DC, really is something.
You wrote "On the Road Again" on a barf bag on a plane. Do you still have the barf bag? No. I have no idea where that barf bag is. One of those wizards probably has it.
Seriously, you should get into wizardry. Gandalf doesn't have shit on you. I think I'll stick with GongKwon Yusul. I've got all the clothes for it.
You're a supporter of gay rights. Yes, I am. I'm a supporter of common sense. I've known straight and gay people all my life. I can't tell the difference. People are people. We'll look back and say it was silly anyone ever argued about it. I never thought about marriage as something only for men and women. Gay people should be just as miserable as the rest of us [laughs]. Love doesn't discriminate, and it shouldn't be discriminated against.
How did Patsy Cline find your song "Crazy"? What do you remember about writing it? I wrote "Crazy" while I was living in Houston. It was one of three songs I wrote in the span of a week driving at night back and forth from a club where I was working. When I got to Nashville, I had these songs, and I ran into Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline's husband, at a bar called Tootsies. I had a demo copy of "Crazy" that I'd recorded and played it for him on the jukebox there. He said, "Let's let Patsy hear it." So we went over to their house. He went in and woke her up. She came out and made me come in, and we played it for her. She loved it, and recorded it the next week.
What are your thoughts on the music industry? There's a business side, which I've always tried not to get mixed up in. I never want someone telling me how to write music or play songs. The music industry does that. The people programming music at big radio stations don't know a thing about music or the musicians; all they know about is money.
You toured with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings as the Highwaymen. What do remember? All the luggage we had. We had 300 pieces of luggage. We had all our families and kids and everybody traveling with us.
You and your wife started a biodiesel company, BioWillie. Why do we need biodiesel fuel? Because there's no need to go around the world fighting for oil when we can grow this stuff in our backyard. Truckers are the ones who have really sold the biodiesel program. I'd like to see more states building biodiesel plants up and down the highway. We're marketing to truck stops. The fuel is made from vegetable oil, mostly soybean oil, and can be used without modification to a diesel engine.
You started Farm Aid in 1985 as a yearly concert to help smaller family farmers. What's something we need to change today about farming? When I first got involved, there were eight million small family farms, and now there's less than two million. We need to figure out a way to get the farmer back on the land making a living. We're still losing hundreds of farms a week. For every five farms that fold, one business in that town goes under. Right now, all the money goes to big corporations. We should put a cap on subsidies according to income. If you make more than $200,000, you don't get any subsidies. That money should go to the small family farmer. That's a bill we need in place.
Willie, I know in your song you say mamas should have babies that grow up not to be cowboys, but cowboys are the good guys. Doctors and lawyers suck. Maybe I should start telling mamas their kids should grow up to be wizards. How much do wizards make? [Laughs] I bet casting a good spell could get real money. They could put a spell on the politicians, to make 'em not so shifty.