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Willie Nelson and me

April 30, 2013

In honor of the great man’s 80th birthday, here’s a rerun of my Ode to Willie from last summer. It has been a decade since I first met his acquaintance, just before his 70th birthday.

I’ve interviewed Willie Nelson nine times.

I want that included in my obituary. It doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, but I’m convinced it should be in there somewhere.

I’m not famous. I’m not a celebrity. I’m not (normally) a name-dropper. I’m not even among the more talented writers to work at The Associated Press. But on several occasions — 9 if I have counted correctly — I have been given the opportunity to talk to a living legend about his amazing life and craft.

I am about to start a new life, moving into the ministry as a fulltime vocation. Looking back at the last 13 years, I have covered a lot of big news stories, but what I will remember most is my time with Willie Nelson, mostly just shootin’ the breeze. Those are my greatest hits.

Nobody got hurt in the writing of those stories. They were just fun. And they were Willie Nelson. And the two are synomymous.

Willie would phone me from his tour bus, his home in Austin and once on stage in Florida while he was tuning up to play a gig. I could hear the band getting ready. That was cool.

Here’s how this would all typically go: I would call Willie’s (outstanding) publicist Elaine Schock and let her know I was working on a story about Willie. She would track him down and usually let me know that he would call me the next day or the day after. Without fail, roughly 10 minutes later, Willie would phone our office. Our editorial assistant, Brian Ford, would start waving his arms up and down, signaling me wildly, mouthing the words, “It’s him! It’s Willie!!” This was a regular occurrence, and it never got old.

There are celebrities and politicians and important people. But even hardened journalists realize there is only one Willie.

Since nearly all my conversations with Willie were on the phone, I could only imagine that The Great One was also saving humanity in the Willie Way while we chatted about new albums or life on the road. Between my inane questions, was he scribbling out lyrics to a new song? Plotting out a new way to try to save the family farm or protect the environment? Is it just me or did Willie sometimes sound as if he might have been enjoying an adult beverage while we talked? Or two or three? Now, I don’t know that for a fact. But there were times when he did not exactly sound like himself, so I would let him talk for a while, and I would ask myself: “Is this really Willie?”

But then, he would laugh.

He always laughs.

Then you know it’s the Red Headed Stranger his own self.

All of our talks took place between 2003 and 2009. (That’s right, Willie and I haven’t spoken in a while. We are not, however, estranged. You might say he is always on my mind. Um, sorry. … What happened was, I went off to seminary to study for the ministry and spent a lot less time writing stories for publication. Willie stayed behind, still perfecting his craft after all these years — and presumably waiting on my calls. )

Eight of the nine interviews were over the phone, and only one was in person, at an appearance he made to promote his alternative fuel product. It was a brief handshake, a hello and goodbye, a chance for him to put my over-smiling face to the voice he sometimes heard on the phone. Our telephone conversations were longer, and usually somewhat colorful. In fact, most of the best stuff never got into the stories I wrote about him, mostly due to journalistic failure on my part. Perhaps some of what he said was just not appropriate for a family newspaper, but mostly the good stories he told got left out simply because I am not a good enough writer to figure out how to use the many jewels that he hands out.

Once, for example, I asked him how he felt about an announcement that he and his wife had just been honored with the naming of a professorship in stem cell research. “Stem cells!?” he shot back, in mock incredulity. “I thought they said leaves and stems!”

Willie’s greatest source of laughter is himself, poking fun at his well-documented legal troubles, which include financial issues and marijuana possession arrests.

If you talk to Willie a few times, you pick up pretty quickly that one of the man’s greatest joys is to make you laugh with him. His jokes carry a certain Willieness that is hard to describe. Here’s one of the clean ones: A skeleton walks into a bar and says, ‘Give me a beer and a mop.’”

That’s it.

That is vintage Willie Nelson humor right there.

Once I was talking to him about a little town in Oklahoma where he was en route to play. I asked him if he had been there before. He asked me to name a bar there and I said I believe the town is “dry.” “Well,” he said with dramatic pause, “then I’ve never been there.”

Willie can talk at length, but a lot of richness can be found in his brevity. The first time we spoke, I told him about having dropped in on his hometown, tiny Abbott, Texas, to learn more about him. After a moment of awkward silence, Willie said simply, “Why?”

I learned you cannot really understand Willie unless you know that he was and is a product of Abbott (population 300) and that he does not take kindly to any attention to the town that might make it something other than the gentle, nurturing place it has always been for him. In fact, someone once tried to place a big billboard on the highway proclaiming Abbott as Willie’s hometown, and he torched it. But that’s another story.

Of course, I wrote about Willie at the same time I was covering religion, which spawned a lot of jokes from my colleagues. They noted that, in Texas, keeping up with Willie is a religion unto itself. I interviewed him for the first time on the approach of his 70th birthday. In describing the story I was writing for my bosses in New York, one of my editors said in a very serious tone that, in Texas, Willie’s birthday is a state holiday. They believed it.

I never felt there was any incongruity between writing about religion and spirituality and covering Willie Nelson. They go together.

I once interviewed Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday).” Billy Joe’s honesty and authenticity as a human being are almost overwhelming. With deep emotion, Billy Joe told me about the devastating blows he suffered in the early 2000’s: the death of his son Eddy from a heroin overdose, and a massive heart attack on stage at historic Gruene Hall in the Texas Hill Country. At his lowest, Billy Joe counted on his Christian faith and two men who stood by him until he found the strength to go on. One was Kinky Friedman. The other was Willie. Every time I think of that, I remember the biblical admonition to rejoice with those rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).

In 2007, I interviewed Willie’s sister and bandmate Bobbie, a sweetheart of a human being and a talented pianist who was putting out her first solo album at the age of 76. “We’re going to get her own bus and everything,” Willie told me at the time, “fix it up with her own hairdresser, makeup and everything — just like Jessica Simpson.”

Bobbie filled me in on the foundations of hers and Willie’s life: the music of the church. It is in their DNA. Their grandfather bought her a piano for $35 — and they were off to town, as we say in rural Texas.

Bobbie carries in her heart a clear, life-defining image of their grandmother singing the gospel standard “The Great Speckled Bird” while she and Willie played along.

“I don’t sing,” Bobbie said. “When I was very young, I used to harmonize with Willie when we would sing in church. His voice is so good, and I never had that quality of voice. He didn’t need me. I could get in his way. So I just played piano for him to sing. That’s what we still do.”

I don’t think it is possible to fully appreciate Willie unless you know his spiritual underpinnings. The Gospel is the lens through which to see all he has tried to do to lift others, whether it is through Farm Aid, alternative fuel, medical research, making somebody else laugh or encouraging a friend whose heart is broken. It comes from the nurturing bosom of Abbott, and the words of those old hymns sung by the piano and in the little Methodist Church down the street.

If you look for the divine image in good ole Willie, it’s easy to find.

By the way, that historic little church, like so many others with dwindling attendance, went up for sale in 2006. Willie stepped in and bought it, so that services might never end.

“Now, you’re all members of the Abbott Methodist Church, and you will be, forever and ever,” he told parishioners then.

The church’s Facebook page describes it s a “wonderful ole country church saved from destruction by Willie and Bobbie Nelson. God is alive and well at the Abbott Methodist Church!!!!!!” The worship schedule includes the notation that “you just never know who will be there for service.”

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