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Keynote: Willie Nelson in Conversation with Andy Langer | SXSW 2021

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SXSW 2021
March 17, 2021, Online, Austin, USA
SXSW 2021
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Keynote: Willie Nelson in Conversation with Andy Langer | SXSW 2021
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About speakers

Willie Nelson
Musician
Andy Langer
Music Columnist at Texas Monthly

With a six-decade career, Willie Nelson has earned every conceivable award as a musician and amassed reputable credentials as an author, actor, and activist. He continues to thrive as a relevant and progressive musical and cultural force. In recent years, he has delivered more than a dozen new albums, released a Top 10 New York Times’ bestsellers book, again headlined Farm Aid, an event he co-founded in 1985, been honored by the Library of Congress with their Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, received his 5th degree black belt in Gong Kwon Yu Sul, headlined the annual Luck Reunion food and music festival during SXSW, launched his cannabis companies Willie’s Reserve and Willie’s Remedy, and graced the covers of Rolling Stone and AARP The Magazine. For 2019, he released Ride Me Back Home, a new studio album that captures a reflective upbeat journey through life, love, and time’s inescapable rhythms viewed from Willie’s inimitable perspective. In January 2020, the title song received the GRAMMY Award for Best Country Solo Performance, making it his 10th GRAMMY win. In July 2020, Willie’s next set of 11 newly recorded songs released on his album First Rose of Spring – an atmospheric soulful showcase of beautifully-written songs and poignant performances. September 2020 brought a memoir with his sister and pianist Bobbie Nelson titled, Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of The Family Band.

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Andy Langer is a Writer At Large for Texas Monthly and served as host of the magazine’s National Podcast Of Texas. He can also be heard afternoons on Austin City Limits Radio (97.1 KGSR Austin). From 2002-2016 he was a contributing editor and the music columnist at Esquire.

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About the talk

With a six-decade career, Willie Nelson has earned every conceivable award as a musician and amassed reputable credentials as an author, actor, and activist. He sits down with Austin City Limits Radio's Andy Langer to discuss his legendary career along with some of his recent artistic endeavors.


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Hey there, how Mandy, Langer from Austin City Limits radio in from Texas monthly and what you're watching? Just keynote it marks. The first time Willie Nelson, is appeared as a secret South by Southwest back in 1992. He was scheduled to deliver the keynote and the bus. Simply didn't make it back in time for that 10:30. A.m. speech from a concert was playing elsewhere, I'm not sure who books, Willie for 10:30 a.m. speech but apparently, the South by Southwest folks did. So to make up missing that, show that keynote, he performed a surprise set later that

night at Auditorium Shores. But Thirty Years Later, here we are with Dad keynote. I'm going to spare you for the most part an introduction. But I am going to tell you what will you been up to lately? There's the new album. That's life. That's really second. Album of standards and Classics made famous by Frank Sinatra in September, me and bought me and sis. Bobby, true. Tales of the family band The Memoir that was released last September its details obviously the lifelong bonds between Willie and his sister Bobbie. There's of course, Willie's Reserve in Willie's remedy. Those of a

cannabis brands that Willie and his wife and he run Willie's Reserve, that's a range of THC, cannabis products and then there's Willie's remedy, that's the line of hemp taste wellness products. And next up, will these letters to America. This is coming out via Harper Horizon 4 Pimp Eunice is co-author. That book is out. June 29th. It's a series of letters from the heart will lease ends, and thanks, and thoughts to American past present and future. It would close his family members to his personal Heroes. There's even a letter

to covid-19, so we're going to get started here, we welcome Willie. Not necessarily at South by Southwest but there's big events, he knows like this. Then open with a prayer. I thought we'd opened with a joke instead of 15 years ago, you and I got high. I got high with Snoop Dogg, a couple days later I wrote about it for Esquire. And the thing I remember most about getting high with you, 15 years ago was a joke. You told me, they took my breath away. I ended up coughing a lot at the punchline

jokes. It's the one about the nun has been out for a bicycle ride around the Vatican. The punchline. One of the nuns that I've never come this way before. The other one said May neither must be the cobblestones. We spoke last fall about the pandemic and obviously the death toll is enormous the suffering and the loss of life is real. But I keep thinking about how hard it must be for you. Somebody who's always in motion somebody who's always moving forward and going to the next thing to have to stay still the way you have for the last year, tough. Is that been

Well, it's been really try to follow me but I can't imagine that it's been tough. Not only will need a performer but also everybody else who happens to be in the audience because they come a long way. Drive a long way by somebody to hear. Somebody get up there and sing with this me or whoever, so they can sing along, clap, their hands and enjoy the music and be a part of it. And I think they're missing it also. Have there been any Silver Linings from being at home? The way you have Thanks. We're we're lucky.

