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Brush with Enlightenment

An Interview with Willie Nelson

By Paul Doyle

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I had been lightly harassing the Willie Nelson press contacts for some time now for an interview, never really imagining that they would acquiesce to my delusions. I asked again in connection to his Tuesday, August 4th show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Mistakenly I thought I was told that he only did interviews after the tour, at which point I knew I was caught in a Catch 22, since he is always on tour. Regardless, I faxed my request for tickets and an interview. I was informed in uncertain terms, that my petition would be considered. Finally, the day before the show, I called back wondering what was up, figuring that the powers that be were too busy to deal with my fanciful entreaty. Low and behold, I was dumbfounded to discover that I had been granted a post show (he does interviews after shows, not after tours) interview with none other than Willie Nelson.

The show itself was classic Willie. Over two and half hours of music spanning four decades of music from one of the most prolific songwriters in history. The basic formula to a Willie Nelson and Family show consists of basically a few songs from practically every major Nelson album since he took control of his career in the early 70s. As usual The Family consisted of his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, Bee Spears on bass, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Jody Payne on rhythm guitar, and Paul English on drums. Commander Cody also joined them on stage to help with percussion. I did not keep a set list this time, but when it was over, the crowd had been treated to at least 50 musical gems, including an encore of half a dozen songs. The personal highlight for me, was when Willie switched to electric guitar to play material from his forthcoming blues album, which will be preceded by his latest release Teatro. Adding to the entertainment for the evening was the growing number of youths at the concert, creating an audience age gap that can aptly be described as grandparents and grandchildren, who did not come to the show together, and certainly have different ideas of how to behave at a show. Fortunately there is room for everyone.

When the show ended I had to credential my way through the faithful crowd and too often Neanderthal SPAC security using the simple Jedi mind trick to get to the rear of the venue, where after a brief wait, I was led onto the bus of Willie Nelson. One look into the eyes of this man and you become immediately aware that you are that you are in the presence of a soul wise beyond lifetimes. There is compassion, understanding and a calming peace that pervades everything, even my nerves, which would otherwise have careened out of control. The experience reminded me of this passage from Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching.

Thus the Master is available to all people and doesn’t reject anyone.

He is ready to use all situations and doesn’t waste anything.

This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?

What is a bad man but a good man’s job?

If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.

It is the great secret.

(Some of the questions are from a WFSW DJ who was also present for part of the interview.)

WFSW- How’s your golf game?

W.N.- Well my golf game is up and down, you know some days it’s not that bad and some days it’s not that good. But I keep going out there.

V.R.- Your tour schedule is booked through November, you played 2 hours tonight, how do you keep your energy up night after night?

W.N.- I don’t know. I enjoy what I do, and the audience seems to enjoy it, and there’s a little energy exchange there [that] probably has a lot to do with it

WFSW- What is in going to be happening with Willie Nelson in the next century?

W.N.- I don’t know, I don’t plan that far ahead, I really don’t. I have no long range plans, I just...I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now.

V.R.- With such a schedule, one of the problems the Grateful Dead suffered from throughout the nineties was going through the motions when they just don’t have the energy. Does that ever happen to you?

W.N.- Well, naturally some nights are hotter than others. Some nights it’s a little harder to get started than other nights, but that’s just the way the human body is I think. Most of the nights are real good.

WFSW- You toured Europe earlier this year. How does that compare to playing in the U.S.?

W.N.- I saw a lot more people. The crowds were bigger over there. The enthusiasm was great, it always was great over there, but the crowds seem to be growing and growing all over Europe and all over Scandinavia and Holland.

V.R.- Paul Simon says that he listens to Red Headed Stranger for three weeks at a time, what album or artist will you listen to for a few weeks at a time?

W.N.- Well, I really enjoy or have over the past few albums by Leon Russell, or Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles, that I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those, and there’s other artist too that I get into a whole lot.

V.R.- Sinatra question:

W.N.- Well, most of the songs that I write about either if I haven’t gone through those situations and experiences I have been real close to someone who has, so it’s really not that big of a stretch to write about those things.

WFSW - Your new release is called Teatro, which means Theatre. Anything significant about that title?

W.N.- Yeah, the recording studio that we did the CD in was a converted Mexican picture shoe theatre, and the name of the theatre is Teatro, and it says on a big sign up there, Teatro, and it seemed like a natural and Daniel Lanois thought it was a good idea and you don’t argue with him.

