Shotgun Willie

"If America only had one voice, it would be Willie's." -- Emmylou HarrisIt was an unseasonably muddy Colorado night. A torrential downpour of hail and rain had quickly flooded the San Miguel River Valley. A winding mountain road was transformed into a kinetic mud slide rapid, and the verdant soccer fields and baseball diamonds of Telluride Town Park was replaced with a mud pit requiring marathon wallowing for anyone intent on enjoying the afternoon and evening's music.Backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is not any drier than out front, with the exception of one narrow stretch of carpeting leading from the stage to Willie Nelson's tour bus, named the "Red Headed Stranger." A select, small, intrepid press corps -- having battled their way past hard-core groupies and a couple dozen less aggressive members of the media -- stands under the clearing night sky, ceaselessly wiping their feet beside the bus, even applying a hard-bristled boot cleaner before gaining entry into the inner sanctum.Willie Nelson is a generous man, often spending hours singing autographs after his shows and speaking with the press until the wee part of the night. He is as eloquent as they come in the world of popular music, and he talks about the issues of his life, his career, and his country with precision and depth. He is a man who does not engage in his causes frivolously.Sitting in the aft "cabin" of the bus -- a comfortable dining, kitchen, living room filled to capacity with a half-dozen reporters -- Willie warmly greets the individuals, taking care to remember their names. He has let down his hair since finishing his show 45 minutes earlier, releasing his trademark braids and trading his "Pretend I Never Happened" bandana for a black cowboy hat. A lone-star medallion hangs from its crown, matching the lone-star coffee mug he drinks from. He wears a black T-shirt with his name incorporated into a highway sign for Route 66 -- Willie turned 66 in April. He listens patiently to lengthy questions accompanied by superfluous anecdotes -- one reporter recounts a story of the singer kissing his mother after a concert 25 years ago, to which Willie replies "I'm glad I did that."Back to the Country"Willie Nelson is all by himself -- he's an authentic American Master. The genuine article." -- Sydney PollackBy all measurements, Willie has come a long way. He is part folk hero, part spiritual guru, part radical crusader, and several parts wandering minstrel. For Willie, the crucial ingredient behind each chapter of his life is his commitment to family. He still plays every night with his sister Bobbie, with whom he first performed at a dancehall at the age of 10. And he has never forgotten the farm country, where he lived with his grandparents in central Texas during the Depression era 30s and into the 40s.For too many people, Farm-Aid is an outdoor concert marking the passing of summer with a final rural adios to the long days of road trips, music festivals, and endless partying. The sexy part of the story is a line-up featuring Dave Matthews, Neil Young, Steve Earl, Susan Tedeschi, John Mellancamp, Larry Gatlin, Sawyer Brown, Trisha Yearwood, and the Mavericks. For Willie, it is all about the family farmers, and he relishes any chance to move away from entertainment obsessions about the concert line-up and into the heart of the problems. "I don't see anybody really doing anything about it," Willie told the handful of reporters gathered in his bus, of the absence of state-level legislative action on behalf of the small family farmer."I hear a little talk about it. A little more talk maybe now then eight or ten years ago when there was nothing. But we're still losing five hundred [farms] a week. There's nobody stopped that yet."The problem with high-profile conscious-raising events like Farm-Aid is that after an initial burst of interest and hype, the seasonal response outside of the host stadium is essentially surprise that they're at it again. Nelson takes a broader perspective, looking at the long-term trends that have left a drought of hope in their wake."Back during the [Second World] War," Nelson explained, offering a concise summary of the devolving role of the American family farmer, "they enacted a bill called the Steagell Bill, which guaranteed 100 percent parity to all raw product, raw material producers in this country."The country got real strong, because the farmers, the oil producers, the automakers, the steel people, everybody was guaranteed that they wouldn't lose money. The government said 'we'll back you all the way, you will not lose money.' They did that during the war. After the war they decided the farmers were getting a little too strong, everybody was getting a little too strong, too much political power. "So they started taking the farmers out of the country and putting them in the cities, reducing their political power and adding to the cheap labor in the cities. After the war was over they got rid of the Steagell Act. All of a sudden everybody started leaving the country and going into town. And that's what they wanted. So there is a way to fix it. Go back to that idea. It's not hopeless, it's just right now, nobody's doing it."There is no love lost between Willie Nelson and America's various governmental institutions. He knows well enough from his own well-documented battles with the IRS what it is to be caught in Big Brother's cross-hairs. He fashioned his professional career on the rebellious image of "outlaw country," bucking a system