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Willie Nelson & the Outlaws of Country Music

AUSTIN — It is a strange, almost schizoid vision in the white heat of the Texas noonday sun. From the open stage we look out into the aerial blaze, then down and out across the littered remains of a scrubland meadow wherein 70,000 children loll in their bare minimum plus beer, cooler, stash, cowboy hat, and auto keys. They have cast themselves adrift into the blissful squalor of the rockfest Good Life on this proud, official state of Texas governor-de­signated Willie Nelson Day, and Wil­lie is playing for them now. It is the Fourth of July. Pride is every­where — rebel yells, Texas Lone Star State flags, Willie’s name. Every­body looks to be having a very good time. Willie’s annual picnics are infamously stoned. Nashville is horrified. Willie is 42 years old, and he is singing about the pain of an old divorce — one of his own songs — with a lyric so depressingly accurate that while the music is quite thrilling and the song a masterpiece of form, you. still have only two basic choices if you know what it’s about: face the pain or hit the intoxicants and wallow in it.

The crowd hears this musical, wound in waves across the strewn meadow, and sways along, and there is an atmosphere of cozy, communal good feeling.

***

There are four basic forces at work here. First is Willie Nelson, who is country music’s most profound chronicler or life’s more-than-little ups and downs, and a hippie of sorts.

Second is Austin, Texas — population 350,000, 10 per cent black, 12 per cent Mexican, 50,000 college students, bastion of liberalism in cowboyland, chief industries education and government, chief sports football, politics, and music, a damn fine place to retire to (especially if you’re under 40) — which has clasped Willie forever to its bosom, and is also, not incidentally, the most enthusiasti­cally undiscriminating audience this side of the Vatican. Austin is to Nashville and country music in 1975 what San Francisco was to Los Angeles and pop in 1967 — a refuge and musical breeding ground: a Scene. Nobody records in Austin, nor does much business there. It is, simply a playground.

Thirdly, there is Nashville, which is everything that Austin isn’t. Though laced with a few watering holes for the “new” country scene (Waylon Jennings, Willie, Kinky Friedman, Krisanrita, Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Sammi Smith et al, most noticeably Tompall and Waylon’s sanctuary hidden behind Music Row), Nashville in general is not too receptive to the sound and image of the Country Outlaws or whatever you want to call them. That’s why Willie left town after a long career of feeding songs to the “stars” while his own records (and his own identity) were never given the promotion they deserved. Like he sings in “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” a song written in Nashville and addressed to an estranged lover: “I’m writing this song all about you … I’d like to get even … with you ’cause you’re leavin’ but sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”

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Nashville is caught in its own mess — basically a matter wherein country country music owns the so­cial ethic but none of the financial power, which is held by those record companies, artists, and publishing houses that are fortunate enough to be dealing in the highly lucrative business of country-pop. Country pop is anything that comes out of Nashville and makes it onto the pop charts — which means about five times the revenue you can make on a country chart entry. Country-pop is what has become known as “The Nashville Sound,” a formula for suc­cess in a cultural climate that leans towards music that is soft, instant, mellow, and catchy. Country-pop is Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Rodriguez, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo: slick and smooth but none too profound. Country-pop is Nashville’s best bet for the future. In hard times like these, it is the only course which makes sense to the company accountants. And that leaves Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and many other Fathers of Country Music — the real, old-line honest stuff — out in the cold when it comes to record-pushing time. It also offends the hell out of the Outlaws.

In country-pop Nashville, hillbilly funk bites hard on its tongue in the cause of family entertainment and those big AM markets. It also labors under the weight of a private/public double standard which has come along with the popification of real, hard country music à la Hank Wil­liams and Jimmie Rodgers. You can say it to your friends, but you can’t sing it so’s the public might hear. And if, perchance, you are not of that particular persuasion, you can get shut out so quickly, and with such little apparent disturbance of the waters, that likely as not you won’t know it until the money dries up and the doors begin to close in your face. You can say that in Nashville, people can’t stand to be impolite. You can say it that way, or you can say that there’s enough hypocrisy in Nashville to make a rat puke. Laid-back Nashville is dead serious.