We're very lucky. We're up here with the horses, and everything's not only cool, it's cold here but we're okay. We got plenty to eat enough. So we're not like a lot of people out there who are really struggling. So, we feel very, very fortunate, you got the studios, are you able to work at least in the studio? There was reportedly a family record on the way that's been made during the pandemic. Yeah. Me and the kids got together and the family's after Bobby and all of us and started out

being a gospel album and it was really a lot of fun to do. We got sister Bobby in there to play piano and everything and she enjoyed it so I don't know it'll be out after this. I guess music and family. Those are pandemic, proof entities and they're what you build your life around. Families. Music and family are both. Absolutely will miss it. A lot. The musician of this is all the help everybody who's out of work right now. But I know for sure, I do Typically, back when you could be in front of an audience,

what is that? Feel like when your you when you're in front of the microphone in front of an adoring crowd? What kind of energy can you explain the energy exchange? Can you explain what you get out of that experience? Well, it's a very positive exchange to start with. I'm glad to be there and I think they're glad to be there and we're all enjoying doing what we enjoyed listening to music. And it's a win-win situation for all of us, was there ever stage right for you?

Scary stage fright, Edwards stage, where you were a a guy who worried about stage fright, I know you don't have it now but back in the day one of the first very first performance. I was about five years old. And my grandmother had dressed me up in a little white sailor suit. Sure, with the red trims. And had a point but I was going to reside the before I could do it. I started picking my nose. My nose started bleeding bleeding, all over my wife sailors. My speech and it was up.

What are you looking at me for? I ain't got nothing to say. If you don't like the looks of me, you can look the other way. So that was my first performance. One of the things that you do almost every night, he is right. At the end of the show, you go to the lip of the stage and you shake hands and sign autographs, and spend some personal time with, as many folks that can Rush towards the front of the stage as possible. It's it's a really great moment. Every night. Did you learn that from someone else? Or is

that something weird? Where did that come about? Wells, Fargo alarm. I'm glad they're there. I love them all for being there, and I like to go out and shake hands and hug every one of them every night if I could. So, no, this is a big time of the night. For me, I really enjoy. The bus. Do you miss the bus? Yeah, from this last year, just to Dean on the bus down there, a little ways and every now and then I'll go down there and cities it just you going somewhere,

you know? I've never asked you and it may be an apocryphal Tale, But typically, when you're home, There's, there's always been this theory that you sleep on the bus even when you're home. Well, 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 all the time. I never go inside because I've got everything I need on the bus. It's a rolling Clubhouse. It's it's got your bedroom. Like you said, you, you don't need a hotel room.

What's so comforting about the bus? Billy Joe Shaver said. The closest thing to being free is bullying. Moving and I guess the next best thing is to be on the bus thinking that you might move anybody. It's also part of that the bus in the moving, it's part of a routine for you. Are you have a predictable routine on the road. Well, I try to do exercise everyday. I try to do something to pay for the day that you know way I look at it, if you don't use it you lose it. So

you know certain things that I try to do every day, John's a little bit, walk a little bit whatever and I think that helped keep me going along with exercise There's a theory that one of your daughters shared with me once where she told me that she believes that as people age, particularly, when they get to Europe people, start talking to older folks differently. Did they consider them a burden in a lot of cases and it's a drag to be old. But with you,

there's the adulation of fans. There's people are always happy to see you. Nobody disrespect you the way the elderly or sometime just respect it and she told me that she thinks that's what keeps you young. Is that sound right? That has a lot to do with it. Absolutely. You that energy exchange you think is keeping you young energy, exchange helps keep me going. Your sister in the book, me and sister Bobby says, for Willie, the road is endless. He's been wandering off since he was a little boy.

