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Jamie Oliver of Big Tobacco and the Pickers Discusses Willie Nelson
Paradise Blog: There’s this picture of you with Willie Nelson. When was that taken and what were the circumstances?
Jamie Oliver: That picture was taken across from Tootsie’s, on Broadway, in Nashville, last year. I was in town to see Willie play at The Woods at Fontanal, formerly owned by Country Music Hall of Fame member Barbara Mandrell. My little bro had arranged for some special treatment at the show (backstage, food/drinks – you know, the royal treatment) as he knew the promoter well. I flew in a couple days ahead of my bro early because a) I love Nashville b) I like vacationing alone. It wasn’t my first time in Nashville so I really took advantage by soaking up as much music as I could, on my own clock. The concert was on a Friday night. That Friday I woke up early, and got myself happy. I headed out onto the street for a coffee and smoke or two. Bands start early there, full 6 or 7 piece bands, so I thought I’d sit down and listen until my bro arrived. Watching those Broadway St boys pick and sing, is always a treat for me. Anyways, at about 11AM I stumbled out of Tootsie’s and saw Willie’s bus, but no action around it. I figured that they were picking him up from a hotel or what have you. I thought that it would either be minutes, or hours before he came out, so I walked the other way thinking I’d probably get to meet him later that night at the show. I had only ever shook his hand once in Toronto, and was so awe struck at that time that I don’t think I made any sense – I don’t think mattered to Willie anyway, he had a smile on his face and some squinty eyes. At any rate, by chance, I smoked my last cigarette. That meant I had to turn back around and walk back to the hotel to go get a fresh pack. As I was walking back, I looked up – coming out of the rink where the Nashville Predators play, 20 feet from me, was Willie! He was standing there talking to Bee Spears (his bass man). I had met Bee before. So I walked up and just started talking to them. I remember that he made me feel like I was talking to a couple of old friends that I had just run into on the street. It was early enough in the day that the tourists weren’t out in droves yet, so we chatted for about 10 minutes without him being swarmed – I told him I’d see him at the show that night, asked for a picture and walked away with a buzz that lasted a year so far. He smelled like how I remember my grandpa smelled. My little bro missed him by about an hour, and was happy for me, but a little beat up that I got to meet him an hour earlier. At the show that day, we hung on the bus with my friend Budrock, who has done Willie’s lights for 40+ years, and Bee, and few of the other road crew guys, until Willie went on. I sat and watched the show side stage with my bro – it was incredible. For part of the show, I sat on an amp, with Paul English (Willie’s long-time drummer who now only plays a few songs per show). It was a memorable day. If I’d died in my sleep later that night, it would have been with a smile on my face.
Paradise Blog: Why would fans of Willie Nelson and his brand of music be entertained by a Big Tobacco and the Pickers show?
Jamie Oliver: The one thing I have always loved so dearly about Willie Nelson’s performances was his relationship and on-stage camaraderie with his band. The fact that they are called Willie Nelson and the Family speaks volumes. As a band, we have always felt that to be of the utmost importance. We are a family. We’ve been together a long time, we fight, we laugh, we are truthful with each other, we are best friends. If even an ounce of that comes through in our live show, then I’m happy. Every time I have seen Willie play, I smile. I think our shows are lighthearted enough to make people laugh and smile. We are having an enormous amount of fun and hope to keep on doing that for many years. I think that Willie fans would pick up on that.
Paradise Blog: You do several Willie Nelson songs in an average Big Tobacco and the Pickers set, is it just because you love the songs, or because they fit in with the aesthetic of the band, or what?
Jamie Oliver: We do Willie songs because we love Willie songs. The fact that they fit with the aesthetic of the band helps, but plays no part in what we play on. I know bits and pieces of too many Willie songs to count, and I typically drag the poor band through as many of them as I can finish, when we get together. Don’t get me wrong though, the band loves Willie too, but they each have their favorite writers/performers.
Paradise Blog: Willie has acted in 37 feature films. Most of them are cameo roles as a stoner or otherwise comic figure, but some of the performance run pretty deep. Ever see Honeysuckle Rose?
Jamie Oliver: I had seen Honeysuckle Rose years and years ago and thought it was great. Then my Mom bought me a copy this past Christmas. I watched it again recently, and still think it is one of his best roles. I love that character he plays – Buck Bonham. I love that name. I love how inappropriate it is that he sleeps with his buddy’s daughter and really makes no excuses for it. The soundtrack for that movie is also a treat. The scene of him and his guitar player driving the bus, smashed down that highway trying to make it to a show is pretty funny – not that I condone D&D’ing. It just made me laugh – it was a different time.
