In Charlotte, N.C., back in May, fans at Willie Nelson's Outlaw Music Festival only saw a few moments of the country legend. He walked stiffly across the stage, struggled to put on his guitar, then, clearly frustrated, he tossed his hat into the crowd and walked off stage. Nelson had already canceled a string of performances in February, citing a bad case of the flu. Some fans were wondering whether this was it. But just a few months later, he's recovered and is back on the road again (including a re-do in Charlotte).
At 85, Nelson hasn't had anything to prove for years. He established himself long ago as one of the most important voices in the history of the American Songbook, and yet, he's still at it. He released a new album earlier this year called Last Man Standing. He has a tour scheduled through November and another new album slated for September.
Although he's still as busy as ever, where Nelson likes to be these days is with his family. Nelson's 87-year-old sister, Bobbie plays piano and bunks with him on the tour bus. Sitting on Nelson's bus with his wife and two sons feels like a Nelson family dinner — everyone all together and trading old stories, like the one about Willie giving his youngest son Micah the bizarre nickname Particle Kid.
"He said, 'I meant to say welcome home Prodigal Son, but I was so stoned that it came out as Particle Kid,'" Micah recounts Willie saying. "It's close enough. I like it better."
When asked if they smoke as much as their dad, Willie interjects: "Nobody does."
As much as Willie Nelson loves living, he's done a lot of songs recently about dying (i.e. "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die"). But his illnesses this year were serious, and Willie got nervous when it was bad enough that he couldn't sing, his wife Annie says.
"We went to Maui. He got some fresh air, but it took a good month," she says. "Then, he was a little nervous about it, but I heard him singing so I knew he was fine. He would sneak off in the music room and sing and pick."
He came back fiercer than ever, Annie says, and his sons both say he's been playing better than ever. "Just the last two shows have just blown my mind," his son Lukas says. "We're playing really good music and Dad is singing his ass off."
Lukas, who has his own band called Promise of the Real that regularly backs Neil Young, has a voice strikingly similar to Willie's. Lukas and Micah often play with Willie on tour, and the trio recorded songs together, collected on Willie and the Boys: Willie's Stash Vol. 2.
"There's nothing that makes a parent happier than having your kids up there doing things with you, especially if they're good," Nelson says.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is sound from a stage in Charlotte, N.C. Willie Nelson was set to perform. Our co-host, David Greene, has more on what happened.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Or what didn't happen. Willie Nelson came out onstage. He picked up his guitar. He was getting ready, but he just couldn't do it. He threw his hat into the crowd, and you could see the frustration. And then he just left. Fans were taking video of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, he's out of here. There he goes. He's leaving.
GREENE: The 85-year-old legend canceled a string of shows this year for various illnesses, including a really bad flu. Some fans were wondering whether this was it. But he's recovered, and he's - well, I'll let him tell you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ROAD AGAIN")
WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) On the road again. I just can't wait to get on the road again.
GREENE: We caught Willie Nelson on the road outside Houston, Texas, a few weeks ago. He was getting ready to go on stage with his 87-year-old sister Bobbie, who plays the piano, and also with his two sons. Willie Nelson has nothing left to prove. He hasn't for years. He established himself long ago as one of the most important voices in the history of the American songbook, and yet, he's still at it. He has a new album out this year. It's called "Last Man Standing." He's touring a lot. I asked him what keeps him going. And he told me a story about the circus.
W. NELSON: There's this story about this guy that was hanging around the circus, and there was this guy that was over there taking care of the elephants. And he was picking up elephant dung and taking it and moving it over there into a pile and he'd go back. And it was hot and sweaty, and he went to pick up another one. And the guy said, man, why don't you get you real job? He said, what, and quit show business?
W. NELSON: (Laughter) That's show business.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN IS CLOSED")
W. NELSON: (Singing) Heaven is closed, and hell's overcrowded, so I'm going to stay where I am.
GREENE: Where Willie Nelson likes to be these days is with his family. We were sitting with them on the tour bus. It almost felt like we had been invited to a Nelson family dinner. I mean, the old stories were flowing, like the one about Willie Nelson giving his youngest son, Micah, this bizarre nickname, Particle Kid. Micah remembers asking him.
MICAH NELSON: He said, I meant to say, welcome home, prodigal son, but I was so stoned that it came out as...
W. NELSON: Particle Kid.
M. NELSON: ...Particle Kid.
W. NELSON: It's close, though.
M. NELSON: It's close enough.
GREENE: Pretty close.
