By Paul Rogers
While most 78-year-olds might be putting their feet up in front of Dr. Phil or looking forward to mahjong night, country music legend Willie Nelson will spend much of this summer headlining the traveling Country Throwdown mega-fest, which rolls into Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena on Friday.
Indeed, Country Throwdown returns for its sophomore year as Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown. Not that the change of name necessarily means that the great man is overly involved behind the scenes of this rootsy extravaganza.
“It was like all the other tours, y’know: my agency books ’em and I go work them,” he explains in his thoughtful Texas timbre.
“The fact that it’s got my name on it, that’s a great honor, I think. A lot of these acts could be leading the show themselves. Jamey Johnson is a great example: he’s a really great artist and he’s got a great future out there.”
As well as Nelson and Johnson, Country Throwdown features Randy Houser, Jack Ingram, Lee Brice, Brantley Gilbert, Craig Campbell, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and Drake White, performing on two stages. Half a dozen highly regarded singer-songwriters, including Caitlyn Smith and Brent Cobb, will also do their thing on the Bluebird Café Stage (named for the Nashville music club famous for intimate acoustic music performed by its composers).
Nelson became a godfather of country by penning classic songs like “Hello Walls” (a huge hit for Faron Young in 1961) and “Crazy” (most notably a smash for Patsy Cline in 1962), and as a pillar of the “outlaw country” sub-genre. Albums like 1973’s Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages the following year and 1975’s Red Headed Stranger helped define the so-called Outlaw Movement (which also included the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings) at the time and remain country music high water marks. But the veteran Texan’s musical roots reach deeper than that.
“I’d kind of like to take it back further . . . to the 1950s and ’60s. That’s where my favorite country music came from: Hank Williams, Bob Wills and all those guys,” mulls Nelson. “I grew up in Texas, where when you said the word ‘country’ you said ‘western’ with it, y’know? I grew up in country and western music. Country music, I loved it, but I was really born into western swing and country and western music.”
Though Nelson’s best known as a singer and songwriter, he spent much of his early career as an in-demand sideman.
“I was a songwriter second and a singer third. I was a guitar player first,” he recalls. “So I started out playing in all these beer joints in Texas. I was a musician and I worked in other bands. I worked in Johnny Bush’s band as a guitar player and I also wound-up managing him at one point.”
Yet Nelson was writing songs all along—and in fact even before he ever set foot on a stage or even picked up an instrument. “I was a songwriter before I could play the guitar. And really before I could sing I was writing poems.”
One thing that certainly makes this year’s Country Throwdown more “Nelson-y” is that his guitar-slingin‘ son, Lukas, is also on the bill with his band Promise of the Real. Performing with Lukas might be a novelty for Nelson, but touring with him is anything but.
“He’s been really touring with me all his life. When he was just a baby he was on the bus . . . we kept the family together,” says Nelson. “It’s really a thrill to have Lukas out there on the stage with me every night and I hope we can do it forever.”
“Of course Lukas is my kid and I’m really proud of him. Honestly, whether he was my kid or not, I’d still say the same thing: He has a great future out there because he’s good and he’s got a good attitude.”
But Lukas is navigating his way through a music business very different from the one his father burst into at the turn of the 1960’s. Post-Napster, major record labels are no longer all-powerful and free downloads, blogs and online social networking are hugely influential in an artist’s mainstream acceptance.
“I would think it would be very, very difficult today,” Nelson laments. “The marketing is different; the way you sell a record and promote a record is different. Everything is different these days.”
“Lukas grew up on the computer and he did home-schooling on the computer, and so he is using all the high-tech ways that he can to promote his own music. He’s doing a great job. He’s doing as good a job as a record company, because he knows how to utilize the Internet.”
“Help the Music”
Lukas isn’t the only up-and-comer to be championed by Nelson. Indeed, he has a history of taking younger buzz bands, like Los Lonely Boys, out on tour with him. He even launched Pedernales Records in 1999, with his nephew Fred Fletcher, simply to expose and promote the music they love.
