As part of Slate’s project on the 80 most influential Americans over 80, we spoke to some members of the list to reflect on aging, work, and life in their ninth decade and beyond. Willie Nelson, 87, is an iconic singer-songwriter and one of the originators of outlaw country music. His latest album, First Rose of Spring, is his 70th; his 71st, the Frank Sinatra tribute That’s Life, will be released in February. Slate spoke with Nelson by phone last week. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jonathan L. Fischer: A lot of your songs that I love have the feeling of being sung by an old soul. Your outlaw country years, even before then—it sounded like it’d been done by someone who’d lived a lot. When you were younger, what did you think about being old? And now that you’re older, what do you understand about being young?
Willie Nelson: Well, when I was young, I was pretty dumb. And now that I’m older, I’m pretty fucking dumb. I don’t know everything, and I think I do. So there’s the problem.
I didn’t ever think I’d get this old. [Laughs] I always thought I was lucky to make it past 21.
It seems that, when there’s not a pandemic, you’re touring a lot. What’s it been like to be unable to play in person to a live audience this year?
Well, it’s been crazy. It’s the longest time off the road that I can think of, we’ve ever had to go through before. We’ve always been able to play to some audience somewhere.
Are you worried about live music and live venues?
I know it’ll come back. It may be a while, it may be next year sometime. But this will pass and we’ll get back to our normal thing.
I’ve been listening to your upcoming Sinatra tribute album, which really underlines the way he sang—that incredible phrasing—is in a lot of ways similar to the way a country singer tells a story.
That was one of the things I loved about Frank, his phrasing. He never done it twice the same way. I love that. … My biggest regret is we played a show together, I don’t know where it was, Vegas or somewhere, and he asked me to hang out with him a while that night, and I couldn’t. I had someplace to go and get on the bus. But that was one of my biggest regrets, that I didn’t get to hang out with Frank. Because I love him. He always has been my favorite singer.
Are you still doing martial arts?
I still do it as much as I ever did. One thing it gives you is a little confidence, that you don’t have to worry a lot because you’re capable of handling any situation that comes up. Having no fear is a pretty good thing. I still try to do a little workout every day just to pay for the day. That’s what I call it: You have to do something to pay for the day. So I’ll get up and do a little walking or jogging or whatever, just enough to keep the heart going.
Have you been able to do much writing lately?
I have written a lot since we’ve been laying around doing nothing. All I have time to do is think. So I’ll write something. Who knows if it’s any good but at least I’m getting it off my chest.
I wanted to ask about Charley Pride, who just died.
I would like to say that Charley Pride was a great friend of mine. I love him, still love him. I enjoyed playing music with him, hanging out with him. We had more fun than we were supposed to. I love Charley Pride.
Marijuana had a really good Election Day—it seems like it’s an issue that’s really passed its tipping point with more states legalizing. How do you feel about that, given your contribution to that movement?
Well, I think it’s great. It is a good medicine and I’m glad that it’s being accepted around the country, and I’ll be glad when every state in the union legalizes it, because I think it will be healthy for everybody.
You still record a lot—you do at least an album every year. What makes you want to keep up that pace?
Well, I could do two a year.
And sometimes you do.
Sometimes I do, or three. I could do an album a day if I needed to. We’re putting together a new album that we’ve been in [the studio] doing the last few months. It’s a family album with me and all the kids and everybody singing on it, and it’ll be coming out one of these days. I just enjoy being there and recording.
Is there anything you would want to tell your younger self now?
Well, I don’t know that anything I would say now is anything that I would’ve listened to back then. I was still too stubborn to listen to anything or anybody, and I’ve had a lot of bruises because of it. And I’ve lived through it. But I don’t know that if I went back I’d change anything.
Can’t argue with how it turned out.
Yeah, I like the way it is now, except for the fact that we can’t play. I like the way I feel now, I’m pretty healthy. I have no complaints about that. I feel fortunate enough to play music.