And in Nashville, there is a terrible shortage of places to play, to get that mainline fix of live audience acceptance. The Opry lumbers on within the framework of its own identity crisis, but the real picking gets done in studios, homes, and motel rooms. In Texas, it’s different. It’s also different in style. If you’re from Texas (like Willie and Waylon and Doug Sahm and Jerry Jeff and Billy Joe Shaver) you’re automatically OK. If you’re not but would like to be, it’s like Willie sings it on his new (and brilliant). “Red Headed Strang­er” album: “It’s nobody’s business where you’re going or you come from … You’re judged by the look in your eye.” Texas is the West, where intuitive mysticism rules from the bright white sky, and the unwritten laws are made to be broken with style. Nashville is like a hillbilly lawyer; Austin is more akin to the OK Corral.

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That was thirdly. Fourthly, there are the Nashville Outlaws themselves, who —with the exception of Nashville’s hard core of supreme talent (George Jones, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Hank Thompson, Conway Twitty, and the aforemen­tioned Fathers of Country Music)­ — are the only country artists worth constant attention. On the sidelines of musical worthiness, you can also count the small amount of country­-style talent that makes it through the L.A. record mill — currently Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris — and the few wild cards in Nashville’s deck (Mickey Newbury, Hoyt Axton, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Darrell, Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Moe Bandy, Freddy Fender, Stoney Ed­wards, Ray Stevens, and a few more. Then there’s Merle Haggard, who is a world unto himself and acts that way, and that’s about it.)

The Outlaws, though, are (being outlaws) a breed apart, and their place in the musical development of country music is, like their place in its current sociology, an interesting blend of past and future.

Whereas most of Nashville’s country-pop product is based on the simple, clean song structures of Hank Williams and cut with the influences of mainstream American pop, the Outlaws’ roots lie more in the direction of Jimmie Rodgers (whose blues influence was quite obvious and specific). Bob Wills (who first wed country and blues and jazz into a giddy, semi-free-form brand called Western Swing), and Elvis Presley and his cohorts at Sun Records (that’s rockabilly: country meets r&b). That’s the past. The futuristic elements of the Outlaws’ work are futuristic only insofar as they go beyond majority Nashville’s development. Mainly it’s a matter of instrumentation. recording tech­niques, and lyrical content. Put up against modern rock/pop music, the Outlaws’ style is distinctly “old”­ — more akin to Elvis end Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins than Elton John or the Rolling Stones. Put up against modern Nashville pop, their style is hard, spare, and honest. No banks of violins (they use fiddles now and again); no Jordanaires; no oceans of brass. The Outlaws go further back into country’s roots and further for­ward towards basic rock & roll than most country musicians dare or would want to. Theirs is a meetmg between the hard musical core of country and the more sophisticated lyrical sensibilities of modern rock.

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While the most popular Nashville country-pop songs are created by a well-worn process whereby the songwriter’s mind is lit up by some everyday experience or current so­cial theme and then, by a form of déja vu resulting in the solid-gold realization that this happens to everybody, moved to write a country song (with hook, and keep it simple), the songs chosen by the Outlaws are usually quite specifically personal and not at all facile. They reflect a complex reality hitting psychologi­cal home base on multiple levels with a subtle emotional economy. To put it more simply, the Outlaws’ ranks are filled with American poets. Put together with the music — straight c&w, blues, Tex-Mex, West­ern Swing, and rock & roll — the the result is music that moves you as it moves you. The Outlaws chronicle the hard edges of American life and sing the psychology of white soul, no holds barred. They do for the country what Lou Reed does for the city. The suburbs take care of themselves.

The Outlaws will take their songs from wherever they can get them (including genuine freaks like Shel Silverstein and quite a few other well-educated converts to their ranks, plus the more sophisticated Nashville mainstays like Harlan Howard), but Billy Joe Shaver, Kristofferson, Bob McDill, Alan Reynolds, Steve Young, Lee Clayton, Tompall Glaser, and Jack Clement are the outstanding writers of the genre. Currently, Waylon Jennings must be considered its most compelling onstage performer. Willie Nelson, however, is the one man in whom it all comes together. I’d make a case for Willie being the best songwriter working in America — bar none, in any field — at the drop of a hat. And thank God for whatever kept him alive until he hit Austin and found some kind of personal peace.

