At 89, Willie Nelson is already entrenched as an American music icon. Just last week, he was revealed as a nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, before winning his 11th Grammy this past Sunday for “Live Forever,” his tribute album to his good friend, the late singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver.
But on Sunday, he finds himself again near the center of the television universe. Nelson stars in a Super Bowl commercial for the second straight year, alongside another old pal, Snoop Dogg, and Martha Stewart, in a spot for BIC’s new EZ Reach lighters. Snoop and Willie starring in a wink-wink lighter commercial on the biggest broadcast stage isn’t much of a stretch for the two old friends who have recorded songs together for each other’s albums, including the most notable, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
“It’s been a lot of fun, naturally,” Nelson told ESPN this week. “… it’s always fun hanging out with him. We did a song one time: ‘I’ve had all my medication, it’s half past 10. We’re just sitting around waiting for something to kick in.'”
And yet, that image of the long-haired, pot-smoking hippie might not seem a natural fit with football. But true to his Texas roots, football has been a major part of his life as well, beginning with playing in his hometown of Abbott in Central Texas.
“I played a lot of football for the Abbott Panthers,” Nelson said. “I had a little ol’ thin helmet on. It was like wearing a sock on my head and we played on a bunch of rocks out there. So I’m surprised I made it through the game.”
While he never played beyond high school, Nelson would end up making a huge impact on the Texas Longhorns, becoming one of legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal’s closest friends.
Royal, the straight-laced football coach who ran a tight ship of clean-cut players, raised plenty of eyebrows around UT due to his close friendship with Nelson, the outlaw country pioneer. Yet the two were nearly inseparable. Nelson played concerts for Longhorn players before the 1969, 1970 and 1971 Cotton Bowls.
The two had met in the 1950s, when Nelson was a bit player in lineups that would play in Austin. Royal, who grew up in the Great Depression in Oklahoma, was a devoted fan of heartbreak songs, appreciated good lyrics, and was drawn to Nelson’s songwriting. Their friendship really evolved after Nelson moved back to Austin in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, Nelson became one of Earl Campbell’s best friends when the legendary Heisman trophy-winning running back starred for the Longhorns and then the Houston Oilers.
“I followed him around and we hung out together a lot,” Nelson said. “He was a great player and became a good friend of mine.”
Royal was famous for holding “pickin’ parties” in his hotel suites, at the Villa Capri in Austin, or in his rooms on the road. Royal would turn on a lamp, and everyone in the suite would have to sit silently and listen to the songs, or would face Royal’s wrath.
Royal and Nelson are due a great deal of credit for establishing Austin as a music stronghold, with Royal legitimizing Nelson with the more conservative football crowds and Nelson bringing people of all types together, like at the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972.
“When I walked into the Armadillo for Willie’s first show, I was stunned,” Eddie Wilson, the storied venue’s owner, told Texas Monthly. “All our hippies were there, but the walls were lined with UT football players.”
Royal and Nelson became family. Nelson sang “Healing Hands of Time” for Royal and his wife, Edith, after the deaths of two of their children nine years apart. He would visit Royal’s assisted living facility and sing gospel songs for him when he was wracked with Alzheimer’s. When the coach died in 2013, Nelson performed “Healing Hands” one more time at his funeral.
“It was all for the coach,” Nelson said with reverence toward his late friend this week.
Nelson keeps on going, bearing down on his 90th birthday while still touring frequently, because he can’t stop working. Or competing. After growing up playing every sport he could, he became a black belt in multiple forms of martial arts, including becoming a fifth-degree black belt in Korean mixed martial arts.
Nelson is still a big football fan, and is looking forward to Sunday’s game and his surreal commercial. But while the phrase “Willie Nelson’s Super Bowl Party” might conjure up wild images, he said he really just is more likely to be hanging out with his wife watching the game.
“It’s just me and Annie, sitting around laughing a lot,” he said.
After that, he’s back at it, with a milestone. He has made 150 albums with another due out in early March.
On April 29-30, he’ll mark his birthday with a party at the Hollywood Bowl, with an absolutely loaded lineup, including Chris Stapleton, Kasey Musgraves, Neil Young, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Tom Jones, the Avett Brothers and more.
And of course, Snoop will be there. It’ll be a massive celebration with an eclectic lineup fitting of a man who has brought people together for nearly a century.
“I don’t see any reason to ever quit,” Nelson said. “I quit after every tour. And then I retire a while then say, ‘OK, let’s go do it again.’ I’ve come out of retirement about 100 times.”