ASSEMBLED were some of the world’s biggest stars. Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Clint Eastwood, Sly Stallone, Tom Cruise, Al Pacino and Mariah Carey among them. They were mumbling their way through America The Beautiful, the climax of the Tribute To Heroes TV concert in aid of the victims of September 11. None of them looked like they really knew the words, except the old fella at the front.
Taking the lead with a battered guitar was a pot-smoking, half-Cherokee Indian, with hair down to his waist. His leathery lived-in face and grey beard suggested he was perhaps older than his 69 years.
“It was really quite and honour to be asked to do that,” says Willie Nelson, by phone from Amsterdam, on his current world tour.
“And it was a highly emotional day for all of us.”
So why was he picked against the other superstars? Perhaps it was because he, more than anyone else in that celebrity line-up, is a symbol of America. It’s not just the cowboy hat and boots, the bandana and denim. Nelson came from a broken home and was cotton-picking in the fields by the age of ten.
Now he is a millionaire country music legend. He has lived the American dream.
“I probably am living it as much as anyone because I did come from ... we were not that well off. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of success in my life. So in a lot of ways I am living the American dream.”
Is he particularly patriotic?
“I think I’m as patriotic as the next guy. I can be critical and often I am. Often. That’s what patriotism is. Being able to criticise your own people if they are not doing what you think they ought to do.”
It was September 11 that led many US stars to cancel or postpone UK tours through a fear to fly. Nelson, who comes to the Royal Concert Hall on Sunday, was originally due at the venue last November. But the safety alert wasn’t the only reason, he says.
“I had also been very sick with pneumonia so I was not looking forward to leaving home while I was sick.”
Is he now more sensitive about getting on a plane?
“No, I don’t worry about it. You can’t afford to worry about things you can’t do anything about. I know I have to fly so I do it. I think everyone has been alert ever since September 11. Everyone has been in a different mental place. There are some things you think about more. I think the whole world has probably changed since that day.”
Home for Nelson is Texas. As you would imagine of a country star he has a ranch in the hill country outside Austin, complete with its own golf course and recording studio. He also has a holiday home in Hawaii over-looking the ocean. Although a great-grandfather, he also has two young sons by his third wife. For the record Nelson has six children, “several” grandchildren (one suspects he cannot remember exactly how many) and four great-grandchildren.
I suggest it can’t have been easy having two sons of 12 and 13 at his age?
“It wasn’t that much work having them!” he says, laughing like a drain.
“But raising them and watching them grow up was a little more difficult.”
I venture to suggest that to be a 69-year-old great-grandfather with hair to his waist (in pigtails on the cover of his latest album The Great Divide), is, erm, interesting?
The style. Is that a Cherokee thing?
“Is what, my hair?”
Is it a Red Indian style or your own creation?
The long pigtails?
“Yeah.....that’s probably some of my Indian blood in there. I’m Cherokee. My first wife was Cherokee. We fought like Indians,” he says, lightening up with his long gravelly laugh again.
He has been reported as saying the marriage was like Custer’s Last Stand.
“Every day, yeah,” he chuckles.
The hair isn’t the only thing you wouldn’t expect of a great-grandpappy Nelson. He has just earned a black belt in tae kwon do.
“That’s pretty good at 69. I try to do a little bit every day. It’s good for me. I’ve always been involved in wrestling, boxing and martial arts. When I first went to Nashville I was in to kung fu. More recently my boys got in to tae kwon do so I decided to get back into it. I wanted to encourage them to stay with it. Mentally, physically, spiritually it’s a good positive thing to do.”
Great-grandpappy Nelson also likes to smoke the odd spliff as well. Which is fine in Amsterdam but anywhere else could get him in to trouble.
“Oh I’ve been in trouble many times,” he says.
“For that and other things.”