WILLIE NELSON is in lockdown at the 700-acre ranch in Texas Hill Country he simply calls “Luck”.
“Well, I don’t like the situation, of course,” he says in his wonderfully lived-in drawl. “Nobody does but there’s not a lot I can do about it.”
It’s a typically chilled response from country music’s greatest survivor or, if you like, America’s most legendary stoner.
So how have you been spending your time shut away from the world? I ask.
“Not been up to much,” he sighs. “Playing a little golf whenever the weather lets me. Mainly just hanging out.”
And has your range of Willie’s Reserve cannabis products been helping you through? “Oh, absolutely! I’m the chief taster of everything.”
Though vaping is his method of choice these days, he’s also partial to wife Annie’s recipe for infused chocolates.
“They’re fantastic,” he enthuses. “Annie’s really good at that . . . and all the girls up in Colorado working with the Reserve.”
Words from this enduring, endearing singer, still The Red Headed Stranger even if his pig-tailed locks have faded somewhat, are precious.
Once in a posse of A-list country “outlaws” with Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, he and old buddy Kris Kristofferson are the last men standing.
As we speak this hot, high summer day in the Lone Star State, 1pm Central Time, 7pm UK time, Nelson’s gazing out at the motley collection of horses roaming his grounds.
‘I’ve always been a wannabe cowboy’
And I’m sitting in my car on a windswept Cornish hillside, with a view of St Michael’s Mount, where the signal is at least half decent. It’s all rather surreal.
“I’ve always been a wannabe cowboy,” Nelson admits as he surveys the rural idyll before him.
It’s probably a bit late for him to saddle up and start rounding up cattle on the dusty plains of Texas but before we get on to other subjects dear to his heart, let’s hear what he has to say about his passion for all things equine.
“I grew up with horses and I love them,” he continues. “I don’t know why, they’re just good friends to me.”
Not so long ago, he saved a large number from the slaughterhouse, allowing them to live out their days in Nelson country.
“I still have about 75 rescue horses,” he says. “I made a deal with them . . . I won’t bother them if they don’t bother me. They run wild and free and they love it.”
So just picture the scene as he adds with an air of contentment: “From where I am now, I can see them running around in the back pasture.”
Despite difficult times in 2020, you can’t help thinking “Luck” is the perfect setting for this man, his horses and the charmed lives they lead.
Last year, Nelson released another of his sprightly late period albums, Ride Me Back Home, with a Grammy-winning title track about saving his four-legged friends.
“Now they don’t need you and there’s no one to feed you,” it goes before that sublime voice, still with impeccable Sinatra-like phrasing, intones, “I wish I could gather up all of your brothers/And you would just ride me back home.”
One last but very important clue to Nelson’s horse obsession is his legendary Martin N-20 acoustic guitar, named after Roy “King Of The Cowboys” Rogers’ steed Trigger.
Of the guitar noted for the big hole he’s worn into it above the bridge through decades of use, he says: “I figured this is my horse.”
Look at the musician credits for all his recent albums and they read, “Willie Nelson: Trigger.”
I’m keen to find out the instrument’s current condition and the answer reveals the owner’s deep affection.
“Trigger’s doing good, just fine,” reports Nelson as if talking about one of his children.
“I played him for a little while yesterday . . . Trigger’s got a sound of his own.”
Explaining how he acquired it, he says: “My favourite guitar player of all time is (jazz virtuoso) Django Reinhardt and I was trying to find a guitar with the same tone as his.
“In order to get Trigger, I called somebody in Nashville and asked if they had a guitar and they said, ‘We’ve got this old Martin guitar and it’s a good one’.
‘As soon as I heard it, I had to record it’
“I said, ‘Well, how much is it?’ And he said, ‘$150’. I’d just paid $150 for a rocking horse, so I guessed it was a good deal.”
The main reason I’m talking to Nelson is to celebrate his new album, First Rose Of Spring, which keeps the theme going thanks to a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s We Are The Cowboys, a romanticised ode to the rugged life on horseback.
Originally set for April release but delayed by Covid-19 until July, the record is a testament to Nelson’s incredible staying power and includes two originals written with long-time producer Buddy Cannon and nine covers.
“They just told me this morning that First Rose Of Spring went to No 1 on the country charts,” he says.
A pivotal song is Don’t Let The Old Man In, which, I suggest, is a mantra for Nelson’s age-defying lifestyle.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “I really love that song. (Country star) Toby Keith, a friend of mine, wrote it and as soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got to record this song’.
“There’s one line in there that really flipped me out – ‘Many moons I have lived and my body’s withered and worn but how old would I feel if I didn’t know the day I was born?’
