Country musician Willie Nelson talks pandemic, activism at SXSW 2021

Morgan-Taylor Thomas

After missing his 10:30 a.m. speech at South by Southwest in 1992 due to performing at a concert the night before, Willie Nelson made his first keynote debut at the 2021 online festival Wednesday.  

In conversation with Texas Monthly writer Andy Langer, Nelson discussed everything from being a musician trapped in a pandemic to life as an activist and even Willie’s Reserve, his chain store of marijuana paraphernalia. 

As someone who thrives on movement, the multiple award-winning country star said living through the pandemic has been hard for him. He said he even sits in his parked tour bus just to feel something. However, he said he knows it has been harder for his fans.

“They come a long way and pay some money to hear somebody get up there and sing so they can sing along, clap their hands and enjoy the music and be a part of it.” Nelson said. “I think they’re missing it, also.”

When Langer, the Austin City Limits radio host, asked about pandemic silver linings, Nelson was quick to appreciate his ranch house, admitting he hasn’t faced some of the struggles others have. Nevertheless, in true Nelson family fashion, the braided-pigtailed man said the group hasn’t stopped making music.

“Me and all the kids got together, and it started out being a gospel album, but when we added this (family) song, that’s when we decided to call it a family album,” Nelson said. “We got sister Bobby in there to play piano, and it really was a lot of fun to do.”

Family and music have always been the backbone of life for the Red Headed Stranger. Raised by his grandparents (but mostly his sister Bobby), Nelson said coming from a “busted” family, he learned the value of family at an early age.  

As a father, Willie instilled in his children the importance of work ethic, fighting for what they believe in and a sense of capability to change the world, all of which he said are his proudest accomplishments as a father. 

“I think it's very important that people have something they believe in, live for, argue about, fight for,” Nelson said. “It's important to have those valuable things to keep you going, and I'm proud of my (kids). Everybody in the family is tough as nails, and they've come up the hard way, but they've become good human beings.” 

An activist himself, the singer-songwriter has played a pivotal role in many political and social issues. In 1985, along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson founded Farm Aid, a nonprofit organization focused on keeping family farmers on the land, according to their website

Nelson told Langer after 35 years of Farm Aid, there is still a lot of work to be done, but he thinks the country has started to recognize the importance of local farming.

“People are realizing that, wait a minute, we got to take care of the small family farmer,” Nelson said. “We got to quit buying our groceries and our breakfast from 1,500 miles away when there's a farmer out over there that can grow it for you every day and bring it to the farm-to-market.”

Another passion of Nelson’s is the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. Willie's Reserve is built on the four principles of personal freedom, medical advocacy, social justice and sustainability. Nelson said a lot of progress has been made since the first time he got busted for marijuana possession in 1974. He said he hopes to see the trend continue. 

The legend ended his keynote speech by emphasizing his hopes of performing in a post-pandemic world, where he can once again end his shows by going to the lip of the stage and shaking hands with fans and signing autographs. 

“I don't want to do a show anywhere, anytime, where there's a danger of somebody getting sick,” Nelson said. “But I miss it.”