In case you haven’t heard, Willie Nelson turned 80 recently. Fans, celebrity friends and the media have been showering him with tributes for weeks. The outpouring is unsurprising to Texans; Willie has always been the kind of entertainer to make everyone feel like family. I can’t think of anyone who manages such broad appeal while remaining such an outspoken liberal. Perhaps our lawmakers, perpetually stuck in political gridlock, could learn a thing or two from the man who brings together the hippies and the rednecks to create one Willie wonderful world.
Since the early 1970s, Willie Nelson has been the kind of artist who lets his hair down. Literally. “I let my hair grow and I would go into truck stops just to see what would happen,” Willie said of those days in a 2008 interview. It didn’t hurt him. Willie found his greatest success in his home state while embracing the southern-fried counterculture of the Austin music scene.
From growing hair, Willie graduated to open support of growing marijuana. He serves as co-chair on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The advocacy group has lauded Willie for “doing remarkable things to ‘normalize’ cannabis in the eyes of the American public,” by, “living an honest and transparent existence regarding his enjoyment derived from decades of cannabis use.” Willie is serious about his weed. After his arrest in 2010 for marijuana possession in Sierra Blanca, Texas—following pot busts in 2005 and 2006—he formed the TeaPot Party. “There’s the Tea Party. How about the Teapot Party?,” he said. “Our motto: We lean a little to the left.” And last year, he released the song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” with rapper and avid pot smoker Snoop Dogg.
It helps that he approaches controversial topics with humor and grace. Willie broached homosexuality with his 2006 cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” a track that challenges the masculine stereotypes of the cowboy. The follow up track on the same album, “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain,” had some fans scratching their heads with its homophobic refrain, “That shit ain’t right.” But a recent interview in Texas Monthly confirmed Willie’s support of same-sex marriage. “I never thought of marriage as something only for men and women,” Willie said.“ But I’d never marry a guy I didn’t like.“
In December, while the country was debating gun control, Willie went on Piers Morgan Live to say he believes there’s no need for civilians to own high-powered semi-automatic rifles that shoot 100 rounds, adding, “Those are for military.”
Still his fans, many of them conservative country music lovers, keep him busy enough to play 200 shows a year.
“Whatever Willie’s politics are, you’ll never hear him speak about them when he does a show,” says Joe Nick Patoski author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. “That’s why his fan base is so broad and politically diverse. A Willie Nelson show is agnostic; the focus is on entertainment.”
Unless he’s doing a Farm Aid benefit. The entertainer co-founded the charity in 1985 to champion the small family farm. It turned out to be a cause upon which most people can agree.
As far as I can tell, that’s the real secret to Willie Nelson’s far-reaching appeal. In his music and in his life, he genuinely cares about the little guy in a way that never seems contrived like so many other country music acts. I know of no other performer of his caliber who spends 30 minutes after every show signing autographs. In 2011, he traveled to Japan to play a benefit for the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Closer to home, his recent birthday concert outside Austin quickly turned into a benefit for the victims of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, a town just 10 minutes from Willie’s birthplace, Abbott. Thousands turned out to wish Willie well and sell out the venue.
Then he boarded his bus the Honeysuckle Rose IV (it runs on Bio-Willie, his own alternative fuel brand), and got on the road again to continue his “Old Farts and Jackass Tour” (yes, you read that right) currently crossing North America.
What’s not to love?