Wandering off is just his nature. It feeds his Restless Spirit here early on where were you wandering off to? Is a kid. Wonder. I'd wander off down toward the barn or out to the cornfield. The next thing I'm over by the railroad tracks and the next thing I'm catching a freight train going to Hillsboro so it always through the year. I really enjoyed catching a freight train arriving to Hillsboro or-- Waco. I don't know. That was my hobby I guess. From that book and

particularly from Bobby's telling of your story it seems to me that one of your gifts did real early on, you had a real sense of self that you were fearless and you didn't suffer fools and you didn't have an easy childhood though. I imagine that made you both strong and graceful from early on Well yeah, a lot of things. I think helped me along for sure. While I come from a place where there's a lot of great people. Having sex is just down there at Hill County next to Waco,

Hillsboro Itasca all in great town, that I grew up with all those kids around their playing, all kind of games, basketball football, baseball, and track, hoes all day and all that good stuff. And so, I feel like I still have a lot of friends up in there. And those friends were early role models. Oh yes, oh yes, I have you know, nobody would know him but me, but I have some Role Models out there that taught me ways to go whenever I needed help. Kris Kristofferson

once said that, you wear the world like a loose garment but also clear from Bobby's telling of your story is that you also had a temper Bay habit Emperor and not a lot of patience and we think of you as this sort of yoda-like part Dalai Lama, figure out how do you keep that temper in check I smoke a lot of pot pie from getting killed but think positive that helps. Is there? Is there any go? I was looking at Dan Raptors book recently, and he was talking about always, you know, as a network news anchor, having to

ride the line between confidence and conceit. Does the the answer may just be the marijuana but what keeps the ego in check? There's no way. Nothing works ego and then there's being an asshole in the the family motto. We don't got you covered on all fronts. What I mean is not being an asshole harder than it. Looks. I've never tried. It must be because a lot of people are able to control and some people can most people cat. I've never tried that much. Would you also I mean in all fairness I mean your your guy

who lives gracefully and largely lives without judgment or at least. That's the way we see you. Is there a key to that to living that way for you? Forget, move on. That's the way I live. Let's talk about the farm and marijuana mean Willie's, Reserve is built around, four principles, personal freedom, the medical advocacy social justice sustainability, how important early on was it, that that brand. If you're going to get into the marijuana business, did it represent your ideal? Well. I have some help there, my wife and is very sharp

in that respect. There's some gals up in Colorado that are also very good business. I called him my Highwayman by Highwaymen, and they have also a lot of help too. So I've been lucky to have good people. Legalization and decriminalization. Have we come further than you expected us to or we still lagging behind on those efforts. We have made a lot of progress through the through the years since the first time I was busted for marijuana. We've made a lot of progress or come a long way. I look a

lot of people who have jumped on the bandwagon and realized that marijuana is medicinal, it can help you in a lot of ways in the more I think about it, the more they realize that's true. Then the more people in more states will legalize it and I think it's coming across pretty good. Lot of States out there or have already legalized medicinally and also recreational states are on the way. Farmers. What needs to happen for them right now, especially coming out of the pandemic situation gets, they always worried about him wrong about the economy.

Because first of all, without the farmer, we don't eat. So they're very important and they haven't been treated as important should be part of what we do. If our Mages to draw attention to the fact that the small family farm or keeps us going that keeps the country going. So we have to keep him going. 35 years of farming simulator. What do you think change the most? Because they are still in a position where they need help? Well yeah. The there is more. Attention Beyond call to it. More people are looking at it and realizing that wait a

minute, we got to take care of the small family farmer. We got to quit, buying our groceries, and our breakfast from fifteen hundred miles away. When there's a farmer out over there, that can grow it for you everyday, and bring it to the Farm to Market and get people to grow food for you, and you'll be smarter. Abbott was and he is such a small town. Yet, you grew up as a progressive house that happened. What was the role models? Especially when you grew up around the church? What's your

Jewel? Way from Prejudice and towards progress? I grew up working in the cotton fields, first of all, and it was me and some Mexicans and some black folks. And a lot of people out there picking cotton pulling up a hundred pounds of cotton in our Sac. I never get pool at much myself. I have a small, but it's hard work. I wouldn't take a nickel for $100 or a million dollars for the work that I did, in the farm, in the farm field. But I realize how hard it is, and I don't want to go back to that, but I think we should help the ones who are still out there trying to make a girl as good healthy

food. There are people when they hear you talking about marijuana reform and about farmers and, you know, even about Beto, there are people that are always surprised that you have opinion XYZ and you address that in letters to America, you say I'm amused. Sometimes when someone surprised that I have opinions about issues that I feel are important to America. I think I've been pretty clear all along on who I am and what I'm leaving I'll bring you also say that while you've never been afraid to speak up, you're also not interested in losing half your audience, and the

