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Willie Nelson's SXSW keynote, 10 takeaways
There was something perversely appropriate about Willie Nelson being a keynote speaker for South By Southwest the year it's not being held in person.
The patriarch of Texas music, whose statue sits outside the facility where "Austin City Limits" is taped, was supposed to deliver a keynote back in 1992 but his tour bus didn't make it to town in time. He reciprocated with a surprise free concert that night on the city's Auditorium Shores, but it's long been part of SXSW's 44-year lore that Nelson has never been a speaker in any manner.
That changed Wednesday, March 17, with Nelson's pre-taped interview with Texas Monthly's Andy Langer. The 40-mninute session was wide-ranging, with the 87-year-old Nelson -- braided and bandanaed from his ranch and headquarters in Luck, Texas -- characteristically brief, direct and glib in his answers. There was certainly plenty to talk about, including new and upcoming albums and books ("Willie's Letters to America" publishes June 29), his hemp products and just the art of being Willie Nelson.
Here are 10 of the notable takeaways...
• Nelson revealed that during the pandemic he's missed being on the tour bus so much that "every now and then I go down there and sit in it, just to pretend I'm going somewhere." But he quashed rumors that he sleeps on all the time. "When I'm home I probably don't sleep on the bus that much, but when I'm out on the road I sleep on the bus. I never go inside because I've got everything I need on the bus. Billy Joe Shaver said the closest thing to being free is moving. Moving. And I guess the next best thing is to be on the tour bus, thinking you might move any minute."
• Subscribing to the philosophy that "you're only as young as you feel," Nelson said there are elements of routine that help him stay that way. "I try to exercise every day...There are certain things I try to do every day -- jog a little bit, walk a little bit, whatever. If you don't use it you lose it. I think that's what helps keep me going." So, he added, do the concert crowds. "That energy exchange helps keep me going, really. That has a lot to do with it...Norman Lear, I met him last year, I believe. I said, 'Norman, I've been telling everybody it's just a number. Am I right?' He said, 'Yeah, it's just a number.'"
• Nelson is unfazed by good friend and frequent collaborator Kris Kristofferson's recent retirement announcement. "It's like I told Paul Simon when he retired. I said, 'Well, you can't make a comeback until you retire.' I tell Kris the same thing...So I may retire tomorrow. But I'll make a comeback."
• During the pandemic he's recorded a "family record...me and all the kids together, sister Bobbie (Nelson)...It started out being a gospel album and then we added this song and that song and finally decided to call it a family album. It was really a lot of fun to do." No title or release date has been announced yet.
• As the father of seven, Nelson -- who's been married four times -- says his parenting philosophy came from one of his former fathers-in-law. "He said, 'Take my advice and do what you want to do.' I think that's good...I’m proud of my boys, proud of the girls...the whole family. Everybody in the family are fighters, tough as nails. They came up the hard way, in a lot of ways, but they've become human beings. I'm proud of every one of them."
• Nelson is apparently pretty mean dominoes player. "I'm hard to beat at dominoes. Anybody can beat me at chess or golf. I do alright at poker...When I was a kid growing up I played dominoes all the time. There were these old men that would get together and play dominoes. I'd watch theme very day. When would have to go somewhere he'd get me to sit in. If I made a mistake they'd beat my butt about it, so I learned how to play dominoes."
• He had a strong friendship with the late Muhammed Ali and keeps a photo inscribed "Service to others is the only rent we pay for our room here on Earth" on the wall in Luck. "Muhammed Ali was a great man, a great human being and fought, literally, for what he believed in, I loved him. We got to be great friends. He gave me a punching bag one time, came in and showed me a few licks on the buys to show how it can be done. (We) were great buddies."
• Nelson said he's buoyed by moves towards legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana in the United States. "I think we have made a lot of progress through the years, since the first time I was busted for marijuana. We've come a long way. There's a lot of people who have jumped on the bandwagon and realized marijuana is medicinal, it can help you in a lot of ways, and the more you think about it and the more you realize that's true, the more people in more states will legalize it...Most states are on the way."
• He credited smoking marijuana with helping him keep his temper and ego in check. "It keeps me from killing people -- or keeps me from getting killed. But think positive -- that helps...Forgive, forget and move on. That's the way I live."
• What's on his bucket list now? "I haven't won (rodeo) All-Around Cowboy yet...I have plenty of horses out here to make sure I don't get there."
South By Southwest, being held online this year, runs through Saturday, March 20. Register via sxsw.com.
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