***

Willie Nelson is a calm, decent man, a pillar of quiet strength, a survivor. His life history reads like some appallingly accurate soap opera of the mind and his songs — especially the older ones like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t it Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Night Life,” and “Touch Me” — chronicle its progress like so many late-night barroom crises. Now Willie moves amongst a  family of supportive personnel — some of whom may shoot each other occasionally, but what the hell — ­that’s Texas — and we are faced with the prospect (already realized in “Hands on the Wheel,” the joyous finale of the “Red Headed Stranger” album) of hearing his genius applied to both sides of the life-and-death game. Listening to “Red Headed Stranger” — the almost unbearably poignant, superbly performed tale of a cowboy who murders his sweetheart and her new lover, wanders the land in a black rage (“Don’t boss him, don’t cross him, he’s wild in his sorrow, he’s riding and hiding his pain. Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, just wait for tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again”), and eventually finds happiness with new woman­ — you are struck by three basic thoughts. First is the fact that this particular musical masterpiece is the best cowboy movie since “High Noon.” Second is the realization that Willie and his gut-string, Spanish­-style amplified Martin are wedded more comfortably and with greater emotional impact than any other musical combo that comes to mind. Third is the image of Willie’s smile.

***

It is dark now on the Fourth of July. Doug Sahm has floated “Mendocino” out into the crowd and made us happy that he’s still making music even if he has given up on the music business. The Pointer Sisters have sashayed through their act with stunning styles, blowing quite a number of lily-white minds. Krisanrita are hidden away in the dark someplace, having made out once again in the eternal Willie Nelson Picnic backstage Winnebago contest. The Charlie Daniels Band has provided enough boring boogie to flatten an elephant. The picnic pro­moter is trying to persuade his guards to let him through the stage door. And news of Jack Clement’s move from Nashville to Austin has given rise to intriguing speculations on what might happen if he gets it together to build a superior recording studio out there on the ranch. Willie, bless him, is smiling. ❖

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Outlaws as Oligarchs: Waylon and Willie Outsell ’Em All

Last month RCA’s Outlaws, an anthology of cuts by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, outsold Bob Dylan’s Desire, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets, and various other pop heavyweights; it also outsold every country album on the market.

Irony flourishes in an industry of schemes. For more than 50 years, country music has had a thirst for the pop charts, a thirst that has been satisfied by such men as Vernon Dalhart in the 1920s, Gene Autry in the 1930s, Eddy Arnold in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and Johnny Cash in the 1960s. But in recent years that thirst became a spectacle of gaudy desperation, as country music devolved shamelessly into Easy Listening. When Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” the classic middle-of-the-road country song, crossed over to the pop market, country music rushed to imitate its success. The ensuing kitsch did little but alienate much of the existing country market, and things got so bad, so hideously bland that Chet Atkins, one of the people guilty of changing the music to middle-of-the-road mush, did gentle penance by apologizing publicly for what he had done.

Enter Willie Nelson and his first Columbia album, Red Headed Stranger. Made at an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas, at a cost of only $3000, Red Headed Stranger was all that country music had ceased to be: hard edges and inner graces. There were people at the company whose brains puked at the thought of releasing such a record, but Willie won out by agreeing to cut his next two albums in the accepted fashion if Red Headed Stranger failed to make money. The album was released in October 1975. It hit the top of the country charts, then it went high on the pop charts, as a single from the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (which Elton Britt had recorded in 1945), became the biggest crossover hit since “Behind Closed Doors.” And that’s how Willie Nelson, after 17 years of moiling against the country music industry’s grain, finally took the wheel.

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Willie and others whom the industry had considered freakish growths upon its Dresden-doll skin were now given credence and respect. Teeth went tight with wrath in 1970 when Kristofferson showed up in street clothes to accept his CMA award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” but at the 1975 awards ceremony similarly unorthodox behavior by Waylon Jennings was loudly applauded. The day of the outlaws had come.

There are true tales about many of the old-line country singers, tales of gunplay and whisky and dunes and dunes of Benzedrine and high-heeled caravans of open-mouthed girl-things, garish Iliads of honky-tonk excesses that are rarely encountered except in Don Siegel movies. But these men were never considered outlaws, for they never allowed their personal lives to tint their public images. You either stayed in the closet or you repented publicly, as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard did. If you fucked up, the consequences were grave, as Hank Williams discovered when he was thrown off the Opry. These were the grievous angels Gram Parsons spoke of.