as entrenched as apple pie and Eisenhower. He has a philosophical kinship to the persecuted small farmers, and he is quick to lodge a shot or two at the corporate powers behind it all."The big food conglomerates are able to call all the shots. They have lobbyist in Washington, telling people 'you do this and we'll keep you elected. Keep the prices down; keep the farmer down. We'll sell all over the world. We'll buy cheap and sell high.' Whoever controls the land controls the world," he concludes, encouraging his guests not to go to Farm-Aid or send in a donation, but to simply "raise hell with everybody you see."High Hopes"Willie flushes to the beat of a different plumber." -- Roger MillerThe numbers are still out on the dedication index of your typical music critic to an issue like family farming. But if it will serve as a segue into the viability of the hemp industry, writers are all too willing to make the leap.Willie, however, is not merely an agreeable, quotable source for all things cannabis. He is an avid, active, and inquisitive participant in the ongoing debate. He queries his press audience about what progress they've been witnessing, while assuring them the hemp industry represents a valid alternative for struggling farmers."I know it is viable. I know it could really save the agricultural industry if they would consider it. Back during the war again they called back in all farmers to produce hemp for the war, and then after the war they made it illegal again. So what the hells going on?!"Willie's questions are seldom rhetorical, and he searches hard for real answers. He calls "educating the people as to really what happened over the last fifty years and why hemp was made illegal" the biggest obstacle in the struggle to legalize the crop again."It's going to take an education job. Because, most of the people out there believe all the bullshit they've been hearing all the years about reefer madness, and all the things it's supposed to make you do. When at one time in this country it was legal. Doctors used it. Cannabis was a great medicine, and of course it still is. Through the power of the people again a lot of states are bringing it back as a medicinal. That's a step forward."The medicinal use of hemp is usually a decoy on the path to legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, but Willie is as dedicated to one use as he is to the other.He's known to seek out interviews with members of the press likely to join him in an after-show toke, and the word from high-ranking members of the Nelson camp is that if you enjoy equal parts grass and golf, you can be Willie's new best friend.Though he downplays his role as a spokesman for the cause, he doesn't dodge it."I don't know. It seems to be improving out there a little bit as you go around the country," he said. "Maybe there'll be an honest [political candidate] who will step out there one of these days. He may not get elected. But at least if all the guys that believed the way he did voted for him he'd be a shoe-in."On the other hand, Nelson's quick to rule out the possibility of his portrait showing up on any campaign buttons or bumperstickers. "No, no," he reassures, "I might win. And then I'd have to go to work.""Making Music with My Friends""He stands at the crossroads of all the sounds and colors of this country. What he reflects is true soul and sincerity. He's also a pretty mean guitar player." -- Carlos SantanaWillie is at his most animated when talking about music, and his eyes light up when asked about his new instrumental album, Night and Day, unreleased at the time of the interview but available now.Despite the obvious enthusiasm he has for playing instrumental music in concert and his distinctive style acoustic style, most people continue to think of Willie as a singer-songwriter and are surprised by the concept of a lyric-less album."I've written a few instrumentals along the way, we've included them on a few albums, but I never had a whole album of just instrumentals," Willie explained.In an earlier interview, Willie elaborated on his attraction to the project. "I like instrumental music, because you can put it on and go about your business, driving down the road...without the distraction of a story to follow, you can make up your own stories.""Would you like to hear some of it?" he asks. A simple push of a few buttons on the console of his hidden stereo system, and "Nuages," Willie's cover of a Django Reinhardt tune, seeps throught the speakers.The gypsy jazz guitar picking style of Reinhardt is probably the single biggest influence on Willie's playing, and the most unfamiliar of his sources for his mainstream country audiences."I think Django was the greatest guitarist that ever lived," Willie has often said. "I love the music and really tried to do him justice. I always wind up sounding like me, though."Nelson's signature sound blends his debt to the influence of Reinhardt with the music he heard on the radio in Texas in the 30s and 40s. It's everything from New Orleans jazz to Big Band singing, from traditional delta blues to the Western Swing of Bob Wills, who is still the king back home in Texas, according to Willie. But rather than throw his energy into any one musical direction whole-heartedly, Nelson consistently bucked the system. He defied labels and created a unique blend of musical sensibilities for an audience of long-haired rock and rollers who were opening up to country music before the straight-laced industry was ready to open up to them. "I knew that they