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Willie Nelson

In this time of news overload, we can find ourselves starved for a good story, free from the frenetic pace of headlines out of Washington and the profound and often disturbing impact policies and pronouncements from the new administration on the lives of individuals and communities. In that spirit, then, I share a story about Willie Nelson and me that really has nothing to do with current events, although it may have a deeper message about the human condition.

Willie NelsonIt happened long ago, before my time at Intersections. I was working as Director of Communications for the United Church of Christ and I was producing a network television special called Strong Roots, Fragile Farms that documented the plight of family farmers facing relentless pressure from agribusiness, resulting in many small farmers going out of business.

A broadcast deadline loomed close. Some of my colleagues were to arrange for Willie Nelson to serve as on-air host for the hour-long documentary. At the time, Willie was in the forefront of advocacy on behalf of small farmers and his presence in the video would give it instant credibility. He was touring rural Nebraska at the time (he liked to play in small bars and road houses where rural farmers gathered for refreshment and relaxation) and I was assured he had agreed to break from his performance schedule for our taping.

We hired a crew, rented equipment and found a beautiful location about a half mile from the hotel where Willie was staying. Our Director Joe Parlagreco and I traveled to Nebraska and spent the night in a nearby motel waiting to tape the on-air narration the following day. In the middle of dinner, we received the phone call all producers dread: ”Uh, sorry, but we were never able to connect with Mr. Nelson. He is unavailable for the taping.”

The crew was hired, the equipment rented, the location found. It was too late to find another host. Air date was only a few weeks away. And it was at one of those times in my career when I really needed a “success” and so I wrestled with the question: What do I do? I had never met Willie Nelson, we were paying him nothing (literally) and if our surrogates were unable to complete this deal, how could I convince him to participate? I knew he was there because his fabled bus was in the parking lot; but he had no idea who I was nor had he any background on the program we were producing. So I did what any good producer would do. I sent the crew on ahead to set up the location and I positioned myself across the parking lot from his bus (it was the middle of the day in the middle of the week in a very remote place and no one was around). And I waited. And waited. Hoping beyond hope that perhaps he would emerge from his bus. Finally, after more than two hours, this slight, long-haired, bearded man in gym shorts and a tee short emerged from the bus. It was him!

I pounced.

Realize the scene: I am 6’8”. Willie Nelson, well, not so much. I stood over him and never talked as fast in my whole life, trying to explain to him that we were doing a documentary for the church on behalf of family farms and that we were all set up just about a half mile away and we thought it was all arranged and that he would serve as host and…yada, yada… When I finished the fastest pitch in television history, I waited—probably breathless, although he could no doubt hear my heart beat. He barely paused and said simply, “Sure. Let me just get on a pair of jeans.” And so he instructed his driver to crank up the bus and to follow me; and off we went to the location, dust billowing behind our small caravan.

When we arrived, I encountered the most gracious of professionals. Though it was a low budget shoot, our Director had the foresight to include a TelePrompTer which helped us establish credibility with him; and he read his on-camera bites with passion and precision, most of them in one take. Right afterwards, we recorded off-camera voiceovers in the sweltering grip truck, sweat welling up in the lenses of his glasses, blinding him and prompting hearty laughter from us both as we knew we had accomplished something amazing. We had completed the taping in less than an hour.

I have had no contact with him since then but I always wanted him to know how incredibly grateful I have always been for that day (if anyone reading this knows how to get to Willie Nelson, please share this story!). Celebrities often get a bum rap as stories about them make their way through gossip columns and social media. I always wanted to tell the world this story about Willie Nelson and me, about how gracious he was, how professional he was, how trusting he was, how willing he was to risk his good name and reputation on someone he did not know at all—for the sake of his beloved small family farmers.

And now, in a day when so many who work these same farms are terrified of being deported, it seems the perfect time to tell this story to reassure us all that goodness dwells among us in powerful and profound ways and will triumph in the end.