Willie Nelson turns 80 this month, and the country music legend is celebrating -- you guessed it -- by going on the road again in support of a new album. Out April 16 from Legacy Recordings, "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is heavy on covers from the the 1930s, the decade when Nelson was born. The singer-songwriter, actor and activist has composed some of the most indelible tunes of our times (did you know that he wrote "Crazy," popularized by Patsy Cline?), but it's a pleasure to hear him breathe new life into these sturdy old numbers, and a relief to know that his vocal and guitar stylings are aging like fine Kentucky bourbon. (Yes, he's from the Lone Star State, but who's ever heard of Texas bourbon?)
Nelson recently visited the South by Southwest festival in Austin, where he played a modern St. Nick in the indie film "When Angels Sing," and he told a reporter there that he supports gay marriage and finds the controversy over legalizing it "ridiculous," adding, "Let's get off that and talk about guns." Well, we took the opportunity to ask him about guns and a whole lot more. Read on to find out what Willie thinks of federal gun-control efforts, the prospects for legalized marijuana, the rising young boxer who shares his name and what really happened in Nashville to him and Paul.
Your birthday's coming up on April 26, and you're celebrating with a new album. What else do you have planned?
I haven't really thought about it that much. I think other people seem to have more plans than I do. So I'm really just waiting to see what everyone else plans, and then I'll do a little duckin' and dodgin', probably.
The album focuses on the 1930s. Is that because you were born in 1933?
No, but thanks for bringing that up. I didn't realize that. [Laughs.] It's Irving Berlin and the classic face of music and dance, and that was his era.
What's the biggest thing that has changed for you since you wrote "On The Road Again" back in 1979?
I think things have gotten better. We're traveling in new buses these days. The crowds are still good, everyone seems pretty healthy. I really believe that music brings people together. They come a long way to clap their hands and sing along, so it must be just as therapeutic for them as it is for me, because I send out a lot of energy and they send it back.
Are there ever songs you get tired of playing after all these years?
Not really. With this short-term memory, I forget what I did last night.
Do you have a favorite song that you just can't wait to get to every night?
Years ago I did an album called "The Great Divide." I really enjoyed singing the title song back then, and then I sort of got out of the habit of doing it after [guitarist] Jodi Payne retired. But I'm back doing it every night, because I like doing the song better than I thought I did.
I heard a rumor that you park the tour bus at your house and sleep in there. Is it true?
Well, it depends on if there's anybody waiting for me at the house. If my wife is there and she's sleeping, I just might sleep in the bus until she wakes up. Normally I go home. But the back of the bus has been home for a long time, too.
One of my favorite songs of yours is "Me & Paul," which chronicles your adventures with your drummer, Paul English. Have you two gotten in any trouble since you wrote it?
Well, the good news is that Paul is still back there and we still do the song every night. There were times along the way when I wasn't sure either one of us would still be there, but here we are.
In the song, you sing, "Nashville was the roughest, but I know I've said the same about them all." What exactly happened in Nashville?
If you're a young songwriter in Nashville and nobody knows you, you have problems to begin with. The odds are always stacked against you. By then I was doing well in the rest of the world, and by that I mean Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. I was doing all right there, but when I got to Nashville very few of those folks had been to my show or knew who I was. So I had all of those walls to break through. Waylon [Jennings] had the same problem. They didn't like our lifestyle, and they didn't like the fact that we'd let our hair grow, etc. There were many things back in those days that frankly I don't think exist to any great degree now in Nashville. I go back there all the time and have a lot of friends there, and enjoy doing it. It was rough at one time. It's not rough at all now. A few of those little guys are still around, but no so many.
You're from Texas where people are very protective of their right to bear arms. What's your view on gun control in the wake of the shootings in Newtown and elsewhere?
Well, my honest opinion is, I don't think we need to have any of those guns that will fire a hundred times a second. I don't think we need that. But the other side of that is, they do exist. And the old saying around Texas is: "If you got one, I want one." They used to kid Ray Price and Ernest Tubb because they were highly competitive, and they used to say that if Ernest Tubb got a battleship, Ray Price would want an aircraft carrier. It's kinda like, whatever you've got, I want too. I don't want you to have an advantage. But where does it stop? Are you gonna get a bazooka? Do I get a drone?
Do you think the federal government needs to do something?
I don't think the federal government needs to do anything but shut up for a while and let the people vote in and vote out who they like and don't like. I think the federal government has kinda got a negative image at this point because they tend to tell you what to do and me what to do. I don't like that. My old friend D.C. Cooper says, "It's my mouth, I'll haul coal in it if I want to." I think that should be the attitude everyone should think about -- that my rights and your rights are more important than what some old guy over in somewhere thinks we oughta be doing.
What about pot policy? I know you're active in that. Do you think there's hope? Do you think we're going to get to a place where marijuana will be legalized?
Oh, yeah, I think it's only a matter of time. The economy going off is going to help it a lot. There's money there, and anyone with any brains at all can say, Why do you want the criminals to make all the money off of this when it's proven that it won't kill you unless you let a bale of it fall on you?
Are you a boxing fan, by any chance?
Have you heard about the boxer Willie Nelson? He's 25 years old and he had a first-round knockout last month.
Well that's great, I'm glad to hear it. I have never met him, but I'm obviously his biggest fan.