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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Boston Globe Home Section

November 14, 2002

A little-known fact about Willie Nelson is that his home is sometimes in Massachusetts. It was last week, at any rate, when he had concerts in Boston and Northampton. The Honeysuckle Rose III, his beloved tour bus that he refers to as his "cocoon," is more "home" to Nelson than is any piece of geography.

"Headquarters" is Luck, Texas, a community outside of Austin. His wife and two sons, ages 13 and 14, live in Maui. He retreats there as often as he can, but "home" is on the road, and the patch of road he was traversing last week was in the Bay State.

Actually, there are very few little-known facts about Nelson, 69, who has achieved iconic status in the American firmament by parlaying his extraordinary gifts as a songwriter into a very public life. He is famous for communing with his fans, speaking his mind, living slightly to the left of the law, loving America, and practicing an unrelenting kindness tinged by a sardonic, yet never mean, sense of humor.

Best known for spreading his message that "love is making music with my friends" (a line from his hit song "On the Road Again"), Nelson has been cast by more than one wag as a latter-day messiah. Author and performer Kinky Friedman said he looks like "Jesus on a bad hair day" (Nelson's golden gray braids extend to his waist), and a Gary Allan song currently on the radio asks, "What Would Willie Do?" when faced with a range of life's adversities. Some Austonians believe firmly that when you die, you go to Willie's house.

Sitting in his bus at the cafeteria-style table for two cluttered with a vintage-looking radio, reading glasses, a paperback dictionary, vitamins, a magazine, and a laptop computer that doubles as a jukebox, Nelson fielded questions about politics, marijuana, aging, and life on the road.

He supported Ralph Nader and he thinks attacking Iraq would be just plain wrong. The two issues he frequently speaks out on are the disappearance of family farms and marijuana law reform. He won't admit to a party affiliation, tossing in the old Groucho Marx line about not trusting any organization that would claim him. Still, he is perfectly willing to rail against the corrosive influence of large corporations on small businesses all over the world.

"Both the Democrats and the Republicans just lay down and rolled over on the last farm bill and just made it real nice for the big corporations," he said, "so I'm a little bit upset at both parties. I expected it from the Republicans, but the Democrats sort of surprised me."

Known in the music world for showing hippies and rednecks their common ground, Nelson's political views have gotten him into some trouble, though he won't get too specific. "Whether you want to use your influence to try to influence somebody else, now that's debatable," he said. "If someone knows how you feel without you telling them, that's OK. But I'm not really in favor of jumping up and yelling and screaming, saying, `This is what I believe.' I may not know what I'm talking about."

What he does know is that he loves the road. He spends more than 200 days a year with his caravan of three furnished buses and a truck dubbed "Willie's Wagon," crisscrossing the country. This year included a European tour, too. His sister, Bobbie, has been in the act forever, playing piano, and his oldest daughter, Lana, is part of his household on wheels. She chronicles the doings of her dad and one of his alter egos, Dr. Booger Nelson, who recently won a Nobel prize for his extensive research into seeds and stem cells on the Web site. The bus is decorated with homey artifacts such as a collection of Native American necklaces draped above the dinette.

Asked whether it's the performing or waking up in a different city every morning that holds more allure, Nelson admitted that the latter "has its advantages. It's sort of the great escape. After a while, you begin to feel guilty: Am I running away from reality? But not really, because this is as much of a reality as that is."

He left Northampton to make a commercial for a tax preparation firm in New York. ("H&R Block will be paying my taxes this year," said Nelson, who had a $30 million wrangle with the IRS a decade ago.) From there, it was on to an appearance at Nashville's Grand Old Opry. Nelson's current tour ends in mid-November. He'll make a video in Texas and play a gambler in a movie to be shot in Hawaii before going back to his road routine next year. He's already in a Gap television ad and was profiled recently in The New Yorker and Modern Maturity magazines.

He tries to run every day, and managed it twice in Boston last week.

"I just take off out the bus and go 20, 30 minutes that way and then try to find my way back. It's a thrill a day," he said with a characteristic twinkle in his eye. "I've been lost all over the world."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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