As weed icon Willie Nelson observes 420 Day this week, he has many other things to celebrate in this landmark year. He was just nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; his five-part documentary Willie Nelson & Family just premiered at Sundance; he recently released his 73rd studio album, I Don't Know a Thing About Love; and later this month, for his 90th birthday, he’ll be fêted at a two-day Hollywood Bowl bash featuring everyone from Neil Young, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, and Miranda Lambert to Beck, Orville Peck, Tom Jones, and his pot pal Snoop Dogg.
Nelson, in fact, just joined Snoop in BIC’s “The Most Borrowed Lighter” campaign — a stroke of 420 marketing genius, because these guys clearly know their brand — in which the “On the Road Again” singer leaves Snoop’s EZ Reach Lighter in “herb-friendly” U.S. tour cities with names like Blunt, Pottsville, Stoneville, and Weed. But it turns out that the two superstars, who have collaborated on the cannabis anthems “My Medicine” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” previously made 420 history in the most herb-friendly city on the planet, Amsterdam. The rapper recently told SiriusXM's Let's Go! with Tom Brady that the most stoned he's ever been was during an April 20 dominoes game in Nelson’s Amsterdam hotel room.
“He's a good friend. … We just kind of liked each other right away,” Nelson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I was headed to Amsterdam and Snoop and I had been talking, doing some recording and everything, so I called him and said, ‘Come on over!’ We hung out a while over there and went to all the best [cannabis] spots over there: the Bulldog and the Grey Area, all the places over there where they had good smoke. And for a few days over there, we just burned them down.”
Nelson’s other famous smoke session, detailed in the 2020 documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, has to be that time in 1978 when he lit up a “fat Austin torpedo” on the White House roof, when he was invited to stay there during the Carter administration. The 39th president himself wasn't involved, but the president’s middle son James Earl “Chip” Carter III, who was 28 at the time, did inhale. However, Jimmy did not find out about this until many years later. Nelson, who in his 1998 memoir claimed that he’d smoked with an unnamed White House servant, had asked Chip to keep their roof misadventure a secret, because — as Jimmy explained in Rock & Roll President — Nelson “didn't want to categorize [Chip] as a pot-smoker like him.”
“I was staying at the White House and [Chip] took me up to the top of this thing up there, the top of the White House. It one of those great places where you can look around, 360 degrees,” Nelson recalls. “And then we had a joint, we burned it down, and then went downstairs and bowled — they had a bowling alley downstairs. Then then put me up in the Lincoln Bedroom. I had a blast.” More somberly, when asked about his thoughts on the 98-year-old Carter, who is currently in hospice care, Nelson says, “Jimmy Carter is one of the best people that ever came to the Earth. He has done so much good, and has tried to do good, every year that I've known him.”
There’s actually a “Willie Nelson for President” mural in the SoCo District of Nelson’s home city, Austin, and the country music legend is so beloved by fans from all walks of life — as evidenced by the diverse lineup of artists honoring him at the Hollywood Bowl on April 29 and 30 — that if this man of the people ever ran for office, he’d probably win by a landslide. “Well, that was really what I was afraid of!” Nelson chuckles, when asked if he'd ever considered pursuing a political career. “Politics is all right for other people, but I'm into music and I don't wanna mix it up.”
That being said, Nelson has always been a humanitarian and activist. Along with setting up Farm Aid with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985, performing at events for Democratic candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Beto O'Rourke, and supporting the LGBTQ+ community and same-sex marriage with a cover of Ned Sublette's “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other,” he has of course be a longtime weed advocate, as a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) advisory board. Possibly the only two other stars of the typically conservative country genre that have crossed so many sociopolitical boundaries, yet remained so universally adored, are Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks.
“I just let everybody think and believe what they want to, and I expect them to do the same thing with me,” Nelson says with a humble shrug. “The people who come to my show, I don't care if they're Republicans, Democrats, atheists, Baptist, Methodist. I don't care, as long as they like ‘On the Road Again.’”
While Nelson had become the mural-memorialized face for marijuana reform, in the less tolerant past he was arrested multiple times for cannabis possession: in 1974, 1977, 1994, and even as recently as 2006 and 2010. (It’s no wonder, then, that he wanted to protect Jimmy Carter’s son from getting a bad reputation.) But Nelson tells Yahoo Entertainment he always believed the day would come when marijuana would be socially and legally sanctioned.
“I felt like it would be eventually. With hemp, it’s the same thing. I believed that eventually it would be accepted as a medicine, a tranquilizer, or whatever you want to do with it,” says Nelson. “Also, my wife Annie is very active in cooking that involves cannabis. I just feel like it's becoming more and more acceptable around the country, and it's legal in a lot of states now. And one day I think everybody will wake up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this ain't that bad,’ you know?”
That being said, Nelson, at nearly 90 years old, doesn’t smoke himself these days. “I do a few edibles every now and then, and that's about it,” he says, adding with a laugh, “You know me — I can't do anything unless I overdo it. And my lungs were telling me, ‘Hey, you know, quit that!’ I'm not quitting; I just took off for a while.”
Nelson says his lungs needed a break because even aside from pot, “I've been smoking something all my life! When I was growing up, I would smoke cedar bark. I'd smoke grapevine. I'd smoke Bull Durham. I'd get a dozen eggs and go to the store and trade 'em for a pack of Camels. I did that for years and years, and I realized that it was killing me. My lung collapsed in Maui one time [while swimming during a Hawaiian vacation in 1981], and I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ So, I threw all my cigarettes away, rolled up 20 fat joints and stuck ‘em in the pack — my Chesterville [cigarettes] package — and I hadn't never smoked a [regular] cigarette since.”
Despite all those decades of pulmonary abuse, as his new BIC EZ Reach Lighter campaign shows, Nelson is still touring and gigging all the time, with no signs of slowing down after seven decades in show business. And he’s somehow even managed to preserve his voice. “I think it's good for me to sing. Your lungs are the biggest muscle you’ve got, so I get out and sing for an hour, and I think that's really healthy,” he explains. “Every time I do a show, I feel better when it's over and I'm glad I did it. I'm stronger. One song will lead to the next song, and I just play it all by ear. It really helps my lungs to get out there. And I'm still having fun doing it.”
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