Willie Nelson, America’s Voice in the wake of 9-11

Ten years later – here’s the third of my Slate.com diaries written in the wake of 9-11. I’m don’t have any vintage photos to post with this one because I’m on the Texas-Mexico border this evening with Joe Klein from Time Magazine and, ironically, the great photographer Lynsey Addario who was tough enough to endure her kidnapping in Libya earlier this year and continues to be one of America’s greatest news photographers. All three of us spent much of the decade since 9-11 filming, shooting photos and writing in a lot of crazy places around the world, and each of our journeys seemed to have been launched by the incredible tragedy of 9-11 and by America’s response to the attack on The World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Like the rest of America and the world, there’s no going back to who we were before. We can’t undo the falling of the towers or the growing tragedies of the Iraqi and Afghan War, but we’re still searching for the best way ahead through the stories we tell in words and pictures. Much of the diary below is about Willie Nelson and a voice that continues to fill a need in so many people. Willie’s still out there doing what he does. The rest of us can only follow his example to the best of our abilities. One happy note – the diary mentions our upcoming American Masters film on Willie which later premiered to great acclaim and was rewarded with an Emmy Award for the best non-fiction series.  Thanks for all the music, Willie. We still love you; still need you.

So here’s my Slate Diary #3 – in the wake of 9-11

Slate.com Diary by Turk Pipkin

This has turned into the right week to be buried under a tall pile of work. When I’m talking on the phone about one project or another, I’m not watching my country edging toward a growing anthrax panic, our national consciousness flinching as we wonder where and how terrorism will strike next.

This afternoon, I tried to sit down to some serious writing, but the words wouldn’t come, so I decided to call someone I knew could lift my spirits. Most of us have that one person who can reliably bring you up. It may be your mother or your brother, your new best friend or a pal from long ago, but the bottom line is, you hear that voice and the world suddenly looks better. Or it may turn out thatthey need their spirit lifted, and the job of strength falls upon you. Not quite the same, but you do learn that perhaps you had it better than you knew. I’d been saving that phone call, and the time had come.

Willie Nelson and I have been occasional golf buddies for 20 years. I’ve written a few things for him and about him, but mostly we just like to shoot the shit. Lately he’s been fighting a nagging case of pneumonia but is still playing his gigs, so I called him on the bus that he calls home for a couple of hundred days a year. For a long time, when I called the bus I’d ask where he was. He’d look out the window at the passing countryside and say, “I see some fields,” or “Looks like America to me.”

So I already knew where he was, he was at home in America.

“Mr. Nelson, Mr. Pipkin,” I said.

“Hey!” he said, his mellifluous tone rolling back at me, strong enough for me to know he was feeling better. “I enjoyed that magazine story!”

A couple of months ago, we’d spent the day playing golf and chess, shooting pool and listening to his upcoming album The Great Divide, which I think is one of his best. I took notes all day and wrote a story for a new magazine called Fringe Golf. Lemme tell you, writing about your friends is no gimme. Willie’s a better golfer than most people suspect, but I couldn’t resist saying his swing looked like “fly-casting a frozen turkey,” so hearing that he liked the piece was all the lift I needed.

Just hearing his voice sent me back a couple of weeks when I’d watched him on TV singing “America the Beautiful” to close the “Tribute to Heroes” telethon. As Clint Eastwood’s speech morphed into Willie’s first guitar licks, I found myself fighting back my tears. Then Willie got to the line that got to all of us: “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” Like so many Americans, I just let it flow. Willie had given me permission.

Today we had some new business to go over. The Emmy-winning PBS documentary seriesAmerican Masters is producing a two-hour film on Willie. I initially took the project to American Masters, and it’s since taken on a wonderful life of its own. American Masters knows what they’re doing, and New York filmmaker Steve Cantor is directing. That leaves me as a producer whose main job is to make sure everyone’s happy. Willie sounded happy. We talked about filming his upcoming 10k race for Farm Aid in Austin and about the photo Texas Monthly is going to take of Willie and mystery writer Kinky Friedman posed as the farm couple in American Gothic.

“I get to hold the pitchfork; Kinky’s going to wear the dress,” Willie told me. “Kinky’s always been mad he wasn’t born a woman anyway.”

I was still laughing when, as they say in London, we rung off. A smile had found my face, and for the first time all day, I had the general idea that everything was going to be OK.

For the next couple of hours, I managed to put in some good work on a whole string of projects: the still-pending movie of my coming-of-age golf novel, Fast Greens; a first-look at the Web site, turkpipkin.com, that my sister-in-law is putting together, and a magazine pitch about the dam the government of Belize foolishly wants to build on the upper Macal River basin that will destroy much of the breeding grounds of the endangered scarlet macaw and Baird’s tapir. Good news and bad, the world was moving on.

I didn’t even let the round-the-clock anthrax coverage get to me. Not until my wife came in this evening to report why our 10-year-old daughter was so emotional tonight. She’d been having trouble sleeping and finally told her mom that it was because of bad dreams. In her dream, she was at a local market when a man asked if he could sit down with her and her friends.

“What was that chemical that they used to spray on crops that was so poisonous?” my daughter asked.

“DDT,” my wife answered.

“That’s it,” she said. “The man was mentally disturbed, but he looked normal, and he had this big tank of DDT that he started spraying on us.”

