Willie Nelson: “I smoked dope on the White House roof once”

On tour with Willie, discussing Trigger, Patsy Cline and being President

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In Binghamton, no such dramas occurred: the night had the approximate tension of a visit from a roguish uncle, which is roughly the role Nelson plays to many Americans. But every so often there was a flicker of real fire: when his clearly blessedly unarthritic fingers took flight across that eroded fretboard on Tom T Hall’s “Shoeshine Man”; when he found some grit in his genial growl on a medley of Hank Williams songs; when he unloaded his “Always On My Mind”, still the best version, trumping the self-regarding bombast of Elvis Presley’s version with something that sounds much more plausibly like a heartfelt, rueful dispatch from the doghouse.

He took his bow after another Williams song, a rousing “I Saw The Light”, and was gone without an encore. Shortly after, people report seeing Nelson’s tour bus leave: on the road again, another night’s mobile sleep, guitar tucked in alongside him.

Trigger is one of the most important instruments in the history of American music. Dozens of immortal songs have been written on it, and it has accompanied Nelson throughout the assembly of a catalogue which has shifted more than 50 million albums and made Nelson one of country music’s truly canonical figures. Were Nashville ever to sculpt a Mount Rushmore of its own, he’d be a certain starter, alongside Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

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“Trigger is about 50 years old,” he says. “I had a Baldwin guitar, and I was playing a show in San Antonio and some drunk stepped in it and busted it. I sent it to Shot Jackson in Nashville, who had a music store, and asked him if he could fix it. He said, ‘I can’t fix it, but I got a new Martin up here I can sell you,’ and I said OK. Bought it sight unseen, off the shelf. Paid $750 for it. A lot of money 50 years ago.”

Nelson replies to most questions in this manner. His entire career, at least as he prefers to present it, has been a sequence of benefactors suggesting things, and him blithely agreeing to them. It’s true of the Binghamton show: “The booking agencies just send you around wherever.” It’s true of his fine new album, Country Music: “T Bone [Burnett, producer] put all the songs together. I only bought one to the session which was [Nina Simone’s] ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’. Why that one? I got no idea. I just really like singing it.” And, when he’s pressed, it’s even true of the song that first marked him out as something other than another Nashville wannabe.

“I’d just gone to Nashville,” he remembers, “and I was hanging out in Tootsie’s one night. Tootsie’s had already let me put my version of ‘Crazy’, which I’d recorded in Texas, on the jukebox – so I’d already made the big time, you know – I’m in Nashville getting my record played in Tootsie’s! Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s husband, was in there, and heard the song, and said, ‘Patsy needs to do that song. Let’s go play that for Patsy.’ I said well, okay, but it’s midnight. He said no matter, we’d wake her up. We had been drinking a lot. So we went and Charlie woke Patsy up, and she came out to the car and got me – I didn’t want to go in. So I went in and sang her ‘Crazy’, and she recorded it the next week.”

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