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What drives Willie Nelson to keep singing and traveling

July 2, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Country legend Willie Nelson, 81, is still on the road. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Nelson to talk about the burst of songwriting behind his new album, “Band of Brothers,” controlling his temper and how he stays fit on tour.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the continuing musical saga of the great Willie Nelson.

Jeff is back with our profile.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Tonight, my love is making music with my friends. And I can’t wait to get on the road again.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s 81 years old, hair still long, though no longer all red, more legend these days than outlaw, but, yes, still very much on the road.

WILLIE NELSON: And I can’t wait to get on the road.

And everybody say it right here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Willie Nelson has just released a new album titled “Band of Brothers,” the first in many years to feature primarily his own original material.

On his tour bus before a recent concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, I asked him about the burst of songwriting.

WILLIE NELSON: Well, I know that some days you write and some days you don’t. And you learn to live with that. Roger Miller said one time that the well goes try, and you have to wait until it fills up again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know what makes a good song after all these years of writing?

WILLIE NELSON: Oh, I think I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Nelson has been writing songs and hits for five decades.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Crazy for feeling so lonely.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline in 1961, “Always on My Mind” in 1982, and dozens of others from more than 100 albums.

All the while, he’s performed around the world, long ago becoming one of music’s best known faces and voices.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Time just slips away.

JEFFREY BROWN: All this began in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, a childhood in which he and his sister, Bobbie, who still performs with him on piano, were raised by their grandparents.

He wrote about those beginnings in his 2012 memoir titled, in pure Willie fashion, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

I read in your last memoir, you said that you actually started writing poetry as a kid.

WILLIE NELSON: As I kid, I had — before I could play guitar, I was writing poems. And then, once I had figured out a couple chords on the guitar, I started putting melodies to my poems. And nobody ever told me I couldn’t, so I went ahead and done it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But were the words first?

WILLIE NELSON: Usually, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?

WILLIE NELSON: Usually a little line or something that is said, and then the melodies are out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: In that memoir, you write about working in the fields picking cotton in 100-degree-plus weather and thinking that maybe playing the guitar would be a better way of making a living.

WILLIE NELSON: I would see these Cadillacs drive by on the highway with the air conditioner and all, and I would get a little bit jealous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes? You remember that feeling?

WILLIE NELSON: Oh, yes, heck yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you surprised these years later that it worked , that it worked out?

WILLIE NELSON: No. I’m a little surprised at the — how well it worked out.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are?

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIE NELSON (singing): We’re a band of brothers, sisters and whatever on a mission to break all the rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not only has it worked out, but it seems to have done so on Nelson’s terms. He had success as a songwriter in Nashville in the ’60s. Then from his new base in Austin, Texas, he helped create a new, more raw sound for country music dubbed outlaw country.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): Whiskey River, take my mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: He appeared on the first “Austin City Limits” program on PBS 40 years ago and in the ’80s was part of an all-star collaboration with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson called the Highwaymen.

Over the years, he’s become known for his activism on behalf of small farmers and for legalizing marijuana and for reaching new audiences with recordings of American standards.

WILLIE NELSON: I think innately knew that music draws people together and that good music is liked by almost everybody.

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like “Stardust,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” or “Crazy Arms” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” There are just certain sounds, music, that sort of you know people are going to like it.

That was me. Oh, you like it. And you try it out on an audience and, sure enough, they like it, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: You come across in song and here in person as calm, gentle. I was a little surprised that I read in your memoir where you talked about the rage that was — that has been there at times and that drinking somehow pushed that and marijuana later kind of helped it, suppressed it.

WILLIE NELSON: Well, I think there must be a little bit of truth in high temper and red hair.

JEFFREY BROWN: High temper and red hair.

WILLIE NELSON: Yes. Have you heard that?

JEFFREY BROWN: I have heard of that.

WILLIE NELSON: Yes. Well, I was sort of living proof of that, I guess, because I had flaming red hair and a high temper.

And that’s something that I have to control and live with all the time. But at least I know what my problem is.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever you call it, even after all the awards and honors, there’s clearly still a drive to the man that comes out on stage, the guitar playing on a guitar famous in its rights, as well-worn as its owner, named Trigger.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): I can be moving or I can be still, but still is still moving to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the unique phrasing, often off the beat, that has made Nelson’s sing so familiar to millions.

Behind all this, it turns out, is a great deal of attention to keeping in shape. Nelson has a black belt in karate and another in Korean mixed martial arts.

While on tour, he told me, he rides a bike, works out with a punching bag, takes walks. And that’s how he can do this into his 80s.

WILLIE NELSON: Really, I think the best exercise that I do is singing for an hour-and-a-half out on the stage, because, yes, I use the lung, the biggest muscle in your body. And I use it continually. And I kind of watch myself and I kind of feel how that singing is helping me as I do it physically.

JEFFREY BROWN: After a show, you feel better?

WILLIE NELSON: Oh, I feel much better after a show. And so does my sister, Bobbie, and all of us in the band.

JEFFREY BROWN: So being out on the road and playing like this all the time you think is keeping you healthier?

WILLIE NELSON: You have to be a professional athlete to do it.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

A professional athlete maybe, but somewhere in every tour, he says, he decides, at least for the moment, that he’s had enough. He wrote of that on a new song titled “The Wall.”

WILLIE NELSON (singing): I hit the wall.

That really happens to you along the way. But I enjoy playing music. Then I get back doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But what happens to you when you’re not playing that for too long?

WILLIE NELSON: You get bored to be at home, or you’re used to coming out and doing it. It is an addiction. There’s no doubt about it, but it’s one of the good ones, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: And not only the performing, but the songwriting continues. Nelson has already announced that another album of new material will come out later this year.

WILLIE NELSON (singing): You can’t tell me what to do. You can’t tell me what to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That Willie Nelson is an inspiration.