Nothing those old-timers did pissed off the industry as Kristofferson had in 1970 with his sins against decorum. There he stood, the most successful songwriter of the season, and he just didn’t seem to give a fuck. This surly yanking at the paternal dewlap, this was outlawry of a kind that none of the old-timers would have dared. But you can’t throw someone off the Opry if he’s never cared about being on it. Within a year, Kris had become a star beyond reprehension. His “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had been a country hit for Roger Miller, became a pop hit for Janis Joplin in the summer of 1971, and when Kris’s second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, was released that same summer, it crossed over to the top of the pops.

Five years earlier that could not have happened, but by 1971 the cultural paradigm was changing. White suburban punkdom pushed aside its pretensions of social conscience as one would a copy of “Raised Skirts and Bare Buns” after jerking off. The ’60s were an embarrassing diary in the eyes of the ’70s, and Black Sabbath and Lou Reed were the sound of that diary burning. In a way, Kristofferson was also. Kids who a few years before had affected a vicarious identification with the culture of colored folk now began adopting the ways of the redneck eidos.

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When Willie Nelson started performing with younger, rock-bred people on their mutual Austin turf in 1972, the thrill of benediction was felt. Willie convinced his friends, such as Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, that these long-haired kids were a great country audience, and they too began performing for the kids. Austin became to country music of the ’70s what San Francisco was to rock of the ’60s, a college town turned secondary music capital, and in Michael Murphey’s “Cosmic Cowboy” the scene found its anthem. Willie and Waylon started making music as they had rarely done before; albums such as Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and Willie’s Phases and Stages ooh’d and yelled with freedom.

Staring plainly if numbly at the overwhelming success of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, the country music corpus could no longer ignore the weird beast that had grown within its stomach, so it accepted it as it has always accepted success. Industry people looked back on Kristofferson without anger and told anyone who would listen that they knew Willie way back when and what a good old boy he was.

These guys are oligarchs now, not outlaws, and to consider them outlaws in 1976 is silly except as nostalgia. A battle was fought and the good guys won, it’s as simple as that. The effects of the victory are many and glorious. Willie Nelson, the William Carlos Williams of neon, hadn’t had a Top Ten country record since 1962, and now he’s the most popular country singer in America. Waylon Jennings, who had always had hits but had never really let loose, is now making the best country music the world has heard since the ’50s. Tompall Glaser, the most innovative and knowing country artist of recent years, is finally getting some of the recognition due him. And, perhaps most important, a lot of the older artists who had been seduced into a more middle-of-the-road sound are easing back toward the source. George Jones told me last month that his next album will be done without orchestral frills or any other sweetening, and I think when he and producer Billy Sherrill make that album, more people will become aware of what George Jones is: the greatest singer alive.

But the romance that has replaced the reality of the outlaws is starting to give off an ominous, electric odor. An outlaw establishment threatens. Texas Music, a slick Dallas monthly which published its first issue this month, will not publish any negative comments about the outlaws, a policy that reeks of the ways of such established fluff-rags as Country Song Roundup and Music City News. During the early months of 1976, industry people cased out Austin, and it is more than probable that a less manicured extension of the music establishment will be seeping into Texas before too long. I shuddered when RCA mailed out plastic, made-in-Korea vests with the Waylon logo stenciled on their backs. Will personae of outlawry be affected like so many Nudie suits? Will new teeth gnash when Ernest Tubb shows up in suit and tie to accept his award of recognition from the Outlaw Music Association?

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It’s depressing to hear kids in Austin, kids supposedly swept away with interest in western swing, tell about how great the Light Crust Doughboys were. The Light Crust Doughboys were an awful band, sort of like the Archies of western swing, and none of those kids have ever heard a Light Crust Doughboys record or they’d know it. The mystique for them is more important than the music. They say they love western swing, but sitting totally ignored in a Houston apartment, playing his fiddle for an audience of furniture and wallpaper, is 61-year-old Cliff Bruner, the greatest western swing veteran alive.

Some came out of the outlaw scuffle empty-handed. Bobby Bare tried his best to fit in with the desperados, but made the mistake of loading his pistols with Shel Silverstein songs. Billy Joe Shaver, one of the most gifted songwriters involved in the scene, went berserk with his own image and his recent music resembles a large, bragging saddle sore. Tom T. Hall, in the midst of it all, went and recorded a song that included the line, “I love little baby ducks.” David Allan Coe, the Joey Gallo of Country Music, remains an acquired taste, like Carstairs and Coke.

