Is Willie Nelson Becoming a Pot Punchline?

August 22, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  28 Comments

Late last week, Willie Nelson released a new song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”. It’s a good, catchy song, just like his recent collaboration with Snoop Dogg called “Superman”, that starts out, “Too many pain pills, too much pot. Trying to be something that I’m not.” And we can’t forget (though many of us have tried) the Toby Keith joke song “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again.”

Willie’s friend Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel has a current musical called A Ride With Bob about the life of Bob Wills, Willie Nelson’s boyhood hero. In the play, Willie is ostensibly a comic relief character, who comes out in Pocahontas braids, runs from one side of the stage to the other, stopping to tweeze his fingers together in the universal pot sign, and belt out a few pot-related jokes before darting off stage.

Willie Nelson is an American treasure, one of the worlds greatest pacifists, an advocate for farmers, biofuels, and countless other causes, as well as being one of the most revered living American artists, and one of the greatest country music legends of all time. His album Red Headed Stranger is disputably the greatest, most important country album ever. But as time goes on, what Willie seems to be best known for is a guy who happens to smoke pot. His arrest in Texas for pot possession had joke writers churning out Willie weed one-liners for late night talk shows and such, with many ignoring that Willie was willing to give up his own freedom to prove a point about the skewed nature of our nation’s drug laws.

Marijuana is a plant. You smoke it to get high. Plain and simple. Without question, the possession of it should at least decriminalized so we are not filling up prisons with non-violent offenders, but it is not a wonder drug either, nor would legalizing it solve all the world’s economic problems as some would advertise. The truth lies somewhere in the middle like with many things, but what I am concerned with is that Willie’s weed identity is trumping, if not marginalizing the other accomplishments of one of our country’s elder statesmen, including his marijuana advocacy work.

If you took a poll that asked people what they would associate with Willie Nelson first…

  1. Farm Aid
  2. Red Headed Stranger
  3. Marijuana

…I’d bet dollars to donuts #3 would take the day. And if marijuana was legal, it would simply be a footnote to Willie’s legacy, like a baseball player’s favorite ice cream. And as evidenced by this new song, without question, Willie himself is fueling this fire, though I’ve been concerned for years that legions of folks are always trying to figure out how to put Willie’s mug on whatever they are peddling, and Willie, always willing to be gracious, concedes.

So my question is, is Willie Nelson’s pot identity fair to his overall legacy? Is he becoming a pot punchline? Or am I higher than a Georgia pine?


28 Comments to “Is Willie Nelson Becoming a Pot Punchline?”

  • I’ve had many of the same thoughts, Trigger Man. I’ve also begun to feel that his very love of music has cost him some. Willie will duet with just about anybody…work with just about anybody…on just about anything. God bless him for his willingness to help out other folks…but sometimes a thoughtful “no” is better than an all-willing “yes”.

    I do think at this late stage in his career, though, the pot thing is trumping the music and advocacy. Which is a shame. Brother Willie ought to be truly recognized – like, Nobel Prize level recognition – for his tireless work.

    Thanks for the post. Good stuff here.

  • Wait……what were we talking about?!

  • Willie had a cameo in some Christmas special my Mom was watching a couple years back, and I remember thinking the same thing then. I’d forgotten all about it until I saw this article. It really would be a shame if that over-shadowed Willie’s true legacy, but I have a feeling the important stuff will stand the test of time. I hope so anyway! Good article.

  • Willie is Willie. He won’t let the bastards get him down so fuck it. It brings younger people into his music. Honestly when you were a teen what did you look for? The straight laced Christian Rock or the guy who bucked the system. Think about it…

  • You’re probably right that, at the current moment in pop culture, Willie is probably more associated with pot than his musical legacy. However, I think that you are seriously underestimating his amazing catalog of music if you think that is what he’ll be remembered for.

    • I’m not sure I’m underestimating his amazing catalog. I’m more making sure that amazing catalog and everything that goes into the Willie Nelson legacy is not forgotten in a pop culture-driven world.

  • Seems to me that the pop culture world is an amorphous mass of people who don’t really care about or understand music. They flock to mediocrity and vanilla, as long as it has a hook. These are the folks who pump up album sales for Justin Bieber, Gaga, K. Urban, Swift, etc. They actually care about chicks named Kardashian and wonder what Paris Hilton is doing these days (or used to, anyway). They have nothing to do with the legacy of music, its greatness. They have no effect on music or artists after about 16 weeks on a chart.

    But there is a much smaller group of people to whom music is important, vital and sustaining. These people recognize names like Nina Simone/Charlie Parker or Bob Wills/the Carter Family or Townes Van Zandt. To these people, Willie will always be legendary and iconic. These folks will know that he penned Crazy for Patsy Cline. They’ll know that him and Waylon brought the Outlaw sound to millions and cracked open the wall-of-sound that locked in Nashville. These are the people who will remember and revere Willie. To them, the pot thing will just be one more amusing facet of a man who lives life at 110 percent.

