When Willie Nelson left Nashville for Austin in 1972, he wasn't exactly sure what direction the move would take him. What he did know was that he was dissatisfied with the music he was making in Nashville, and he was spending a lot of time in his home state of Texas in the clubs where country music was king.
It wasn't long before Nelson found that he had a new audience in the Lone Star state. Not only were the country fans who had been with him all along there, but a new group that most people would call hippies and rockers were also hip to his music.
"I knew I could play in Austin and San Antonio a lot because I was already doing that," Nelson told registrants at the Billboard Summit in Nashville on Tuesday. "I had a good following in Texas. I liked Nashville and playing the Grand Ole Opry, but most weekends I would be in El Paso on a Friday night and find it very hard to get back to town to make the required number of performances to maintain my membership at the Opry."
The audience in Texas was shifting, Nelson noted. "There were long-haired cowboys and short haired cowboys, and the air smelled different," he said with a smile. "I noted that everyone was getting along."
The Hurlburt Ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas, 1973 changed everything. That was the year what would become Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July concert. The fans were as diverse as Nelson's music was becoming, and it was termed a huge success with an attendance of 40,000 people. In addition to Nelson, performers included Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Doug Sahm and Tom T. Hall.
At the same time, Nelson was working on what would become his first concept album, "Phases and Stages."
"I don't know why I thought a concept album would work," he admitted. "I was just thinking that it might be interesting to make an album where one side dealt with the way a woman looked at something, and the other side the way a man looked at it."
The idea continued with "Yesterday's Wine," about a man looking back at his own funeral, and the hugely successful "Red Headed Stranger," which became a movie 12 years later. As that album rose in popularity, Nelson noted what to him seemed a strange phenomenon. "I noticed that there were some folks who liked rock and roll who were also digging the song 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,' off the 'Red Headed Stranger' album," he said. "I was very surprised that folks who liked rock and roll liked that song because it was definitely not a rock and roll song."
Sometime after Nelson moved to Austin, an interesting movement reared its head in Nashville. Dubbed the Outlaw Movement by a journalist named Hazel Smith, it encompassed recordings by Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings and Willie, along with a handful of others including Waylon's wife, Jessi Colter. In 1976 an album by those four singers simply called "The Outlaws" managed to capture the attention of a huge group of fans and went on to become the first million selling album in country music.
"I loved the title outlaw though I don't think any of us were," Nelson said. "It sounded good and I thought it was a great marketing move. Then somebody wrote 'Ladies Love Outlaws' and there you were."
Nelson continued to progress as a songwriter, penning many of his own tunes as he immersed himself more and more in the Texas scene, although he kept his recording contract out of Nashville, moving first to Atlantic and later to Sony . He explained that, "It's usually a line that sticks with me that becomes the catalyst for a song."
Despite his success with songwriting, Nelson admitted that the most rewarding part of the business for him is live performances. "You get immediate feedback from the audience as to whether you are doing it right," he said. "It's still a very rewarding feeling for me to stand on that stage and get the applause from the audience.
"With recording you go in the studio and lay down songs and then you wait a few months to see how people are going to like them."
A later development among the friends on the fringes of country music was The Highwaymen, consisting of Nelson, Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. "It was wonderful. Every night I got to hear three of my heroes sing," Nelson commented.
The singer cheerfully consented to telling the story about the night when Kristofferson came off stage and complained that he had a sore throat. Nelson's response: How can you tell?
Nelson said there had been some discussion of doing more things as The Highwaymen and if they did, they would get Jamey Johnson to go out with them. He said that if Jamey were a part of his old group of friends, he would definitely fit into the gatherings at Tootsie's and the guitar pulls at various songwriters homes.
Farm Aid is another of Nelson's favorite topics, though he maintains that he really seriously thought that they would do one Farm Aid, government officials would see where the wrong was in the system and fix it. "Then I found out they were a part of it," Nelson confided.
Another cause is his advocacy of legitimizing marijuana, of which he said, "There would be a lot less crime if some of the less harmful drugs were legal. It would make a real difference in murders and other drugs associated with drugs and dealing drugs."
When asked why he always takes time to meet young artists, Nelson said he can still remember when he was one of those young artists and what a thrill it was to meet one of his heroes. "I remember Johnnie Mack Brown came to Hillsboro (Texas) High School and that was so cool to me. It doesn't take that long to stop and say hello and visit for a few minutes.
Nelson has several other causes for which he speaks out, including ending horse slaughter in the U.S. and bio-diesel fuel. "We make our own brand of bio-diesel fuel for our buses," he said. "Even that is getting pretty expensive. We have taken to collecting vegetable oil from restaurants and we have plants in Hillsboro, Texas; Oregon and Hawaii."
When asked what he thinks when he hears someone sing a song that mentions his name, Nelson replied, "I love it. I love hearing Toby Keith singing about never smoking weed with Willie again!"
Coming back to the singer's penchant for a certain smoking tobacco, Nelson was asked why being honest about the drug didn't hurt his career. "I felt that being honest would have a plus somewhere along the way," he said. "It's not dangerous, and it's the best stress reliever there is. In most countries it is legal. And I believe like Pat Robertson, who says that a young person should not be sent to prison for smoking a joint, where he comes out a hardened criminal."
At 79, Nelson is certainly one of the elder statesmen among country acts. When asked why he works so hard he replied, "I enjoy it. Taking a break is harder than being out here performing!"
Admitting that the music business has changed over the years since he started, Nelson said anyone can go in a back room with a computer and make a record these days. The internet has made it easier to sell records, but in country music there is still the business of getting airplay with singles. He admits that in the beginning, he was quick to go out and visit radio and promote his singles, but he isn't sure he would do all that today.
When asked if he thinks it's fair that folks of his generation don't get radio airplay, he quickly shot back, "What is fair?" He continues to play "Whiskey River" as his traditional opener, but with a bow to the newer music, he closes with a song off the new album, "Heroes," "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
Nelson said of all the songs he's written, the 30 or so he plays every night are among his favorites. "I couldn't choose just one; it would be like saying which of my kids was my favorite. I just can't do it."
Looking over his career, Nelson said the thing he's most proud of is that he's still out there playing and performing, and getting to play with his kids, Lukas and Micah. For any parent, that is certainly an accomplishment to be proud of.
Nelson's new CD, "Heroes," is in store now. It features a number of his pals, including Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price along with new friends Snoop and Jamey Johnson. Most importantly it prominently features sons Lukas and Micah, who also were prominent in helping choose some of the songs he recorded. For Nelson, it just doesn't get any better than that.