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 amphitheater 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.
HT: 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—
HT: Used to be out of Virginia?
HT: 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.
HT: Twelve hundred doctors?
HT: 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.
HT: That’s the way it should be.