Within the cannabis community, our life stories and lessons learned make up who we are. Our differences through struggles come together for the greater good when the artists of a community tell our stories through personal and creative expression.
American musician, singer-songwriter, and activist Willie Nelson has told a thousand stories from his own life that began when he was just a child. Born in rural Texas in 1933 during the Great Depression and raised by his grandparents, he and his family picked cotton beside immigrants and offspring hailing from Mexico and Africa.
When discussing his fellow laborers, Willie quickly commented, “They were Mexican-American and African-American,” emphasizing on the soil on which they worked together as equals.
From his autobiography It’s a Long Story: My Life, Willie writes of a tenacity learned in the fields. “Even though I’d get into fights now and then, I got along with everyone,” he wrote. “It felt natural, for instance, to be living across the street from a Mexican family. We accepted them and they accepted us. Our Mexican neighbors worked out in the field right alongside us.”
Willie never learned discrimination. Instead, the experience founded the basis for his musical and philanthropic endeavors.
“I loved listening to the black workers making music of their own,” Willie said. “They weren’t singing songs of complaint. They were singing songs of hope driven by a steady beat and flavored with thick harmonies made up on the spot. I couldn’t help but sing along.”
He penned his first song at the age of nine and played in a polka band for money at the age of 12, much to his Bible-loving grandmother’s disappointment.
Mama Nelson believed that the smoking and drinking associated with life in the barroom would send her grandson straight to hell. But in the end, she surrendered to the music, as the $8 made from one night of playing polka equaled one week’s worth of hard labor in the fields. Her love of the Lord couldn’t compete with practicality.
In 1954, fellow musician Fred Lockwood handed Willie a joint while sitting in a bar slamming whiskey and watching Senator McCarthy grill suspected communists within the entertainment industry.
“We’d probably get happier faster if we blew some tea,” Fred said.
But Willie wasn’t yet ready and downed another whiskey. Drinking, smoking cigarettes, and chasing women were his vices, until lung issues and a bad case of pneumonia put the brakes on his two to three packs a day.
“It’d take years before I’d understand the beneficial properties,” he wrote. “In the meantime I stuck to my two habits: cigarettes and booze. I was too young and dumb to see the harm they were doing.”
The songs he wrote during that time reflected his state of mind. I Gotta Get Drunk needs no CliffsNotes, and Bloody Mary Morning was written as he played two women, admittedly changing the facts to suit the rhyme.
“The song had me running fast,” he said. “The song had me looking for a way to deal with a hangover. I was hung over from too much liquor and too much running. It all made sense to give up booze. I was a lousy drunk, a foolish drunk, a fighting drunk, a drunk who did himself much damage.”
During the 1960s, his own kids convinced him to take a look at Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Pop laced with folk sensibilities was giving people another way to express their frustrations with the powers that be.
“I liked what I heard on the radio,” he said. “Most of it came out of the blues. I heard Led Zeppelin as a blues band. Janis Joplin sure as hell was singing the blues.”
With this new mentality also came the drug culture, but Willie wasn’t interested. He was, however, inspired to do away with his vices.
“About the same time I adopted the song Whiskey River, I threw whiskey out of my life,” he said. “Any fool could see that booze was bad for me. Booze made me say shit I shouldn’t say and fight guys I shouldn’t fight. Booze made me headstrong, violent, and dumb as dirt. Booze jacked up my ego and drowned out my humanity. On top of that, I still had a two-to-three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. The combination of liquor and tobacco was slowly killing me.”
Willie began smoking cannabis during the ’60s, but said he used it only as a supplement, initially.
“As I moved closer to the Woodstock Nation, as I bore witness to their music-loving, life-loving, peace-loving ways, I saw the key role played by pot,” he wrote. “Pot was a communal experience. Unlike cigarettes, you didn’t smoke a joint alone. You shared it. You passed it around. Pot was a plant, a natural substance whose positive uses, I would soon learn, were varied.”
Realizing that our country’s very constitution was written on hemp paper had this former cotton-picking Texan thinking.
“In short, I fell in love with this lovely, leafy plant,” he wrote. “As time went on I quit tobacco and booze entirely. As the years went by, as the growers of the crop learned to cultivate an increasingly satisfying product, my appreciation increased.”
Willie said just as he loved robust coffee beans and the strong buzz felt by the brew, he felt the same way about cannabis.
“It pushed me in the right direction,” he wrote. “It pushed me in a positive direction. It kept my head in my music. It kept my head filled with poetry.”
Today, he’s even more entrenched in the healing world of cannabis, creating his own brand. Willie’s Reserve was inspired from the many post-concert hangouts by his bus, Honeysuckle Rose.
“Cannabis has been a positive thing in my life for a very long time,” he said, speaking from his home in Hawaii. “I finally replaced alcohol and cigarettes with smoking weed.”
Recently Willie was lambasted, then redeemed, as he shrugged off detailed questions of the plant in an article in New York Magazine. But the surprise that he didn’t know the differences of indica from sativa was ultimately judged as refreshing in the age of snooty cannabis connoisseurs.
“As long as the bowl is full, I’m happy,” he joked.
But, the larger question remained: did he medicate or get stoned, while burning a few on the rooftop of friend and former President Jimmy Carter’s White House prior to giving concerts?
Even the most ardent stoners insisting there is no medicinal value to cannabis may find comfort and relaxation in medicating before or after a stressful event. An artist’s third eye could be opened up before a performance, making the experience more meaningful for all. And then there’s the spiritual connection to consider.
“We do it for a lot of reasons,” he said, in true Willie form. “I don’t know if you are aware, but cannabis is mentioned in the Bible. It’s been used in spiritual ceremonies for centuries. It’s been around for a very long time.”
Willie’s longevity may be credited to his belief in staying positive, but his legacy is heavily laden with lessons learned, lessons “born out of experience and genuine grief,” he wrote. Lessons shared with us through his music.