By Richard Cusick
photos by Brian Jahn

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.’”