Kinky Friedman on writing memoirs with Willie Nelson

Kinky Friedman and Willie Nelson. ()
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Jed Lipinski

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According to a profile in last week's New York Times Magazine, Neil Young curtailed his copious marijuana intake in order to write his newly released memoir, Waging Heavy Peace.

It's hard to imagine Willie Nelson, who recently confessed to hanging out with Snoop Dogg in Amsterdam, adhering to the same regimen while composing his own new memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From The Road, the existence of which was officially announced yesterday.

The book, scheduled for release on Nov. 13 through William Morrow, looks like a light nostalgia-soaked tour through the septuagenarian country legend’s life and times. Subjects under discussion range from Nelson’s views on politics and poker to reminiscences of bandmates and close friends, like Dan “Bee” Spears and Randall “Poodie” Locke, both of whom died in the last year. Willie’s son, the artist Micah Nelson, provides surrealist artwork, and family photos are sprinkled throughout.

At just 192 pages, Roll Me Up is a slimmer project than Young’s, which comes in at a door-stopping 512. Written with country singer, novelist and all-around Texas renaissance man Kinky Friedman, the book also marks the latest in a string of co-authored autobiographical books for Nelson, including 2003’s The Facts of Life: and Other Dirty Jokes (written with novelist Larry McMurtry) and 2007’s The Tao of Willie: A Guide to Happiness in Your Heart (written with the writer/performer Turk Pipkin).

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Curious how one writes a book with Willie Nelson, I spoke with Friedman over the phone at the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, a “never kill” sanctuary he founded in Medina, Tex.

What was your role in co-writing this book with Willie?

I just made sure it all rolled along. If Willie is really productive and creative, like he was this time, then it’s all good. If Willie disappears or decides he doesn’t want to do it, then I’m on the hook. I recently wrote a book with Billy Bob Thornton called The Billy Bob Tapes, which came out 4 or 5 months ago. Billy wound up doing it almost entirely by himself. He recorded it, and I helped guide it. I liked the way he did it, in that he had the word “fucking” in just about every sentence. Of course, editors and lawyers and agents sanitized it, and in doing so they homogenized it and trivialized it. But it’s still a very thoughtful book.

Did Willie write most of this one, too?

Willie wrote voluminously. And he got mad because I wasn’t. If I wrote 20,000 words, he wrote 27,000. It was like Tom Sawyer painting the fence.

Were you two traveling together on tour?

I’d travel on the bus with him. It was a rough time in a lot of ways, with the death of Bee Spears and Poodie, his stage manager who really embodied the spirit of whatever Willie Nelson represents. Here these younger guys are dying when everybody’s expecting Willie to die. But he’s still kicking strong.

How much does the book cover that hasn’t been covered before?

Well, writing about Willie is like writing about Jesus or Moses: You don’t want all the Biblical commentary because everybody already knows it. This book is postcards from the road. It’s Willie talking right to you. Willie writes obliquely, like Bill Clinton with the Democratic convention speech. Not once in that four and half hour speech did Bill mention that he was raised in poverty by a single mother in the south. Willie’s not trying to paint his masterpiece. The guy who sets out to do so never does. He has an artistic vision for just about everything. As Tom Waits said: How you do anything is how you do everything.

How concerned was Willie about maintaining control of the voice and the final product?

Things got a bit acrimonious now and then. At one point I said: “We gotta get this to the editor!” And Willie said: “What editor? We’re the editor. If you wrote a song, would you send it to me to edit it? I might have a suggestion, but that’d be it. I’m not going to edit your song.”

What would you say the—

The point is: The first half of Willie’s life, people were telling him what to do and how to do it, like Chet Atkins at the record company. They were convinced the guy couldn’t sing. He was a songwriter, they said, not a singer. But those same people that couldn’t hear the biggest single of the year: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Red-headed Stranger didn’t catch on until it got to the D.J. level. Too many told him, “Do wear a turtleneck,” “Don’t wear a turtleneck.” That’s where the “outlaw” Willie came from. He wasn’t going to let the record companies hand-pick the songs, the musicians, the clothing anymore. That spirit lives on in this book.

How long have you guys known each other?

I‘ve known him since Christ was a cowboy. I say we met on the gangplank of Noah’s Ark. But honestly, I don’t remember how or when I met anybody.

Neil Young stopped smoking pot for his book. I can’t imagine Willie did.

You can pretty well bet your ass he did not. In this book we really wanted to get a glimpse of who Willie is. I’ve traveled with Bob Dylan as well as Willie. With Willie, everybody thinks they’re his friend, which they are. Garbage collectors, doormen: they all approach and say hello. With Bob, no one approaches. There’s a certain distance there. But my hats off to both of them for just being out there.

Has Willie Nelson given you any advice that sticks with you?

Before I ran for governor of Texas in 2005, Willie told me: “If you’re going to have sex with an animal, always make it a horse. That way, if it doesn’t work out, you’ll always have a ride home.” That has served me very well in politics and in life.