Next Saturday, April 29, Willie Nelson will turn 90 years old. Ask the ageless wonder the secret to his long life as I did when I spoke to the music legend last week and he says, “I think it’s a positive attitude. Imagine what you want and just get out of the way.”
Nelson’s milestone birthday will be treated as a national holiday, as it should be. Over two days, April 29 and 30, some of the greatest musicians of all time will gather at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to pay tribute to Nelson.
The list of artists is also a testimonial to how influential Nelson is across music in general. Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Norah Jones, Beck, Tom Jones, Ziggy Marley. There are artists from all genres paying their respects, as they should. Nelson is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He wrote “Crazy,” “Always On My Mind,” “Stardust,” “On The Road Again.” The list of hit songs is endless.
What is equally impressive about Nelson though is how, approaching 90, he continues to have fun. He has a tour this year and just did a Bic campaign with friends Snoop and Martha Stewart, inspired by the fact Nelson remains, along with Cheech & Chong and of course Bob Marley, the greatest stoners of all time. I spoke with Nelson about the Bowl shows, weed, Marley and more.
Steve Baltin: I am here in Los Angeles where you will be celebrating your ninetieth birthday with about a hundred friends or something. So let’s start with that. Talk about that show.
Willie Nelson: Well, it’s great. I appreciate all the people showing up and coming out to help me celebrate. And my first plan is to be there.
Baltin: I’ve interviewed your son Lukas several times, and one of the things we discussed was that at the beginning of COVID, you guys had the opportunity to sit down and have family dinners, which was something that hadn’t happened since he was like eight years old. So have you taken this opportunity in the last year or two to slow down and appreciate things?
Nelson: Oh, I think about all of that, I do. I appreciate everything I get. And I’ve been lucky. I’m a little bit amazed that I’m first of all still here. [And] I’m having a good time. I’m enjoying the singing, I think it’s good for me. People come up, right away, pay some money to come hear me or somebody sing, and it’s a great energy exchange out there and I look forward to it every time.
Baltin: You’re celebrating Harlan Howard. For you, how much fun is it to be able to just mix it up consistently? And obviously you’ve written some of the greatest songs of all time, but I’m sure it’s also fun to be able to celebrate other artists that you love.
Nelson: Oh, yeah, from Sinatra to Harlan Howard to Roger Miller. I just did a bluegrass album and I’m just looking forward to whatever happens next.
Baltin: Let’s talk about the BIC campaign for a second. Where is the BIC lighter? Give us a little hint. Where was the last place you remember having it? Was it in Stoneville or was it in Weed, California?
Nelson: You’re right, absolutely. I don’t remember.
Baltin: I will tell you that for me, who’s interviewed more musicians in the world than anyone, everyone from James Brown and BB King to Taylor Swift, you ask them who they most want to smoke with, by far, the number one answer is Willie Nelson. And it’s not close. It is not close at all.
Nelson: (Laughs) That’s a great honor. I appreciate it. Snoop and I had a lot of fun in Amsterdam one time. And he’s a good buddy of mine. We talk a lot about smoking and I smoke with him and he’s done pretty good with it. He raised some money with it and he’s entertained some folks and he’s been good.
Baltin: Since everybody else says that they most want to smoke with you, who do you most want to smoke with?
Nelson: I think if you got one, let’s burn it.
Baltin: I always have one. I feel like the only person who would’ve been able to keep up with you is Bob Marley. Did you ever smoke with Bob?
Nelson: No, I never have smoked pot with him, but I’m a big fan.
Baltin: So were there songs of yours that, with COVID and time to think about, were there songs of yours that you are particularly excited to bring back into the set?
Nelson: It was the last album that I just finished with Buddy Cannon, there’s some songs in there that I really think turned out well. I wrote all the songs in the album and I got a chance to sing songs that I wrote many years ago. So it was great going back and doing that.
Baltin: Did the songs change for you at all then when you did them in the bluegrass format?
Nelson: Well, actually, every song I changed. Like maybe every song we had could be turned into a bluegrass song. It’s a great way to play music, a lot of great musicians in there. And it’s real country music.
Baltin: Obviously you’ve written some of the great songs of all time. Have you ever thought about doing a bluegrass version of, “Always On My Mind,” for example?
Nelson: Did I do that one? I had to think. Maybe that was one that I did on this album. I guess I haven’t done that one bluegrass. Yeah.
Baltin: Wait, now I’m going to put you on the spot because this is just fun for me. What’s your favorite bluegrass song of all time?
Nelson: Well, Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys. I think anything they did was great. I’m just trying to think of oh, yeah. Billy Strange. Have you heard of him?He is fantastic, and I just did a song with him and he is one of the best pickers around. And so I was one that I really had to turn up the idea.
Baltin: I want to come back to this Hollywood Bowl show for a second and then we’ll talk about the tour. I think one of the best things is when you look at the artists on the bill. I love Lyle Lovett, Neil Young is one of the great artists of all time. For you, when you look at the diversity of the people who are coming out to celebrate you, Tom Jones, how much does that mean to you to know that your music has reached so many different styles of artists?
Nelson: Well, it’s fantastic. I’m knocked out over and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all those folks dropping what they could have been doing, and come out and help me celebrate my ninetieth birthday, I think it’s fantastic.
Baltin: Do you have a favorite cover of one of your songs?
Nelson: Patsy Cline singing “Crazy.” What can you say after that?
Baltin: I love the Pet Shop Boys version of “Always On My Mind,” and it’s so cool to know that these can go in so many different directions.
Nelson: Yeah, thank you. And also Faron Young, he recorded “Hello Walls.” That was a big hit for him, and one of the first songs that I had written. So, yeah there’s a lot of friends of mine back there who helped me get where I am.
Baltin: When people come for the Outlaw Music Festival, what can they expect? What are you most excited for on this tour?
Nelson: I have no earthly idea what’s gonna happen. I’m just gonna show up and be there and see what happens.
Baltin: One, is there one song of yours that you are most particularly excited to seeing someone cover at the Bowl? And if so, who is it and what’s the song?
Nelson: I have no idea. There’s so many songs and so many artists. “On The Road Again” would be a hard one to leave out.
Baltin: When you look back in the last 70 years, is there one moment that your 18-year-old self would’ve been most surprised by?
Nelson: Well, honestly, I think about that a lot. A nightly thing, I just appreciate everything. I would say turning 90 is a surprise. It seems to surprise a lot of people if I made 90.
Baltin: So what’s the secret to the long life?
Nelson: I think it’s a positive attitude. Imagine what you want and just get out of the way.