The first thing you notice when you get on Willie Nelson's tour bus is a pungent aroma. Parked outside a gigantic casino and performance venue in Thackerville, Okla., Nelson offers NPR's David Greene a joint, which Greene declines. Nelson says he understands.
At 82, Nelson is still touring the country, still an advocate for legalized marijuana — he's even started a new company to sell weed in Colorado — and has a new memoir out called It's A Long Story. The country legend recently spoke to Greene about the mystery of Willie Nelson, how ex-wives are really "additional wives" and why no one can tell him what to do.
"A friend of mine once said, 'It's my mouth, I'll haul coal in it if I want to,' " Nelson says. "I thought, 'That's pretty cool. I'll use that.' I don't think anybody should tell me or you or anybody what to do. I think the Bible says it's not what goes into your mouth that counts; it's what comes out."
Producers would tell you your phrasing is off. What does that mean?
It means change producers.
Touché. What does that mean, your phrasing is unique?
If you've got to explain that, you've got the wrong one. There are so many beats in a measure, you have so much time to get in so many beats, some people lay back to the last minute. ... Some do a beat every quarter. However you feel it is the way you should do it. Sinatra's best asset was his ability to phrase. He's my favorite singer. It's how you say it.
I did a lot of reading before coming to meet you. People who know you very well say you remain a mystery. The true Willie Nelson doesn't come out easily. We know this whole massive catalog of songs; can we know you through that catalog? Do you remain a mystery?
I don't know ... I loved every song Hank Williams wrote. Doesn't mean I knew him any better. Music says a lot about you. I'm guessing ... maybe so? Maybe my music does tell stories I wouldn't be able to tell any other way unless it was through a song.
Amazing story you tell in the book: You land in jail in the Bahamas because of your love of pot. Two days later, you're at the White House having dinner with President Carter. That evening, you said a friend of yours, a White House insider, knocks on your door, takes you on a tour and lights up a joint.
Hrm. Were you there?
No, I just read the book.
[Laughs.] I didn't know I put that in the book.
Do you have regrets about how you treated women? Would you change it?
No. No. Most of the women in my life knew that they were taking a big chance with a guitar player, anywhere. Not that that's an excuse. Guitar players do like women. That's why we got into the business; we like girls. That can lead to trouble if you're planning family life. Which I did. I have four wives, kids, grandkids, I love them all. There's no such thing as ex-wives; there's only additional wives.
I see there are photos behind you, [including] one of your late son, Billy ...
Oh, there he is, with his daughter, my granddaughter. There he is on Scout, his pony. Another one back here.
Me and Merle were talking, ain't many of us left.
We were chuckling about that. Where'd everybody go? The fact he and I are still here is probably a miracle in itself.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Willie Nelson made a request in one of his recent songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL ME UP AND SMOKE ME WHEN I DIE")
WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Roll me up and smoke me when I die.
GREENE: And there is something you notice when you climb aboard his tour bus.
NELSON: How you doing?
GREENE: I'm good. How you doing?
Let's call it a pot aroma. And there was that giant joint in an ash tray on the table - definitely not just for display. Willie Nelson is 82 years old. He speaks quietly. His long, braided hair has gone all gray. We were parked outside a sprawling casino in Oklahoma, where Nelson was about to perform with Merle Haggard. We were just a few hours north of Abbott, Texas, and that's where Nelson was born. He was raised by his grandparents in the Depression. All of this is captured in his new memoir that's called "It's A Long Story: My Life." Nelson writes about his early career in music as a DJ in Fort Worth, and he can still recite what he would say each time he went on the air.
NELSON: This is your old cotton-picking, snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, stump-jumping, gravy-sopping, coffeepot-dodging, dumpling-eating, frog-gigging hillbilly from Hill County, Willie Nelson.
GREENE: And Nelson has led a life that's fit for a country song. He taught Sunday school, played music in honky-tonks, got fired from Sunday school because he spent time in honky-tonks. He's had four wives, cheated, drank a lot, quit drinking, smoked pot - never quit that.
