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Rolling Stoned: At 85, Willie Nelson Is Still Living Life One Hit at a Time

If Willie Nelson ever runs out of pot to smoke, he may find his own charm a suitable substitute.

Speaking with the country legend is like taking a drag of the good stuff — you feel a little light-headed and the laughs come easy. He takes his time when answering questions, but far from resting on the laurels of a career that includes some 15 Grammy wins, Nelson is eager to stay busy. This year alone, he’s released a new album, Last Man Standing, seen his cannabis brand, Willie’s Reserve, expand into California, and has a full calendar of tour dates set for the summer.

“My sister, Bobbie, is two years older than me,” he says when asked if he has any plans to slow down. “I think we’re probably the oldest people out on the road right now. I don’t know anybody out there that’s older than we are that’s still touring. I think we’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun.”

“Fun” is a term that is often regarded as empty calories, but when Nelson says it, you believe him. After all, what other reason is there at this point for Nelson to go through the grind of tour buses, studio sessions, and taking the stage night after night unless it still brings him undiluted joy? Of course, Nelson has a few tricks for making the ordeal as easy as possible — namely, smoking more marijuana than just about anyone on the planet.

In fact, during a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, rapper and famed pot enthusiast Snoop Dogg confessed that Nelson was the only person he knew who could outsmoke him. Nelson laughs when this anecdote is mentioned, but doesn’t deny the superlative.

“He’s a heavyweight,” Nelson says. “We’re good buddies. We’ve recorded a song or two together. I was over in Amsterdam one time and found out he was coming over, so we hung out over in Amsterdam for a few days and had a good time. He’s just a good guy.”

One struggles to imagine the reaction of an Amsterdam café owner upon seeing Nelson and Snoop Dogg saunter in together, but like many myths that have long surrounded the acclaimed octogenarian, the details are lost to time. Certainly the most infamous remains the story of Nelson smoking a joint on the roof of the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Despite numerous queries from talk show hosts and journalists over the years, Nelson has always played it coy. However, in 2015, GQ writer Chris Heath got the singer to confirm that it was President Carter’s middle son, Chip, who provided Nelson access to arguably the most carefully guarded rooftop in the U.S.

Nelson may not have much left to say about his evening looking out at the sprawl of Washington, D.C., but he’s more than happy to chat about cannabis — especially now that’s he a ganjapreneur.

Following numerous arrests for possession, Nelson is at last taking full advantage of the country’s evolving position on weed with Willie’s Reserve, his personalized suite of products. From flower buds and vaporizer pens to espresso beans and lozenges, Nelson’s brand is a one-stop marijuana emporium.

In April, Willie’s Reserve finally expanded to California after first launching in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Nelson says part of his motivation for taking an active role in the industry was to provide cannabis that meets the environmental standards to which he feels all farmers should adhere.

“A lot of the big corporations don’t really consider the health issues,” he notes. “A lot of them are growing marijuana on land with pesticides and chemicals. We are 100-percent against that.”

Another focus is on small farmers who long served as the sole suppliers of medical cannabis but who now face losing their livelihood at the hands of large companies eager to cash in on the green rush. Nelson’s desire to help farming families stretches all the way back to Farm Aid, the annual festival he founded with fellow artists Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985. Willie’s Reserve continues the mission by working exclusively with independent farmers across several states.

It’s somewhat surreal to ask Nelson about terpene profiles and packaging aesthetics when one remembers that such terms weren’t even in the lexicon when he was first toking up. That was back in the early 1950s — a time when the federal government was enacting stricter sentencing laws for pot possession and when folks still believed the mass hysteria of “Reefer Madness” as gospel truth. Now that the tides are turning, Nelson is confident that his long-stated preference for national legalization is at last on the horizon.

“It’s pretty obvious that the trend is toward legalization around the country,” he says. “It’s happened in Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon — and a few more are headed that way. It’s just a matter of time, I think.”

On Last Man Standing (released on April 27), the matter of time is a major theme. The record’s titular track includes the line, “I don’t want to be the last man standing / On second thought, maybe I do.”

“It’s kind of a joke,” Nelson offers by way of analysis, but it doesn’t take much digging to find the deeper truths contained in the musician’s 67th studio album.

Over the years, Nelson has watched as celebrated peers and personal friends like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash have all left for the great hereafter. Mortality has always been a fruitful theme for the country greats, and although Nelson seems content to worry about death once it arrives, the newest entry to his timeless discography finds the artist reflecting back on the majesty of life and leaving what comes next for the winds of fate to determine.

That doesn’t mean that Nelson isn’t doing his best to tend to his health. Several years ago, he actually made the switch to vaporizers in an effort to keep his singing voice intact.

My lungs have been under fire for practically all my life,” he says. “I started smoking cigarettes, grapevine — you name it, I smoked it — and my lungs suffered. I had pneumonia four or five times. I finally decided that I had to quit smoking. Fortunately, vaporizers came along, and they’re a good alternative.”

Adapting on the fly and rolling with the punches are hallmarks of the Willie Nelson guide to life. From his pivotal choice in 1973 to reinvent himself as an outlaw country musician to the release of The IRS Tapes — his brilliant solution to pay off some tax debts — Nelson has never met an obstacle that could keep him from continuing down the dusty trail we all must walk.

In Nelson’s case, he rests his boots on the Honeysuckle Rose — now in its fifth incarnation as his official tour bus. Alongside him is his 87-year-old sister, as well as his children: sons Lukas and Micah and daughters Amy and Paula. Perhaps the weight of morality simply isn’t quite so heavy when you’re singing about it with family. Plus there’s the time-honored tradition of local friends and fans hopping aboard the Honeysuckle Rose at tour stops to share their latest harvests with the world’s most beloved cannabis connoisseur.

For Nelson, that’s what the spirit of cannabis is all about.

“There’s a fellowship involved,” he agrees. “You sit around, and you take a drink of whiskey or a hit off of a joint. I had to quit whiskey, but I’ll still take a hit off a joint.”

Willie’s Reserve products are available at Medithrive (1933 Mission St.) and online at williesreserve.com.