The six-decade career of music legend and American icon Willie Nelson is certainly not short of highlights. That makes it nearly impossible to pick a defining characteristic of his career—but it might just be how his music is beloved by people from all walks of life.
“One good thing about music is it brings together everybody,” Nelson said. “No matter if you’re Baptist, Methodist, Christian, whoever you are, Republican, Democrat, Independent, they all like to come hear music.”
Part of Nelson’s appeal is how much he cares for the people around him. In 1985, Nelson co-founded Farm Aid to raise awareness about the struggles of family farmers and help keep them on the land. Both Nelson and Farm Aid are still going strong, supporting small-scale farmers throughout the United States.
Everyone’s favorite country singer let us on board his tour bus to share some thoughts on farming, hustling poker and his bromance with Frank Sinatra.
WORLD ARK: You’ve been an advocate, famously, for small-scale farmers since at least 1985 with Farm Aid. Why is it so important to you personally to help farmers?
WILLIE NELSON: Well, I grew up in farm country, in Texas. And I knew all about how hard farming was. I did a lot of it myself, working for other people. Picking cotton, all that good stuff.
And then I started hearing from some of my friends around that there was a problem. In fact, I was in Illinois, I believe it was, with Big Jim Thompson, the governor up there. And we were talking about how farmers were having a bad time. I asked him how it was there, and he said, “Well, it’s bad here, too.” At this time, it wasn’t that bad in Texas, but in the Midwest and other places, it had really gotten bad. And 21 days later we had the first Farm Aid.
What message or advice do you have for small-scale farmers who are struggling, either in the U.S. or internationally?
Well, stay with it. Don’t give up, because there are a lot of us out here who are trying to keep you on the land. And, for maybe a selfish reason, we know that the small family farmer takes better care of the land, and we want to have something to leave for our children and our grandchildren. And the small family farmer is the best one to do that.
A lot of us in the United States are out of touch with the people who raise our food, with the farmers.
Well, I think more and more people are realizing that, when they have breakfast in the morning—why should everything that they’re eating come from 1,500 miles away on some truck somewhere when they could have their local farmer grow it for them and have organic food every day? So, you know, the farmers aren’t dumb. They figured that out, that there’s a way to do it.
Part of the foundation of Heifer International’s work is Passing on the Gift. What’s a gift someone has passed on to you that’s made a difference in your life?
Everything I have, I owe to other people, for one reason or another. Willie Nelson
Oh. How much time you got? Everything I have, I owe to other people, for one reason or another. Everything.
Does music have a role in activism?
Yeah. Music is a good way to put out what you think and you believe and if other people believe it and think it, then you can spread the world. “Living in the Promiseland” [about welcoming immigrants to the United States] is a song we that we did many, many years ago, and it becomes more and more important every day.
Immigration is an issue you’ve spoken about recently. What should we do to take care of the families who are caught up in that struggle?
Well, unfortunately for the ones who were ripped out of their parents’ arms and spread around all over, nobody knows where they are … That is one of the damndest sins I’ve run into in my lifetime, with all those people down on the border going through all that, and our government saying that’s OK.
You know, there's the old saying in the Scripture, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," and I know that for a fact. Willie Nelson
Where does your drive for helping people come from?
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been helping a lot of people all my life. You know, there’s the old saying in the Scripture, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and I know that for a fact.
I’ve heard you like to eat bacon and eggs for dinner most nights. Is that true?
Do you keep backyard chickens when you’re at home?
We’re never home long enough to, but I would if I could. I love fresh eggs. They’re hard to get.
But you have done some farming, you mentioned earlier.
Yeah, I worked in all the farms around Abbott, Texas, where I grew up. I picked cotton, pulled corn, baled hay, worked in a corn sheller. I did all that stuff. I worked out in the fields with, we had African Americans over there, we had Mexican Americans over there. They were all, at one time or another, singing. It was like a big opera in the cotton field. And I learned a whole lot about other people just by picking cotton with them.
Your latest album is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. What made you want to pay tribute to him? (Editor’s note: My Way was released on September 14).
Ever since I heard him, he’s been my favorite singer. And I’ve met him a few times, and we became good friends. And I read somewhere that I was his favorite singer. So, you know, that made me feel pretty good.
Speaking of meeting Sinatra, you’ve played with nearly every musician I can think of. Is there anyone you haven’t played with who you’d like to?
You’ve hit them all.
Yeah, I’ve already played with ‘em. [Laughs]
In your interviews, you’re always very positive. And you’ve also had an incredibly long career. Do you have any regrets along the way?
I don’t worry about regrets. There’s nothing I can do about what happened this morning, you know. Nothing I can do about what’s going to happen tonight. I have no control over anything except right now. And that’s all that really concerns me, is what’s going on right now.
When was the first time you played in front of people?
The first time I performed for an audience was at one of those all-day singing, dinner on the ground things down in Texas. I was like 6 years old, I think. I had been given a poem that my grandmother, who raised me, had taught me. And so I stood out there and said this poem. And I had on this sailor suit, a little red and white sailor suit, and I started picking my nose, and my nose started bleeding. And what my grandmother had taught me to say was, “What are you looking at me for? I ain’t got nothing to say. If you don’t like the looks of me, just look some other way.”
That’s pretty good.
It’s a good one.
Sounds like a tough first gig, though.
Yeah. [Laughs]. Yeah.
When you put your name in on YouTube, about every other video is a famous person telling a story about losing a lot of money to you in poker.
Those are some of my favorite stories.
Can you share your secret for winning at poker?
Oh, I’m writing a book on poker—
Yeah—so I’ll put you in there in chapter 11. [Laughs]
What general advice would you share for our readers?
Don’t worry. Worry will give you cancer and you’ll die, and it’s all over, you know. Having a positive attitude is the best way to keep going.