High Times Greats: Willie Nelson on Weed

Willie Nelson on his favorite subject in a 2005 interview, with a cameo from Bob Dylan.
High Times Greats: Willie Nelson on Weed
Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Willie Nelson’s birthday on April 29, we’re republishing an interview between him and Richard Cusick, originally published in the January, 2005 issue of High Times. It’s followed by a sidebar on Bob Dylan, who makes a special appearance.

Willie Nelson: 2005

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 jambalaya 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. 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 (NORML), 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 Nelson] 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.

High Times: You’ve done reggae songs before, but Countryman is your first full-blown reggae album. How did that happen?

Willie Nelson: 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.

HT: 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.

HT: 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.

HT: (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.

HT: 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. Yes, really.)

WN: Ayyyy! Bob! (Rising from the booth) C’mere! (A brief hug and Willie returns to the corner booth.)

Bob Dylan: They gotcha trapped.

HT: We got him now.

BD: I’ll come back.

WN: Eh?

BD: I’ll come back.

WN: All right. (Exit Bob Dylan)

HT: You know, I named my daughter after that man!

WN: (Eyes widening) Oh, you did?

HT: 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.

HT: 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.

HT: Black Drop?

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.

HT: 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.

HT: Fred Lockwood. He was the first guy to ever turn you on to pot?

WN: Yeah. A Fort Worth musician. That’s right.

HT: 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.

HT: 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.”

HT: 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.

HT: You just think a certain way and…

KS: …groups like NORML start using you politically.

HT: 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.

HT: It’s amazing how you get by.

WN: Well, I got busted.

HT: 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.

HT: (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.

HT: 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…

HT: What’s the difference smoking pot 50 years ago and now?

WN: It costs more money.

HT: 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.

HT: 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?”

I Named My Daughter After That Man

An uninvited guest named Bob interrupted my interview.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, when the subject turns to Bob Dylan, I lose all sense of critical objectivity in favor of long, geek-fueled dissertations regarding his exalted place in the pantheon of human letters. I play long, lame versions of his more obscure songs on the guitar and make my friends listen. This is no small problem: I’ve lost women over this issue, and they were smart to leave.

I consider Dylan an artist without peer among the living, and when he stepped into the middle of my Willie Nelson interview, I was amazed at my own reaction. Willie was facing the front of the bus talking to me when I saw his head raise and his eyes focus beyond my shoulder. Clearly someone had entered our intimate space, and I assumed it was the handler coming to tell us it was time to go. But Willie’s eyes widened and his body language shifted. I knew it was something or someone unexpected, and I remember thinking: Oh God, I haven’t got time for this shit!

As I turned my head, I heard Willie Nelson’s drawl: “Ayyyyy!…”

I heard Allen St. Pierre blurt: “Hey, Bud!”

And, as for myself, I turned and thought: Now that is a funny-looking guy.

Standing above and behind me was a whizzled brown nut of an old man with black running shoes, loose-fitting three-quarter skater shorts and an enormous nose. Despite the profound heat, he was tucked under a black wool cap, pulled down over his ears with a rim of bristly hair frizzling out from the edges. He wore a white, long-sleeved vintage mechanic’s shirt—greasy at the elbows—with red piping and the word “Bud” embroidered on the breast pocket.

Who the fuck is that? I think the actual words ran through my mind, but then my thoughts quickly evolved. Holy shit! I finally concluded. That’s Bob Dylan!

We quipped and he was gone. I wondered if it had really happened or if the drugs had finally caught up with me. Instinctively, I checked the tape machine to confirm that it hadn’t spontaneously combusted, and then I took the joint from Willie and smiled. After the interview was over, Dylan was loitering by himself on a berm of grass about 25 yards from where I was standing, and I guess I could have—maybe even should have—done my reportorial duty and approached him. But I wasn’t going to put a lifetime of listening to Bob Dylan songs at risk for what promised to be an awkward moment at best. Instead, I walked down the berm and called my seven-year-old daughter on a borrowed cell phone.

“Hello, Dylan,” I said. “Guess who Daddy just met?”

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