Willie Nelson has been there, done that, and written about most of it.
He’s a legendary country singer-songwriter and folk hero who recorded over 100 albums over the course of a career that spans sixty years. He’s a nature-conscious, animal-loving philanthropist who advocates for alternate energy and biodiesel. A Texas-born redneck raised on a farm now living in semi-retirement in a solar-powered community on the island of Maui. He’s a beloved troublemaker who famously ran afoul of the IRS but still sticks his neck out for the little guy, a cowboy hippy pothead who supports the legalization and taxation of marijuana.
Nelson already told his life story in the 1988 biography, Willie. He maintained his humility after being named a Kennedy Center honoree and receiving a Grammy lifetime achievement award with 2002’s Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes. Three years later he dropped The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart, a feel-good tome coauthored with lifelong friend (and Nobelity Project founder) Turk Pipkin.
Willie’s latest book, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, is more a sequel to that 2006 book than an autobiographical codicil. Available now from Morrow / Harper Collins, the 175-page New York Times bestseller finds the 79-year old sharing tales from the road, reminiscing on his remarkable career, and taking stock of the world and his place in it.
But the real focus of Roll Me Up is family. Nelson devotes a majority of the pages to the recognition and celebration of family members and friends in his extended “tribe,” allowing them to return the favor in grey-block blurbs scattered throughout. We learn about Willie’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality quirks straight from his wife, sisters, daughters, sons, managers, and peers, whose aggregate input paints the portrait of an unassuming, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy whose benevolence rivals that of Santa Claus and whose wisdom is downright Christ-like.
Austin-born singer / humorist Kinky Friedman plays host, prefacing Nelson’s text with pertinent background information and anecdotes. We learn of Willie’s humble upbringing in Abbott, where he and sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents. Music surrounded the homestead; Willie grew up next to a tabernacle where Methodists and Baptists held sonorous revivals every other night. Nelson’s grandfather bought him his first guitar—a Sears catalog Stella—although the boy might’ve picked up on songwriting anyway through osmosis.
Friedman theorizes Nelson was destined for greatness, even if his early brushes with fame were all counterweighted by bad luck or all-out tragedy. Frustrated, Willie penned the shake-a-fist-at-God anthem “What Can You Do to Me Now?” Nelson wasn’t too surprised when his house—and everything in it—burned up days later.
“He writes songs that make you think,” observes Friedman. “Some stay with you for a lifetime.”
Nelson greets readers with his earliest memories: watching his grandfather shoe a horse, picking cotton with his sister, taking care of Reddy the Cow, and marveling at the gospel music wafting in from church next door. He tells of bumblebee fighting with his friends—it was their task to destroy the hives farmers located in their fields—and of quitting an early job tree-trimming after getting hung up over a power line. Willie confesses how he started smoking at an early age; by his teens he was replacing his Chesterfields with hand-rolled joints.
Nelson then alternates entries from his prodigious tour diary with present-day musings from home (including editorials on marijuana, politics, conservation, etc.). He recalls lying to his boss that he could operate an RCA console in order to land a disc jockey job in Pleasanton. The airwaves gave Nelson a chance to broadcast his own music and be exposed to the songs of others in turn; he added “Yesterday” to his repertoire without appreciating just how popular The Beatles—and the famous McCartney ballad—were at the time. Another amusing account finds a timid Willie waiting in a car as cohort Charlie Dick talks his songbird wife into recording one of Nelson’s originals. “Crazy” became Patsy Cline’s signature hit.
The perpetually braided-and-bandana’d troubadour discusses the “art of farting” and plays Wii golf on his tour bus. He dishes on his early days selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias door-to-door and addresses his adequacies as a hog-raiser. He lists his favorite guitarists (Django Reinhardt, Bob Willis, Loretta Lynn), songwriters (Leon Russell, Ray Price, Roger Miller), and venues (Red Rocks Ampitheater), and invites actor Woody Harrelson and reggae star Ziggy Marley over for poker tourneys and domino games. Nelson fondly remembers bassists Chris Etheridge and Bee Spears, with whom he once fed chickens in a bedroom. He chats lovingly about his horses and his guitar, Trigger. Willie also chronicles his ongoing efforts with Farm Aid—the annual charity concert he organized with John Mellencamp and Neil Young (now in its 27th year) and reflects on his travels with fellow “Highwaymen” Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings.
Nelson offers a few more dirty jokes, but we could have done without confirmation that he and his wife still practice oral sex regularly. The singer apologizes for his occasional profanity, citing “God” and “love” as the holiest words in his lexicon. Willie describes the human body as a “church” that should be respected and kept up with exercise and a healthy diet.
Sister Bobbie chimes in on life with her superstar baby brother, who calls her his “rock.” Nelson’s ex-spouses are all referenced, vis-à-vis their progeny, but it’s current wife Annie (Mrs. Nelson since 1991) who is afforded space—and reasonably so—to dote on her hubby, their sons, and their life together in Hawaii. Her yarn about meeting Willie is especially poignant (she was his hairdresser on a movie set). Daughter Lana says Willie hired her away from a government job to act as “Flighty Attendant” on the family tour bus, Honeysuckle Rose. Daughter Amy praises her Papa for his work with the Animal Welfare Institute (he’s opted over 70 horses) and the Best Friends Animal Society (a Georgia nonprofit established to amend dog-fighting laws). Granddaughter Raelyn recalls how Papa Willie (aka P-Dub) bought her a Martin guitar when she was fourteen.
Son Lukas says he never felt any pressure from his father apart from his insistence that he treat others as he would want to be treated. Micah Nelson (who provides the book’s illustrations) writes how his father once saved the day by performing “On the Road Again” when Micah’s own bassist broke a string mid-show.
Nelson exorcises a few personal demons, acknowledging that his “on the road shenanigans” ruined his first marriage. He still mourns the death of his first son, Billy, and proudly heaps affection on the out-of-wedlock daughter he didn’t know he had until recently.
Nelson band members (and real-life brothers) Paul and Billy English thank Willie for bringing them onboard (the former once shot holes in a venue roof to relieve the pressure caused by torrential rain). Manager Mark Rothbaum expresses appreciation for being invited to join the extended family—the very one pictured on the cover of the 1971 album he so admired (Willie Nelson & Family). Promoter David Anderson writes of his chance meeting with Willie in an elevator. Forty years later, he’s still arranging Nelson’s bigger shows.
Roll Me Up is peppered with song lyrics from throughout Nelson’s career—from the Sixties to 2012’s Heroes CD. Willie also teases a forthcoming double-live album featuring Leon Russell.
It’s an entertaining zinger from the hard-working, well-traveled singer. One gets the impression while perusing Nelson’s latest pseudo-memoirs that he’s sitting right next to you in a rocking chair, personally piecemealing the parables between sips of hard lemonade and stolen glances at the sunset.