“I feel like that line,” Nelson says, perhaps wishing he didn’t know he was born on April 29, 1933.
He maintains that his astonishing work ethic keeps the old man at bay. “You have to keep going, taking one day at a time and thinking positive.”
Nelson also puts his longevity down to giving up booze and fags years ago while sticking with the weed.
A long-time advocate of legalising cannabis, despite it still being banned in his beloved home state, he describes his singular path to staying healthy.
“When I was growing up as a kid, I smoked everything I could get my hands on and through the years it almost killed me. I had lung collapse,” he tells me.
“I was smoking pot along with cigarettes and I was drinking, too, so my health was going real bad.
“I wasn’t getting high on cigarettes and drinking didn’t do me any good. All I wanted to do was get drunk and fight somebody. I knew I had to quit.
“So I rolled up 20 fat joints and threw away a packet of Chesterfields. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since. Every now and then I might take a drink, but very rarely.”
He adds ruefully, “I’ve had so many of my pals die from drinking and smoking. I won’t name them but there are a lot who would still be here.”
With his habits past and present, Nelson can’t explain the abiding rich quality of his voice. “I’m just lucky, I guess,” he says.
‘You can’t beat Patsy Cline singing Crazy’
But he gives a fuller explanation for a mind-boggling career that has produced 70 solo studio albums, and counting, endless duet projects and live recordings.
“Ever since I started out, I’ve been thinking, ‘I don’t want to write another song’ but my mind just keeps throwing out words. My job here is probably to write songs,” he decides.
Asked to pick the one he’s most proud of, Nelson goes back to 1962, when he crafted an abiding American classic.
“I can think of a lot of pretty good songs but Crazy recorded by Patsy Cline was on all the jukeboxes back in those days and is still hard to beat.
“In fact, there is NO WAY you can beat Patsy Cline singing Crazy!”
One of his latest is beautiful Blue Star. “It’s about my loved ones but it could be your wife or your girlfriend,” he says.
The new album’s title track, written by friend and songsmith Randy Houser, is equally romantic, about a man who brings the love of his life “the first rose of spring” through all stages of their lives together.
“That song really knocked me out, a great, positive story,” affirms Nelson. “And then so did every song on the album down to Yesterday When I Was Young”, which started out as French crooner Charles Aznavour’s shamelessly nostalgic Hier Encore. Another favourite, Our Song, is the work of country music’s man of the moment, big, bearded Chris Stapleton.
It bears the line “regrets, I’ve got a few” which recalls Nelson’s hero Frank Sinatra and that signature song, My Way.
“Sinatra is my favourite singer overall and Ray Price is my favourite country singer. Sinatra had that voice . . . a great way of phrasing and I love his music.
“I’ve recorded another album of Sinatra songs (the follow-up to 2018’s My Way) that hasn’t come out yet.”
When it comes to songwriting, Nelson places two old friends above the rest – one sadly gone, the other still with us.
“Merle Haggard was one of the greatest songwriters ever. Somewhere between him and Kris Kristofferson are the best we’ve got.”
Do you keep in touch with Kris? I venture. “Yeah, we say hello back and forth. I’m doing a DJ show, Willie Nelson Roadhouse, on my XM Radio channel. I just did a whole one on Kris and his music.”
In 1979, before they joined Cash and Jennings in outlaw supergroup The Highwaymen, he recorded his Sings Kristofferson album and says: “Help Me Make It Through The Night is a great one. Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends is another. Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down — there are so many.”
Nelson has also been busy compiling a book of recollections with his piano-playing older sister Bobbie, 89.
He says: “She doesn’t live that far from me so I go to see her most every day. Last night, we had dinner together here, so she’s doing real good.
“Bobbie was a big help to me all along because she is a very good musician. She can read and write music.
“I remember sitting on a piano stool as a kid while she was playing Moonlight In Vermont (recorded for his seminal 1978 American Songbook album Stardust). I would have never learned songs like that had it not been for her.”
He also speaks fondly of his musician sons, Lukas and Micah, whose mother is his fourth wife Annie. Both are making waves in country rock circles and have worked closely with Neil Young.
“They’re doing great and they’re here visiting with me for a while. I couldn’t be prouder,” says Nelson.
As our conservation wraps up, he returns to the realities of 2020: “Naturally, I’m just hoping and praying all this (the pandemic) goes away and we can get back to living normally.
He’s dreaming of playing “to five, ten, 20 thousand people again and not having to worry about them getting sick. I’m ready to go back out there any time they say it is OK”.
One thing is certain in these uncertain times. Wannabe cowboy Willie Nelson’s life has been one helluva ride.
First Rose of Spring
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