It’s Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Bash, and You’re Invited

As his all-star Hollywood Bowl birthday concert movie hits screens, the American musical legend tells AARP why he loves his work, his tour bus, and martial arts

Willie Nelson turned 90 on April 29, but don’t expect to find him partying with friends and family at his ranch in Spicewood, Texas. Where will he be? On the road again.

The outlaw country legend had plenty of help blowing out all those candles when he celebrated during a tour stop at the Hollywood Bowl for Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90, a pair of all-star concerts April 29 and 30. The filmed show premieres in theaters nationwide June 11, with encore presentations June 13 and 14. He was joined by a slew of disciples, including Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow, 61, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Beck, 52, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg, 51, the Avett Brothers, the Chicks, Tom Jones, 82, Ziggy Marley, 54, and many more.

Some of them, as well as John Fogerty, 78, Robert Plant, 74, and Alison Krauss, 51, the Grateful Dead’s Bobby Weir, 75, Los Lobos, Kathleen Edwards and Nathaniel Rateliff, are on the marquees of Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival Tour, June 23-Oct. 15.

Nelson, also an activist, author and actor, released his first single in 1957 and is more prolific now than ever, with 28 studio albums since 2000. The newest, I Don’t Know A Thing About Love, pays tribute to friend and songwriter Harlan Howard, who died in 2002. By some counts, it’s Nelson’s 150th album. He admits he can’t name them all.

AARP caught up with the American legend just before his 90th birthday victory lap at the Hollywood Bowl.

Why work on your 90th birthday instead of taking the day off?

Working is really good for me, no matter what kind of show it is. The fact that I’ll be there for two days with a lot of my good friends coming out and saying hello and singing with me makes it a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.

How do you feel about turning 90?

Norman Lear, a good friend of mine, turned 100 not long ago, and I told him, “I’ve been telling everybody it’s just a number. Am I right?” And he said, “Yeah, it’s just a number.”

Why did you want to honor Harlan Howard with an album of his songs?

We spent a lot of time in Nashville hanging out, writing together. He was a fantastic writer and a great friend. I went for the songs I really, really liked. “Life Turned Her That Way” is one of the best songs I ever heard.

Howard famously said, “Country music ain’t nothin’ but three chords and the truth.” Do you agree with that?

You might add another chord or two, but basically he’s right.

Country is your first love, but you’ve also shown an appreciation for standards, gospel and other genres. Is there a branch you don’t care for?

It’s all good. I grew up listening to all kinds of music from Hank Williams to “Moonlight in Vermont.” I love every kind of music I’ve ever heard.

You’re also receiving the LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award. You’ve amassed a warehouse of honors over your career. Do some matter more than others?

I appreciate them all, especially anything that has to do with music. The other things too. We’ve been doing Farm Aid for a long time, and people realize how that has helped a lot of farmers around the country. I worked farms in my early life, so I know how rough it is to make a living that way.

Aging takes a toll on vocal cords. How do you keep your voice in shape?

I think singing is good for my voice. I don’t do anything to harm it much anymore. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

You have a lot of self-defense training, including a 5th degree black belt in GongKwon Yusul. What attracted you to martial arts?

I grew up in Abbott, Texas, where we didn’t have much except comic books. We had Charles Atlas and Bruce Lee, judo and jujitsu. Excuse my language, but in Abbott, we had a saying that all we do down there is fight, [expletive] and throw rocks. I grew up fighting one thing or another. I’d go out on Sundays and fight bumblebees and come home with my eyes swollen shut and tell everyone how much fun I had.

Did you ever rely on martial arts skills to defend yourself?

Mainly it gives you enough confidence where you don’t have to jump out there and get into trouble. If they bring it to you, you feel confident you can handle it. It’s not anything I worry about, because I’m not really afraid of it. I don’t really think I’m afraid of anything.

You’re essentially the patriarch of potheads, and now you have two cannabis brands, Willie’s Reserve (THC products) and Willie’s Remedy (hemp-based wellness products). Are you happy with the pace of legalization?

I think it’s great. I believe there’s a positive use for it. Physicians now tell you the pros and cons of smoking anything. Any kind of smoke I don’t think is good for your lungs. You have to just be careful.

Do you still smoke, and how has pot improved your life?

I don’t smoke as much as I used to. Every now and then, I’ll take a hit. I’ll still do a couple edibles. It has a positive effect with me. I’m one of those redheaded kids with a high temper. I feel like it calms me down a little bit.

How is Trigger (the battered Martin N-20 acoustic guitar you’ve played since 1969), and have you thought about leaving it to a museum, or would you rather be buried with it?

Trigger has a life and a personality all his own. Whenever I die, I’ll let somebody else decide what Trigger does. He should be somewhere where he’s appreciated.

You played more guitar than usual on the new album.

Yeah, I love to play. It’s good for me. But I just did a bluegrass album with a lot of great bluegrass musicians, and I didn’t play Trigger at all. It’s the first album ever that I didn’t play Trigger since I’ve had him.

You’ve written hundreds of songs, including classics like “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Hello Walls” and “On the Road Again.” Is it getting harder to come up with ideas?

Now and then, I’ll come up with another song. When I have enough, I’ll put an album out. I don’t try to push it. I think I’ve been kind of lucky through the years. I just wait and let it happen. I might go a while without writing. I used to worry about it. Roger Miller told me, “Every now and then, the well goes dry. You have to live a while to refill the well.”

Have you considered retiring from the road?

Jokingly, I retire after every tour. But I’m always ready to go back again. I like the bus. I have everything I need on the bus. I never have to go into a hotel room anywhere. It’s not that bad.

After three divorces, you married a fourth time in 1991. How do you explain the success and longevity of your marriage to Annie (D’Angelo)?

We agree on a lot of things. She has been a great friend over the years. She’s a great mother. She’s just a very sharp individual, and I just feel very lucky to have her.

Describe a good day off.

I’m right outside of Austin, on top of a hill. I got a few horses, great scenery. I have an old truck I like to drive around. There are other great places in the world, but Texas is my place.