Paradise Blog: It’s amazing that Willie is still getting hassled for marijuana possession, because if anyone should just be allowed to smoke weed it’s that damn guy. It’s hard to imagine him robbing a liquor store to support his habit or anything, since he’s the embodiment of laid-back.
Jamie Oliver: I’ve heard a number of different stories from a number of people over the years – even recent, of how/when he gets busted, and for what. It is usually some over-eager highway patrol rook who ends up following the bus for a while, and eventually pulls him over. Once he figures out who he pulled over, he’ll usually wet his pants with school-girl glee, and obviously finds something illegal on that bus. And if not on Willie’s bus, then on one of the crew buses. From what I’ve heard, he typically gets a slap on the wrist and donates some money to the local sheriff’s favorite charity. You are so right though, leave him be already. He’s not causing no-one no harm. It’s not like the impressionable youth of America is looking to Willie as their moral compass. And even if they did, would that be so bad? He is a remarkably talented, charitable, all round good human being, with standards and values that most of us should strive towards.
Paradise Blog: What’s your favourite Willie Nelson album and why?
Jamie Oliver: Willie and Family Live – released in 1978 – it’s a double album. I love this album because it displays his live show, in his prime. He plays some covers too – Waylon tunes etc. A couple of guests make some cameos (Emmylou and Johnny Paycheck). The actual album art, or pictures or whatever are my favorite too. They all look so happy – and why wouldn’t they be! The medley that he plays from The Red Headed Stranger album, on side two is pretty cool, but the way the whole thing kicks off with Whiskey River, gives me chills.
Paradise Blog: Best Willie Nelson song performed by but not written by Willie?
Jamie Oliver: Again, near impossible to choose – but some stand outs include Georgia on my Mind, Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight or Stay All Night. He has covered so many songs over the course of his career. His most recent release was ALL covers. He does a version of Smoke Smoke Smoke (Merle Travis wrote it for Tex Williams) that just about knocked my block off. He has also covered some weird shit too. Stuff that I don’t even really jive too, but I guess that is what make him appeal to so many people.
Paradise Blog: Song?
Jamie Oliver: I can’t be backed into that corner! I usually have a favorite Willie Nelson song but it changes all the time. If you insist on pinning me down for an answer, I have to say that Bloody Mary Morning is one that I could never ever ever get sick of. But then there are so many more that I could never get sick of. Also Family Bible – because it reminds me of growing up, and my Mother. It paints a picture of Willie’s upbringing too.
Paradise Blog: What’s your favourite Willie Nelson YouTube clip?
Jamie Oliver: Geez I dunno, I get lost in YouTube videos. I could go on YouTube watching journeys that can evaporate time – make whole evenings disappear. There is so much content out there. If anyone can ever track down a DVD copy of The Highwaymen Live in Dublin, Willie does a version of Kris’s Loving Her Was Easier, with Kris and the rest of them on stage…His guitar solo in that recording is stunning. The whole song is stunning – it is so moving. If it doesn’t make you want to pick up a guitar, then check your pulse because you have probably died and gone to whatever version of heaven you believe in. It is Willie’s live take on the song, off the cuff, and it rocked my very being. At one point during the solo, the camera focuses up close on Willie’s guitar, and you can see all the signatures scratched into it. I remember seeing that for the first time when I was younger – it really had an impact on me.
Paradise Blog: How old were you when you first started listening to Willie? Were you always a fan of country music?
Jamie Oliver: My mom and dad were fans. I can remember driving to camp with my Dad, listening to Willie and other greats like Johnny Cash. So I started listening to Willie when I was quite young. So did the rest of band. Jay Blanchard’s (guitar in the Pickers) Dad played the circuits in Northern Ontario in Country and Blues bands. Jay has vivid memories of his Dad listening to Willie. But I really didn’t start LISTENING to Willie until I was a young man. I meant to capitalize LISTENING. There is a difference between hearing and listening. And again, listening to Willie moved me. It was life changing. I listened to all kinds of music when I was a kid and a teenager, but country was always my backbone. It was always the music I went back to. It has always been like home to me – felt safe, felt warm and I felt welcome. Nowadays I try to keep an open mind to all kinds of music but time doesn’t allow for me to listen to as much of it as I’d like. Unless I’m out somewhere that I have no control over the music selection, I listen to country music. Old country music. Real country music.
Check out Big Tobacco’s next gig at the Cameron House on Saturday, June 9th at 6pm.