music should be bringing people together. I believe that. Absolutely that's that's why in our shows. You don't hear any political speeches at all. I hope everybody out there is independent. Yeah they say whatever they want to be, that's cool with me. As long as they like on the road. Again, we can be happy I mean, on the one hand, were this divided nation but and in that sense, showing what you believe in is important, we know, how do you walk that line

in such a divided nation as we are right now. Why can't you have to ask yourself? What do I feel what I really believed? And live that way, you know? It's really not hard. I just wrote a song. In fact, I just got a new record and come out yet. Call Energy follows thought So be careful what you ask for, energy follows phone. Kindness to others is the only rent, we pay for a room on Earth. That's something Muhammad Ali in his drive, to you, on a photo. If it's over, in Lubbock, Texas. I know you've looked at it a million times every time I'm in your headquarters there,

I look at that photo and I'm amazed at sort of amazed at the wisdom of Muhammad Ali. But I, I look at that wisdom. What's that mean to you? Will Muhammad Ali was a great man and a great human being and literally for what he believed you and I loved it. But we got to be great friends. He gave me a punching bag and come in and hit a few licks on the bus to show me. I really done. So no Muhammad Ali and I would write Buddies. Your children are all activists they all work around causes they believe in how

important was instilling, that sense in them, a sense that they could make a difference. well, I think it's very important that The people have something that they believe in something that gave can live for argue about like 4, it's important to have those valuable thing to keep it going and I'm proud of my boys, proud of the girls, the whole family, everybody. Everybody in the family are Fighters and they come up the hard way really in a lot of ways.

But, they've become good, human being and I'm proud of every one of them. How much of the emphasis you put on family over the years? Because you were raised by your grandparents, Did that importance that focus on family come from having to sort of Peace yours together as a kid. I think I learned the value of family seeing it bust it up and going with every different way. I saw how horrible that was to everybody involved, including the children, trying to

grow up. So yeah, I think I learned a lot about. How to live with the family, because it's important. What's the best thing you did as a father to help raise successful, independent children? well, I've always tried to remember some advice that An ex father-in-law by said, one time. Somebody asked him about what to do. What, what is your revised? He said take my advice and do what you want to So, I think that's good. One of the things that you've seen your, your sister a couple times. Like

you said, she played on this, on this new family record for folks that maybe haven't read the book. The relationship with your sister with Bobby, is it safe to say that nobody understands you better than her? It's probably, yeah, that's probably accurate because she knows me better than anybody because she practically raised me. And also what Yeah, she knows me better than anybody in the world. Your early years were in the church and we were talking a moment ago about that new song and

spirit you believe in a higher power but not necessarily organized religion. How much time do you spend pondering? How we got here? Here's what I believe that God is love. . Love is God. You can't have one without the other and if you live knowing that God is love. The fact that wrote the song God is love and love is God. That's all you need to know how much of your success do you think is by your own hand versus Cosmic? It's all Cosmic. I'm not responsible for anything, I do. Let's go back to those people who instilled a sense of

right and wrong in you so early. Were those your grandparents mostly? Well yeah, that great at my grandparents raised. Me and my sister because my parents divorced when I was only six months old. So I didn't know anything else, except my grandparents, and they were gospel singers, that sang at every every week up, in the Hillsborough courthouse. They have gospel singer and we all go up there and sing gospel song. You know, my granddad was a blacksmith and I used to help him shoot horses in the blacks and his blacksmith shop. So I know I had a lot of great raising

The early part of the new book, there's letters to your grandparents, to Bobby to the city of Abbott. There's also one of your running buddy Zeke. I tell me about that relationship. I mean it was a lifelong relationship and you guys caused a lot of trouble together. We tried my best friend. He talked to you a lot about a lot of things. But mainly poker, Domino's country, people hired people to go around and trim wires off the electric trim, is off the wires and so me and Zeke get that for a while

and we had a lot of fun together. He was my biggest fan as far as it'll music was concerned and we hung out it's a night owl and West and drink beer, and raise hell every night. But Jake was a funny guy. You know, I remember one night he walked out of the bathroom there tonight at all and there was an old drunk sitting there in the chair. You just had one too many so he just fell out in the floor. Is it going over to get up yourself? That's I'll hit you again. You have any advice for maintaining

lifelong friendships because you got so many of those. Oh, I think friends are important. You put their valuables at work. Millions and millions of dollars to have one friend. And you treat him like family. That's how it became. And family. Absolutely, that's not an accident. That's that's something. But you recognized early on, we are all one big family. What was the 22 year-old Willie Nelson like that? Did he have dreams and ambitions? He probably didn't remember him