NELSON: A friend of mine, one time he said, it's my mouth, I'll haul coal in it if I want to. So I thought that's pretty cool, you know? I'll use that (laughter). And I don't think anybody can tell me or should tell me or you or anybody here what to do. I think the Bible said it's not what goes into your mouth that counts, it's what comes out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGEL FLYING TOO CLOSE TO THE GROUND")
NELSON: (Singing) If you had not have fallen, then I would not have found you, angel flying too close to the ground...
GREENE: What's come out is some of the most memorable American music ever. Now, it is worth remembering Willie Nelson's early success was as a songwriter. At first, people didn't appreciate him as a singer.
Producers would tell you that when you sing, your phrasing was off. What is - for someone who doesn't know what that means, can you explain that?
NELSON: It means change producers.
GREENE: (Laughter) OK, touche.
NELSON: If you have to explain that to a producer, you got the wrong one. There are so many beats in a measure and you have so much time to get in so many beats. Some people lay back and put them all in the last minute or else some people will do a beat every quarter a note and - so however you feel it, I think, is the way you should do it. Sinatra's greatest asset, I think, was his ability to phrase. He was my favorite singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGEL FLYING TOO CLOSE TO THE GROUND")
NELSON: (Singing) For love's the greatest healer to be found...
GREENE: We know this whole massive catalog of songs over the years that you've given to us. Can we know you through that massive catalog, or do you remain a mystery?
NELSON: Well, I don't know that, you know - I loved every song Hank Williams wrote, but it doesn't mean that I knew him any better than I would've. I think music will say a lot about you, so I'm guessing, in other words, maybe so. Maybe my music does tell stories that I wouldn't be able to tell in any other way unless it was through a song.
GREENE: There is one story from 1977 that says a lot about Willie Nelson's life.
Amazing story that you tell in the book - you land in jail in the Bahamas because of your love of pot. And two days later, after you're out of jail, you're at the White House...
GREENE: ...Having dinner with President Carter.
GREENE: Now, that evening you said a friend of yours, a White House insider, comes and knocks on your door late at night and takes you for kind of a special White House tour, and you guys light up a joint.
NELSON: Were you there?
GREENE: I wasn't. I just read the book.
NELSON: (Laughter) I didn't know I put that in the book.
GREENE: Willie Nelson wouldn't say who smoked with him that night. He made clear it was not the president. Now, there's another story that is more serious. One of Willie Nelson's marriages imploded after a bill arrived at home - a hospital bill - for the birth of a child he'd had with another woman. I asked him if he has regrets about the way he treated women.
NELSON: No, no. I think most of the women in my life knew that they were taking a big chance with a guitar player (laughter) anywhere. So - not that that's an excuse to do whatever, but it just so happens that guitar players do like women, and that's one of the reasons we got into the business is we like girls. You know, I've had four wives and have a lot of great kids and grandkids, and I love them all. There's no such thing as ex-wives. There's only additional wives.
GREENE: Willie Nelson has remained close to his kids. A daughter was on tour with him. But another very important person in his life was not - his first son, Billy, who killed himself in 1991.
I see there are photos behind you, and I've heard there's one of your late son that you keep on the tour bus. Is that...
NELSON: Oh, there he is with his daughter, my granddaughter. There he is on Scout, his pony - another one back here.
GREENE: He died a very early death.
GREENE: You outlived a son. You've lost people who you've played onstage with for years, you know? You talk about Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash...
NELSON: Well, me and Merle were talking, ain't many of us left.
GREENE: You and Merle Haggard, who you were onstage with tonight.
NELSON: Yeah, yeah. We were kind of chuckling about that the other day and was looking around and said, where did everybody go? And we've had a lot of good friends we've lost along the way through the years. And the fact that he and I are still here is probably a miracle in itself.
GREENE: And with that, Willie Nelson got ready to take the stage in Thackerville, Okla., before a packed house of fans in cowboy hats and bandannas.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)
NELSON: (Singing) Whiskey River, take my mind.
GREENE: Willie Nelson's new memoir is called "It's A Long Story: My Life," and it's out today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISKEY RIVER")
NELSON: (Singing) Whiskey River, take my mind. Don't let her memory torture me. Whiskey River, don't run dry. You're all I got. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.