V.R.- Whenever I am feeling down, brokenhearted or whatever, I usually play The Sound in Your Mind, and listen for a few dozen times every night for a month or so. Where you suffering from a broken heart when you made the album?

W.N.- Oh yeah, I’m sure I was, I’m sure I was. Getting into something or out of something. That’s sort of been the story of my life anyway. But, as I remember, yeah, there were some things happening in my life at that time.

WFSW- Last week Waylon Jennings told Associated Press that country radio station programmers are insulting him, you, and Johnny Cash by not playing your music because you are all over 45 years old. How do you feel about radio?

W.N.- Honestly I don’t worry about it a lot. I have gone through cycles where the commercial stations play some of our stuff and then I go through cycles where they don’t. It was a long time before I really got anything going on the radio stations, early hit Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain, that was one of the first things that sort of crossed over and got a lot of play country, and even the pop rock and roll stations played it and it was pure country. Then along with the Stardust album and that is completely opposite from country and yet it was on the country charts for ten years. It just goes to prove to me that a good song is always a good song.

V.R.- As a younger fan of older country, Western Swing, Outlaw Rock, whatever the name rare is there a long song with extended jamming and improvisation. Do have any plans to make an album with extended improvisation and jamming?

W.N.- Yeah, in fact there is one in the can; I have a blues album in the can that is just exactly like that. Some of those songs are seven eight minutes long, and that is the way they ought to be.

V.R.- Were you playing the electric [guitar] for that album?

W.N.- I was playing the electric on most of that album. I was playing not this same Gibson, but one just like it.

WFSW- With fires in Florida and heat waves n Texas, bad year for farmers, probably makes Farm Aid all the more important this year. What are the plans for the fundraiser this year?

W.N.- October 3rd, at the same place right outside of Chicago where we did it last year. Yeah, things are worse now than they’ve ever been. If you think farmers had it rough before, now with all the weather it’s just unbelievable. The president of the United States has said let’s help the family farmer. Let’s hope that happens. Farm Aid was started, all about, was to save the small family farmer. And even though we’re still losing a whole lot of them every week, we’re still there and as long as there is one left we’ll be there to tell somebody about it. It is sort of a black eye on America to see us treating our farmers this way. And it is sort of a contrived government policy to try to run out all the small businesses and let the big corporations have everything because they think more economical, bottom line, buy cheaper sell it more around the world. And it is a bad idea because we are putting our own farmers out of business and we’re putting farmers around the world out of business. Instead of fewer farmers, we need more people on the land.

V.R.- treat equally people prophet what is your religion philosophy?

W.N.- Well, I was raised in a Christian atmosphere and church and raised in a Methodist Church for a long time, and then switched to the Baptist. I remember one time I was a disc jockey down in Pleasanton, Texas, and every Sunday morning there would be about four or five different denominations come through there and do there radio show and they were all looking right at me. So I got preached to be every denomination imaginable, and I’ve been around Gospel music all my life.

V.R.- Are you uncomfortable with the idea of being called a prophet?

W.N.- Well, I don’t ever remember being called that…

V.R.- Until now…

W.N.- Until now, actually it sounds pretty good, thank you. (laughing)

V.R.- You seem to have traditional values with a non-traditional life.

W.N.- Yeah, it’s kind of like military intelligence, (laughing) one kind of cancels out the other.

V.R.- You’re 65 now, born in 1933. At this point are you a restless soul or a rested soul?

W.N.- Well, I am pretty comfortable with where I am right now. I had a good time yesterday, I had a good time this afternoon, and I’m doing alright now, so yeah, I’m happy with the way things are and where I am at the moment.

V.R.- Ten years ago, you told my dad that there was going to be a Phases and Stages follow up. Has there been one?

W.N.- Spirit, the Spirit album was as close to that, I kind of looked at that one as being a follow up.

V.R.- My dad’s favorite album is Phases and Stages, mine is Shotgun Willie. Is your favorite the last one you’ve come out with or do you have favorite’s?

W.N.- Oh, right now Spirit is still my favorite. This next one coming out (Teatro) could get to be my favorite you know, the more we play it.

V.R.- Shotgun Willie was very funky. Have you ever considered doing more funk?

W.N.- Yeah, a get into that area sometimes. I don’t really start out to be funky but it ends up that way.

V.R.- On a final note I did bring some really kind Vermont bud.

W.N.- Hey did you really well let’s burn.

V.R.- Right on.

V.R.- I don’t have a bowl.

W.N.- We can roll it.