  • I think Willie became a punchline years and years ago when his pot use became more publicized, along with his tax problems. But think about who he is a punchline with….as in, who remembers him for those kinds of things. Anybody who has really, really listened to Willie knows he is one of the best damn singers, guitar players, and songwriters to ever walk this earth. He will always be a novelty to a lot of people for his pot use and for On the Road Again. But among real music fans, he’ll be remembered for his music. While I haven’t cared for some of his more recent stuff, it doesn’t make me love him any less. Phases and Stages, Shotgun Willie, and Red Headed Stranger are still in my top twenty country albums ever. Willie is one of the few that has truly earned a pass.

  • I think sadly he will always be known for pot number 1.

    It may be a really dumb comparison for a country music blog,but look at Dennis Rodman.He just got inducted in the NBA HOF and the things everyone will think about first are kicking the shit out of a camera man,dyed hair,marrying himself and wearing whatever the hell he was wearing on the cover of SI.THEN maybe they will remember 5 rings and oh yeah, he is the all time rebound leader with guys like Kareem Abdul Jabar and Wilt Chamberlin (who were way taller and played longer) behind him on the list.

    I think it’s the same with Willie only with weed!

    • Not to be an a-hole but Rodman is like 17th or 18th on the all time rebound list. Kareem and Wilt are way ahead of him. Not to mention Barkley,Malone, Parrish, and like 15 others. Sorry I know this isnt a NBA site but I do love my NBA but I get what your saying.

      • Okay,I screwed that one up I guess.Maybe it was number 1 at most consective games at 20 rebounds or something.Or maybe #1 at being the suspended the most..Hell I’m just gonna shut up

        • Hahaha, you made a valid point though.

  • Willie has used pot to stay mainstream in pop culture. Be it High Times magazine, he’s been on Jackass, was in Half Baked, now he’s done 2 songs with Snoop Dog (hello Jason Aldean haters). Anyway a young kid probably knows Willie Nelson but would have no clue who Ray Price,Mel Tillis or singers who are still alive from his era. Even with all his weird collabs, old Willie fans like me could never turn their back on him, and he gains young fans due to his pot use then they might find his music. Cant fault a man for making a living, plus its no put on, he does love his pot.

  • There are always iconic musicians who are seen by most people as an image instead of an artist. Look at Elvis for probably the best example. To some, he was the guy who started it all. To guys like Chuck D, he was a thief of black culture. To others, he was the middle aged fat guy who died in his bathroom after wasting his talents in Hollywood and Vegas. And then there are those who can simply listen to his music and see it for what it is: some of the greatest rock, country, R&B, and gospel of the 20th century.

    I could go on. To most of the public, Dolly Parton isn’t the lady who recorded “Coat of Many Colors” or sang with Porter Wagoner. She’s the chick with big tits. Ozzy Osbourne isn’t the guy who led the world’s greatest metal band for 10 years. He’s the dude who bit the head off of a bat and got his own reality show.

    Maybe this has happened with Willie. I don’t know. But if it has, there’s not much we can do about it really. I guess we should be happy that the longer his image is out there, the longer his music stays in the public eye.

    • Well put, its clear you are a music fan like me, gotta know music to talk music.

    • Gosh, I’d never thought of it like that Adam. Those associations are spot on: attaining a level of fame and celebrity that these people become caricatures of themselves.

    • Well put man. I think people who don’t know music will always see people for something they did not to do with music. MTV focuses on shit like that. And then you have pop stars who pull shit just to get that attention by the pop culture zombies. As for the ozzy thing you my friend are a smart man Ozzy and Sabbath were one of the greatest bands alive but unless you know music or a fan of good metal you’d see him as the drug addict who eats bats. A little of topic but I think country could learn a lot from metal.

  • Willie is the Paul Erdős of music.

  • […] Country Music asks if Willie Nelson’s legacy as an artist is being overshadowed by his well-known and often joked about affinity for […]

  • I’ve always felt that Willie doesn’t “actively manage” his legacy like some guys do. He seems to decide what to do based on how much he will enjoy it. I might not agree with all of his decisions, but you can’t much disagree with that decision making process.

    Also if his legacy is that of a champion to end marijuana prohibition, is that such a bad thing? Seems a value judgement to try to rank that against FarmAid and artistic legacy.

    • No, if Willie helped end marijuana prohibition, and he has jeopardized his own freedom for that cause, then this would be a great thing. But I’m concerned this is even overshadowed by the jokes centered around his use.