Believe me, this is as hard to write as it is to read. The worst part was, in my daughter’s dream, her best friend had died. Not too surprisingly, our girl was scared and sad. I think my wife came up with some pretty good answers for her, but let’s face it, they’re answers to questions we never wanted to hear.

“Sadness is a real emotion in your heart,” Christy told our first-born, “but fear is in your mind. And your mind you can control. If you live in fear that things might happen, it can be as bad as if they really did happen. You have to take strength from what’s real, even when it’s sad.”

When I was 10, my fears were that Communists were going to sweep across America, lock us in our stadiums, and torture us until we thought like they did. In the ensuing years, I somehow came to the conclusion that we’d done a better job in the world since then. But now my daughter is 10, and the world is falling down around her.

“Man has been faced with terrible tragedies and events throughout our history,” my wife reassured her, “and we’ve always come through it.”

“I know that,” our daughter said, “but this is the first time it’s happened to me.

Our daughter is asleep now, her dreams beyond our reach. Tomorrow is another day, more bad news from far away no doubt, more fears from just around the corner, and more phone calls to the people we love.

Stay well and keep singing, Willie; we need you.

– Turk Pipkin


My photos are online at www.turkpipkinphotography.com

Learn about The Nobelity Project’s education work in the U.S. and abroad at www.nobelity.org






Dear Kinky

KinkyLate one night back in the late fall of ‘74, I was sitting with our friend Bill Barvin in the dark and quiet dining room of Austin’s Pearl Street student co-op. It was chilly, and we were drinking tea pretending we didn’t want beer. I don’t remember how you tracked down Bill, but you stopped by. I guess you know we lost Bill to Lou Gehrig’s disease a few years ago. In his last years he was the location manager for the hit TV show, Law and Order. Law and order were not on our minds that night. I miss him terribly. Anyway, you’d been a camp counselor of Bill’s, and there was something on your mind.

You talked about a conversation you had earlier that day with Bob Dylan. This was late in the Austin era of the cosmic cowboy and the outlaw country singer, short-lived movements that, apparently, bored Dylan into Christianity, briefly. But the Michael Murphy-Willis Alan Ramsey-Willie Nelson-Jerry Jeff Walker-B.W. Stevenson moment had done for your career what shaking a Lone Star longneck does for the suds: sent it flying. That day, Dylan told you the movement was a silly pop distraction, and that you ought to run like hell from it.

Continue reading “Dear Kinky”

Right and Wrong Is Not That Hard

It’s Willie Wednesday again at DogCanyon. While ACL Fest goers were slip-sliding away, Willie was joined this weekend at Farm Aid in St. Louis by Neil Young, Dave Matthews, Wilco, Promise of the Real and more. Farm Aid has now raised over $35 million for America’s family farmers, and Willie and his team have been tireless advocates for supporting the families who feed us. You can learn a lot, make a donation and watch a great feed of the show at www.FarmAid.org. As I write this blog, I’m listening to Neil Young sing a gorgeous version of “Sail Away”.

While you’re listening, you can read below about the L.A. Premiere of One Peace at a Time… PLUS… another installment from The Tao of Willie, the book I wrote with Willie that continues to give me a lot of guidance in life.

OnePeaceLAPremiere If you’re in Southern California on Wed, October 21, don’t miss seeing Willie, Steve Chu, Muhammad Yunus, Helene Gayle of CARE and more in the L.A. Premiere of my new feature doc, One Peace at a Time. The film looks at the possibility of providing basic rights – water, nutrition, healthcare, nutrition and a peaceful and sustainable world – to every child. I filmed in 20 countries for almost three years, and despite all the amazing people I spoke with along the way, Willie comes close to stealing the movie in a single game of chess. One thing he said that echoes loudly was about our ability to do the right thing in a world that needs a world of right things.

“We already know what to do,” Willie told me. “Right and wrong is not that hard. It’s what we choose to do.”

Continue reading “Right and Wrong Is Not That Hard”

Willie Wednesday – The Tao of Willie

TurkTao-WillieNobelityloresAfter lots of response to my Willie Nelson post last Wednesday, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the man every Wednesday (as Willie generally does on his XM Radio channel, Willie Wednesday). Might as well start with a bit of the intro to our book The Tao of Willie. So here is a little of what I’ve learned about – and from – Willie.

Willie Nelson is an American icon. His voice as comforting as the American landscape, his songs as familiar as the color of the sky, his face as worn as the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps that’s why we ought to add his face to the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore and be done with it.

He’s called an outlaw, though from Farm Aid to the aftermath of September 11, from the resurrection of a burned-out courthouse in his own hometown to fanning the flame of the Olympics, it is Willie Nelson who brings us together.

“If America could sing with one voice,” said Emmylou Harris, “it would be Willie’s.”

Continue reading “Willie Wednesday – The Tao of Willie”

Bush as Empty Cargo Shorts: How Perfect Is That

Austin, Texas was once a laid-back, creative haven full of college students, hippies, affable red necks and university professors. Even the conservative Democrats in power in the late ’60s and early ’70s went to pot-god Willie Nelson concerts.

George W. and Laura Bush, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzalez, Karen Hughes – these people who held the Texas governor’s mansion from 1994-2000 just aren’t Austin’s idea of hip. So how did they captivate the city just a coupla decades later? Continue reading “Bush as Empty Cargo Shorts: How Perfect Is That”