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A Cowboy Looks at 90: Life Advice From Willie Nelson

Updated: May 18, 2023

Happy 90th Birthday to Willie Nelson! Our society is very fortunate to have known his music from "Crazy" to "Leave You With A Smile", and his work with The Nelson Family. Willie has included practical life advice and heartfelt, empathic relatable sentiments in his songwriting, always followed by that incredible nylon-string sound we all know so well. Willie also hasn't been too proud to cover a song or two! Here are some pieces of life advice that promote mental health and wellness from Willie's original and covered songs:

"On the road again. / Just can't wait to get on the road again. / The life I love is making music with my friends / And I can't wait to get on the road again." (Nelson) One of the most important parts of good mental health is maintaining self care. One component of self care is "play", or doing any activity just for the sake of doing it. The artist clearly loves being on the road with his friends, traveling the country on their tour busses and playing live shows. We feed our spirits with "play" anytime we allow ourselves to do what we love to do.

"Stupid, for thinking that my love could hold you. / I'm stupid for trying and stupid for crying / And I'm stupid for loving you." (Nelson)

Thankfully, the words to this little gem were changed before Patsy Cline covered it. "Stupid" was later changed to "Crazy", but I think "stupid" better captures how it feels to lose a love! We kick ourselves, we beat ourselves up, we ruminate on mistakes and relive all the shoulda-coulda-woulda's before we eventually face our loss and move on. Good mental health looks like accepting these situations. Truthfully, it might even look like writing a song about it! Making some form of art out of our deep inner conflicts and hurts can be a very healthy way to release them. By creating from our struggles, we give ourselves a product by which we can better understand our pain and then heal.

"My heroes have always been cowboys, / And they still are, it seems. / Sadly in search of, but one step in back of / Themselves and their slow-movin' dreams." (Joel Don Humphreys) In this quixotic cover, Willie examines the draw we may feel to chase our dreams, even if we never quite reach them. As a songwriter myself, I have to marvel at Humphreys' use of irony here - why are we always searching for and never quite catching a dream if it is slow moving? I don't know, but it sure feels consistent with my experience! This song normalizes the struggle we all have in this area. We work, we pursue, we chase, but we often never quite get to where we wanted to be. Mental health is about acceptance! We learn to accept that life is a ride. We learn to trust the process. We learn to go with it, to not take things personally, to not take trouble too seriously. Eventually, we realize that we've regained control by accepting that we have less control than we thought. This is the great paradox of mental health!

"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys... / They're never at home and they're always alone, even with someone they love." (by Patsy and Ed Bruce) This one's a bit tongue-in-cheek. When Willie covered this song, it took on a new level of meaning. Here, a cowboy singer advises mothers not to allow children to become what he himself has become. At its core, this song is about insecure attachment styles. Specifically, it addresses avoidant attachment, which is associated with the tendency to avoid emotional closeness with a partner or family by always keeping busy. People with this very common attachment style will forever be planning and doing and orchestrating and coordinating, but they may find it very difficult to slow down and just simply be with their partner or children. Willie sure can pick 'em, can't he?

"Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble / When you're perfect in every way. / I can't wait to look in the mirror, / 'Cause I get better lookin' each day." (Mac Davis)

OK, I'm biased here. This one was my late father's favorite, and I *cough* find it completely relatable, personally. But all joking aside, it takes guts to look critically at one's own tendency to be a little narcissistic. I don't know any performer who doesn't have just a little bit of extra pride between their ears at times, so I think choosing this cover may be an acknowledgment of that.

"Turn off the news and build a garden / Just my neighborhood and me / We might feel a bit less hardened / We might feel a bit more free. / Turn off the news and raise the kids / Give them something to believe in / Teach them how to be good people / Give them hope that they can see / Hope that they can see." (Lukas Nelson, son)

This one's absolutely beautiful. Here, Willie's son, Lukas, calls us to a simpler, slower-paced life of patience, farming, community and mentorship. This one feeds the soul with earthiness and all the good things. For many, mental health starts in the garden. Turning a little plot of undeveloped soil into a slow-moving, generative bed of growth and food brings great enjoyment. A new perspective on life is obtained in the process of nurturing, tending, feeding, and enjoying the fruits of one's labor. And, of course, the same is true for parenting! The hardest part, again, is the slowing down. Turn off the video games, unplug YouTube, silence your phones, take off your smart watch... then turn off the news and build a garden. Just beautiful!

If you're a fellow music nerd, or if this post spoke to you in a helpful way, then I hope you'll keep me in mind if you or someone you love ever needs to schedule a counseling appointment. My website is , my phone number is 770 615 6300. I am based in Vinings, GA and offer telehealth and in-person sessions. I accept Aetna insurance and provide superbills for using out-of-network benefits.

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