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At 80, Willie Nelson Has 'No Complaints'

The Red Headed Stranger reflects on life — and offers a little love counsel

Portrait of Willie Nelson, 2010


Willie Nelson (pictured in 2010) is now 80 and on the road again.

En español | Willie Nelson, who turns 80 on April 30, has released more than 100 albums since signing his first record contract 52 years ago. His latest album, Let's Face the Music and Dance, reinterprets old pop, rock, jazz and country classics with his Family band.

We grabbed a few minutes with Nelson as he prepared to celebrate the Big 8-0.

Willie Nelson with electric guitar, 1967

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Willie Nelson, circa 1967.

Q: Tell me about Face the Music. Do you have a favorite track?

A: I did a couple of Django [Reinhardt] songs on there that I really like. "South of the Border," "Let's Face the Music and Dance" — all of those are old favorites I've been doing for years.

Q: I loved Michael Hall's Texas Monthly feature on Trigger, the N-20 Martin classical guitar you've played since 1969. How's Trigger doing these days?

A: Trigger's doing good — best guitar I ever owned! The wood on the inside had rotted out, so I've had a lot of work done on Trigger, but it's still in pretty good shape. We'll probably both wear out around the same time.

Q: What about you? How do you stay in shape on the road?

A: I've been doing a lot of running and biking and swimming for years now. Oh, and martial arts — I'm a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do. That kind of exercise keeps you in pretty good condition.

Willie Nelson and wife Annie D'Angelo, 2000

Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Willie Nelson and his wife of 22 years, Annie D'Angelo Nelson, arrive at the 2010 Grammy Awards.

On the bus, going down the highway at 80 miles an hour, is where I practice my tae kwon do forms. I figure if I can do those on a speeding bus, I ought be able to do them on the ground standing still. When I get ready to take my test, we stop the bus, I get out, and my tour manager David Anderson films me doing the requirements by the side of the road. Then we send those to my teacher in Austin and he says, "You passed the test!" I've earned a lot of my belts out on the highway.

Q: You have seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Do you use social media to keep up with them?

A: My wife, Annie, tweets with everybody. I text and email my friends and family a lot, but that's about the extent of my high-tech-itude. All my kids were raised on computers: They were home-schooled on the Internet, so they're pretty good at that stuff. And I'm proud of them, but I don't really keep up with it.

Q: You and Annie have been married for 22 years. Is there a secret to your stability?

A: If you really want to get along with somebody, let them be themselves. Don't try to change anybody. And they should let you be yourself: "You loved me when you met me, so let's keep going!"

Willie Nelson with sons Lukas and Jacob, Feb. 2013

David Livingston/Getty Images

Willie Nelson with sons — and fellow musicians — Lukas, 24, and Micah, 23, at a pre-Oscar party earlier this year.

Q: Many best wishes coming in for your 80th birthday?

A: Yeah, I'll be glad when it's over and we can talk about somebody else's birthday. Just kidding. I'm glad they're wishing me a happy birthday, and I'll get over it.

We did a lot of shows in Nashville, and a lot of 'em had to do with the birthday. I'm working on a duet album now with some great girl singers — Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss.

Q: What's your take on today's music industry?

A: I have no complaints. The fact that we're able to put out a record with all those standards on it speaks well for the industry.

There's not as many record companies as there used to be, though, and the ones left are having trouble competing with the Internet. A lot of songs are sort of given away — not normally a good thing if you have a record company! One night I was at a music premiere and a young kid came up and said, "I'm a big fan of yours; the other day I downloaded 12 of your songs."

Q: Some of your children and grandchildren have gotten into the music business. Do you give them advice?

A: I'm the last person in the world who should be giving advice, because I've done everything wrong. But maybe that's the way you learn: You make mistakes. I would tell people to just do what they want to do. If it works, great; if it doesn't, try something else.

Q: Has your songwriter's perspective changed as you've gotten older?

A: I've been through some experiences that made me write a lot of love songs — and a lot of unhappy love songs — but I don't think my experience is that different from anyone else's. I just have the ability to write about it. So I do.

Willie Nelson performing in Hollywood, FL, 2013.

A. Patel/Corbis

Willie Nelson performing at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Fla., in February 2013.

Q: In your 2012 memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, Annie said you undergo "picker's withdrawal" when you haven't played in a while. How long does it take for that itch to kick in?

A: I could play every day. The traveling part gets old, and there's some times when you're ready to just sit in one spot for a few days, but as far as the music is concerned, you never get tired of playing it.

Music has a healing quality for the people who hear it and the people who play it. That's why people drive a long way to hear music, pay good money, clap their hands and sing along. And we keep doing it because it's a lot of fun.

Q: Looking back, what are you most proud of?

A: I'd like to think people walked away [from my concerts] thinking they got their money's worth. If they just saw a show of mine, I'd like them to be happy with it. That's all that matters.

Beth Carpenter is part of AARP's social media team. Learn more about Willie Nelson and his new albums by watching the videos at the bottom of this page.