Willie Nelson's words of wisdom
Willie Nelson saw a sign the other day while out for a walk in Hawaii, where he's been spending his (hopefully) last stages of quarantine. "It read, 'husband for sale,'" he says laughing, Zooming in a black t-shirt with his wife Annie nearby. They're fully vaccinated — Annie even helped administer some shots back home in Texas — and ready to get back to life. "We've been in jail together for a long time."
For Nelson, who has spent nearly his entire existence on the road, that jail has been pretty miserable — he's missed hugs, he's missed friends, and, most of all, he's missed being on stage singing his legendary songs ("If I wasn't already on dope," he says, "I'd go get on it"). But he also didn't use that rare time off to bake bread like the rest of us. He released two records, First Rose of Spring and That's Life, a memoir with his sister, Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, and a whole new book called Letters to America. Written alongside actor/director Turk Pipkin, it's part patriotic guide, part self-help, part spiritual tome, part parenting and relationship manual, and part heartfelt confessions from one of our most beloved songwriters and entertainers. There are also a couple dirty jokes because, as Nelson sees it, "the best medicine is laughter."
In Letters to America, we learn his family motto ("#1. Don't be an a--hole. #2. Don't be an a--hole. #3. You've got it: Don't be a goddamned a--hole"), his songwriting advice ("listen to the world around you"), and some of his most direct and specific opinions about life, justice, and the future of our planet. Nelson doesn't like to talk about politics in interviews or during concerts, but Letters to America is the answer to those who are curious as to why — and where he stands. Nelson declares definitively that Black, and Native American, Lives Matter, that the electoral college should be eliminated and that protecting the earth should be one of our foremost concerns, corporate interests be damned. In an age when we've never been further from one another physically, Letters to America manages to bring us even closer to the musician, father, husband, activist, and man of spiritual faith that Nelson truly is.
It's good timing. As with Dolly Parton, we've turned to the 88-year-old Nelson for comfort through this "pandammit," as he calls it, and as residents of a country struggling to confront both its inherent beauty and brutal, ugly truths. Since bringing together the hippies and rednecks in the sixties, Nelson's music has been one thing, in an increasingly polarized world, most people can agree on — and without him ever having to hide what he believes or tailor his sound for the marketplace. He's prolific and poetic, inclusive but unwavering, everyone's compromise but without doing so himself.
Nelson wasn't planning on being so direct in the title though. He wanted to call the book "Yesterday's Wine," after his song and album of the same name. "They decided that Letters to America would be a more saleable title, maybe," he says. "So, whatever it takes."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, in addition to writing a book, you also launched an entire cannabis conference — and asked President Biden to make 4/20 an official "high" holiday). Do you feel like we're making progress towards normalization?
WILLIE NELSON: Oh yeah, I think the public perception has changed dramatically over the last few years. And more and more people are realizing that [weed] is a medicine. And if used properly and not overdone, it can help you. It can help you sleep, it can also reduce pain. In fact, the two main things that I've heard about it is that it reduces pain and induces sleep. So that's very positive.
And maybe helps people with a little bit of COVID anxiety.
Speaking of, you write "F--- you" to COVID in the book. I think that's cathartic— a lot of us just need to get that anger out of our systems.
I'm hoping other people will get the same idea, and then life goes on. I got a couple of shots. Kiss me, nothing makes me sick. I want to get back to hugging my relatives and friends again and not having to worry. I think we're all ready for that. I think we've had enough of distancing.
This book is many things: political guide, memoir, personal advice to friends and family. Did you set out to create something that spans so much of your history and approach to life?
It's sort of like when I write a song, which is not that much different from a book. You ask, "What do you want to accomplish?" I wanted to get people's attention and tell them how we feel about this particular subject or that one, and how we think it's important that you have an opinion and that you trust yourself and trust your opinions. And it's believing in ourselves, especially when times are tough.
Did you discover some things while writing this book that you didn't expect?
I think I discovered that I talk a lot.
It's wonderful to read about your childhood, especially learning how you spent your days roaming free outside, playing dominoes, and making up songs. Are you worried that our screen-addicted kids won't grow up to be songwriters, because they're lacking that kind of existence?
I think we're pretty creative, and I think we've figured out ways to do what we need to do. And if we listen to ourselves, listen to what your mind is telling you, it will tell you the right thing. George Jones had a song called "Choices" that said we're living and dying with the choices that we make. And that's very true.
In Letters to America, you are emphatic about equality. "Equal rights for all," you write, speaking to LGBTQ readers, and about the importance of bringing more women into the room. You recently put that to action by inviting Margo Price to the board of Farm Aid, as the first female artist there. Why was she so important to bring into the fold permanently?
First of all, she's incredibly intelligent and very competent. She's absolutely capable of being on the board and doing and thinking for us and helping us go the right direction. She brings a lot to the table. She's a good friend, and we've made some pretty good music together.
In the book you talk about genre, and how it's a bit of a marketing construct. Margo is a great example of someone who is just making music and not trying to fit in a box. Do you feel like we're heading to a place free of the need to categorize art in that way?
Well, my grandmother, who raised me and my sister, she told me the definition of music is anything that's pleasing to the ear. And that sounds good to me. If it's pleasing to the ear, then it's music to the ear. So that put a whole new light on it for me.
The music is important, not what we call it.
True. It can be a steel guitar or a symphony orchestra or just a voice acapella or voice and the guitar, and it doesn't matter as long as there is feeling and talent involved.
You also address the different ways we carry grief, and how to deal with it. You've suffered a lot of loss throughout your life, but your advice is, "Missing ain't living, and living works best when you're strong." Was that a difficult place to come to, because it's not always our natural inclination?
What I have to keep going back to when all these bad things happen, is to what I was taught. A teacher friend of mine said once that whatever your hand is, you will have the strength to endure it, and you will not be asked to do anything you cannot handle. You may not think so, but whatever happens you will be given the strength to handle it and react.
That's a learning process for sure.
Well, you're sure that you can't get over whatever happens, you think you'll never get over it, if a life is lost. But there is a way, wherever it comes from, that you're given some inner peace to be able to live with whatever is going on.
One thing I've noticed as a listener of music in quarantine, is that a lot of songs have changed for me, because I'm not seeing them live. A happy song now can feel kind of melancholy. Have you felt the same?
Oh, yeah. It's very strange. And it's not any fun at all, to not be able to play music for a live crowd. I've never had that in my life, so I didn't know how to react to it.
There seems to be a light at the end of a tunnel, though.
The light at the end of the tunnel could be a freight train.
Everybody I know who's qualified to entertain or works in the music business, we're all trying to do the same thing, which is overcome this problem and bring music to the people. And the promoters and all the people out there who helped put shows together, the cooks and the bottle washers and everybody, they need a job, and we need to go out and play. We're all looking forward to it, and I'm very anxious.
Though it wasn't live and in-person, your Luck Reunion livestreams early in the pandemic were very healing. It felt like, OK, we're all in this together.
The positive side of this whole issue is that even though we weren't allowed to go out and play for a crowd, with the virtual concert a person could see the whole thing from their living room and all these different artists from all over the world came together to play.
Maybe there's a lesson for the future there.
Yes, you could go out and do a concert and the whole world could hear you. That'd be cool.
So have you been working on new music in quarantine?
I've been writing a little. Let me see: "the day the earth quit turning, the day that time stood still, and we all had to keep our distance and we had more than time to kill. When Lord said, 'Jesus, why don't you go down there again, and help these people in the shape they're in?' And Jesus said, 'Dad, I'm tired. Why don't you go down there this time?' And God said, 'Are you out of your f---ing mind?'" I haven't put a melody to it yet.