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Willie Nelson: Road Rules And Deep Thoughts

Nov 18, 2012
Originally published on November 18, 2012 7:04 am

At nearly 80, Willie Nelson remains impressively prolific: lots of songs, lots of kids and, fittingly, lots of autobiographies. The country singer's latest memoir is called Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, after a song on his Heroes album, released earlier this year. Nelson says those seeking earth-shattering revelations about his life should look elsewhere; that wasn't his intention in writing the book.

"I was riding down the highway looking out the window, which is what I do about 22 hours every day, and just sort of writing down my thoughts," he says. "It's more of a diary, I guess, than anything else."

Here, Nelson speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his family life, being forced to choose between marijuana and tobacco, and where a touring musician looks for spirituality.


Interview Highlights

On getting into music as a kid in Abbott, Texas

"There was a guy, a blacksmith, in Abbott ... and he had a family band. He just let me play because he knew I wanted to work and needed the work. So I played the guitar in a big polka band with a lot of horns and everything. Fortunately, no one ever heard me, because I wasn't that great. But I was 9 or 10 years old and making 8 to 10 dollars a night. It was easier than picking cotton."

On quitting cigarettes

"I had gotten up to two, maybe three, packs a day. My lungs were bothering me and I'd had pneumonia two or three times. I was also smoking pot, and I decided, well, one of them's gotta go. So I took a pack of Chesterfields and took all the Chesterfields out, rolled up 20 big fat ones and put [them] in there, and I haven't smoked a cigarette since then."

On finding religion on the road

"I've been working every Sunday morning for many years, so I don't even get a chance to go to church and Sunday school like other people do. So my church became the bus and my body the temple, as the Bible tells us. We're all in our church everyday."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

WILLIE NELSON: I wrote a new gospel song. It's called "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ah, the great Willie Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL ME UP AND SMOKE ME WHEN I DIE")

NELSON: (Singing) Roll me up and smoke me when I die. And if anyone don't like it, look 'em in the eye...

MARTIN: "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" is also the title of Willie Nelson's latest autobiography. And note - I did say latest. You have written at least a couple of other autobiographies. What else did you have to say that you couldn't satisfy with song writing?

NELSON: Oh, nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's not entirely true. We spoke with Willie Nelson on his tour bus, which was making stops in Austin, Texas. And this book includes notes and letters from Willie's family back home to go along with what he calls his musings from the road.

NELSON: Yeah, it's kind of like riding down the highway looking out the window, which is what I do about 22 hours every day, and just sort of writing down my thoughts. It's more of a diary, I guess, than anything else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL ME UP AND SMOKE ME WHEN I DIE")

NELSON: Play it, little sister.

MARTIN: For those who don't know your story, you do give us little snapshots of different chapters of your life. You grew up in Abbott, Texas.

NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: You and your sister Bobby were raised by your grandparents. And your sister makes music with you to this day. What was happening in that household that turned both of you into musicians?

NELSON: Well, we both grew up in a Methodist church there in Abbott, and started out doing a lot of gospel songs together. and then - well, there was a guy, a blacksmith, in Abbott, and he and my granddad both had blacksmith's jobs. I hung around there a lot. And he had a family band. He just let me play because he knew I wanted to work and needed the work. So, I played a guitar in a big polka band with a lot of horns and everything. So, fortunately, no one ever heard me, because I wasn't that great. But I was nine or 10 years old and making eight to 10 dollars a night. So, it was easier than picking cotton.

MARTIN: Your book is called "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," which some may understand to be a reference to marijuana. But you started smoking cigarettes first, right, from a very early age?

NELSON: Actually, I stared smoking grapevine, you know, or cedar bark - anything that would roll up and smoke. Even one day, they had this laxative out, it was called Black Draught, and I said, hell, I'll try that. It didn't work, but...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: When did you stop smoking cigarettes and why?

NELSON: I had gotten up to two, maybe three, packs a day. And my lungs were bothering me and I'd had pneumonia two or three times. And I was also smoking pot, and I decided, well, one of them's got to go. And so I took a pack of Chesterfields and took all the Chesterfields out, rolled up 20 big fat ones and put it in there, and I haven't smoked a cigarette since then.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Getting back to the book, the book is threaded with short essays written by members of your family writing about you. Whose idea was that? You don't strike me as the kind of guy who would solicit a lot of adulation from your family members.

NELSON: I wanted to know what they were thinking.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Did you tell them, listen, you got to keep it clean and leave out the bad stuff?

NELSON: Leave out the bad stuff and just, you know, just tell them what I'm telling you to tell them, you know. And, no, I'm serious. They put their own thoughts in there and I think they did a great job. I was proud of them.

MARTIN: How many - you have a lot of kids. How many kids do you have?

NELSON: Gosh, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: I have six or seven or eight and a bunch of grandkids and a bunch of great-grandkids. And I'm proud of all of them.

MARTIN: I'd like to read a little bit of an essay that you son Micah wrote about you.

NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: So, Micah Nelson writes: For those who still believe Santa Claus isn't real, clearly they have never met my father. The invaluable things I've learned from him over the years simply through observation are more than I can describe in any language. It is a blessing to have been raised by someone so wise and humble. He's an elder of the human tribe and young beyond his years. I love him more every day. That's pretty big.

NELSON: That's pretty good, yeah. He'll get an A-plus from me on that one.

MARTIN: Have you ever fallen short as a dad?

NELSON: Have I come up short? Oh, I probably have many times. You know, when you travel as much as I do, you're away from your family a lot and that's not the best for relationships, as I found out along the way.

MARTIN: If you don't mind, I'm going to ask a personal question. You had another son, Billy, with your first wife, and he died early in his adult life. But in the book, you reveal a lot about yourself and your family, but you don't say how Billy died or what kind of toll it took on your family.

NELSON: Well, I just think it was very personal and that kind of information was just not meant for the book. And those in the family know all the details and I didn't think it was necessary.

MARTIN: You do spend some time thinking about the spiritual dimension of life. Are you a religious person?

NELSON: Oh, I don't know. I'm sure in a lot of ways I hope I am. I've been working every Sunday morning for many years, so I don't even get a chance to go to church and Sunday school like other people do. And so my church became the bus and my body the temple, as, you know, the Bible tells us. So, we were all in our church every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON BACK, JESUS,")

MARTIN: You include the lyrics to your song, "Come on Back, Jesus," in this book, which is a pretty lovely image, because you're asking him to bring John Wayne along with Him when He comes.

NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: How come? Why Jesus and John Wayne?

NELSON: Well, you know, things have gotten tough down here. I think He needs to bring a little muscle when He comes along. (Singing) Just come on back, Jesus, pick up John Wayne on the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON BACK, JESUS")

NELSON: (Singing) Time to take off the gloves. They just don't respect peace anymore. But if you have ol' John Wayne, we know he can swing from the floor. While he kicks their butts, we'll just stand there and watch him and pray. So, come on back, Jesus, and pick up John Wayne on the way.

MARTIN: Willie Nelson. His new book is called "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road." Mr. Nelson, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

NELSON: Thank you. Same here. Come see us sometime.

MARTIN: Will do.

NELSON: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ON BACK, JESUS")

NELSON: (Singing) The world is getting crazy and it seems to get worse every day. Come on back, Jesus, and pick up John Wayne on the way.

MARTIN: And you can read an excerpt from "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.