Willie Nelson's Ten Most Radical Moments

Willie is always shaking things up!
Willie is always shaking things up! Photo by Sayre Berman
Though his famous red braids have faded to gray, at 86 years old Willie Nelson remains one of the United States' most captivating and charismatic pop-culture icons. Born and raised in the heart of conservative Texas, Nelson is a red-blooded American whose interests in being green aren't restricted to his well-known marijuana fixation. He cares about the planet and the lives of those living on it; whatever stereotypes you might have in mind about Texans, country singers, or white old American men, odds are Willie defies them.

The guitar-slinging singer-songwriter will bring his idiosyncratic variety of country music to the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center on Tuesday, February 18. The show promises to be a welcome respite from the worries of the world, especially in a time as tense as ours. But even as he's soothing adoring audiences — be it through good times, bad times, or a particularly momentous U.S. presidential election cycle — making a difference always seems to be on Willie Nelson's mind.

On that note, here are some of the iconic star's most radical moments in a career chockful of them.

Out-of-the-Box Activism

Now, you may not think of Willie Nelson as a guy who has great political sway, but Dave Matthews sure does. In a 2014 Rolling Stone article, the "Ants Marching" singer asserted that Nelson's not a snob about his political beliefs despite his dedication to them. He's not gonna put you to sleep chatting about "the corporate invasion of farming and the poisonous method of modern farming," Matthews said. Nope, he's going to put on a damn good Farm Aid to fight the powers that be.

"He really is revolutionary," Matthews told the magazine. "I think that if we don’t fight for [the United States] the way Willie has spent the majority of his life fighting for it, we’re gonna lose this country to a bunch of money."

Friend to Farmers

As it happens, Matthews is on the board of Farm Aid, the recurring concert series that aims to support family farms. Nelson launched the ongoing benefit show with John Mellencamp and Neil Young on September 22, 1985, in Champaign, Illinois. He continues to headline the event and perform with other country, blues, and rock artists who are committed to helping out the little guy. Many small family farms aren't eligible for those subsidies you hear about in the news. And according to the USDA in 2015, 88 percent of U.S. farms are considered small, but nearly 60 percent of all vegetable and dairy sales come from only 3 percent of large family farms.

Farm Aid is hosting a sweepstakes that offers one fortunate fan the chance to fly to Texas to meet Nelson and attend the music festival he hosts in his backyard, Luck Reunion. All donations benefit Farm Aid. Get on that!

Willie Nelson Fans of the World, Unite!

It's not just farmers: Nelson is a longtime advocate for laborers of all occupations. In 1991, Nelson led a march in Washington, D.C., chanting "United we can do it; proud to be union" to encourage President George H.W. Bush and Congress to pay more attention to domestic issues afflicting the working class. Nelson is himself a member of Austin Local 433. In 2015, he won the Communications Workers of America Gerry Horgan Award for supporting workers' rights and speaking out against union busters at Farm Aid.

Willie Loves County Weirdos

In 1970, Nelson threw in the towel on his career in Nashville and moved back home to Texas. He was having a tough time: He never fit into the Nashville country scene as a performer, despite writing many hits for other artists. To make matters worse, he'd invested his royalties in fruitless tours, was going through a divorce, and his ranch had burned down. (As the story goes, he ran back into the flames to save his stash of weed.)

From those miserable days, Willie came home and changed country music forever simply by being himself. In his first performance at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, he launched a scene of hippies and rednecks that lured other talented musicians who didn't fit the Nashville mold. With the compilation album Wanted! The Outlaws, he, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser popularized their outlaw-country style, giving a newfound voice to a particular sort of country-loving misfit. Wanted! was the first country album to go platinum, and soon enough, the honkytonks of Austin were rocking the country seas with Nelson at the helm.

He's a PBS Viewer Like You

In 1974 Nelson produced and starred in the pilot of PBS's famed musical concert series, Austin City Limits. The following year, he raised money for PBS stations on his tour to promote the program. Austin City Limits is the longest-running musical television program and hosts a major annual festival. Last year, he returned to play ACL — which is known as "the house that Willie built" — kicking off his set with "Whiskey River."

Puff, Puff, Pass It to Willie

Nelson has long promoted the medical benefits of pot. He told Rolling Stone last year that marijuana "saved my life" by keeping him from drinking. Though he no longer smokes pot owing to lung issues, he continues to partake in other ways. He's an advocate for legalization and serves as co-chair of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He even owns his own pot company, Willie's Reserve, which, of course, sells herb from independent growers.

Crazy for Kucinich

Nelson has had a long friendship with ex-Ohio congressman, lefty peacenik, and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, the singer made an appearance and sang his antiwar tune "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?" in support of Kucinich. (He also made time to rally against farm monopolies.) Kucinich and Nelson both spent a substantial portion of the early 2000s speaking out against the United States' unholy crusade for oil in the Middle East.

In 2008, Nelson sued the Texas Democratic Party for removing Kucinich from the ballot in the primaries because he scratched out the loyalty oath in the application that says: “I further swear that I will fully support the Democratic nominee for President, whoever that shall be.” They lost, but their attempt to beat the system was pretty rad. And the pals' fight to take the Democratic Party to task for browbeating its progressive wing has proven eerily prophetic.

Clean Willie, Clean Energy

Nelson and his wife Annie are partners in two biodiesel plants. Nelson also co-founded Willie Nelson Biodiesel, a.k.a. BioWillie, to market this plant-based fuel at truck stops. The Washington Post quoted Nelson saying, "There is really no need going around starting wars over oil. We have it here at home. We have the necessary product, the farmers can grow it." Neither the company nor the biodiesel industry is booming, but Nelson, ever the revolutionary, made a valiant effort.

Campaigning for Change

Last year Willie Nelson made a big splash with some of his fans when he headlined a benefit concert for punk-rock dad and U.S. Representative from El Paso Beto O'Rourke, who was attempting to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Alongside O'Rourke, Nelson performed the song "Vote 'Em Out" — a scathing commentary on the current administration's policy of separating immigrant and refugee families from one another.

On ABC's The View, Nelson said he doesn't care if his political preferences turn off portions of his fanbase. “I’ve been supporting Democrats all my life," he told co-host Joy Behar. Besides Beto and Kucinich, Willie was a fan of President Jimmy Carter and even sang a duet with Rosalynn Carter.

Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy

Nelson also supports the LGBTQ+ community and was one of the first major country stars to release a song exploring queer themes. In 2006 he covered a Ned Sublette song, "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," having been inspired by Brokeback Mountain. Later, he knocked homophobes with "Ain't Goin' Down on Brokeback Mountain." For Willie, being gay is a-OK, and same-sex marriage is nothing worth getting ruffled over.

More power to ya, Willie; keep on fighting the good fight.

Willie Nelson. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 18, at the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; Tickets cost $300.09 to $404.33 via
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Liz Tracy has written for publications such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and, of course, Miami New Times. She was New Times Broward-Palm Beach's music editor for three years. Now she plays one mean monster with her 2-year-old son and obsessively watches British mysteries.
Contact: Liz Tracy