Willie, Waylon, Tompall, and the others who fought and won the war against blandness love country music as much as Hank Williams did, and they make country music better than Hank did. That’s why I hope they don’t end up heading down the wrong highway, or find themselves like John Lee Hooker, totemized on a stage before a mass of ceremonially appreciative trails.

Besides, there is work still to be done. I suggest that all pardoned outlaws unite to wreak God’s will: Amnesty for Jerry Lee Lewis!

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Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson has titled his forthcoming album To All the Girls…, and appropriately it finds the octogenarian red-headed stranger dueting with 18 fine female voices, including those belonging to Dolly, Loretta, Mavis and, for some reason, Sheryl Crow. Tonight, though, will be all about Willie and his nasal bleats, a sound that can only sound good in a Willie Nelson song like “Whiskey River,” “Crazy” or “On the Road Again.” With Lily Meola.

Wed., Sept. 18, 8 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 19, 8 p.m., 2013

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Merle Haggard Is Searching for His “Hurt” and Considering Doing Stand-Up Comedy

Nearly 40 years ago, Merle Haggard wrote the poignant holiday tome “If We Make It Through December.” This year, however, the title of that “recession anthem” might have a different meaning—a more literal one. “I think everybody has December 21 on the back of their minds and hoping that everybody’s wrong,” observes Haggard about the Mayan end-times prediction. “I’m trying not to think about it.”

But Hag does a lot of thinking. He was only nine when his own father passed away, and now as the patriarch of a large clan, Haggard is keenly aware of his fatherly duties, which inform his thoughts and decisions. “I got a lot of money in the stock market, and I’m trying to figure out whether to sell or wait until the 21st. If something doesn’t happen, the stock market has got to go up, and it’s got to go down before that. That’s what I’m mainly watching, trying to be the head of the family here. I don’t want to wake up on December 22 and have done the wrong thing.”

The 75-year-old is well-versed in “the wrong thing,” though his stint in San Quentin as a teenage roughneck ultimately proved his salvation. Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform, an epiphany that helped him turn his own life around via music. Since 1965, Haggard has put out about 49 albums, and that’s not counting repackaging, collaborations with everyone from Willie Nelson to Clint Eastwood to George Jones, and three Christmas albums. He also became great friends with the Man in Black who first inspired him.

Times might have changed, but in many ways, Hag hasn’t. A patriot, a poet, and an outlaw who lives in rural Northern California, unlike many country artists, he has penned the majority of his own songs. “I’ve written about 60 percent of 800 songs. And there are about 350 songs in the archives I haven’t released,” he says. The tune most closely associated with him—”Okie From Muskogee”—might be his best-known, but it certainly isn’t his favorite. “It’s caused a lot of problems, you know,” he says of the award-winning 1969 song. Lyrics include: “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do/And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball.”

He notes, “A lot of people didn’t like me and come to me now and say, ‘Over the years, I’ve become a fan, and I love it,’ so it had a strange effect on people.” Hailed as a “song for the troops” written in the midst of protests against the Vietnam War, it has been viewed as both a satire and an anthem for those “squares.” Hag plays it at every live show, though he’s quick to admit “some of the things that I once said I don’t agree with. I’ve matured and studied and found that maybe I was wrong.” For one, “Okie” starts with, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” while in the past 30-odd years, Haggard, like compatriot Nelson, has been reasonably open about his personal pot habit.

Indeed, for one of the kings of “outlaw country,” he’s remarkably self-realized and muses that perhaps the need to write the great song keeps him going. “‘Okie From Muskogee,’ I knew it was a hit. I didn’t know how big,” he says. “I had a mentor who helped me in the early years; Fuzzy Owen was my teacher. We wrote that song on Interstate 40 coming through Oklahoma. It was written in about 20 minutes. Fuzzy was driving. I said to him, ‘What do you think this thing needs?’ I was talking about the lyrics. And he said, ‘Hell, it needs to be out.’ That was a surprise to me because he was always very critical.”

