Thirty years ago, Willie Nelson was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at South by Southwest (SXSW). Someone got a schedule confused and by the time he made it to Austin from a previous performance engagement, it was too late. He did play that night at Austin’s Auditorium Shores, so it wasn’t a total loss.
This is just one of the stories Nelson shared as a featured keynoter at SXSW Online 2021. Nelson answered questions posed by Andy Langer, who hosts afternoons on Austin City Limits Radio (97.1 KGSR Austin).
The 2020 Difference
Langer observed that for many performers 2020 was a difficult year. He asked Nelson how it had been for him.
Nelson said, “It was tough on me the performer, but also tough on everybody else who might have been in the audience. Not being able to sing along to live music is something people miss.”
Langer asked if there were any silver linings.
Nelson said he was actually very lucky to be on his ranch with his horses and his home studio. He recalled, “Me and all the kids got together and created a family album. It was really fun to do. It’ll be out after the Sinatra album.”
The Sinatra album, That’s Life, was recorded and planned for release in 2020, but was delayed until February of this year. Nelson and Frank Sinatra were friends, and the album contains eleven studio performances of standards and classics made famous by Sinatra.
Langer inquired what Nelson’s life was built around.
“Absolutely music and family,” Nelson said. “I know for sure I miss it a lot”
Langer asked, “How does it feel when you are in front of a crowd?”
Nelson said, “It’s a positive experience. I enjoy what we’re doing and the crowd is enjoying what we’re doing. It’s a win win.”
“Ever have stage fright?” Langer asked.
Nelson recalled, “Well, my very first performance was when I was five years old. My grandma dressed me up in one of those little white sailor suits and I read a poem. I might have been nervous because I was picking my nose. Then my nose started to bleed. The blood got all over my white sailor suit, but I kept going.”
Concerts on the Road
Langer mentioned that at the end of every concert Nelson goes to the edge of the stage and shakes hands and gives autographs. He asked why.
The iconic singer replied, “Well, first of all, I’m glad they’re there. I’d love to be able to shake hands and hug everyone who comes to my concerts. It’s a great time for me.”
Musical performers spend a lot of their time on tour buses. Nelson has his own. Langer asked him if he missed the bus this past year.
Nelson nodded. “Every once in a while, I go sit in it and pretend I’m going somewhere.”
Langer asked: “Do you sleep in the bus?”
Nelson replied, “At home, never. But on the road, I never go inside. The closest thing to being free is moving. Next best is being on the bus thinking you might move.”
Last year, with his sister Bobbie, he published a book: Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band. Langer recalled that in the book, Bobbie said that Willie wandered off at times. Langer asked where he wandered to.
Nelson recalled, “I’d wander off to the barn, the cornfield, and eventually the train tracks. Then I started catching a freight train to get to the next town.”
Langer said that according to Bobbie’s telling of their story, they did not have an easy childhood.
Nelson said, “A lot of things helped me. There’s a lot of great people in Abbot, Texas, down there in Hill County. And I think positive.”
Langer asked, “What keeps your ego in check?”
The singer replied, “No way. Nothing works.” Getting serious, he summed up his philosophy as “forgive, forget, and move on.”
Langer and Nelson discussed friendships the singer had, including with Muhammad Ali and Kris Kristofferson. Langer asked if Kristofferson’s decision to retire made Nelson sad and asked if he thought about retiring.
Nelson said, “Well, like I told Paul Simon, you can’t make a comeback till you retire. I might retire tomorrow, but I’d make a comeback.”
In summing up, Langer asked to what Nelson attributed his success.
Nelson gave the credit to God. “It’s all cosmic,” he said. “I’m not responsible for anything.”
Nelson concluded with saying that although he would like to get back on the road again, he would not do any live concerts as long as there was any chance of anyone getting sick. He said, “When we do get back out, it will be a sign of success. I miss it.”
I’m sure his fans miss seeing him, too.