Willie Nelson wrote the songs “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Night Life” in one week in 1961.
He didn’t quite understand what he’d done. He surely did not know that he had launched his career.
“Well, I’m afraid I wasn’t that knowledgeable,” Nelson told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I wish I had known then what they were going to do. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t. I made enough mistakes as it was. But no, I had no idea that these songs would be as successful as they have been.”
Almost six decades later, Nelson is still touring and writing new songs. He might have slowed down a bit, but he shows no signs of stopping.
Half a century later
Asked by NPR’s David Greene what keeps him going, he responded thusly:
“There’s this story about this guy that was hanging around the circus,” Nelson said, “and there was this guy that was over there taking care of the elephants. And he was picking up elephant dung and taking it and moving it over there into a pile and he’d go back. And it was hot and sweaty, and he went to pick up another one. And the guy said, ‘Man, why don’t you get you real job?’ He said, ‘What, and quit show business?’”
Ask Nelson any question, and you are likely to get a quip or a shaggy dog tale or a parable or some combination of the three.
“Well, I believe in jokes, you know?” he said. “I think jokes are important and a necessity. You need to laugh at yourself, other people, life, death. You need to figure out a way to laugh at everything.”
Nelson, 86, has suffered some health problems in the last ten years. The common cold forced him in 2017 to cancel a string of tour dates, something he hates to do.
“I got really mad at myself for not being able to do a show, really mad,” he said. “You know, it’s unforgivable to go out there and open your mouth and nothing come out, you know. So I was just hoping that that didn’t happen anymore.”
Paying tribute to the legends
Nelson has referenced his advanced age (and the death rumors that get passed around about him fairly regularly) in arch and earnest ways in songs.
In “Last Man Standing,” he pays tribute to country music legends who have passed, then hastens to add that he isn’t eager to join them in the great beyond.
Nelson doesn’t perform that song in concert because he prefers to stay positive and look to the future.
“I don’t do that song, you know. I recorded it, and it’s a good song, but I don’t do it because I don’t want to think about all the people that have gone, you know?” he said. “I’ll go back talking about all the guys that have died, and that’s no fun just to think about every night.
“And I’ve seen my friends who literally killed themselves on cigarettes and alcohol and trying to do show business. They’ll get out there every night, and they’ll go to that same spot where, my God, you kill me, you broke my heart. They do that every night. And they have to get drunk to do it, to get to that same negative spot every night so the audience can be happy. A lot of them have to, you know, drink a lot to get there. Fortunately, I quit drinking. I quit smoking cigarettes. It really helped the showbiz part of it.”
Nelson is such a devotee of the power of positive thinking that he can come across like the counterculture’s answer to Normal Vincent Peale.
“Well, worry will make you sick,” he told Southern Living magazine. “I’ve seen it happen. Every negative thought releases poison into your system, and will kill you or give you cancer or some other bad thing. But I’ve never seen it accomplish or change anything. So I decided not to do it.
“I don’t dwell on things. If you can’t do anything about it, why in the hell worry about it? I live day to day, and I’m glad to be here right now. I have this philosophy that I can’t do anything about what happened yesterday, or what’s going to happen tomorrow. But I feel like I’m in full control of what’s going on now.”
Happy creating new music
At a time when many older artists of his standing are reluctant to release new music because it is no longer profitable, Nelson continues to put out albums of new stuff.
He said he does it because it makes him happy.
“I think I need to keep being creative, not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it,” he told Texas Monthly. “I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.”
Ultimately, Nelson said he fully can’t explain why he still has so much verve and stamina.
“Honestly, and I mean this sincerely, I do 150 shows a year or whatever, and we do some recording in there, and we do a movie here and there, or a video,” he told Cowboys and Indians magazine. “And I’m always amazed that I wake up the next day feeling good and ready to go do it again.”
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