Willie Nelson phoned from New York City around 5 p.m., just as his public-relations folks had promised. I picked up the telephone first ring, heard that familiar voice and was struck dumb. I’ve interviewed senators, astronauts and Captain Kangaroo. But they were mortals; this was Willie.
I tried to think of something clever to ask, a question he hadn’t heard in two straight days of interviews to promote his new book, “The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes,” and his new record, “The Great Divide.”
“It’s really you, isn’t it, Willie?” I said. It was a query to sear his soul, make him remember this rube reporter above all others.
“Yes,” he said simply. He sounded tired.
Willie Nelson is a Larry McMurtry character, Sam the Lion or Augustus McCrae. Willie’s an old man and the sea, a desperado waiting for a train, a redwood in a thicket of pulpwood pine. Put him on Mount Rushmore and lend that old rock some dignity.
He has been poor, rich, alone, married, on the road, down home and drunk. Willie’s guitar is older than most popular country singers, and he’s way cooler than any of those sprouts.
He has been harassed by the IRS, courted by Hollywood, beckoned to the White House by presidents and raised by a grandma. He’s the defender of small farms, as natural an actor as a child, a liberal good ol’ boy and an Outlaw.
Willie Nelson is Everyman if Everyman was a genius. Big “if.” Everyman is not.
So we have Willie. An independent nation that has the right friends, the right enemies and an arsenal of song. He can put into a few words the profound concept of “permanently lonely.”
Yet he’s modest. Nobody should expect to surpass Hank Williams, Willie said when asked.
“Nobody should even want to. Anything we do that Hank already did will be less, so we have to try to do something else.”
Willie today has houses in Maui and his little hometown of Abbott, Texas, but his real domain remains the road. The life he loves is making music with his friends. Still.
Willie’s able to laugh at himself. I mentioned his book’s many references to jogging, golfing and even martial arts.
“You almost sound like a health nut,” I ventured.
“I’m half of that,” he laughed.
The book doesn’t dwell on the IRS episode. But I just had to ask how he kept from being bitter about losing everything.
“I decided it was better to laugh. … If a guitar player from Abbott, Texas, owes the government $32 million like they said I did, then you better ask who’s watching the store. … Course, when they swarmed in and took all of my belongings, it was hard to laugh a lot …”
Mostly I asked Willie questions that have occurred to me a million times, late at night, when I’m listening to those dear albums kept in worn shucks. Was there, for instance, a specific angel flying too close to the ground who inspired what he considers his best song?
“There was, and there is,” the cryptic Willie said.
Is there anyone left he wants to sing with?
“I’ve been asked that a lot, and I’ve said Barbra Streisand for so long it’s starting to sound good.”
Willie said he planned to visit Ground Zero while in Manhattan. Alan Jackson, he said, had “the best take” on the tragedy. These days Willie’s getting many requests to sing “America the Beautiful.”
Nobody has a better right to sing it. Willie is America, the beautiful part. The part that rises from poverty on talent and gumption and yet never forgets its roots. The part that repays old debts, remembers old friends, helps the less fortunate.
Nothing lasts forever but old Fords, Willie Nelson and natural stone.