HIGH TIMES would like to wish Willie Nelson a happy 77th birthday! In honor of the occasion, we’re making available for the first time online two complete Willie Nelson HIGH TIMES interviews. Enjoy!
(From October 2005)
Willie Nelson goes reggae for his latest album and talks to HIGH TIMES about his favorite subject.
Everybody knows Willie Nelson has a big heart, but you probably don’t know that he keeps it on a polished mahogany shelf next to the sturdy leather chair in the back of his fabled tour bus. ”The big red heart,” as Nelson calls it with a warm smile, is made of battered tin and once held a two-pound assortment of sandwich cookies; but when Willie pops the lid now, the sweet scent of marijuana hits you like a fragrant trade wind. Inside his heart, at any given moment, may be a half-ounce of pre-cleaned, finely ground cannabis. No sticks, and certainly no seeds.
“It’s a mixture,” Willie explains—a jambalya of all the good ganja that comes his way, combined via coffee grinder. He plucks a few fingers from the tin and throws down. I pull out a dense nug of Sour D and break it up to add to the mix. The HIGH TIMES interview has begun.
It’s hard to believe, but the world’s most beloved stoner has never before sat down for a sesh with the world’s most infamous marijuana magazine (see The Message on page 5).
There are more reasons than anyone can remember, especially once we start smoking some Willie weed, but the logic goes something like this: While Willie Nelson occupies a unique position in marijuana culture, and remains an outlaw in every sense of the word, not all of his fans are fans of the plant—not by a long shot. And though he’s been smoking for half a century, and been openly unabashed in his affection for Mary Jane for over 35 years, his support for all things cannabis has had little negative impact on his very mainstream career. And his handlers would like to keep it that way.
When it comes to grass, Willie’s fans divide into three distinct camps: stoners like myself who view Willie Nelson as a sterling example of humanity; politically conservative country folks who dislike the pot thing but cry in their beers whenever he sings “Crazy”; and, finally, fans who don’t smoke and don’t care, but remain mildly amused by Shotgun Willie’s outlaw ways. So, unlike most marijuana activists, Nelson doesn’t preach merely to the converted. Arguably, on the strength of his art and his living example, he’s helped change more minds about marijuana than any other American.
“They’re watching me,” Nelson acknowledges. “I’m like the canary in the coal mine. As long as I can remember the words to my songs and do a good show, they say: ‘Well, it may not be affecting him that much.’”
And so, despite incessant interview requests, HIGH TIMES has always been treated like a red-headed stranger by the managers, press agents, record companies, road managers and assorted family members who get paid to look out for Willie Nelson’s best interests. Frankly, I don’t think the man himself gave a shit one way or the other. We were all waiting for the right moment to make it happen. The release of Willie’s long-delayed reggae CD, Countryman, turned out to be the right moment. One look at the cover art proved that. There are actually two covers: “One for Wal-Mart,” Willie noted, and one for every fan of the singer’s favorite plant—with a big pot leaf commanding the center.
It’s the hottest day of the year. The temperature on the field of Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, MD, reaches triple digits, but the Bob Dylan–Willie Nelson show has attracted a particularly rugged type of music fan willing to roast for hours in the sun to secure a good seat on the general-admission lawn. I’m scheduled to meet with the American music legend for an hour and a half, but a family member’s illness delays Willie by nearly an hour. How to stuff 30 years’ worth of interview into 30 minutes? My strategy involves breaking the ice by bringing the musician’s old friend Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, along for the ride. Willie has been a member of the NORML advisory board for 22 years, and so I assumed their reputations would precede me—but it quickly became evident that Stroup was ruthlessly using HIGH TIMES to gain ground in the ancient game of bragging rights.
“You know, Willie,” says Keith, “you always have better pot than me. This time, I came with my friends from HIGH TIMES, and I think I have you beat!”
