By Roger Ebert November 16, 1986
Most people who are on the road all the time seem to be running from something. Willie Nelson seems to be looking for it. One of his best friends says Willie can't be happy for long unless he's going somewhere - by plane, car, train, bus, foot; it doesn't matter, just as long as he's in motion. One recent rainy day, Willie flew out of Austin, Texas, and spent some time in Chicago, and later that night laid his head to rest in New York City.
"I guess I'm just restless," he said here, stirring sugar into his black coffee in the middle of the afternoon. "It's difficult for me to stay in one spot for long. I really do like to get up and go somewhere, maybe because I've done it all my life. Billy Joe Schaffer has a line, about being so restless that moving's the closest thing to being free."
Nelson was wearing a trimmed-down version of the bushy beard he grew for "Red-Headed Stranger," his new movie, and he had his long hair in two braids -- he's letting it grow again, after cutting it short a few years ago. He was in Chicago to promote the movie, a labor of love that he filmed on his Texas ranch with the help of friends, neighbors, and a mysterious Boston woman who turned up one day with a check for $50,000. (The film's distributor has yet to book a Chicago area theater.)
He is a big star and he doesn't travel light. There must have been a half dozen business partners, assistants, publicists, movie distributors and old pals who checked into the hotel with him, but it was all so low-key I figured they took their tone from him, and he never seemed in a hurry about anything. I asked him if he still used the bus that was the co-star of "Honeysuckle Rose," or if he only used private planes now.
"I love the bus," he said. "You know you've been somewhere. Ham and eggs at dawn in some truck stop somewhere, if that's what you're hungry for. We live in the bus or in hotels a lot, and we like it. My life is very close to the autobiographical movies, `Honeysuckle Rose' and `Songwriter.' "
Those two movies demonstrated Nelson's strange ability, as a movie actor, to create a powerful character while scarcely seeming to raise his voice. Neither one was a box office hit; indeed, Willie Nelson's movie career has consisted of sleepers and lost films and projects producers lost interest in.
His first starring role was "Honeysuckle Rose," the 1980 saga of a hard-drinking country music star and the tug-of-war between his wife (Dyan Cannon) and girl friend (Amy Irving). Then came "Barbarosa" (1982), an offbeat Western about two legendary cowboys and their feud with a Mexican land baron. The studio didn't even want to release that one, even though co-star Gary Busey had recently won an Oscar nomination for "The Buddy Holly Story." Then in 1984 came "Songwriter," with Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the story of a man determined to regain his independence from the pressures of the recording industry. And now here is "Red-Headed Stranger," inspired by Nelson's album of 11 years ago which tells the story of a preacher who tries t o tame an evil town, is abandoned by his wife, kills his wife and her lover, and then spends years in exile in the wilderness before riding back in to meet his fate in that same town.
Whatever it is that Nelson has as a movie actor, a lot of important directors have been attracted to it. The first movie was directed by Jerry ("Scarecrow") Schatzberg, the second by Fred ("Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith") Schepisi, the third by Alan ("Choose Me") Rudolph, and this one is the directorial debut of Bill Wittliff, who wrote the first two. In all of them, Nelson plays a recognizable version of himself, as a weathered, quiet, gentle man who gives hints of having suffered more than he should have, and being more cheerful than he has reason to be.
"The movie thing all started after a party one night in Nashville," Nelson said, remembering. "It was a fund-raiser for some ecological project Robert Redford was sponsoring, and the next day I found myself on the same plane with Redford, flying back to Los Angeles. He asked me if I had ever wanted to be in the movies, and I said, well, yeah, sure, I supposed so. I guess he already had me in mind for something."
That would have been Redford's "Electric Horseman" (1979), where Nelson's official film acting debut was short but unforgettable (he described a woman as being "able to suck the chrome off a trailer hitch"). Even after four starring roles, he said he's still not happy while he's making a movie: "It's difficult for me to sit in one spot for three months."
And it was difficult to make "Red-Headed Stranger," he added, because the role was so different from himself. "In the songwriter movies, I was basically just being myself. This one I had to stretch a little. But I wanted to make it. When I wrote the album for some reason I could see a movie being made of it. And I just felt like if it were to be made into a movie, I could probably play that character as well as anybody. I used to sing the song to my kids as a bedtime story."
It's kind of a grim story, with the preacher starting out with his high ideals and then murdering what he loved, and descending into self-destruction before he finally gets it together again.
"I think it shows how far down a person can go and then come back, regardless of who he is. And that even a preacher, who is a human being, can drop to that depth and then come back. The thing I wanted to avoid was just turning the movie into one long music video. There was plenty of music available, enough that we could put a song under every scene if we wanted to, but I fought with Wittliff over that. He wanted a lot of music. At first, I didn't want any music at all. I guess we met in the middle somewhere."
The result: an odd Western road picture, somewhat strangely cast (Morgan Fairchild plays Nelson's first wife, and Katharine Ross makes a rare film appearance as the widow who gives him new hope). Nelson spent years trying to finance the project. He described his troubles: "The movie calls for a raging black stallion and a dancing bay pony, and I bought them both when I started the project, but by the time I got the movie made, the dancing bay pony wasn't dancing too much and the raging black stallion wasn't raging too much."
Finally, he said, he and Wittliff pared the budget down to rock bottom and built the sets out back on Nelson's Texas ranch, and started shooting. One example of cutting corners: In the original script, the bad guys blew up the town's water tower, but in the finished version, they just open the tap and drain the water - saving the cost of a $40,000 explosion.
"To keep the thing going, we were writing hot checks at one point," Nelson said. "None of them bounced, though. I guess the people that got them just had enough faith to hold onto them until they figured they were good."
But you have a lot of money, don't you? You're rich and famous.
