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7 Things That Are Always On Willie Nelson's Mind
At 85, Willie Nelson would be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but the legendary country outlaw shows no signs of slowing down. He remains as engaged as ever, releasing not one but two studio albums last year and passionately championing charities and causes close to his heart.
In addition to his prolific output, Nelson has long been known as one of music's biggest activists and philanthropists. On Feb. 6, the eight-time GRAMMY winner will be honored with the 2019 Producers and Engineers Wing Award to celebrate his artistic achievements. As Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said, Nelson "has inspired generations of musicians and fans, and continues to set precedents of excellence within the music community"—but his work outside the music community is remarkable as well. So to highlight all the important work he's done advocating outside the industry, we're taking a look at some of his favorite causes.
Perhaps Nelson's best-known cause, Farm Aid has been active for over 30 years, beginning in 1985 as a benefit concert organized by him, John Mellencamp and Neil Young to raise money for family farmers. After the first Farm Aid concert raised over $9 million, Nelson and Mellencamp brought farmers to testify before Congress, sparking the passage of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure. Farm Aid's farm disaster fund helps provide money to farmers who lost their crops through natural disasters. The organization's board of directors includes Nelson, Mellencamp, Young and Dave Matthews, and they work together to put on the annual fundraiser concert, which will enter its 34th year in 2019.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
If you know one thing about Willie Nelson, it's probably how he feels about marijuana. He serves as a co-chair on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), working with them to fight for the legalization of marijuana across the country. In 2005, he hosted the first annual Willie Nelson & NORML Benefit Golf Tournament, and after his 2010 arrest for possession, he formed the TeaPot Party to advocate for decriminalization with the motto "Tax it, regulate it, legalize it." After Willie's Reserve, his cannabis company, raised $12 million last year, Nelson said, "We're on the right side of history. People have spoken with their votes and their dollars. Now that we've proven regulating and taxing is good for individuals and business and states, it's pretty clear that pot is good for America.”
Horses have been a huge part of Nelson's life, and he has passionately advocated for better treatment of them for years. He has partnered with Habitat for Horses to adopt a number of horses, and in 2014 he made a video with them called "The Love of Horses" to call for the end of horse slaughter, preserve the habitat of wild horses and prevent abuse and neglect of the animals. He campaigned for the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, and he has been active with the Animal Welfare Institute and the Best Friends Animal Society as well.
In 2007, Nelson wrote a book advocating for the use of biodiesel and the reduction of gas emissions called On the Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and the Future of the Family Farm. It's a subject that has long been close to his heart: in 2004, he and his wife Annie partnered with Bob and Kelley King to build two biodiesel plants—one in Salem, Oregon and the other in Carl's Corner, Texas. The following year, he and several business partners formed Willie Nelson Biodiesel—also known as "Bio-Willie"—to market biofuel made from vegetable oil that can be burned without modification in diesel engines to truck stops.
Nelson has been outspoken in his support of the LGBTQIA community for many years. In 2015 he aligned himself with Texas Wins, an anti-discrimination group, saying, "Discrimination against the LGBT community is not what Texas is all about, and that's why I'm thrilled to support Texas Wins." In 2013, during the debate over same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act, he went viral after posing with two Willie-specific variations on the Human Rights Campaign's equal sign logo—one with his iconic braids, and another with two joints. He voiced his support for same-sex marriage, telling Texas Monthly, "It's ridiculous to me that this is something we're having a conversation about this in this day and age. I thought it was something that was settled a long time ago...We’ll look back and say it was crazy that we ever even argued about this."
Willie Nelson faced some backlash from conservative fans (who apparently weren't paying too close attention to his politics for the first five or six decades of his career) after he endorsed Democrat Beto O'Rourke over Ted Cruz in Texa's Senate race last year. Nelson has been vocal in his outrage over Trump's border separation policy, writing, "What’s going on at our southern border is outrageous. Christians everywhere should be up in arms. What happened to ‘Bring us your tired and weak and we will make them strong?’ This is still the promised land." In September, he debuted a new song, "Vote 'Em Out," at a rally for O'Rourke in Austin, and the following month he released a studio version of the song in support of RAICES, a non-profit that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants in Texas. The song urges Americans to get to the polls and vote as Nelson sings, "If you don't like who's in there, vote 'em out" and reminds us that "the biggest gun we've got is the ballot box."
A Department of Peace
Nelson has supported organizations like the Peace Alliance's calls for the creation of a Department of Peace in the United States government. In 2004, Nelson backed Democrat Dennis Kucinich's presidential run, due in part to Kucinich's support of the creation of such a department. At a fundraiser for Kucinich that year, he debuted his song "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth," inspired by his opposition to the war in Iraq. "So I guess it's just do unto others before they do it to you," he sang. "Let's just kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out/Is this what God wants us to do?"