but he's having the night before but by morning he forgot at my thing. Is there a advice for stealing younger than you are only as old as you feel? I believe that. Friend of the Norman Lear, do you know who he is? 97 years old? I think I've been telling everybody is just a number. Am I right? He said yes, just a number not that long ago, your friend, Kris Kristofferson, retired, you like Lee. Sung on stage with him for the last time how do you avoid The Melancholy? It comes with being the

last of your breed. You've lost so many friends over the last couple of years and guys, like Krista retiring. How do you avoid that melancholy? Well, it's like I told Paul Simon when he retired I said well, you know, you can't make a comeback until you retire. So I can't make a big comeback that you retire. So I may retire tomorrow, but I'll make a comeback. I know you've always gotten a kick out of the meme. The put Willie Nelson in bubble, wrap Meme.

And you've made a light over the years of all the premature obituaries and death rumors, but all that stuff. Just means people love you. I guess that's how you can make fun of it. Well, yeah, and it's really the fact that they think about you is no, that's great. You mentioned Domino's in poker earlier, out of dominoes poker, we're going to throw in chests in golf. Which one of those are you best at Domino's? I'm hard to beat it, Domino's. Anybody can beat me at chess

or Golf and poker. I do. All right it's all pink. Domino's is the one that the least of us know how to do. I think at this point, is there a strategic key to winning a Domino's Yeah, let's eat. Marlin was back to Zeke again, you know, he was one of the best domino players that I ever met and he taught me a lot about the game. when I was a kid growing up, I play dominoes all the time, there were These old man, that would get together and play dominoes. And I'm watching every day went to play

and when one of us have to go somewhere, he get me to set in for me, like the partnership, and if I made a mistake to eat my butt, out pretty good about it. So, I learn how to play dominoes Are those games golfing? Domino's in the poker is that where we see the flashes of ego and of you want to win your War? You're one of those guys. Well, I think it's important to Do things that makes you think. Because just your brain, if you don't use it, you lose it. So challenging, Domino's poker, whatever it takes, Taekwondo, whatever you need to do to challenge yourself, do it.

Songwriting would be one of those things. Do you still get the same thrill from putting together words the way you do? Yeah, I'm proud of you. Do the stuff that I come up with when I come up with something? Meet is there, an internal checks and balance system around the songwriting where, you know? Weather song Axor. Why is one that's worth? Keeping have you you've developed that over the years? I would imagine. I think I know I think I know I know what I like and I have to trust what I like is being good. So far it's

General that's the way it's been. I trust my opinion. Because it comes back to that, you know who you are at this point. You know what? You're you know, why? And you, yes, why people like you the way they do, why they relate to the music, the way they do. Well. I think we all react to the same thing. You know, music will move you. . You know, it'll make you laugh or cry or jump or whatever, clap your hands and anything that will move you do it. What haven't you done?

What's on the bucket list still? I haven't won All Around Cowboy yet. You got time to practice, I guess, plenty of time to practice 21 horses out here to make sure. I don't get there you. Are you about the other side of this? Pandemic of getting past this? I mean, you must think about it all the time. What's it going to feel like to be back on stage? You think? I don't know. I don't know what it's going to feel. Like what kind of come back? It will be? I don't know. Who will be able to come to the

show? I don't want to do a show anywhere anytime where there's a danger of somebody getting sick, so that's going to have a lot to do with when I go back to work. but I mean, when you do and assuming it's safe cuz you're not going to play something, that's not I imagine that's going to bring a whole new level of excitement to what chick for you personally. Do get back in to be moving. It'll be a sign of some sort of success. We got to run with it. And you're vaccinated now. You shared photos of your vaccinations.

I mean, We're all grateful for for science, but it's been a real lesson the last year or so hasn't it? We played last March, I guess what, our last working day we played the Houston fat Stock Show. Rodeo best option. We had a hundred thousand to 80,000 people. I miss that. All right. Well we we all hope we we all get to be out there relatively soon so I appreciate this. I know the folks at South by Southwest appreciate this and you know this time it happened almost thirty years after you're almost keynote. So thank you again and

stay safe and we'll see you soon. You same to you and it's good. Talking to you then tell everybody we said Thank you and stay safe. Take care of yourself. Will do some ladies and gentlemen.

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