“That’s my responsibility,” he deadpans. “To not only help other people, but also to help the music.”
While Lukas Nelson and his peers are carving out careers in a context almost unrecognizable from his father’s generation of musicians, they could still learn plenty about longevity from Lukas’ old man.
“We are professionals out here and you’d better act like one or you won’t last long,” says Nelson Sr. “In order to do as many shows as we do each year and to travel as much as we do we have to take care of ourselves. I kinda instinctively knew that all along and I prepared for it. I prepared my body and my voice and everything else that I’ve got to stay strong through the years.”
“I’ve done everything you can think of physically: running; swimming; biking; weight-lifting . . . I’ve got my bike underneath the bus and in fact I took a ride this morning. It’s so hot, I didn’t ride very long. I try to do that, and run a little bit. If there’s a place to swim, I’ll do that.”
“I enjoy playing music; I enjoy traveling; I enjoy the audiences and the people. There’s really no reason to think about quitting right now . . . People still show-up!”
A New “Tea” Party
And it’s not just music to which Nelson applies his age-defying energy. In fact, to younger audiences Nelson is perhaps equally well known for his marijuana legalization activism (he’s a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and biodiesel advocacy (he formed Willie Nelson Biodiesel with three business partners in 2005 to market the bio-fuel to truck stops).
“Eventually we’ll figure it out in this country that it’s much better to tax and regulate [marijuana] than it is to put up with all the drug wars and the murdering and all the things that go on in the drug-related areas,” says Nelson. “It’s not necessary. It’s been proven in other parts of the world that you can tax and regulate it. And with the economy being the way it is, I would think that a lot of people out there would really be thinking about it.”
Following his arrest for possession on his tour bus in Texas last year, Nelson created the wonderfully-named Tea Pot Party under the catchy motto “Tax it, regulate it and legalize it!”
“The Tea Pot Party is represented in every state in the Union,” he enthuses. “And I’m not telling them how to vote; I’m just telling them to vote. Because I don’t know who is in their area; who is in their town—I can’t tell them who to vote [for] like a regular party could. But I can remind them that if they don’t want to be treated like criminals all their lives, they better vote-in people that believe the way we do.”
Nelson even gives cannabis some of the credit for his enviable good health.
“I remember reading a book called The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer, and in there he said a lot of great things,” he explains. “And one of them was that stress is the biggest killer on the planet, and the best medicine for stress is marijuana. And I know that to be a fact. I’ve done a lot of experimenting with it and I know for a fact that it is good for stress.”
Nelson somehow also finds time to be on the board of directors of Farm Aid, an organization that works to increase awareness of the importance of family farms and puts on an annual country, blues and rock benefit concert. Nelson organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 with fellow musical luminaries Neil Young and John Mellencamp (both of whom also remain on the organization’s board of directors, alongside Dave Matthews).
The demise of family farms in America is an issue close to Nelson’s heart and Farm Aid is amongst the charities supported by Country Throwdown (as is the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance).
“I grew up on a farm and I know how hard it is to make a living on a farm. So when I first heard they were in serious trouble I thought I’d figure out a way that we might help ’em.
“We do a Farm Aid every year,” Nelson adds. “This will be our 26th year in a row. This year it’s in Kansas City on Aug. 13 . . . We’re losing farmers by the millions. We used to have 8 million small-family farmers out on the land and now we’ve got less than 2 million and are losing 500 to 1,000 every week. That’s a sad situation and it’s not getting any better—it’s getting worse.”
The supernaturally youthful Nelson tackles all of the above with signature calm, and finds even a potentially grueling tour like Country Throwdown to be only mildly challenging.
“The pros [of playing festivals] are that I get to work with a lot of great acts,” he concludes. “The part that I wish was a little different is that we don’t go on until real late . . . I have to take a nap before the show!”
Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown with Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Lee Brice and more at Citizens Business Bank Arena, 4000 E. Ontario Center Pkwy., Ontario, (909) 244-5500; www.cbbankarena.com, www.countrythrowdown.com. Fri, June 24. Doors open 2:30PM.