I pretty much binged it over the Christmas holiday, which isn’t that hard to do if you’re still off and looking for something to watch, as it’s a concise four episodes that each delve deep into a different era and aspect of his lengthy, legendary career.
It’s an incredible look into some never-before-seen footage of him too, as Willie gave the directors unprecedented access to his personal archives, and I highly recommend checking it out.
And one of the funniest stories about him (that I’ve never heard before) came up in episode four, as producer Daniel Lanois talked about working with Willie on his 45th studio album Teatro in 1998.
They recorded it all in an old movie theater named Teatro in Oxnard, California, with Emmylou Harris providing background vocals.
After the success Willie had with his friends and fellow country legends The Highwaymen in the mid-80’s through mid-90’s, no one, even Willie himself, knew what king of record he should make next. But Lanois had an idea:
“Nobody was sure what kind of a record Willie should make next. When I had a chance to meet him, we talked about the early days and what he was doing as a young musician and songwriter.
And he said that they were a dance band, and they were providing music for people to have a nice time on the weekend. Maybe it’s Saturday night and you just got paid…
At the time, my shop was in Oxnard, California. I said to my buddy, ‘Let’s transform the theater into a nightclub to make Willie feel like he was in his natural habitat.'”
They also brought in Willie’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, as well as the aforementioned Emmylou and Willie’s sister Bobbie on piano.
Almost every song is a Willie Nelson original, many of which he first wrote and recorded in the 60’s, and Teatro had an incredibly unique, almost atmospheric and eerie sound to it, mostly due to the sparse production and place they recorded in and the genius of Lanois’ vision with it.
Willie was (and is) notoriously hard to match in terms of his phrasing, because he had a very unique way of singing, modeled a lot after the old blues singers he loved growing up.
It was hard for even the most talented, professional vocalists to keep up with him, though Emmylou says she somehow managed to (kind of) get the hang of it:
“Rodney Crowell once said that Willie’s phrasing was like fly fishing.
But somehow, if you just let yourself not worry about it, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s so easy being around Willie, he put’s you completely at ease.”
And during this particular recording process for Teatro (and I’m guessing many other Willie Nelson albums), Emmylou says he would do just one or two takes, then run back out to his bus, where he had someone whose only job was to “roll him a joint and make his special coffee”:
“Willie would basically do one or two takes, and then he would go back to the bus and he had somebody whose only job was to roll him a joint and make his special coffee… I’m not sure what was in the special coffee.”
I mean, what else do you expect from the red headed stranger?
Classic… if only we could get him to share that “special” coffee recipe one day.
One of the longtime fan-favorite songs of Willie’s was “I Never Cared For You,” which was completely reimagined for Teatro and is easily one of my favorites on the record.
It perfectly captures the feeling and unique sound of the record, and I’ll certainly be turning this one up with a side of just regular, plain old coffee today (unfortunately):
“I Never Cared For You”
Willie Nelson Used To Trade Eggs For A Pack Of Cigarettes
We’ve heard some wild stories about the great Willie Nelson over the years.
From his (alleged) 9-hour sex marathon, to the true story of how he got his nickname “Shotgun Willie,” to the time his ex-wife tied him up and beat him with a broom, he’s lived a true outlaw life that you usually only read about in books.
While, sure, some of the stories might’ve been embellished slightly or may not be completely and 100% true, they’re believable because that’s who Willie is, and why he became an American icon. But in his 2012 book, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, Willie admitted that he was “barely out of kindergarten” when he started smoking and drinking:
“I had started drinking and smoking by the time I was six years old, so if that was true, I’ve been hell-bound since I was barely out of kindergarten!”
It prompted his next-door neighbor to warn him that he better be careful with the habits he picked up, because it could lead to eternal misery:
“She told me when I was about six-years-old that anyone who drank beer or smoked cigarettes — anyone who used alcohol or tobacco, really — was going to hell. She really believed that, and for a while I did, too.”
It didn’t take him long to figure out that wasn’t really the case. And to support his early habits, since he couldn’t go out and get a job to pay for any of it, he would trade the eggs his family had for a pack of cigarettes:
“I would take a dozen eggs from our chicken, walk to the grocery store, and trade the dozen eggs for a pack of Camel cigarettes. I liked the little camel on the package… after all, I was only six. They were marketing directly to me!”
I mean, he was clearly way too young to be doing any of that, but he’s always been a hell of a businessman it sounds like.
As he got older, he decided to stop smoking altogether, including cigarettes and marijuana, because of health problems and breathing issues. He also noted that many of his closest family members, including his mother, father, stepmother and stepfather, all died after complications from cigarettes.
He even noted that he loved the packaging of the cigarette cartons, saying that “they were marketing directly to me!” Willie admitted that part of his addiction was just having something to light up and smoke. So naturally, he “rolled up twenty joints [and] replaced the twenty Chesterfields” in his pack of cigarettes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though he also said quitting them was extremely difficult, it’s also one of the best decisions he ever made. Back in 2019, a flurry of press reports came out saying that he had quite smoking weed, and while technically true, he still enjoys his Willie’s Reserve cannabis in other ways.