didn't have any place to go to listen to country music," Nelson recalled. "Their hair was too long to get into some of those places without getting into trouble. But I knew there was an audience there." By the early 70s, Nelson was getting himself booked in rock clubs in Texas, proving his theory correct and enlisting early recruits in a legion of followers that would ultimately propel him to the top of the country and pop charts from the mid-70s through the mid-80s.Night and Day has a jazz standard sound to it, and Willie has recently been recording both blues and reggae albums. But when in Telluride, the conversation returns to bluegrass.Nelson is a country music original, but he is far from a purist about the genre. "When somebody asks what country music is I go straight to bluegrass, because I think that is the original country music."Still, the pure country music people look at bluegrass and say 'that's it.' Everything else kind of sprung from that.Willie's music also features a healthy smattering of blues these days, and he's recently finished a blues album that he'll release whenever the successful Teatro runs its course. "I cut it down in Austin in my studio," Willie explains, "with all the Austin players. John Blondell. All the people from Antone's. Derrick O'Brien on the guitar. Riley Osborne on the piano. George Rains playing drums. The Vaults"Willie Nelson is a true gypsy. No matter what era he might have been born in, his music would have touched the hearts and souls of everyone as it has in out time." -- Waylon JenningsWhen the IRS confiscated all of Willie's property and equipment, it fell to his nephew, producer Freddy Fletcher, to put Pedernales Studio back together for Willie. Pedernales is an Indian word meaning "where things come together," and the studio sits at the confluence of the Colorado and Pedernales rivers in Austin, Texas.Willie and Fletcher have formed their own record company, and Night and Day marks the first release, though Willie's incessant work habits have filled the studio vaults with undiscovered treasure."He's really from the old school," Fletcher says of Nelson's approach to recording. "Willie goes in and just records. I mean he doesn't have anybody tuning his voice up, it's just him from the soul."The studio was built on the site of an old country club, complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a 9-hole golf course. "Usually, when he gets home off the road, he's ready to play 45 holes of golf a day and go in the studio after golf."We'll play golf and then at "golf-thirty" as he calls it, he'll a lot of times want to go in the studio."Trying to pin Fletcher down with any specifics on the extent of Nelson's music vaults is no easy task. "Oh, it's huge!" he exclaims, and later, when asked how much physical space they consume, he replies "Oh Jesus, a lot. You got to remember, this is a clubhouse, so this place is big. We've had the space, but it runs over at times. We'll have to clear other people's stuff out of the vaults to make room for Willie's stuff when it starts getting crowded."Fletcher commented on several of the potential releases from the vaults:- "We're looking at putting out an album called Honkey Tonk Heroes. It's Willie and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Jo Shaver. It's all Billy Jo Shaver songs; he wrote the song "Honkey Tonk Heroes." He's one of the old true poets that's left."- A new blues album: "We do have that in the can, and that's a wonderful album. Willie's got such a blues influence too. So that's something we just started doing out of fun cause there's a lot of wonderful blues musicians in Austin."- A new reggae-billy album: "Don Waas produced it. We did some of the stuff here, but most of it was done wherever they could get together when Willie was on the road. That was my first [time hearing Willie do reggae]."- There are session with B.B. King and Fletcher's personal favorite, Roger Miller. "I'd like to see some of that stuff with Roger Miller come out, cause Roger was such a great guy. Willie and Roger were real close, so I'm sure that's pretty dear to his heart.""Eventually it'll get out," Fletcher says of the vast archive collections in the vaults at Pedernales. But, noting that Willie has already recorded on over two hundred albums, he reminds me that "You can't put it all out at once."A Band of Gypsies"Melodies are easy. The air is full of music." -- Willie NelsonWillie makes his second Colorado stop of the summer in the midst of a typical year of 200 to 250 shows, belying the idea of getting on the road "again."Willie never gets off the road, and apparently rarely says no to a concert gig. He's fresh off an appearance at Woodstock '99, and following his third Colorado trip later in August for the State Fair in Pueblo, Willie heads east for the September 12 Farm-Aid concert in Bristow, Virginia. To help give his family a sense of roots and consistency, Willie built a Montessori school on his property in Austin."Our kids were going to a Montessori school and we like it so well, but we were having to drive all the way into Austin, which is about an hour drive."For 10 years, Willie called Evergreen, Colorado home, and he is engaging in something of a summer residency, playing four shows in the state this summer. They include his Telluride appearance, show's this week at Red Rocks and in Burlington at the Kit Carson County Fair, and at the end of the month at the State Fair in Pueblo.Willie wasn't exactly sure what he was doing in Burlington, but he has a reputation for playing small towns and out of the way shows. "Really, I like to play music anywhere."The night is far from over as the interview winds down. It's after midnight, and Willie wants to hit the road again that night. Apparently, it takes too long to round the whole crew up again in the morning if they stay in town after a show.When asked for a final message the press can relay to their readers, Willie keeps it simple, sharing the mantra he lives by: "Always say what you're thinking. Don't sugar coat it."