- Willie Nelsons never been this high before ... See? A perfectly acceptable altitude joke!
Willie Nelson's tour bus runs, quite literally, on the fruit of America's soil. Instead of the black gold found deep beneath the fields of his native home in Texas, his bus runs on canola, soy and other crops grown by the farmers he has tried to rescue with Farm Aid over two decades.
Of course, alternative fuel, a passion of Willie's, isn't what usually comes to mind when thinking of his bus; most instead imagine an intoxicating exhaust produced by another cash crop. I thought of this, too, as I boarded.
It was September 2005 a year before Willie and four others were busted for pot possession on this bus and I sat at his kitchen table, waiting to interview him before his sold-out show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
Willie emerged, with his wife, through a haze of sweet smoke. Smiling, with his wide, coarse, workingman's hand extended, he asked: "So, what's happening these days?"
"Quite a lot," was all I could say, as he sat down across from me.
The flat-screen TV directly behind me had CNN on mute, but never once did he glance at it. While we talked, his eyes were direct. And when the conversation steered toward biodiesel, it became clear that at 72 years old, his mind hadn't been addled by age, pot smoke or the road. He was smart, sincere and quick-witted. His Mercedes in Maui, he proudly said, runs on biodiesel from recycled fryer grease.
"I tell the story that it's safe fuel," he said. "And the other day, I pulled into the garage, closed the garage door, went to sleep, left the motor running, woke up the next morning and I gained 10 pounds."
"And you had french fry breath," I returned.
He laughed. Jokes are the way to win Willie over. He says his favorite memory of Johnny Cash was telling him jokes.
"This is an old joke, but it's one of John's favorites," Willie said. "I told it to him many times. I always said, "If you heard this, don't stop me. I want to hear it again myself.'"
And he launched into the yarn: "This guy was with his doctor, and he says, "Got good news and bad news. The bad news is you only got about three weeks to live.' The guy says, "What's the good news?' He says, "Well, you see that blonde secretary up there?' He says, "Yeah.' The doctor says, "I'm fuckin' her.'"
It's funnier to hear Willie tell it. He laughs like a toddler at the punch line.
Like Cash, Willie has become more than a mere crossover artist. He's a cultural icon and a legend a far cry from the commercialized bubble-gum artists coming out of Nashville these days. But Willie, who's been in the business for over 50 years, is hardly crying Doomsday for country music.
"Seems like it always comes back around," he said. "The good stuff always comes to the top. I'm not really worried about it."
Though a bag of pot sat between us, I never brought it up. Willie's more than a pot smoker, and he proved as much by wooing the thousands at Red Rocks that evening.
Later, as his bus, painted with horses, pulled away, I recalled his response when I asked him if horses were more environmentally stable than biodiesel.
"I know they're more mentally stable than people."
Willie Nelson with Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Asleep at the Wheel
World Arena, 3185 Venetucci Blvd.
Tuesday, March 13, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $35-$55; visit ticketswest.com.