I mean, I think this one about sums it all up…
“Roll me up and smoke me when I die And if anyone don’t like it, just look ’em in the eye I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin’ So don’t sit around and cry Just roll me up and smoke me when I die…”
I guess he’s been an outlaw since day one…
The IRS Once Tried To Auction Off Willie Nelson’s Possessions
They say you don’t mess with Texas. And you definitely don’t mess with Willie Nelson in Texas.
Of course that’s what the IRS tried to do back in the early ’90s when they went after the country music legend for what they claimed was $16.7 million in unpaid tax bills that he owed to Uncle Sam. The trouble started for Willie all the way back in the early 1980s, when the IRS claimed that he owed $6 million for money that was hidden in tax shelters set up by his accountant. And after they did some digging, the government also claimed that he owed an additional $10 million in penalties and unpaid taxes going all the way back to the 1970s.
Willie and his team tried to work with the IRS and challenge the tax bill, but with no success.
So in August 1990, the IRS showed up at Willie’s door, which is pretty much the last thing anybody wants. Federal agents seized Willie’s property in six different states, including his houses and land, his master tapes, his recording and touring equipment, his gold records, and even his clothes. But there was one thing the IRS didn’t get their hands on: His iconic and beloved guitar, Trigger.
That’s because Willie suspected that the IRS was eventually going to come knocking, and gave Trigger to his daughter Lana to take to Maui for safekeeping. The rest of his possessions, though, went up for auction.
The IRS tried to auction off a 44-acre ranch in San Marcos, Texas that he’d bought from the doctor who delivered him as a baby. But nobody would buy it. After two failed auctions, the property was finally bought for the minimum bid: $203,840. And the lucky buyer? A farmer’s lobbying group, who Willie had previously helped through his Farm Aid benefit concert – who bought the house so they could sell it back to Willie.
Another property up for auction was the Pedernales Country Club, which also housed Willie’s studio where he had done much of his recording in the 1980s, including his Pancho & Lefty album with Merle Haggard. The IRS did manage to sell this one: To Darrell Royal, former University of Texas football coach and friend of none other than Willie Nelson.
But when the IRS learned that Royal had bought the property for safekeeping to return to Willie after his tax debt was paid off, the government canceled the sale to Royal and refunded his money. When the club went back up for auction, they eventually did find a buyer in an investors’ group, but this time the recording studio was auctioned off separately. And it was bought by Freddy Fletcher – Willie Nelson’s nephew.
You see how this is going…
Well apparently the IRS saw how it was going too. And eventually they decided to stop fighting it. A collection of Willie’s gold and platinum records, instruments, posters and other personal items were sold to the “Willie Nelson and Friends Showcase” for the low, low price of only $7,000. And the IRS, seeing the writing on the wall that they were never going to get their money by trying to sell off Willie’s property (at least not if his fans and the fine folks of Texas had anything to say about it), they went back to the negotiating table with Willie and his representatives.
Willie, for his part, remained surprisingly upbeat. At one point he even parked his bus outside of the IRS offices in Austin and, during breaks in their meetings, would go out and sign autographs for fans (including IRS employees themselves). And finally, in 1993, Willie and the IRS settled their dispute for a little over half of what the government initially claimed that he owed, with Willie agreeing to pay $9 million, $3 million of which had already been paid.
One of the results of these negotiations, of course, was the infamous “IRS Tapes.” The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? double album, featuring acoustic recordings of both new and unreleased songs, was released in 1992 to help pay off some of his debt, and the IRS agreed to help promote the album to help Willie raise money. He also went on TV to promote the album, but there was one small problem: The t-shirt he wore with the phone number to order the album had a non-existent phone number on it.
Eventually Willie would also enter into an agreement with Sony to distribute the record to stores, and through a profit-sharing agreement that included the IRS, the album would help Willie raise almost $4 million to go towards his tax bill.
Oh, and he also made a Taco Bell commercial to help him raise some cash too.
Willie also filed a lawsuit against his accounting firm that had set up the tax shelters, Price Waterhouse, and eventually settled for an undisclosed amount of money to be paid to the IRS towards his tax bill.
Reflecting on his battle with the IRS, Willie didn’t seem too bothered by the entire ordeal, telling Rolling Stone:
“Mentally it was a breeze.
They didn’t bother me, they didn’t come out and confiscate anything other than that first day, and they didn’t show up at every gig and demand money. I appreciated that. And we teamed up and put out a record.”
And he wasn’t even too upset that his belongings were auctioned off, calling them “just things, nothing that can’t be replaced.”
I guess you’re not too worried about your things when you know you have an army of adoring fans who are there to buy those things and get them back to you. Because like the IRS learned: You don’t mess with Willie Nelson.