***Sidebar One: The Nelson FileWillie was born in Central Texas farm country, and had entered the world of music as both a performer and disc jockey by the time he graduated high school. He still remembers his signature sign-on at KCNC in Forth Worth: "This is your ol' cotton pickin', snuff dippin', tobacco chewin', coffee pot dodgin', dumplin' eatin', frog giggin' hillbilly from Hill Country."His inventive lyrics quickly earned him a reputation when he moved to Nashville, selling his songs "Night Life" and "Family Bible" in the late 50s for $200. In 1961 alone, he penned three number one songs with "Hello Walls" for Faren Young, "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker, and "Crazy" for Patsy Cline.His own recordings wouldn't break through for more than a decade. Shotgun Willie put him on the map as a performer in 1973 and Red Headed Stranger started a run of Grammy-winning songs.Those include "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain in '75 and continuing with "Georgia on My Mind" ('78), "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" (with Waylon Jennings, '78), "On the Road Again," ('80), and "You Were Always on My Mind" ('82).He led the way for the reinvention and revitalization of country music in the 70s, and in addition to a truck full of Country Music Association awards, he was recognized as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1998.Willie has six children, aged 46 to 9 years old from four marriages.***Sidebar Two: Riding TriggerHis grandfather, "Daddy" Nelson, bought him his first guitar -- a 1939 Stella -- when he was 6 years old. "He ordered it from the Sears catalogue," Willie recalled."Back then it was always really exciting when you ordered something from the Sears catalog. The first song he remembers learning to play on it was "Polly Wolly Doodle."Thirty years later Nelson found the guitar that has been his partner ever since, through virtually his enture professional career."I'd busted up my Baldwin guitar pretty good, I had a Baldwin amp too, and I sent it down to Shot Jackson in Nashville to get it fixed. I called him and he said he thought it looked like a goner so I asked him what he had. He put down the phone and found this Martin N-20 laying around that he thought might be all right. It was $700 and I told him to wrap it up and send it to me. I bought it over the phone, sight unseen. ... It felt real good. It felt right." Willie named his guitar Trigger on the grounds that "Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. I figured this is my horse."In the liner notes for Night and Day, Willie echoes that love at first sight with Trigger, recounting that "I had played all kinds of guitars, but the minute I picked it up and played it I knew it was the sound I wanted."During his IRS troubles, Willie was so worried about them seizing Trigger that he hid the guitar at his manager's house for the duration.There are a few elements that distinguish Trigger's sound, and one is the rare use of a nylon "gut-string," or classical guitar in a country and rock world dominated by the crisper sound of steel strings.Willie uses a pick on the guitar, also unusual for a classical guitar. A second distinction that affects the sound but is most noticeable visually is the collection of autographs on Trigger's body."I was sitting around pickin' with Leon Russell one night and he asked me to sign his guitar and I said, 'Well, why would you want me to do that?' Leon said, 'Who knows, it might be worth something someday.' So I said, 'You might as well sign mine, then.'"Since then, the surface has filled with Willie's closest friends, including Roger Miller, whose John Hancock is big enough to read from the front row of the audience.The guitar has a uniquely recognizable sound significant enough for Martin Guitars to release a limited edition of 100 Willie Nelson prototypes for sale this year.Calling it "one of the most famous and recognizable instruments in existence," citing its "weathered look" that so aptly suits the player, and noting that "the guitar simply embodies that Willie Nelson trademark sound," the company has replicated the 1969 Gibson N-20, adding Willie's signature inlaid on the fretboard.They are not, however, including Trigger's most distinguishing feature, a two-inch long gaping hole below the original sound hole."You gotta make your own hole," laughs Freddy Fletcher, Willie's producer and nephew. "He just picked a hole in it. He played a hole in it, with a pick. ... It's had to be braced up and worked on a few times." Some people might think it's time to get a new guitar when you put a hole in your old one, but Willie is sentimental about the hole and won't have it repaired. As Fletcher says "It's got its own sound. When I hear that guitar I know it's his."That's just the sound he likes. He's got a ton of other guitars. But that's his baby. Trigger's his sound.Owen Perkins is a staff writer for the Colorado Springs Independent.

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