"The director of 1980's 'Honeysuckle Rose,' in which Willie was to act, mentioned he was looking for a road song for the film, and Willie said, 'How about On the road again, I can't wait to get on the road again'" and thus, just like that, another signature song was born. Willie, a most generous collaborator, is renowned, along with Emmylou Harris, as a master of the duet; now counting Snoop Dogg, he has sung with pretty much everybody, even finally realizing his dream of harmonizing with Barbra Streisand.
In the '80s he made a hit album, 'Poncho & Lefty,' with his friend Merle Haggard and two more LPs - 'WWII and Take It to the Limit' with Waylon Jennings. He topped the charts for several weeks along with partner-in-crime Julio Iglesias: The unlikely pairing of a Latin lothario and a roadhouse reefer king forged a massive hit with the bizarre ballad 'To All the Girls I've Loved Before.'
"In 1984 Willie took part in the 'We Are the World' session to raise money to fight African famine, and it got him thinking. Live Aid, 'We Are the World'Well, there were things he cared about particularly, too. Bob Dylan had mentioned the farmers and their crushing mortgage payments at Live Aid. Willie had worked in the fields as a boy and seen firsthand the hard work, tribulations and hopes of Texas's family farmers. Willie felt that in the modern day, with the proliferation of huge, corporate farming enterprises putting pressure on the little guy and meantime themselves being supported by government subsides, attention needed to be paid. Willie decided to do something because he laced the country with his bus, and he stopped at truck stops where he talked to farmers. He had empathy for these farmers, having grown up on a farm and picked cotton. This is not acceptable; we've got to do something.'
"So he didWillie decided to have Farm Aid, and he put it together in a matter of weeks. He got in touch with others who shared his concern - Neil Young, John Mellencamp - and they helped organize, while Dylan, Roy Orbison and others agreed to join them onstage. Today, nearly 30 years on, the effort continues, still centered around the annual concerts, and is a granddaddy among musical charity fund-raisers.
"These years later, Willie's 'trouble with the IRS' or Willie's 'tax situation' seems like a clinical, clerical deal. But at the outset, on a fine day in Austin in 1990, it was as dramatic as any screenwriter could wish for. The writer Bud Shrake remembered to 'Texas Monthly,' 'I was out on the golf course the day that the IRS raided him. Several of us were ready to play, and all of these cars came streaming into the parking lot. Several agents jumped out, and we thought John Dillinger or some serial killer was in there. They were very rude. One woman came to me and said, 'what are you doing here.' And I said, 'I'm getting ready to play golf on Willie's golf course.' And she said, 'This is no longer Willie's golf course. It's the United States government's golf course. Get off.' The IRS seized all of Willie's assets and the initial clam was that he owned $33 million in back taxes and penalties. Bad investments had been made; Willie blamed (and later sued) his accountants, and reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount. A negotiated settlement with the IRS stipulated a debt to the government of just south of $17 million. (According to 'People' magazine), 'the IRS agreed to reduce his debt to a flat $9 million,' and Willie's account would finally be cleared in 1993. In the meantime, there were auctions - or attempted auctions - of some of the property. In some instances, farmers and other friends of Willie simply bought the holdings with the intention of later giving them back to the singer as a present, or renting them to him for a nominal amount. In other cases, the farmers couldn't - or simply wouldn't pay the asking price. And they made sure others couldn't - or wouldn't - either. Willie chuckled when he told me the story: 'I'll tell you, during the IRS thing it was wonderful to see a lot of people come to my support - farmers and friends. At one of those IRS auctions of my stuff, the farmers just closed it down. They wouldn't buy anything and discouraged anybody else from buying anything. They went around saying, 'Are you sure you want to?' If Willie later saw humor in the situation - and he did, commenting often that it tickled him that a guitar player from Abbott could live such a life that he'd wind up owing more than $16 million to anyone - at the time, the affair wasn't so funny. 'Yeah, the IRS situation took away my incentive, he told me. 'There was no reason to go out and work if maybe they'd take everything I made. So I waited till we had an agreement before I got back to touring.'
"As with most things in Willie's life, he looked for, and found, a silver lining. He said that he came to realize the 'Infernal Revenue Service' had done him an inadvertent favor, forcing him to look at how he lived: the point to which his glamorous life had brought him. Now, he not only had to do without the jet he once owned, he found he was better off without it. What he needed - what he had always needed - was a bus, his guitar named Trigger (which he hid for more than two years from the feds) and his music. So it looked to his friends as if Willie had weathered the storm. And then, in late 1991, his son committed suicide.
"Willie picked himself up by the bootstraps yet again, and made his way forward - slowly at first. Then over the months and years, he once again found the old rhythms. Tours were more than 100 dates a year again. The autograph sessions at each one were back up to over an hour. Fittingly, he is one very interesting senior citizen to gaze upon.
He is worshipped in his home state, where there are T-shirts reading MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE AND WILLIE, and admired around the world. A lifelong liberal on most issues - he twice supported Jesse Jackson for president - he remains politically engaged. As a way of helping farmers and the environment, he markets Willie Nelson biodiesel fuel, made from vegetable oil, which can be burned in diesel engines. He is cochairman of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is active with the Animal Welfare Institute and has lobbied for Washington to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. He personally adopted several dozen animals from Habitat for Horses after seeing videos of the inner workings of slaughterhouses.
"He has, in the last decade, done all the usual things - usual for Willie Nelson. He has topped the country charts with a duet single, harmonizing with Toby Keith on 'Beer for My Horses,' and he has crossed the aisle to collaborate with not only Snoop but Ringo Starr.
"How do we possibly sum up this American original, this extraordinary 'walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction? He laughs, he cries, he makes mistakes, he has good days, he has bad days, he's just honest about it all, and that is what endears him to his fans: He reminds them of themselves. He's a human being. If he were perfect, we wouldn't even be talking about it."
So, in my lifetime, I was privileged to attend three live concerts of my most favorite performer. Then, on a more personal note, my great-niece named her first son "Willie." Over the years I have had a lot of fun asking him, "Willie, are you related to Willie Nelson?" For the first six years or so of his life he would have a puzzled look on his face as he answered me, "No, I'm related to her," as he pointed to his mother. Then when he was about 7 years old, I was leaving a family gathering when suddenly Willie came running after me and hugged me as he told me: "I know now who Willie Nelson is, and I wish I was related to him."
Finally I will add that over the years I have had a few laughs as I ask people, "Did you hear that Willie Nelson died today?" The response has always been: "No what happened?" And I reply "He was playing on the road again."
Source: "A Portrait, with Portraits," By Robert Sullivan, from LIFE Books