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7 Things That Are Always On Willie Nelson's Mind
In honor of his receiving the 2019 Producers & Engineers Wing Award, we take a look at some important causes closest to the country troubadour's heart
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?"
A Tribute In Black To Johnny Cash
A star-studded roster of GRAMMY-winning talent celebrates the music and 80th birthday of Johnny Cash in Austin, Texas
Though Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, he's having a very good year in 2012. The latest in a series of events honoring the man in black — an 80th-birthday tribute titled We Walk The Line: A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash — drew a slew of GRAMMY-winning performers to Austin, Texas, for a lively Friday-night show on April 20 at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.
Top billing went to Cash's surviving Highwaymen brethren, GRAMMY winners Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who teamed with Shooter Jennings (son of late GRAMMY-winning Highwayman Waylon Jennings) and Jamey Johnson in a reunion of sorts on the song "Highwayman." Under a large banner bearing an image of Cash strumming a guitar, flanked by two silhouettes, Nelson also teamed with GRAMMY winner Sheryl Crow on "If I Were A Carpenter."
Crow sounded almost as if she were addressing Cash when she joked to Nelson, "I would definitely have your baby — if I could. If I didn't have two others of my own. And if you weren't married. And if I wasn't friends with your wife."
Audience members cheered lustily in approval, as they did throughout most of the show, a taped-for-DVD benefit for the childhood muscular dystrophy foundation Charley's Fund. Just hours earlier, many of them had watched as Nelson helped unveil his new statue in front of the theater, which sits on a street also named after him.
The event was produced by Keith Wortman with GRAMMY-winning producer Don Was serving as musical director. Was recruited Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Kenny Aronoff, and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan of the Faces as the house band. The handpicked all-star roster of performers ranged from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Brandi Carlile, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Andy Grammer, Amy Lee of Evanescence, and Pat Monahan of Train to Ronnie Dunn, Shelby Lynne, Old 97's lead singer Rhett Miller, Lucinda Williams, and even Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey, who, in addition to emceeing, sang "The Man Comes Around."
"We wanted a real broad, diverse group of artists," Wortman said backstage. "With Cash, you're as likely to find his music in a punk rock music fan, a heavy metal fan and a Nashville music fan, so he's not just a country music guy."
GRAMMY winner Monahan, who sang Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night," commented before the show, "I think of Johnny Cash as a style, as you would think of clothing, or music or whatever. He was his own thing. No can can really describe Johnny Cash entirely.
"And no one could deliver a song quite like him," continued Monahan. "He sang hundreds of other songwriters' songs and he made those songwriters important because of the way he delivered what they were saying. There's not much that I don't respect about him, and I told his son [John Carter Cash] earlier that I'm almost more inspired by the love for his family than his music."
Lynne, who won the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2000, sang "Why Me Lord," another song penned by Kristofferson, and delivered a spirited duet with Monahan on "It Ain't Me Babe," said Cash has influenced "all of us."
"We appreciate the majestic rebellion that Johnny gave us all in the music business. And he's also one of the great American icons of all time," she added.
Among the acts who earned the loudest applause in a night full of high-volume appreciation was the GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the bluegrass quartet re-exposing the genre's African-American roots. Their rendition of "Jackson" was among many highlights. Earlier, co-founder Dom Flemons revealed the personal inspiration of Cash's catalog.
"Johnny Cash's music has had an impact on me as a rock and roll singer, a country singer, as a folk music performer and great interpreter of song. I just love everything that he's done," said Flemons.
Bandmate Hubby Jenkins added, "Johnny Cash was really great about putting emotional investment into every song that he sang."
Co-founder Rhiannon Giddens said Cash’s core was his voice and his subject matter, and no matter how much production was added, it never diluted his message.
Miller, who named his band after "Wreck Of The Old '97," a song popularized by Cash, said their intent was to sound like "Johnny Cash meets the Clash." He also recalled always picking "Ring Of Fire," a classic inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, on the tabletop jukebox during childhood visits to a Dallas diner.
"I didn't know what it was about, but I knew that the guy who was singing it was singing it with everything he had," said Miller, dressed in black in homage to "one of my all-time heroes." "And there was so much heart behind it, and so much conviction. And nobody could sell a song like Johnny Cash. He meant every word he said, and if he didn't mean it, he made it sound like he meant it."
