October 2nd, 2002
Willie Nelson
Still is Still Moving

by Turk Pipkin

He is an American icon; his voice as comforting as the American landscape, his songs as familiar as the color of the sky, his face as worn as the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps that’s why Dan Rather suggested, “We should add his face to the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore and be done with it.”

He’s recorded 250 albums, written 2,500 songs, and for half a century played countless concerts across America and around the world. He’s been instrumental in shaping both country and pop music, yet his appeal crosses all social and economic lines. Sometimes he’s called an outlaw, though from Farm Aid to the aftermath of September 11, from the resurrection of a burned-out courthouse in his own hometown to fanning the flame of the Olympics, it is Willie Nelson who brings us together.

Perhaps Emmylou Harris said it best: “If America could sing with one voice, it would be Willie’s.”

At age 69, the red-headed kid from the Lone Star State still sings strong and clear. Born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933, Willie Hugh Nelson was raised by grandparents with a keen appreciation for music. By age seven, Willie was already writing songs, playing them on guitar with his sister Bobbie on piano, and picking up musical influences from the gospel and devotional music of Texas churches to the blues and Latino songs he heard from fellow workers in the fields. Graduating from talent shows and local bands, he moved to Fort Worth where he perfected his chops with a double shift — country music DJ by day, honkytonk singer by night.

Those self-styled “Hungry Years” took him on to Seattle, and finally to Nashville. And if you ask him today why he sold the rights to his own timeless songs like “Family Bible” and “Nightlife” for paltry sums like fifty dollars, Willie shrugs and replies, “At the time, I needed fifty dollars!”

After joining Ray Price’s band, The Cherokee Cowboys, in 1961, Willie’s fortunes began to change. That same year, Faron Young, Billy Walker and Patsy Cline had hit records with Willie’s songs, “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and the unforgettable, “Crazy.”

Forming his own band, Willie had a string of minor hits that stretched throughout the sixties. But Nashville wasn’t ready for the jazzy phrasing and nasal tones of his straight-from-the heart singing style, so Willie packed up and came home to Texas. Moving to Austin in 1972, he somehow managed to unite crew-cut rednecks with long-haired hippies in a common appreciation of his blend of country, rock, folk and jazz.

It all came together like yesterday’s wine with the 1975 release of RED HEADED STRANGER, a concept album which told the story of an Old West preacher and his fall from grace. On that album was Willie’s version of Roy Acuff’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The rest was history.

Defying the restrictive confines of Nashville music, Willie and his pal Waylon Jennings became the leaders of a group of renegade musicians known as The Outlaws. Anthems like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Luchenbach, Texas” brought a huge audience to their music. Always eager to do more, Willie teamed with producer Booker T. Jones and released a collection of pop standards entitled “Stardust,” which went straight up the charts, eventually selling over four million copies.

Acting roles followed in 1979 with a small part in Robert Redford’s THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, followed by the starring role in “Honeysuckle Rose,” which also featured a new Willie ditty called “On the Road Again.” Starring roles followed in BARBAROSA, RED-HEADED STRANGER, SONGWRITER and a dozen more.

Throughout the 1980s, the hits also kept coming, many of them in a long string of memorable duets –”Pancho and Lefty” with Merle Haggard and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” with Latin pop star Julio Iglesias. Teaming with old pals Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen, Willie charted three more albums and continued to burn up the highways of America.

In 1985, he was a co-founder of Farm Aid, a string of annual concerts to benefit America’s family farmers. His name was kept even more in the headlines, though, by his battles with the IRS, who declared his finances a mess and handed him a bill for $16.7 million in back taxes. Unfazed, Willie toured virtually non-stop and dedicated the profits of a new double CD entitled WHO’LL BUY MY MEMORIES? By 1993, the Feds had been paid in full.

In the past decade, his star has only risen higher. High profile albums like Across the Borderline, Spirit, Teatro and The Great Divide have been sandwiched between numerous smaller releases– like Milk Cow Blues and an endearing kids’ album entitled, The Rainbow Connection.

Through it all, Willie’s business and creative philosophy has been almost the opposite of the rest of the record industry. Conventional wisdom says to dole out your songs in doses, record one album every couple of years, and not get overexposed. By contrast, Willie’s almost-lifelong philosophy has been to record as much and as often as he has songs, and to play as many concerts a year as he can get to.

“If you don’t use your voice, you lose it,” Willie explains. “Besides, while I’ve still got the time, I want to play with as many of the musicians that I love as possible.”