"Rich, I don't know about. I don't have that much money. I make a lot of money and I spend a lot of money. I have a lot of expenses. The music business brings the money in, and the ranches and various real estate that I have take the money out again. My ranch in Texas is not what you'd describe as a money-making proposition. I keep some pleasure horses there and I enjoy the hell out of it, but it's not a working ranch."
He poured himself some more coffee and smiled to himself.
"With `Red-Headed Stranger,' what saved us was the generosity of a woman in Boston named Carolyn Musar. I only mention her name because she hates it whenever I do. She happened to be a fan of mine, and she heard somewhere that we were short of money to finish this movie, and she told her lawyer, "Find out how much those guys need,' and she was on the set two days later with a $50,000 check as a loan. It came at just the crucial moment."
Nelson, who said he wasn't sure when the film would be released, said he was keeping busy. He was featured in a recent "Miami Vice" episode, he went to New York to be honored as "Man of the Year" by the Jewish United Fund, he was planning a tour, and he was still active on the follow-through for Farm-Aid (the fund- and consciousness-raising extravaganza he produced last summer in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.). All of this for a country singer who likes to call himself an outlaw. I asked him what "outlaw" meant to him, now that he was part of the establishment that had once rejected him.
"Freedom," he said simply. "Freedom to decide for yourself, whatever it is. I think that's why the term caught on so much with the public; it's not going the way someone tells you to go."
It also meant, for a lot of people during Nelson's earlier days, the wild-and-woolly lifestyle that he celebrated in "Honeysuckle Rose" (which was renamed "On the Road Again" for its TV and video reincarnation). In the movie, as - some said - in real life, Nelson and his sidekicks drank and partied their way from one stop to another, leaving a trail of empty bottles and broken hearts behind. But now the wild life has settled down considerably for many of country music's outlaws -- Nelson's pals Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings have all gone public with their decisions to stop drinking and/or drugging, and Hank Williams Jr. even wrote a song about how his rowdy old friends had mellowed. I asked Nelson if he would mind a question about his wild reputation.
"I'll answer any question."
Well, then, do you still live in the style that made "outlaw" famous?
"I drink less, much less. Moderation is the key. I used to overdo everything."
Is it hard to make the tours and live the life on the bus when you're cleaning up your act?
"I think it's important that you surround yourself with a bunch of guys who have the same head that you do, so you're all on a somewhat similar level, or when you hit the bandstand it's not gonna be right. The important thing is that we really do enjoy performing. Other people may call it work. I'm not happy for long unless I'm singing somewhere. Every show is different."
How do you write a song?
"The way it begins is in my head. A lot of things won't let you not write them. I don't actually write anything down for a long time, and so the test is, if I can remember it, it must be worth writing down. If I get out the pencil and paper, I'm already sold on it. But also, I have a belief that any song, if it was good once, it's still good. That's why I like to record a lot of other people's songs, standards, things like the `Stardust' album (a best seller from 1978)."
Did you get criticism in the country music world for recording "Stardust" and the other pop classics? Did people think that wasn't pure enough, from a country point of view?
"Not so much criticism as dubiousness. The `Stardust' album was not thought to be the greatest idea by a lot of people. But these were the songs I'd been playing all my life anyway. And in clubs, people would request `Stardust' and `Harbor Lights' and then turn right around and ask for `Fraulein,' `San Antonio Rose' or `Whiskey River.' People just like good music, a lot of different kinds of music. And I was singing `Stardust' a long time before I was singing country."
Somehow that doesn't fit the image.
"Oh, but it's true. I learned music from my grandparents, and they learned it by mail order from a place called," Nelson said, pausing, "I think the return envelopes said it was called the Chicago Musical Institution. They'd study under kerosene lamps every night. I watched them, they'd have their lessons out of the mail-order books, and then send them back through the mail, and finally they got their degrees. They were about 60 years old then. Sixty years old and still taking their lessons, still young enough to learn something. They had great spirit. I thought so.
"My granddad died when I was 6. He'd taught me some chords on the guitar. My grandmother played the piano and organ a little, but she was getting old and had arthritis. She taught my sister Bobbie how to play the piano, and I learned from her. I'd play guitar and she'd play piano, and that's when I first sang 'Stardust.' I learned it from her.
"I've been singing it since before I knew what it meant."
Did your grandmother live long enough to see you perform in public?
"Yes, she did. She would come to a place in Fort Worth called the Panther Hall Ballroom whenever I'd play there. She was in her 80s."
The afternoon was growing dark, and the rain was starting up again. Before long it would be time for Willie Nelson to head out for the airport again, and fly to New York. I asked him how it felt to be "Man of the Year."
"If they've named me that, there must be a few things they don't know about me," he said, and chuckled. "I guess I got it because of the Farm Aid thing, which is really one of the things I've done in my life that was a great thing. When I first got into the issue of family farms, I had no idea the problem was as severe as it was. I thought we'd do a benefit to call attention to the farmer thing, and Washington would say, `Oh, they're having a problem,' and the next day the whole thing would be worked out. But the problem is getting worse. Hundreds of farmers are going under every week."
Have you ever thought of running for office?
"Yeah. A long time ago. I was approached to run for senator from Texas, and I had to decide, and I decided not to. I'm an entertainer, and so the very fact that in order to become a politician you have to piss off half of the country didn't seem very smart. Why chop off half of your audience just so you could walk around and say, "I'm a senator'?"
And so that's how America lost its chance at the first outlaw senator. What about retirement?
"Yeah, I suppose I'll hang it up someday. Everybody does. But not this year or the next. When I do, I'd like to maybe buy me a little one-pump gas station somewhere in south Texas. You know, pretty far from town, and without much traffic."
If you're a Comcast customer, "Red-Headed Stranger" is streaming.