  • Willie is Willie. This concern that the “masses” are putting his legacy on pot vs. his music is a stretch. “Masses” ??? What the small group that doesn’t look beyond their nose. Maybe 20 million people would say Willie is all pot. So that leaves about 250million that think different. Maybe they think of him as music, or they don’t know him at all.

    To much credit and power given to the “mainstream”.

    Besides, in some eyes Willie is “taking a stand” on somethings. When he might just not be making a very good decision. Hell even Waylon joked that Willie would ask him to go into business and Waylon would say “hell no, Willie is a crook.”

    Fact is Willie smokes pot. That is going to bring some good and bad with it. He excepts it.

  • If people remember Willie Nelson for weed instead of his achievements, do you think it really matters what those people think? People remember Kurt Cobain as a genus and he had a bigger appetite for harder drugs, and ended up shooting himself in the face because of them. If they remember Willie Nelson, who is a better songwritter, better singer, I’d say he is a better guitarest, and who has done more to improve music, for drugs and remember Kurt Cobain for musical genus, then they are stupid. We already know what Willie Nelson has done and more importantly, he has already done it, so why does it matter if stupid people remember. If Willie Nelson isn’t worry about his legacy, then who should?

  • Let’s not forget Willie Nelson is a unique guitar-picker. No one picks like Willie, and you can try, but you’ll fail miserably. He plays it like he feels it, and maybe sometimes it doesn’tcome out right. He won’t care. He is Willie.
    I love Red Headed Stranger, I love the stuff he did with Snoop Dogg, and there’s a lot of Willie that I really don’t want to listen to, but there’s more than enough to make him legend.
    The fact that there’s so much talk about the pot, to me that’s a definition of Small-mind, USA. It’s a Dutch guy writing, and I only have to walk one block to buy up to 5 grams of weed, legally. There’s even taxes being paid by the coffeeshops that sell it. Local governments decide how many permissions they give. And it works, for, I would say 75 %.Of course there are some problems, but there are many many happy users, who cause a hell of a lot less problems than the drinkers.
    And here, drug-abuse becomes an issue when the artist screws up, like most recently Amy Whinehouse. But I think you have a mountain to climb in yhe USA before politicians start realising that legalisation of marijuana isn’t such a bad idea.
    Until then, Willie has to make sure to avoid unnecessary arrests, and the rest of the world really should think: Hey man, it’s Willie Nelson, so he smokes pot, but so what? He wrote “Crazy”…. Need I say more?

  • Mood enhancers come in different forms. Willie smokes a plant that grows naturally in the ground. Some people take Prozac, Zoloft and Buspar. Some people drown in their sorrows. Some people have anger issues. And some people smoke pot. Doesn’t make you a criminal and I have serious issues about cigarrettes and alcohol, which are legal, being better for your well being. I believe you don’t NEED anything to get you through, you CHOOSE things to numb the pain.

    I’ve even thought about becoming a distributer of medicinal marijuana. It’s not much worse than popping xanax, valium and lortabs, in my opinion, and if it’s wrong, then I don’t understand why. Great blog, Triggerman. And btw, I really enjoyed #19.

  • let me preface my comments by saying i love & respect willie to death, he was my 2nd concert i ever saw in ’78 and have seen him many times since (tho not since about ’08).

    That said, I think T-man is correct somewhat, not just for the weed but for the shows he puts on anymore. A willie & family show anymore is kinda depressing/diappointing; Paul is not there a lot, willie & paula are about the only original members, and the songs themselves most of the time dissolve into a slop of multiple songs stretched into an endless medley (think David Allan Coe nowadays, only not as bad). Only when you see him with other musicians that he feels he has to take off the auto-pilot for and actually dig down into it( I.E. Ray Benson/Wynton/Merle & Ray) does he come out of the blaise, stoned grampa mode at his own shows. He’s sort of, in my mind, at the point Buck Owens went thru, when people knew him as the hick host of Hee Haw rather than groundbreaking country icon he was. I wish he’d either step up his game, maybe by not doing 200 shows a year at 78 yrs old and wearing himself down, or maybe do solo shows, just him & Trigger. Like Neil Young does; i think just willie/guitar and a stool would be a KILLER show…but will probably never happen as he’s to indebted to his “family” and their employment and him as the cash cow….sort of like Jerry was w/the Dead don’tcha think?

    • Man I just saw Willie earlier this month. Paul English, Bee Spears, Mickey Raphael, and even Bobbie played on a few songs. Sure Willie’s past his prime, but he tore it up the night I saw him. I think the fact he still tours steadily is part of what makes him badass, because it’s what he loves. Anyone who’s read his auto-biography knows that Willie lives to play music on the road. There are legends out there who should stop touring because they’re damaging their legacy. Not so with Willie.

  • I actually like “never smoke weed with willie again”. Its a great campfire song.

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