Willie Nelson, Poet Laureate

Sometime in the middle 1970s Willie Nelson and I talked together in a public toilet. I was a magazine writer and he was playing in Phoenix, along with Tanya Tucker and Waylon Jennings. I didn't have anything against Tanya Tucker, but I couldn't understand her being the headliner, and Willie and Waylon backup acts. We used the men 's room because it was the only place we could record an interview in private.

He was high and he'd been drinking, and he had a deep sadness in his face. I knew he had the kind of vulnerability that leaves you open to a lot of pain, and that he was searching for a way through it, writing his way through it.

Over the years Willie has been like an older brother I looked up to, and I've made changes with him as I realized you can't bear the pain of life if you take it personally. You have to recognize that it's the human condition, and what you think is your special problem is a pattern in the human psyche. If it's true for you then it's true for your brother, and you begin to see that some men are looking for the truth and some men are looking for power. Each man has to decide which one he is going to serve, because he can't serve two masters.

Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan told him that there are four things a man has to face and overcome. The first is fear, the second is clarity, the third is power, and the fourth is old age. I guess Willie is dealing with the final frontier of the warrior's journey, now, and showing the rest of us how to grow old without shrinking backward into fear and power.

There are different ways men search for the truth. Willie searched for it as a poet. In 1968 I was at the Far East Network, in Tokyo, the American radio station. Steve Strange, who used to work in Boots Randolph's night club in Nashville, and I used to take records into an unused control booth and turn them up on the monitors. We were using wax records and tube amps, and I still think the music sounded better then than it ever did again. It sounded like real instruments, and real people, and Willie cut through the mix because he wasn't showing off. He wasn't playing the fool to please his masters. He was an iconic figure, a man who remembered that he was made out of star stuff, and we knew it.

When I was back in the States and had my first house, I bought a good component sound system, and Willie continued to be like an older brother I was always proud to follow. He and Waylon and a couple of friends left Nashville and set up their own recording and distributing operation in Texas, announcing themselves with, "The Outlaws." And when everybody was doing more and more tracks and more and more complex engineering, Willie came out with, "The Red Headed Stranger." He brought me back to understanding that it's the cowboy poet and his guitar that makes the magic happen.

(Jack White did the same reminder regarding rock and roll on his last album, which he recorded on a reel to reel tape recorder in his stairwell.)

Through the years Willie has always been there, mostly in the background, but sometimes he comes back into the foreground. I'll see him at a concert and mostly he sings standards, making his living by being Willie Nelson, and showing up where the energy is. For example, when Paul Pena went to Tuva, and some friends shot "Genghis Blues," it wasn't long before Willie was in the mix.

When I heard Kongar-ol Ondar sing in person I knew the energy coming in was something special. My daughter and I met him in a parking lot, and when we drove away, "Genghis Blues" came on the radio. There's the spirit crossing our path. Willie Nelson soon afterwards recorded with him, translating the lyrics of "Where Has my Country Gone?" (Back Tuva Future).

Willie Nelson lives in the present, and he's aware of where the new energy is coming in. His personal mythology is of a young man in Nashville, writing songs recorded by other people because his voice was too odd for Nashville. His history contains scenes of his flying low across Texas, smoking grass and blasting tunes, and being pulled over by troopers who see who it is and let him ride on again. Willie is almost universally recognized by men as a treasure, a man who brings out the best in us. I remember when his house burned down, and when his wife tied him up in his sleep and beat him half to death, when he couldn't pay his taxes and was broke, that he plays an old beat up guitar ... that he's always been real, and he's always been honest.

A few weeks ago I laughed when somebody asked him about Brokeback Mountain and he said, "You know that cowboys are secretly frequently fond of each other." I didn't realize at the time it was a song he'd recorded. Willie knows how to walk along the cutting edge. Willie is shrewd, kind, mature, funny, and country. He makes me think about the preacher and his daughter who were trying to bring enlightenment to the backwater in the book, Cold Mountain. After they tell the old boy about Jesus' crucifixion he thinks a minute and says, "Well, I guess that the best we can do is hope it ain't so." His being among the common people didn't make him a common man.

Just one of Willie's jokes: There's a reporter who has herself put into the insane asylum to uncover abuses, and one of the inmates helps her out. He seems so normal she asks why he's in, and he says he doesn't know, that he feels fine. She says, "When I break this story, I'll get you out of here." So when she's leaving he picks up the telephone and throws it, hitting her in the side of the head and knocking her silly. "Don't forget!" he says.

He's one of the immortals, and he's the reining poet laureate of the singing cowboys.

So let's raise a glass against evil forces, singing "Whiskey for my men and beer for my horses."

Posted: Wed - February 15, 2006 at 03:15 PM