Today, the crowd at a Willie concert generally encompasses several generations of music fans, from youngsters to great-grandparents, with a healthy dose of that all-important record-buying crowd in their teens and twenties. Kicking off with “Whiskey River,” Willie sails through twenty hits in a little over an hour. At the point most performers would be calling it a night, Willie generally switches from “Trigger” — his well-worn Martin acoustic guitar — to a black Fender Stratocaster. The crowd goes wild as he smokes through a bluesey “Nightlife” and the sublime “Angel Flying to Close to the Ground.” One type of music slides into another, the A-plus catalog of American musical styles with hints of swing, jazz, big band, and rhythm and blues. In his unique singing style, Willie’s voice is constantly phrasing behind the beat as he trades licks with his band of thirty years.

After the encores, interviews and autographs, it’s the wee hours of the morning as the bus pulls out for another city several hundred miles down the road, or maybe for a stop in Austin at Willie’s home, an 800-acre complex comprised of golf course, recording studio, cypress log cabin and his very own western-movie town called Luck, Texas.

“If you ain’t here,” Willie is fond of saying, “You’re out of Luck.”

Tireless at play as he is at work, when he’s at home Willie’s likely to record a few tracks and play anywhere from 18 – 54 holes of golf a day.

“A million pesos a hole,” he likes to say. “Double on birdies.”

With effortless abandon, he waltzes through his life, a whirlwind of energy surrounding a deep-rooted center of total calm, a cowboy-Zen philosophy which is summed up in his song title, “Still is Still Moving.”

Besides, whenever he sits down, some fool will ask if he’s ever going to retire.

“All I do is play music and golf,” he replies, his blue eyes shining like wrinkled sapphires. “Which one do you want me to give up?”

  • tabbycat kicks butang

    willlie nelson kicks butang!

  • Boxerstoo

    Found this site way too late….But it’s never too late for Willie appreciation…Absolutely the greatest!!

  • Norman Draper

    Why isn’t Willie’s AM show available on DVD? Plese!!!

  • JOHN JAEGER

    I heard an interview with Kris Kristoferson on Fresh Air a few years back. Kris said Willie “imagined” himself into being. Imagination is a wonderful thing. Carl Jung once said the hardest thing is to accept yourself completely. I think Willie did that somewhere along the way.

  • rebecca rabinowitz

    saw willie with his son and sister in tampa @ busch gardens on valentines day. he was awesome as usual. his son was great. would you expect any different from a member of willie’s band?

  • dave

    where is this episode? i saw it a few years ago but never again:(

  • Betsy

    First time I saw Willie was at the Hollywood Sportatorium in Florida, some thirty odd years ago. I loved him then and I still love him now. He is one fantastic person. He sings real good too!!

  • Ed Spradley

    I had a chance to see the premiere of this episode at the Willie Nelson 10K for Farm Aid back in Austin in 2002. It was a great episode and even had interview footage of Waylon Jennings before he passed away. I’ve been looking for this for years and want this on DVD. I’m sure a lot of other people do to. Please put this one on your list to release!

  • Chris Nelson

    I was just fortunate enough to go to Luck, TX on Easter Sunday 2010. We went to the Sunday Church Service with Gospel singers and lots of the Holy Spirit going on!! It was SOO cool! I played poker on his tpoker table, played pool on his pool table, went in the recording studio, and got to explore every building that Luck, TX has to offer. There was an Easter Egg Hunt for the kids and all. Willie did not get to make it this year, they said he had hurt his shoulder or arm or something. I tell you waht, it was one hell of an experience. If you Google.. You don’t think I’m funny anymore.. You will see the town. The video was shot there.. SO RAD!

  • Jean Bonner

    Just read the line about his blue eyes shining like sapphires. Nice line, but Willie’s eyes are brown. Just ask Toddzy, my 3 year old grandson. He can tell ya.

  • Nahme Requiro

    Is not paying your taxes the essence of Willie’s “cowboy-Zen philosophy” or just another part of his goofin’ for golf?

    How about his 9/11 Trutherism? Willie lies lower than those Titlelists on the back nine.

  • Monte and Janice Stephens

    Willie,
    Put his name on my guiter that I’ve played for 38 years. Talked with me on his bus. Told me he would get in touch with me. As of July 15, 2010 I’ve been preaching for 40 years. But form age 16-23 played and lived the night life. RCA offered me a contract but my mom and God had something going on that RCA and me could not over come. The songs of Willie, Hag, and Jones has always been an influnce in my music. A 12 time Grammy contender myself in gospel music, I’m still wating for the call. My dream album is to have Willie, Hag, and Jones to be my guest artist on an album. Now why would a minister want these men to sing with him? They speak to the heart of men, when some minsters what go there, life as it is.
    Ok you three. You have all put your name on my guitar, now put your voices on an album. Don’t tell me you guys ant tall enough for this!!

    Monte Stephens
    Owner/ Pres. Freedom Records

  • Jan Faithful

    Im almost lost for words to express how great I think Willie is. His music has been such an inspiration to me and after all the many times i have seen him, I finally had my dream to be up close as he handed me his bandana. He is absolutely the greatest of all time.

Salinger

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.