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)
Aloe Blacc, Melissa Etheridge, Wille Nelson Rock GRAMMY Foundation Legacy Concert
View Twitter and Instagram posts, video, photos and a complete set list from Lean On Me: A Celebration Of Music And Philanthropy
GRAMMY winners Melissa Etheridge, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson were among the performers at Lean On Me: A Celebration Of Music And Philanthropy, the 17th Annual GRAMMY Foundation Legacy Concert. The sold-out event took place Feb. 5 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles and also featured performances by current GRAMMY nominee Aloe Blacc, singer/songwriter Rozzi Crane, violinist Lindsey Stirling, GRAMMY-nominated artist Robin Thicke, and indie pop/rock band Walk The Moon.
Below are highlights from the event shared via Twitter and Instagram, video recap, and a complete set list of songs performed.
"We Shall Overcome" (Pete Seeger cover)
"Love Is The Answer"
"On The Road Again"
"We Don't Run"
Melissa Etheridge And Aloe Blacc
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (Beatles cover)
Walk The Moon And Deborah Cox
"All These Things That I've Done"
"Gimme Shelter" (Rolling Stones cover)
"Do They Know It's Christmas?" (Band Aid cover)
"We Are The World" (USA For Africa cover)
Plain White T's
"True Colors" (Cyndi Lauper cover)
"Higher Ground" with Erica Campbell (Stevie Wonder cover)
"I Need To Wake Up"
"Lean On Me" (Bill Withers cover)
Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images
Update: Willie Nelson Cancels Additional Tour Dates Due To Ongoing Illness
The February cancellations come on the heels of three cancelled dates in January
GRAMMY-winning country legend Willie Nelson has now cancelled all tour appearances for the month of February, releasing a statement via his publicist that he is still dealing with the after-effects of a severe flu, and needs, "a few extra weeks to recover completely."
The February cancellations come on the heels of a scary incident in early January, which saw the singer abruptly cancel a San Diego performance partway through the opening song, leaving the stage with apparent breathing difficulties. Following the San Diego show, Nelson was forced to cancel his three remaining January tour stops in order to recuperate. At the time, it was unclear whether the eight scheduled February shows would go on as planned.
Thankfully, it appears that the "On The Road Again" singer's condition is on the mend, as the press release makes clear that he is up and moving around and is, "healthy as ever," as Rolling Stone reports.
Nelson is now expected to return to the stage in Greenville, S.C., on Mar. 5. In a personal address, which was included in the cancelation press release, Nelson promises his fans, "I will see you all down the road."
Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Willie Nelson To Be Honored With 2019 Producers & Engineers Wing Award
The GRAMMY-winning country legend will be honored for his many years of "artistic achievements and creative genius" during GRAMMY Week in February 2019
Willie Nelson may already have many accolades and achievements to his name, including eight GRAMMY Awards, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for more. On Oct. 30 the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing announced they will be honoring Nelson during GRAMMY Week 2019 to "celebrate [his] artistic achievements and creative genius."
The P&E Wing's 12th annual celebration will take place on Feb. 6, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. as part of GRAMMY Week, which culminates with Music's Biggest Night, the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10. In addition to honoring Nelson, the event also acknowledges the industry contributions of the Wing's more than 6,400 professional members.
"Each year, the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing annual GRAMMY week event honors members of the recording community who exhibit exceptional standards of integrity, creativity and sonic quality," said Maureen Droney, Managing Director of the P&E Wing. "We are thrilled to pay homage to Willie Nelson, an undeniable icon with an incomparable—and uncompromising—body of work."
Nelson is a musical force to be reckoned with, a living legend who has released more than 200 albums over his six-decade career, a true leader in outlaw country music, and the larger genre as a whole. He has made an impact in the music industry as a songwriter, performer and collaborator, and in the larger world as an author, actor and activist. He has always used his platform to speak his mind and make a positive impact on those around him, such as with Farm Aid, an annual charity concert he co-founded in 1985 to support family farmers.
To date he has won eight GRAMMYs, taking home his first at the 18th GRAMMY Awards in 1975 for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his breakout hit "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," from Red Headed Stranger. The album was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2002, followed by several more of Nelson's recordings. Over the years he has been recognized by the Recording Academy on multiple other occasions, receiving the President's Merit Award in 1986, the GRAMMY Legend Award in 1990 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
"Willie Nelson has inspired generations of musicians and fans, and continues to set precedents of excellence within the music community," added Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow.