This week, the always prolific Willie Nelson released a new book, “It’s a Long Story: My Life.” In an appearance this week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked Willie what number this book is, a reference to the many books he’s written. Willie replied, “It’s some number.” You might have read about Willie’s life before in one of his books, or in magazines, and you might know the old chestnuts that have become legend. The time Willie smoked pot on the roof of the White House, for instance, or the time his wife tied him up to keep him at home. But you haven’t heard the story straight from Willie’s mouth before in the way this new book tells it.
Reading “It’s a Long Story” is a bit like stepping onto Willie’s bus and having a chat with him. I can say that because I’m lucky to have been able to do that over the years of my time here at Farm Aid. I have been the person he talks to, making you feel like you’re the only one in the room (errrr… on the bus). And I have also been witness to how he shares a memory or a joke with someone else. My favorite visits with Willie are these latter ones, where I see him sit with farmers, hear their stories, share some of his own wisdom, and thank them for taking the time away from their farm to come down and see him. Willie has this way to connecting directly to a person and making you feel like he’s the lucky one to spend those moments with you.
“It’s a Long Story” is just that. From Willie’s upbringing with Sister Bobbie in Texas with their grandparents doing the parenting, to the current day, it’s all here, and told in a voice that is distinctly Willie’s. In the telling of his tale, there is no “woe-is-me,” no “look what I’ve had to overcome,” but just the honest truth and a positive outlook that comes from a person who accepts the ways things are and truly makes the best of it. “The Tao of Willie” is another of my favorite Willie Nelson books and, reading about Willie’s life from his own perspective, you can see where that book came from. Even from his early years as a kid, it seems there’s a bit of the Buddha, the philosopher, the prophet built in to the man. Not to say he’s perfect by any stretch of the imagination… Reading about Willie’s rowdy days brought a blush to my cheeks. This is a guy whose music I’ve grown up with but who I came to know personally later in his life. A friend I see in his New Balance sneakers and t-shirt, who always has a warm hug, and an email sign-off of “Love Willie.” But those stories of his Texas playboy years make the man—a man who celebrates the strengths of his friends and family (and himself) and accepts their weaknesses (and his own). Willie’s loyalty has given him endless experiences of which to sing and tell stories and jokes.
Willie’s loyalty to the family farmer comes through in “It’s a Long Story.” He writes beautifully of why he remains a leader in the fight for family farm agriculture. He says,
“If we abandon the farmer, we’re abandoning the essential values that made America great. It’s all about our relationship to the land–how we cultivate it, how it yields goodness and provides us with sustenance. It’s our heart. We need to make sure that our heart stays strong. We need to stand up for the farmers–today, tomorrow, and as long as it takes to guarantee their survival.”
And he writes realistically of the struggle of that fight: “I’m not saying that my friends and I single-handedly saved the farmer or stopped the suffering of those looking to make a living off the land. We did not. In this postmodern world of corporate greed and government indifference, the family farm continues to struggle. But the struggle is a noble one. And I’m proud to be part of it–and that after thirty years, we’re still going strong.”
A chapter entitled “Farm Life” speaks to Willie’s connection to the land and the creatures of this earth. It also details the reason he supports family farmers so staunchly: he often proved himself to be a terrible farmer, and he knows first-hand the know-how and work involved in raising food. In fact, in his early years he kept touring all the time to make money just to keep his farm running. One of the hilarious stories from this time involves Ray Price’s prize rooster staying with Willie and his second wife Shirley on their farm outside of Nashville. Ray’s rooster just needed “a little room to run,” according to Ray, but when the rooster went on a killing spree in Shirley’s hen house, and Ray didn’t show up to take his murderous bird home, Shotgun Willie took matters into his own hands. The rooster became dinner and it took years to repair the rift his death brought to Willie and Ray’s relationship. Two legends of country music, torn apart for a time by a rooster!
And lest anyone say that Willie isn’t a real cowboy, there’s a great story in the book that proves otherwise. Willie’s first song to hit number one was “Hello Walls,” recorded by Faron Young in 1961. With his first royalty check burning a hole in his pocket, Willie tried to thank Faron, with five of his crisp one-hundred dollar bills. Faron refused saying, “I hear you bought some calves. When one of ‘em gets good and fat, I’ll take one.” Years passed and Willie delivered a 2,000 pound bull to Faron’s office in Nashville. From that bull, Faron bred an entire herd—like a song, it was a true gift that kept giving!
In short, “It’s a Long Story” is a tale of a long, captivating, fruitful life of an American legend loved the world over, and a real genuine person who has lived through hard times and good times and never—even in his lowest days—lost his faith. His story tells of the tremendous losses that make him so relate-able—of his farm in a fire that destroyed most everything (though his beloved guitar Trigger was saved!) and his troubles with the IRS. But Willie relies on his faith, and as he says, “I got enough faith to last me this lifetime and whatever lifetimes come next.” Filled with stories you’ve heard and stories you won’t believe are true, the book feels like a conversation among friends. It’s a telling of a life, not always well lived, but each day lived to the fullest. And the way that Willie is going strong at 82, there’s likely to be a part II: “It’s a Longer Story” perhaps!