High Times Greats: Willie Nelson

In this 1978 article, Harry Wasserman profiles Austin’s outlaw legend, Willie Nelson.
High Times Greats: Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson by Charlyn Zlotnick

Willie Nelson turns 87 on April 29. To pay tribute to the longtime weed advocate, we’re republishing the following profile from the January, 1978 edition of High Times, written by Harry Wasserman.

Willie Nelson smokes a lot of dope, drinks a lot and fights a lot when he’s drunk. He’s 45, and he wears an earring, long gnarled hair, a bramble-bush beard. His anarcho politics are nearer red than redneck, but he has his fingers in most of the Texas music scene. For Willie Nelson, Austin, Texas—home of the armadillo—is a country power base like Plains, Georgia.

“I’m a cosmic cowboy,’’ says Willie. “A cosmic cowboy has a guitar, wears boots, smokes pot and is an outlaw. Being an outlaw is saying what I want to in my music.” An Austin friend of Willie’s: “Willie’s kind of outlaw doesn’t ride a motorcycle, he drives a pickup truck with a gun rack.” Willie’s outlaw myth began years ago when he was a songwriter in Nashville. He led a rat pack known as the Nashville Outlaws, a loose-knit bunch of hard-living barfly singers and songwriters, mostly ex-Texans like Willie, usually including Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson and David Allen Coe. All had appetites for getting high as big as Texas itself. Members of Willie’s band were recently busted for alleged possession of cocaine, as was Waylon, who was cleared of all charges.

Willie claims he doesn’t imbibe as much as during his Nashville Outlaw days. If he was once an alkie, he’s now just a casual boozer. Or so Willie says. “I don’t guzzle beer all the time—I like two or three beers a night. I used to wake up in the morning, look for a cold beer and only find a hot one. I drank a lot of hot beers.”

“I went through the psychedelics. I go crazy on uppers, I go to sleep on downers. I can’t drink whiskey ’cuz I can’t remember what I did the night before when I wake up the next morning.” He sports tennis shoes, a sweatband to keep his wild hair in place, plaid workshirt and jeans, even while performing. Before one recent concert, he was backstage signing autographs when a security guard tried to throw him out, thinking that Willie was a grungy gate-crasher.

Willie was born to two weirdos on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, a small town in north-central Texas. “My mother claims to be from outer space. She sees flying saucers. I got high with her last night—she likes to get high. She used to drink a lot when she was a bartender. My father was a closet doper for 30 years—why, just the other day my mother found three pounds in his shoes.” Luckily he was raised by his grandparents, who had earned mail-order music degrees, and wee Willie used to watch them practice guitar by lantern light. His own musical career began at age ten when he was paid $10 for playing rhythm guitar with a polka band.

After a short hitch in the air force, Willie settled in Waco, Texas, and supported his new wife and baby daughter Lana by selling vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias and Bibles. His first song was inspired by his Bible-selling days. “Family Bible” was written after Willie and family moved to Nashville. He naively sold all the rights for $50, and “Family Bible” has since become a classic. “It’s still making money I don’t get,” says Willie.

Willie’s early Nashville hits included Faron Young’s rendition of “Hello Walls,” Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” and Ray Price’s versions of “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (which has been recorded more than 80 times since Willie wrote it in 1961). Back then, Willie’s music was being published by Price’s Pamper Publishing, and when Ray later told Willie he needed a bass player for his band, Willie learned how to play bass overnight.

In Nashville, Willie was a successful songwriter, earning a five-figure income from royalties, and he even started recording his own songs. His recording of “Touch Me” in 1962 made the country top ten. But not until he moved back to Texas in 1972, ten years later, would he have another hit and draw nationwide acclaim.

Willie’s Nashville image was clip-on ties and closely cropped hair. Once in Austin, though, his hair and beard grew and his clothes became more casual. He found a new audience for country music among hippie kids. “They didn’t have any place to go to listen to country music. Their hair was too long to get into some of those places without getting into trouble. I knew there was an audience there.”

Nowadays Willie practically runs the entire music scene in Austin. His annual Fourth of July picnic—a “Woodstock of country music” held nearby Dripping Springs, close to Austin—draws 80,000-plus. His Whiskey River showroom in Dallas is a progressive-country club premiering such acts as Rusty Weir, the Side of the Road Gang and a burlesque musical comedy, Zorro and the Blue Football.

As an integral cog in the Austin music scene, Willie has made enemies and gotten into a lot of trouble. “I got subpoenaed last night for some shit,” said Willie recently. “This guy put his arm around me like we was gonna get our picture taken, but he handed me a subpoena for a show in Prairie Hill, Texas, which never came off and they blame me for. ”

Outside his Austin duchy Willie has found plenty of fans. He plays the Hollywood Bowl, Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget, Max’s Kansas City in New York and college campuses across the nation. His recent hits include the albums Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, the latter a joint effort with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. His hit single “Good Hearted Woman” was written during a brief pause in a card game. His latest album is a team-up with Booker T. Jones called Stardust.

Waylon and Willie was a landmark collaboration including the single “I Can Get Off on You” by Willie, with the lyrics “Take back the weed, take back the cocaine baby/Take back your pills, take back the whiskey too/Don’t need ’em now, your love was all I was after/I’ll make it now ’cuz I can get off on you.”

Waylon and Willie’s next collaboration will be scoring and starring in a movie called The Songwriter with a screenplay by Bud (Cat Ballou) Shrake. Willie describes the film: “The Songwriter is about the ripoffs in the music business, how record writers are exploited by the music industry. I play a record-company executive who rips off young singers. Mary Kay Place, the ‘Forever Fernwood’ star I assisted on her album Aimin’ to Please, plays a young singer/songwriter we sign up, promise her the world, then screw her for the money. Dennis Hopper plays a corrupt manager.”

“I’ve been impressed by the amount of good girl singers dominating the charts—Mary Kay, Crystal Gayle, Linda, Dolly. I’d love to do an album with just me and Waylon and all the girl singers.”

But Willie’s a loyal family man. “My new wife Connie is from Houston. I met her at a little club in Texas—she was a waitress—she came to see me backstage. I’ve got three grown children plus Amy Lee, who’s four, Paule, and Carlene is eight. None of my kids wake up with a joint in their mouth—but they smoke.”

Featured photo by Charlyn Zlotnick.

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