The “outlaw country” pantheon of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson refers as much to their lifestyle as it does to their back-to-basics approach to music and business. “Outlaw country fit me pretty good, ’cause I didn’t go for the Nashville thing. Never did,” says Haggard, his Southern twang prominent for someone born and raised in California. “We always did it our way. We didn’t use the obvious players that were making those great records in Nashville we called ‘slick records.’ We wanted to be a guy with our own sound, a sound from the West Coast, and we were adamant about that.”

Indeed, country songs used to be more regional and place-specific, both in sound and lyrics. Despite his elder statesman status and perspective, Haggard claims, “I don’t understand modern country music. I have some friends in it, and it’s obviously doing very well, but I don’t know of any songs I could whistle. It seems like there oughta be a standard every 10 years, and I haven’t heard one of those in 20 years. There’s a lot of good words. But it seems like we’ve run out of melodies.”

As for the last great standard? He cites a close friend and collaborator. “I think Kris Kristofferson was the last guy to write songs that I care about. ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’—I think he must have been the caboose of the great writers.”

Hag prefers a craggy song. Country these days, he opines, is “more like pop music. Everything is perfect. There’s not any chance of hearing something breathe. They’ve sucked everything that’s part of the picture out of the picture, and all you have left is perfection. And in my opinion, a lot of it’s perfectly bad!” He laughs a sort of wheezy chortle.

Although he has had health issues over the past few years—diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in 2008, he was back playing live by early 2009, and he is already booked well into 2013. He does get, as he says, “tayrd,” but that doesn’t slow him down, even though time onstage isn’t necessarily a joy.

“I don’t get much enjoyment out of my own shows,” he admits. “You’re not really out there to have fun; you’re supposed to be going to work. I try to do the show for the people and give them what they bought the ticket to see. Once or twice doing a show, I’ll do something I wanna do, and sometimes they like it. I’m 75 years old. Willie said something to me: ‘You might as well be yourself. Somebody might like you.’ That’s kinda what I do now.

“We don’t have a set list,” he continues. “I threw away the set list in 1969. I’d get four or five songs into it and didn’t agree with the mood of it in the moment. Nothing came off right. So we do an ad-lib show every night. And sometimes it’s really good. And sometimes it’s terrible. But if there’s anything better than a good show, it’s a bad one,” he says with a guffaw.

Haggard feels his live performances are also helped by a newfound humor that balances out his sometime-irascibility. “I’m funnier than I used to be. Necessity. It’s evolution,” he says. “The longevity of my career has come about from my experience over the years. I’ve got a lot of things to say. The music is a big part of it, but when a guy like the Cable Guy, what’s his name—Larry—I get 100 grand a night, he gets 250. And he don’t have no band. All he does is stand up there and do things that I could do if I wanted to, and probably should do, and have started doing because it’s improved our ticket sales.”

He’s also open to the possibility that, like his great friend and inspiration Johnny Cash, a new path will open late in life. Haggard is near the end of a year-long, million-dollar building project, a recording studio on his 250-acre ranch, and looks forward to laying down music from March to May of next year. As to what exactly he’ll record, well, that’s up in the air. But he’s entertaining all.

“Johnny called me about the time that he done [the cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”], and I remember part of the conversation. I said, ‘I haven’t had a hit since ’89,’ and he said, ‘Haggard, I haven’t had a hit since ’39!’ He said, ‘I need one.’ About that time, producer Rick Rubin showed up on the scene and took him in. There’s always hope that something like that will happen for me,” Haggard says. “Some producer would come with a song that would fit me as well as that fit John. There’s some interest from Rick Rubin, I think, and the only reason I haven’t jumped at the chance is lack of material. When a song like ‘Hurt’ comes along, I just hope I’ll be wise enough to recognize it.”

Wisdom is something Haggard has earned, often the hard way, and is also quick to impart. Back in the early ’90s, he was already telling journalists he felt old. Now, 20 years later, does he see any benefits in aging? He’s got a ready answer. “You have to learn to say ‘no’ in your life. Otherwise, you never do anything you want to do. That would be number one of what I’ve learned over the years,” he concludes. “You gotta say ‘no’ a lot of times before you say ‘yes.'”