M. NELSON: I like it better, so...
GREENE: Do you guys smoke as much as your dad?
M. NELSON: Not anymore.
W. NELSON: Nobody does.
GREENE: Nobody does (laughter).
LUKAS NELSON: Yeah, I mean, you got to ask Snoop if that's even possible (unintelligible) tell you it was.
(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIE NELSON SONG, "ROLL ME UP AND SMOKE ME WHEN I DIE")
GREENE: Now, as much as Willie Nelson loves living, he has done a lot of songs recently about dying.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL ME UP AND SMOKE ME WHEN I DIE")
W. NELSON: (Singing) Roll me up and smoke me when I die. And if anyone don't like it, just look 'em in the eye...
GREENE: But the illnesses this year were clearly serious. Willie Nelson's wife, Annie, was also sitting with us, and she said she could tell how nervous her husband was.
ANNIE NELSON: When he couldn't sing and the words wouldn't come out, he was sort of, well, let's get on the bus, and let's go back to Austin. We're not going to Austin. That's where we got it. And we went to Maui. He got some fresh air.
L. NELSON: And he was fine.
A. NELSON: And he - but it took a good month. Remember; it was a month, and then he was a little nervous about it, but I heard him singing, so I knew he was fine. He would sneak off in the music room and sing and pick.
W. NELSON: Well, every time we'd take off in a long time, you know, which sometimes we'd take off a month or two or whatever, you start thinking, well, wait a minute, you know, the last show was all right, but what's this next one going to be, you know?
A. NELSON: But he came back fiercer.
M. NELSON: He's been playing better than ever...
L. NELSON: Playing better than ever.
M. NELSON: ...Just these last few nights.
L. NELSON: The last two shows have just blown my mind, and the band is tighter than ever. And everybody's - I mean, we're playing really good music, you know, and Dad is singing his ass off.
GREENE: Your wife says you came back fierce from that illness. Where did that come from?
W. NELSON: I got really mad at myself for not being able to do a show - really mad. You know, it's unforgivable to go out there and open your mouth and nothing come out, you know. So I was just hoping that that didn't happen anymore.
L. NELSON: It's not unforgivable.
W. NELSON: For me, it is. Oh, I will. I'll wind up forgiving myself.
L. NELSON: (Laughter).
M. NELSON: Eventually (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MAN STANDING")
W. NELSON: (Singing) I don't want to be the last man standing. Or wait a minute. Maybe I do. If you don't mind, I'll start a new line and decide after thinking it through.
GREENE: When you and I were sitting on this bus - I think it was the same bus, right? This is the - it was your bus. When your book came out a few years ago, you said that you and Merle Haggard had been outside just an hour or two before we talked commenting to each other on how you guys were the last ones left. And I - when Merle passed, that was - that conversation came back to me immediately because, you know, and then you had an album called "Last Man Standing." I mean, it...
W. NELSON: I don't do that song, you know. I recorded it, and it's a good song, but I don't do it because I don't want to think about all the people that have gone, you know? I'll go back talking about all the guys that have died, and that's no fun just to think about every night And I've seen my friends who literally killed themselves on cigarettes and alcohol and trying to do show business. They'll get out there every night, and they'll go to that same spot where, my God, you kill me, you broke my heart. They do that every night. And they have to get drunk to do it, to get to that same negative spot every night so the audience can be happy. A lot of them have to, you know, drink a lot to get there. Fortunately, I quit drinking. I quit smoking cigarettes. It really helped the showbiz part of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(FORGET ABOUT) GEORGIA")
L. NELSON: (Singing) Well, I sure as hell didn't love her this much when I met her, much as I was just captured again and again.
GREENE: Lukas, you're - you can hear your dad in your voice. I mean, I - I mean, out there earlier today listening, it was really striking. Do you hear yourself, Willie Nelson, in your - in Lukas' voice?
W. NELSON: Yeah, and I also hear some of my guitar licks coming back a lot better when he plays.
GREENE: How meaningful is that?
W. NELSON: Oh, it's as good as it gets. You know, that's - you couldn't ask for anything better than that. And there's nothing any - that makes a parent happier than to have your kids up there doing things with you and especially if they're good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(FORGET ABOUT) GEORGIA")
L. NELSON: (Singing) For each night I stand with my father playing our music.
GREENE: That's Willie Nelson and his family on a tour bus in Houston a few weeks ago. His new album is "Last Man Standing."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(FORGET ABOUT) GEORGIA")
L. NELSON: (Singing) And each night I pray I'll forget about Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.