From the time that my late grandfather, Modesto “Api” Suarez introduced me to Willie Nelson as a kid, I have been a fan.
There is so much to love about Willie’s music.
There is his take on heartbreak. His early classic, “Crazy,” is probably the best song to describe the isolated dumpster fire experience that is being rejected by someone you love. “The Last Thing I Needed” takes that experience on with sentimentality. And “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” addresses the unsung canary in the coal mine of failing relationships: when couples stop laughing at one another’s humor.
There is his religious reverence. His album, “The Troublemaker,” blends traditional evangelicalism with a modern rebel Jesus that fit 1976 well. His versions of “Amazing Grace,” “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” fill his concerts to this day.
There are his covers. Willie revolutionizes already amazing songs. His takes on Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” Bob Dylan’s “He was a Friend of Mine,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Moment of Forever” are remarkable.
There is the diversity of Willie’s duets – from Julio Iglesias (“To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”) to Emmylou Harris (“The Maker”) to Snoop Dogg (“Roll Me Up”). Include in there an A+ country music artist son (Lukas Nelson), one of the 3 best supergroups of all time (Highwaymen) and a music festival dedicated to family farmers (Farm Aid) and you have a legend.
But there is another part of Willie I love: His journey to becoming Willie Nelson.
Willie Nelson was not always Willie Nelson.
When he first came to Nashville, he was largely clean cut. He had short hair. He often wore a suit. He did not sing much about getting drunk or getting into bar fights because a woman broke his heart. He looked like a Baptist Deacon, not the Texas Proud, America loving, pot smoking, long-haired outlaw he was born to be. And things did not go his way. He even tried to take his own life. He found success with some amazing songs he wrote, but he was not who he was meant to be as a person.
Then something changed.
There are 8 billion people on earth. I believe every one of those 8 billion people have something God-given and unique in them. When Willie Nelson, at about 40 years of age, came to Austin, Texas, he found that something unique and helped transform not only American music, but himself.
He stopped giving a damn about what other people thought of him. He got rid of the suit. He grew his hair long - the way God intended for Willie Nelson’s hair to be. He would soon profess a public love for marijuana. He was public about his vulnerabilities - including his lifelong battle with depression. He became an unapologetic outlaw – for whom the going up was worth the coming down. And others would grow with him – names like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and the George Gershwin of country music, Kris Kristofferson.
He had something for everyone. He was a redneck, cowboy and good old boy Texan. He was a marijuana smoking hippie. He was a patriotic Air Force veteran with the blood of an American Revolutionary War soldier who loves American heart, American muscle and our shared American journey. He was a man of faith – a Christian who sees God’s love in creation. He sells out shows in Portland, Oregon and Tupelo, Mississippi. Having grown up in a broken home and picked cotton as a child, he knew the hits life gave – and he was prepared to sing about them. And the halls of power welcomed him, including his fellow pilgrim on life’s lost highway and laid back Southerner, President Jimmy Carter.
Nobody better personifies the often misapplied slogan “don’t tread on me” like Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson, to paraphrase the words of Cole Porter, wants to ride through the wide open country that he loves – he does not want to be fenced in. It comes down to the what the late Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis called “the right to be left alone” so that you can pursue your unique happiness.
I am a proud Willie Nelson fan – and I have never done drugs (not even marijuana) in all of my 45 years on this earth. I am not a drinker. And it may come as a surprise to some, but I am hardly an outlaw. Maybe I am an old school guy who appreciates people who are not. Maybe I just appreciate a guy who is who he is and invites everyone to be who they are. In the end, I think that is all the Red Headed Stranger wants.