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BAD TO THE BONE

Want pot-smoking tips from Willie Nelson? Healthy-living advice from Ozzy Osbourne? Rules to keep your rapper happy from Coco Austin (Ice-T’s wife)? It’s all in The Official Book of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Lists (Soft Skull Press), lovingly compiled by Judy McGuire, a sex and love advice column for the Seattle Weekly for the past 12 years, and illustrated by cartoonist Cliff Mott. Tonight, join McGuire for the PBR-sponsored launch party with a terrific lineup of readers, including rapper Princess Superstar, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak, original Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, Mike Edison (author of Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!), nerve.com’s Erin Bradley, and New Bomb Turks frontman Eric Davidson. Plus, test your rock knowledge and score naughty prizes in the trivia contest.

Thu., July 12, 7 p.m., 2012

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At this year’s Farm Aid concert, country icon Willie Nelson debuted a new song that could serve as his last will and testament: “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Although toking on ol’ Willie might not qualify as medicinal purposes, the sentiment reaffirms his place as one of the genre’s great agitators—something he has been underscoring lately by identifying himself as part of the Occupy Movement’s 99 percent. He might be one of country music’s greatest champions, having celebrated the genre’s standards on last year’s Country Music, but more than that, he remains one of country’s greatest rebels.

Wed., Nov. 2, 8 p.m., 2011

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And In Case You Haven’t Seen It Yet: Here’s That Chipotle Video Featuring Willie Nelson Covering Coldplay

Oh, how to feel about Chipotle’s new short film intended to express its philosophy on sustainability and the value of small farms? On the one hand, it features Willie Nelson; on the other hand, it’s a restaurant chain. But that chain is Chipotle, a company that hired nose-to-tail chef Nate Appleman to make to-die-for chorizo tacos and experiment with local ingredients. Still, isn’t this the same Chipotle that’s been unscrupulously selling bacon-laced bean burritos to unsuspecting vegetarians for years? OK, OK. But the video has adorable Wallace & Gromit-style animation. Yes, but it’s also clearly a corporate marketing ploy that inevitably glosses over many of the problems driven by a fast-food culture. Wait: Isn’t the company donating $0.60 from each iTunes download of the video’s song to its Cultivate Foundation, which funds sustainable agriculture initiatives? Yeah, but isn’t that song originally by Coldplay? Ack! We admit it: We’re torn. Why don’t you watch for yourself and let us know what you think …

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Snoop Dogg

The legend of Snoop Dogg seems to have usurped Snoop Dogg at this point: his personality has long been a bigger draw than his art. He recently released his 11th solo shot, Doggumentary, which featured guest appearances by Kanye, Bootsy Collins, and Willie Nelson–which, for any other artist, would be an Mars-blowing-up event. But it all came out just OK. That doesn’t matter for tonight, though: since Snoop exudes personality like no other, he always puts on a fun show. Just pray that he shows up on time.

Thu., April 28, 8 p.m., 2011

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BAYOU BASH

Stetsons, Texas twangs, un-ironic facial hair, and Old Glory in all her splendor: Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Celebration tosses up a salute to an America that probably doesn’t exist anymore, but then again, this film practically doesn’t, either. The 1979 classic of concert cinema is virtually extinct on video, but, lucky for us jaded city folk, it will return to the big screen once again this holiday weekend. Amid a flannel sea of 10,000 Lone Star–pounding patriots, director Yabo Yablonski captures Nelson in his prime—that is, curiously sober and astute—while Doug “the Ragin’ Cajun” Kershaw attacks the fiddle, and Leon Russell, much to the show’s own benefit, becomes progressively more drunk as the night goes on.

Sat., July 3, 8 p.m.; Sun., July 4, 5:30 p.m., 2010

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Willie Nelson

On the cover of his 1965 album Country Willie, short-haired, clean-shaven Nashville songwriter Willie Nelson can be seen scrawling his name on the side of a barn. Fitting that for his latest album, the T-Bone Burnett-helmed Country Music, a similar graffiti gets deployed, but over a cathedral-sized barn. Willie—in his ponytailed, bearded incarnation—has become a country music institution and religion (see book The Tao of Willie). And while there have been past digressions (including reggae and Kid Rock), Country Music finds the gray-headed stranger reaching back to his own roots, from his own “Man with the Blues” to spirituals to standards from Merle Travis and Ernest Tubb. Expect the night to be both sacred and profane.

Thu., May 6, 7 p.m., 2010