Like many celebrities, Willie Nelson is doing his bit to motivate fans to take part in the upcoming midterm elections.
But with his latest song, the veteran Texas maverick musician and country outlaw isn’t serving up some soft-sell public service announcement.
“If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out,” he sings in the appropriately titled “Vote ’Em Out.” “That’s what election day is all about.”
The idea, he said, came to him in the course of talking with young people at a benefit for March for Our Lives in Maui in spring, where he performed with a longtime friend, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, and several other musicians.
“It was right after the Florida shootings, and a lot of young people out there were doing protests against the guns, and all the lobbying and everything, and so we did this benefit over there,” Nelson, 85, said on his tour bus earlier this week while in Hollywood to tape a segment for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” that is scheduled to air Oct. 30.
“I was talking to the kids about well, you know, if you see something you don't like out there, you vote ’em out of it,” he said, relaxing on the seat of a small dining table on the bus shortly after a rehearsal run-through of the song for Kimmel’s audience. “I started thinking about it — it took about three minutes to write the whole thing.”
It’s aimed at all Americans, Nelson said, but he’s particularly focused on the population of young people who will be voting for the first time next month.
“There's a group of folks coming up to vote that ain’t never voted before and they are very excited about it,” Nelson said. “I think all the activity on both sides of the parties up there have shook ’em up a little bit. They’re saying, ‘Well, maybe we're important,’ and, of course they are, and they're going to go out there and prove it, I think.”
A few minutes later, backstage just after performing “Vote ‘Em Out!” for his segment on the show, Nelson met and spoke with Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was among the 17 people killed in the Parkland mass shooting — an emotional meeting for all concerned during which Nelson and Kimmel thanked Guttenberg for his activism.
The song itself targets no specific party, candidates or issues, but it does tap into the widespread feelings of frustration among voters over the political process, filtered through Nelson’s signature dry sense of humor:
If it's a bunch of clowns you voted in
election day is comin' 'round again
If you don't like it now
If it's more than you'll allow
if you don't like who's in there, vote 'em out.
“It don’t take aim at anybody,” Nelson said. “Whether you’re on one side or the other, whoever you want to vote in or out, it's something to talk about. If you like who's in there, leave ’em in. I think it’s important now to take a stand and vote.”
Nelson’s politics, however, are no secret.
Nelson introduced the song a few weeks ago at a political rally in Texas for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. Such political stumping, however, isn’t something Nelson typically does at his own shows.
“My shows are as nonpolitical as you can get,” he said. “I don't care if you're a Christian, an atheist, a Baptist or Methodist. I don't care who you are or what you are: If you like our music, that's cool. Come on out. We're not going to bore you with politics. But right at this particular time, I think it might be a good time to say something.”
One reason Nelson avoids delving deeply into political issues at his shows is that he sees music as a unifying force in this era of extreme divisiveness and political partisanship.
“I’ve always believed that music was the equalizer, you know?” he said. “Everyone can relate to music. You don't have a choice. Once you hear the melody and the words, it goes right into your soul, and you either like it or hate it, turn it on or turn it off, but you can't ignore it.”
Some projects close to Nelson’s heart involve political issues. Those include the annual Farm Aid benefit shows in support of family farmers who struggle to survive in the age of agribusiness, and his budding operation selling medicinal and recreational marijuana under the brand name Willie’s Reserve. But he leaves the political dimensions of those operations to others.
“It’s something they have to deal with. I don’t have to deal with [anything],” he said with a laugh.
“Willie’s Reserve looks pretty good,” he added. “Canada just went completely legal up there, and we’re represented up there pretty well. So yeah, it's looking good — and I'm busy testing all the time.”
As for his other current hit, “Vote ’Em Out,” Nelson said reaction from his following “is all positive.”
He adds, “Of course, I thought it was all positive last election too, then someone came along and stole the son-of-a-bitch.