A group of performers stand on a stage around Willie Nelson, wearing a black cowboy hat and holding a guitar in front of a microphone

Willie, Lucas, and Mickey, Farm Aid Benefit – Luck, Texas, March 14, 2018 by Bill Wittliff. Courtesy The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

Be Like Willie! That’s my idea for a bumper sticker I’d like to see on every car in Texas. If you’d like to be a little more loving, generous, funny, and positive, check out Willie Nelson’s Letters to America, my latest project with your friend and mine.

Our new book, a collection of Willie’s letters to his friends, family, and heroes past and present, comes out tomorrow, June 29, just in time to light up the Fourth of July. The letters are rounded out by narrative segments filled with a few laughs and a lot of heart, which arc from Willie’s childhood in Abbott to his status as an American icon. It’s a fun read that may inspire you to want to be more like Willie yourself.

Color photo of old man in cowboy hat

Willie Nelson’s Letters to America, with Turk Pipkin, is available June 29. Courtesy Harper Horizon Books.

We all know how difficult this past year has been. That could have been even more of a challenge for an octogenarian who lives and breaths to be on the road again. But unwilling to risk any of his audience members getting sick on his count, Willie committed early to staying home, which gave him time for a new creative endeavor. I knew he’d long been a believer in the old-fashioned tradition of letter-writing, so just weeks into the “pandangit,” we teamed on a book with the strategy of a remote collaboration by text, email, and phone.

When I say we wrote by text, I mean that literally—by long exchanges of random thoughts, great song lyrics, bad jokes, and idle inspiration that we shot back and forth at all hours. Willie’s letters to family and friends were a natural, but others arose from conversations we’ve had over the years. I knew Willie listened to old Will Rogers radio shows as a kid, so it didn’t seem so crazy to write “Dear Will Rogers,” a letter to Will Rogers in heaven.

I also felt a Willie letter to Texas would be perfect. Our text exchanges on that one, “Dear Texas,” included a lot of love for the Lone Star State, some of which ended up in an intro to the letter. “You can always tell a Texan,” Willie told me late one night. “But you can’t tell him much.”

Dear Texas,

You and me have been together for a mighty long time. We first teamed up when Doc Sims helped deliver me in Mama and Daddy’s house in Abbott. I learned to sing in your churches, in your fields, and in the late-night honky-tonks of small towns. Sons of Texas, like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and Ernest Tubb, with his songs of heartbreak and loss, also helped make me who I am. Wherever I go, I still carry that music with me.

Wherever I go, I feel your rivers flowing through my heart. And when we’re apart, I miss your wide-open sky. When we’re together, I like to walk in your rain and let your thunder fill my soul. After the rain, I listen to the songs of your mockingbirds, and I sing with them—the music of Texas.

For the past fifty years, no man has ever felt more welcome in his home state than I have in Texas. When fools started disrespecting you by throwing litter along your highways, I got the chance to tell them, “Don’t Mess with Texas.” And it worked, as the litter on our roadsides gave way once again to fields of blooming bluebonnets.

In Texas, I wrote countless songs and recorded dozens of albums that carried my music far around the world. I’ve never given up my love of playing to audiences wherever they want to hear my show, but it doesn’t take me long to start hankering for home.

When I’m on the road, I think of getting back to my Hill Country home in Luck, Texas. When I’m in Luck, I saddle a horse and take a ride while I wait for your beautiful sunset. Soon the sky grows dark, and the stars shine bright as I sing you a song. It’s the least I can do.

Your native son from Hill County,

Willie Nelson

Taken from Willie Nelson’s Letters to America by Willie Nelson with Turk Pipkin Copyright © 2021 by Willie Nelson. Used by permission of Harper Horizon.

Our method may sound crazy, but Willie and his songwriting partner Buddy Cannon have written multiple award-winning albums of songs in similar fashion. And let’s face it, when Willie calls or texts, it’s the best part of just about any day.

Willie and I have been friends for 40 years. We’ve played a lot of golf and chess, made a number of movies and television specials together, and co-authored a previous book, The Tao of Willie. I also profiled him for Texas Highways in 2019. But the only time we saw each other on this venture is when we exchanged greetings and our final manuscripts from car window to car window, literally shooting the breeze in the parking lot of an Austin Target store.

From his opening letter, “Dear Mama and Daddy” (a heartfelt appreciation he’d waited a long time to write), to “Dear God” (“Oh Dear God, I hope you have a sense of humor”), to “Dear Road” (the friend who’s always been true), Willie’s letters were a wonderful way for him to express what is in his heart and on his mind.

A lot of good things have happened in my life when I’ve listened to Willie’s music and to his wisdom. My wife and I founded an education nonprofit, The Nobelity Project, which works in Africa, Latin America, and here at home in Texas. Willie has been a key supporter of our work and a great guiding light. In my documentary film One Peace at a Time, in which I interviewed Nobel Laureates, I asked Willie, a special guest, about how he chooses his path in life. “Right and wrong is not that hard,” he told me. “You know what to do. The question is what you choose to do.”

Whether on the golf course, at a poker table, or just on the phone, time with Willie is always an opportunity to learn. I learned from this book that we could all be happier and more productive human beings if we commit to letting love be the guiding force in our lives. I repeat: Be like Willie.

The July 2021 cover of Texas Highways Magazine, "Hill Country Oasis"


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