Willie sticks his nose in the bag, raises his eyebrows and nods appreciatively. The familiar sound of his guitar floats softly from a state-of-the-art sound system shelved above our heads on board one of the world’s most widely traveled and legendary tour buses. A copy of Bob Dylan’s autobiography sits on the soft brown-leather couch in the front, while Willie holds court from a corner booth. We will talk for the next 40 minutes without interruption—save for one very unusual exception.
HT: You’ve done reggae songs before, but Countryman is your first full-blown reggae album. How did that happen?
WN: Ten years ago, I went to see Chris Blackwell when he was the head of Island Records in Jamaica, and we talked about putting out a reggae album. Chris loved [the idea], but I also played him a CD I produced called Spirit, and he said, “I love Spirit. Let’s put that out now and y’all go finish the reggae and then we’ll put it out.” But they had a shakeup, and he left the label. So for 10 years it kinda laid there, until the good folks over at Lost Highway picked it up and ran with it.
Keith Stroup: Does the title Countryman refer to the ganja growers up in the mountains?
WN: Yeah. That’s right.
I’ve always thought reggae and country gospel are very similar, not in sound so much as in spirit.
WN: The way the musicians tell me, reggae took off—Peter Tosh, Toots and those guys—was that reggae came basically from country music, from listening to the radio in the United States and hearing WSM play ’em some Grand Ole Opry. When they told me that, I started thinking about how country songs just naturally lend themselves to a reggae rhythm.
Does marijuana help your songwriting?
WN: I wrote most of my good songs before I ever heard of marijuana or used it, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t slow down your writing.
(Lights the joint and passes it to Willie): Really?
WN: Well, if you’re hungry or on edge and you’re writing, you could always just sit down and smoke a little joint and not worry about it. But some things you need to worry about.
So taking that edge off sometimes isn’t a good thing?
WN: Yeah. You need that edge.
(Bob Dylan quietly enters the front of the bus.)
WN: Ayyyy! Bob! (rising from the booth) C’mere!
(A brief hug and Willie returns to the corner booth.)
Bob Dylan: They gotcha trapped.
We got him now.
BD: I’ll come back.
BD: I’ll come back.
WN: All right.
(Exit Bob Dylan)
You know, I named my daughter after that man!
WN (eyes widening): Oh, you did?
We figured the name works for either a boy or a girl.
WN: Yeah, that’s true. Well, he’s a good guy. Believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve seen him this tour. We’ve been out two weeks.
KS: I hope we didn’t scare him off with this? (holds up the burning joint)
WN: No, no, no. He was gonna play some chess. He asked me if I want to play some chess, so we can do it tomorrow or next day.
I believe we were talking about songwriting.
WN: I started writing songs a long time before I started smoking. Well, I started smoking cigarettes when I was 4. I started smoking something when I was 4. Cedar bark. Grapevines. Cotton leaves. Coffee leaves. I even tried Black Drop one time.
WN: It was an old laxative in powder form. Cedar bark, I smoked that. And then I used to lay hens, so I would trade a dozen eggs for a pack of cigarettes back in those days. About 18 cents, I think. About 18 or 20 cents for a pack of cigarettes. Lucky Strikes. Camels.
In your autobiography, you said that marijuana got you off cigarettes and drinking.
WN: Yeah, I knew I was killing myself with cigarettes, and I knew I was really putting myself in danger with drinking so much, so somewhere along the way I decided, “Wait a minute! You know, do what you can do.” In the early years, I drank all the time. Mainly before pot. Up until then, I was into whiskey and uppers. You know, that’s the deal. Truck drivers had the bennies when they made those LA turnarounds, and all that stuff was going around. All the guitar players had it.
Fred Lockwood. He was the first guy to ever turn you on to pot?
WN: Yeah. A Fort Worth musician. That’s right.
Fred Lockwood was not only the first person to give you a joint, as I understand it, he’s also the guy who gave you the line, “I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure Do Regret It”
WN: There was two. There was Fred Lockwood and there was Ace Lockwood. They were brothers. Fred was the one who gave me the line, “I Gotta Get Drunk and I Sure Do Regret It” and his brother Ace went and gave me a itty bitty little snuff can full of pot one time.
