[Editor's note: This column ran in March before Willie postponed his shows. The first time.]
It was Willie Nelson's fault I missed my flight to Woodstock '99 and nearly blew my first big traveling assignment as a reporter. As the world's most famous pot-smoking, God-loving, bio-diesel-producing country singer finally makes his way back to the Twin Cities for two sold-out shows next weekend at Mystic Lake Casino -- he also has a highly anticipated T-Bone Burnett-produced album due next month -- I'm reminded of that day he nearly made me cry from duress. As opposed to the many times he has brought me to tears in good ways.
Willie, you see, doesn't operate like other big shots in the music biz. Instead of requiring an interviewer to call a publicist to call a manager to try to get him on the phone at a specific time, he simply takes his requests by fax (probably now e-mail) on his fabled tour bus. If and when he feels like it, he'll call up a reporter on the list.
I was on the to-call list quite a few times in the late '90s while working for Willie's hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. He called nearly every time, too. You just never knew when it'd be. Hence the Woodstock '99 debacle.
I thought it was my taxi to the airport when I picked up the phone, but instead, I heard that so-familiar-it's-comforting voice.
Telling Willie you don't have time to take his call is a little like telling Penélope Cruz you don't want to see her naked, at least in my book. It isn't just that he's one of the greatest living musicians and an American icon and all that. He's the king of cool-headedness, the most laid-back, easygoing guy you'll ever meet. You'd have to be a real ninny to tell him you're busy.
By the time Willie said "thanks" to end the interview -- that's right, he thanked me -- my taxi came and went, and my flight was pulling away when I finally got to the gate.
Thus came the first of many lessons I've learned as a "WWWD" devotee (that's "What Would Willie Do," actually a great song by Bruce Robison).
Things have a way of working out, at least when Willie is involved. I spent the night at the Atlanta airport and missed a few of the opening acts, but in the end I made it to Woodstock just fine. One of the highlights was Willie's Sunday morning set, where he showered the unwashed, hungover, Limp Bizkit-muddied masses with a long stream of beautiful gospel songs.
Woodstock seems easy after you've survived a Willie Nelson Picnic. I missed the really wild July 4th Picnics of the '70s -- like the one where a fleet of parked cars somehow burned up, or the year Willie's drummer, Paul English, remedied a rain-sagging roof over the stage by pulling out his pistol and firing holes in it mid-show. The Picnics I attended in the '90s still resembled battle scenes, though, where the hard-baking 110-degree heat and free-flowing Lone Star beer left bodies strewn everywhere. My wife attended one Picnic in Luckenbach, Texas, with me and was ecstatic about going all day without having to use a porta-potty. That's because we were sweating out everything we drank.
Willie's family spats are worse than yours, and all is still forgiven. As recounted in onetime Minneapolitan Joe Nick Patoski's definitive biography, "Willie Nelson: An Epic Life," Willie once had a real life OK Corral-style shootout with a former son-in-law. Willie had punched him out for hitting Willie's daughter. Their respective posses and rifles got involved. The next day, they all made up.
Then there's the legendary story about his first wife, Martha, sewing him up in a bedsheet and beating him with a broomstick after he passed out drunk, which may or may not be true. Still, it's certain he and Martha (who was half-Cherokee) fought like cowboys and Indians, and "every night was like Custer's Last Stand," Willie bluntly put it. He and Martha reportedly remained good friends.
Not all rich people weasel out of paying taxes. People who don't like Willie's liberalism and/or herbalism always use his $16.7 million run-in with the IRS in 1990 as proof he's a no-good degenerate. What they forget is that Willie actually paid off Uncle Sam within three years. Oh, and he never filed for bankruptcy.
Not all famous people follow causes like hairstyles. I once wrote a front-page story on Farm Aid, Willie's event to help out family farmers. Co-founder John Mellencamp told me, "Where is Live Aid [now]? Where is Hands Across America? There are still kids starving in Africa, just as there are still American farmers who need help. God bless Willie. When he made a commitment, he stuck to it."
That was 10 years ago. Look for the 25th annual installment of Farm Aid this fall.
A sincere thank-you can mean everything. My favorite personal Willie memory, and maybe the highlight of my career, was when he firmly expressed his gratitude for writing that Farm Aid story. Mind you, the nearest I've ever been to farming has been home-brewing beer, but my late grandfather, Everett Senske, was a Wisconsin farmer who had to pick up and move to St. Paul to support his family.
Like a Willie song, things worked out all right for Everett in the end. He went to work as a janitor for a little company with promising stock options called Medtronic. You know what Everett's extravagant purchase was upon retirement? A 30-acre farm out by Stillwater.
I don't know if Everett could've been a fan of Willie's, but I'm pretty sure Willie would've liked him.
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