Willie Nelson: A Black Belt in Positive Thinking

Illustration by Aline Zalko

Hard to imagine Willie Nelson is 87 years old. Amanda Petrusich conducted a splendid interview with him for The New Yorker. Here are just a few of the questions and answers I found fascinating.

You describe the Abbott United Methodist Church as the site of some of your earliest musical memories. I’m curious what you recall about the hymns that you sang there, and how performing that music made you feel?

Well, the church is still there, and me and Sister Bobbie are still a huge part of it. We bought that church a few years ago. It actually launched us. The preacher up there is a real good friend. He’s doing a good job – with this pandemic and everything, it’s hard to get a crowd together, but people still love to go to that church.

For the most part, it seems that you didn’t really see your proclivity for mischief and your religious faith to be at odds. But were there ever moments where you did feel that tension acutely?

You know, it’s funny. I have mixed emotions about it. The way I’ve made my money was playing in honky-tonks. One good example is the Night Owl, in West, Texas, north of Waco about thirty miles. It’s close to Abbott, six miles from Abbott. I grew up playing music there. I picked cotton up until I was ten or twelve years old, so to be able to make some money playing music in a beer joint – I felt pretty lucky. And the funny part of it was the people that I was singing to on Saturday nights – I was also singing to a lot of them on Sunday morning, at church. Abbott has a Methodist church, across the street is a Baptist church, across the street is a Church of Christ, down the road a little bit is the Catholic church. So we have churches all over the place – it’s impossible to live in Abbott and not go to one of those churches.

There’s a line in the book where Bobbie writes that, as a child, you were never afraid of anything. Is that true?

Well, it is true – you name it, I’ve been in trouble for it. I’ve never learned to be afraid. I’m still not afraid. I’m afraid of fear. Who was it that said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?

F.D.R.?

Yes, I think you’re right.

That’s a strong philosophy to live by.

I got into martial arts when I was kid, and I’ve been in it all of my life. There ain’t nobody trying to run over me or nothing! [Laughs] It wouldn’t be smart. I get along with everybody because I don’t have any fears. I don’t care how big you are – I can probably kick your ass! [Laughs]

I believe it, Willie! I’d put my money on you every time.

I’ve got several black belts, but I’ve also got a fifth degree in Korean mixed martial arts. A fifth degree is about as high as you can get.

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You released a record a few years ago called “Last Man Standing.” At eighty-seven, do you have that feeling?

It was kind of a funny thing – I don’t want to be the last man standing. But, wait a minute – maybe I do! [Laughs]

You mentioned exercise earlier, and I know that switching from alcohol and cigarettes to marijuana midway through your life was hugely transformational for you. Any other secrets to your longevity?

Positive thinking. Do you remember a book by Norman Vincent Peale, “The Power of Positive Thinking”? It was one of the first books I got into. I believe that with all my heart: energy follows thought, so be careful what you’re thinking.

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This year has been so tough – people are out of work, trying to figure out what comes next, trying to stay safe and healthy in the midst of a pandemic. I’m curious how you think about the musician’s role in a moment like this.

Well, people love to hear music. And we, as musicians, love to play music. So we do it however we can – if it’s virtual, O.K. Whenever we can get back together personally and play the shows, that will be the best, you know. Everybody remembers going to live shows. We certainly don’t want them to stop. The good book says this, too, shall pass. And it will.

To read the entire interview, click HERE

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