So that was your first time around the block?
WN: I played a club there, and we played together. These guys were musicians, so we went over to their house, and Fred and I were playing dominoes. That was the first time I ever smoked it. I think I smoked it about six months before I ever got high. And then, all of a sudden: “Oh yeah—that’s what that is.”
Willie, you’re a musician known, for making political stands. Not every musician does that.
WN: I’ve let my beliefs be known and they turned out to be political. I didn’t start out taking any political stands—just taking stands.
You just think a certain way and...
KS: ...groups like NORML start using you politically.
You’ve also been out front about your use of cannabis for a long time. Have you taken a lot of flak for it over your career?
WN: Zero that I know of.
It’s amazing how you get by.
WN: Well, I got busted.
750,000 people got busted for marijuana last year.
KS: Yeah, but none of them got busted because they slept on the side of the highway and then raised the “hand-rolled cigarette defense,” which I don’t believe has worked for anybody else—wasn’t that it?
WN: You can’t assume that a rolled-up cigarette in an ashtray, looking through the window, is a marijuana cigarette.
KS: In Texas, in particular! I think of that as the Willie Nelson Defense.
WN: I thought it was brilliant.
KS: I did, too.
(Rolling the third joint of the interview): I hope you don’t mind my blazing, but I’m about to see Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan play.
WN: You’ve gotta get there.
Well, I know you recommend moderation.
WN: Moderation is always the key, even for pot. You can overdo pot. And it’s not for the kids.... After they get 18, 21 years old, they’re going to try whatever they’re gonna try…
What’s the difference smoking pot 50 years ago and now?
WN: It costs more money.
People say it’s better now, but I don’t remember not getting high 25 years ago.
WN: No, I don’t either. You know, it’s kind of like sex—there’s none bad, there’s just some that’s better. I think our tolerance is pretty good, too.
I usually stop for a month every year or so.
KS: I usually stop for a few days every now and then—because I run out.
WN: I intentionally let myself run out every now and then.
KS: A couple of days into that, I usually say, “Let me rethink that decision.”
WN: Either that or one of the guys’ll bring me one and say, “Here, don’t you think it’s time?”
(From January 2008)
In February 2007, Willie Nelson sat down at his home in Maui and smoked a joint with his old friend Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Between them, the two old heads hatched a plan for the Austin Freedom Festival, a benefit for marijuana-law reform, which was held in August. Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel all played in praise of Mary Jane, and NORML shared the proceeds with the Marijuana Policy Project, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana and Green Aid. Just before he hit the stage, Willie sat down once again to talk with HIGH TIMES.
Of course, gaining an audience required the patience of a saint.
Merle Haggard steps off Willie Nelson’s bus just as HIGH TIMES steps on. In the 11 highly focused minutes that follow, the Pope of Austin, TX, will pontificate on being medicalized in Hawaii, arrested in Louisiana and pissed off in Texas. The Red-Headed Stranger will film a fast potcast and spend three minutes more posing for a national magazine cover with fistfuls of weed. Willie is temperamentally gracious—always—so as the clock runs down, I suggest one more shot.
The Pope breaks into a ball-busting grin. “Now don’t get all creative on me,” quips this most lovable old geezer as he holds the Bubble Gum buds like a pair of maracas and takes the final pose. “Y’already got too much time.”
Two years earlier, when America’s most beloved stoner sat down for a sesh with the world’s No. 1 pot magazine, things were much different. That was Maryland, and we had time for a leisurely chat over three joints of Sour Diesel. In Maryland, Willie Nelson was merely a national musical icon with a guaranteed place in American cultural history. In Austin, he’s something more: He’s a saint among sinners and worshipped as wise.
The hill country around here is filled with people who would literally kill for this man. At the Austin Freedom Festival—held at an outdoor ampitheater called the Backyard in Bee Hive, not 30 miles from where Willie was born—the faithful come out in droves to hear their holy man sing about gunfights and hookers and the way life should be lived from the heart. They line up outside the bus and politely wait their turn for just a few minutes of his time—to smoke a joint, to pitch a song, to get a quote or just to say “Hey.” All of it a form of benediction, a blessing from the Pope of Austin, TX.
Despite the comprehensive interview two years earlier, I have a few nagging questions for Willie. Reports recently surfaced that Nelson wasn’t feeling well when he canceled a dozen Midwest tour dates, keeping only benefits like the Freedom Fest and Farm Aid on the schedule. Willie’s stage manager Poodie Locke says he’s just tired, but when I found out that Willie recently became a medical-marijuana patient in Maui, where he has a home, it seemed prudent to check in on the septuagenarian’s health. And then there was Louisiana.
On Sept. 18, 2006, the Willie Nelson tour bus was pulled over for a “routine commercial vehicle inspection” on I-10 outside Lafayette, LA. When the officer smelled marijuana, he decided to board the bus, where he found a pound and a half of high-end bud and almost three ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. There were five people on the bus (average age: 62), including Willie, 72, and his older sister, pianist Bobbie Nelson, 75. Although there was enough contraband to warrant a felony charge, according to a spokesman for the Louisiana State Highway Patrol, all five passengers claimed the plants as their own—and as the pot and ’shrooms were not packaged for resale, all were given misdemeanor citations. At a hearing earlier this year, Nelson and his personal assistant, Dave Anderson, took full responsibility and were each given fines and six months’ probation, which makes Willie’s bud-decked HIGH TIMES cover all the more courageous.
When our 14 minutes are over, we find ourselves gently escorted off the bus as Willie starts getting ready for the show. It’s a beautiful night in Texas: The barbecue sizzles, the stars are big and bright and the moon pops with a heavenly light. The Pope of Austin, TX, is about to sing his songs.
HIGH TIMES: How’s your health these days?
WILLIE NELSON: Pretty good.
I understand you’re a medical patient in Hawaii.
NELSON: That’s true. Yeah. There’s a club there—
KEITH STROUP: Run by Brian—
NELSON: Yeah, run by old Brian Murphy. You probably know Brian—
Used to be out of Virginia?
You got a card and all that?
NELSON: Yeah, you get a doctor to give you a card. I think there’s like twelve hundred out on Maui now.
Twelve hundred doctors?
What did you have to go through in order to get your card?
NELSON: Well, you had to answer some questions, you know, and there’s certain things. There’s no problem if you have severe pain, stress, whatever. There’s a list of things that a willing doctor can give you a card.
That’s the way it should be.
STROUP: I think it’s important to make the notation, though, that Willie has always been for legalizing marijuana regardless of why you’re using it.
STROUP: Whether it’s medical or spiritual or personal or anything else. I think that’s fair, isn’t it?
NELSON: Yeah. It’s just that it was more or less a statement in joining; it wasn’t a problem in finding anything over there in Maui.
When I heard you got a medical card—I’m really glad you got in there, but I want to make sure your health is all right. You’re doing pretty good?
NELSON: I’m doing fine.
Yeah, you look great for your age. Since we talked last time, about two years ago, two things have happened: You’ve got a medical card, you’ve become a patient in Hawaii—and also Louisiana. Let’s talk about Louisiana a little bit.
NELSON: Well, it was just unfortunate. We happened to be coming through there, and they happened to be sort of looking for us.
They were sort of looking for you?
NELSON: Well, it seemed that way.
You must stick out like a sore thumb on the road [referring to Nelson’s legendary tour bus].
NELSON: Yeah, well, it’s not easy to just kinda go down the highway without anybody noticing—plus, you know, there’s a long story behind all that that I probably won’t get into. But fortunately, it came out well and everybody’s happy.
NELSON: Yeah, there are some things that are best sort of slid over.
I understand that they found a pound and a half of marijuana and that everybody on the bus said that it belonged to everybody on the bus, and so it was a misdemeanor charge because of that.
NELSON: Well, David and I—
You were there, too?
DAVE ANDERSON (Willie’s personal assistant): Yeah.
NELSON: David said most of it was his, which it was—you know, he had gotten it that evening. I said what was mine, and everybody else was let off.
There were mushrooms. You had mushrooms?
NELSON: Well, I didn’t, but David did.
Oh, okay, ’cause I was going to ask you—I mean, yeah, if you had said they were yours, I would’ve had to ask: What are you, 73?
Seventy-four! God bless you—you don’t look 74.
NELSON: No, it really was David’s. You know, mushrooms aren’t strange to me—I’ve had ’em before. It’s not my get-up tea, as they say.
In many ways, today’s concert is a culmination of your long-term association with NORML. What do you remember about starting out on the NORML advisory board 35 years ago?
NELSON: I just remember that I liked Keith and we always got along, and we could always figure out ways that we could help each other. I’m glad to be a part of NORML. I think it’s a great organization.
Well, you’re playing today at a benefit in support of marijuana-law reform. What do you think should happen here? Should we legalize it? Make it legal for patients?
NELSON: I think there are a lot of terms—I thinking “taxing” and “regulating” are two good terms that I really love to hear. Treat it as tobacco and alcohol, period. You move on. I think there’s a lot of revenue there that they’re missing, and I think there’s a lot of illegal drug dealers out there they could put out of business, just like they put out the bootleggers back when they made whiskey legal. It’s the same thing all over again, and it’s time everybody grew up and started thinking about what’s really real. It’s time to tax it, regulate it, make the money off of it. Quit letting the illegal drug dealers make the money and make the money for us, for the farmer. He can really do well. There’s so many people who can benefit.
It seems to me this subject—marijuana—and the subject of biofuel that you also work on are somehow related.
NELSON: Well, you know, Gatewood Galbraith and I—when he was running for the governor of Kentucky—traveled around in a hemp mobile. You can use hemp oil for a lot of great things.
Yeah, I guess that’s where the ideas converge. You don’t use hemp for your BioWillie fuel. What is it made of?
NELSON: Well, we use vegetable oils, and right now I think we probably run it on soybeans.
STROUP: Good for the American farmer, man.
This bus we’re on right now is running on soybeans?
NELSON: Absolutely. Probably a hundred percent, since we’re around Austin—’cause I’ve got a hundred percent tank on my ranch out here, and we fill up here all the time.
How’s the BioWillie diesel business doing?
NELSON: Well, the overall business of biofuels is doing great—the supply is not quite up to the demand. A lot of people know about it and a lot of people are trying to get it, and they can’t find it in their local Conoco station. One of these days ….
What do you think is the biggest impediment to getting biofuel out there? I think people are still suspicious of it.
NELSON: Well ….
“Does it mess with my car? Does it get less gas efficiency? Am I going to pay more?” Those are the questions.
NELSON: I have a radio program every Wednesday on XM Radio, channel 171, with my old buddy Bill Mack, and he talks to these truckers every day, but I talk to him for an hour and we talk about, hey, y’know …. They’re the ones who have really spread the word about bio-diesel, because they, in the beginning, were just like you say: They were leery of it—they’re truckers. The owners were leery of it: What’s it going to do to the warranties and all that? What’s it going to do to the motor? So everybody was leery of it. I told them about how I ran it in my brand-new Mercedes. My wife runs it in her Volkswagen Jetta.
You don’t change the engine?
NELSON: No, nothing. We have a tank in the garage; we back it up to it. This is with vegetable oil on Maui that’s collected from all the restaurants and the grease traps around. They take it and they make it into 100 percent vegetable oil, where you can run it right back into...the first diesel engine was designed to run on peanut oil!
NELSON: Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine, and it was designed to run on peanut oil.
If we had this technology the whole time, how did we wind up going with this oil shit?
NELSON: I said, Duh!