When Willie Nelson goes on the road (again and again), his tour bus is propelled by one fuel and one fuel only—biodiesel. For the outlaw country star, an unrepentant pot smoker who was busted in 1990 by the IRS for owing $16.7 million in back taxes, a devotion to biodiesel is one of the few rules worth living by. Biodiesel, essentially refined vegetable oil, can be squeezed out of everything from soybeans to hemp, which means more lettuce in the pockets of the family farmer. It's a natural fit for Nelson, who has drummed up funds for desperate farmers since cofounding Farm Aid in 1985.
Now, the 74-year-old singer/songwriter/actor is donning a new role—energy executive. After learning that biodiesel benefits farmers, Nelson partnered with renewable energy company Earth Biofuels to market biodiesel more widely. The result is BioWillie, a brand sold in seven southern and western states. Later this year, Nelson's empire will bear new fruit, a deluxe gas station and honky-tonk called Willie's Place at Carl's Corner near Abbott, Texas. Nelson has also written a book on biodiesel called On the Clean Road Again. Recently, he spoke with U.S. News.
You're out there promoting biodiesel on behalf of farmers. Why?
I come from a farming and ranching area in Texas, so I've done a lot of it myself—everything from plowing to picking cotton, baling hay, and working cotton gins. I got involved with helping farmers when we started Farm Aid. We were playing a fair in Illinois, and I was having a beer and a bowl of chili with the governor, Big Jim Thompson. He was telling me about farmers losing their farms. So I asked my friends down in Texas if they knew how bad things were in the Midwest. They said it was getting bad for them, too. So we decided to do Farm Aid.
Biodiesel isn't a very flashy celebrity cause—not like feeding the hungry.
There's a lot more splash in things like that. But I still think it's very important that we take care of farmers, our agriculture, our land. That's what it's all about.
How much do you know about biodiesel?
You won't be that impressed. A few years ago, my wife, Annie, came to me in Maui and said, "I want to buy a Volkswagen Jetta, and I want to run it on vegetable oil." And immediately I thought she'd been sneaking into my stash a little bit. It turns out there's a company in Maui called Pacific Biodiesel. They go into all the grease traps in restaurants and turn it into biodiesel. You can put it right into a diesel engine. So I got a diesel Mercedes. I think the Mercedes people got nervous when I told them I was going to put vegetable oil in it.
Do drivers notice a difference between diesel and biodiesel?
I talk to truckers every week on XM Radio. They talk about how great it is. How well it runs. How good it is for the engine. The mileage they get. The only problem we have is finding it. Demand has really outgrown supply.
That's where BioWillie comes in?
BioWillie is a very small part of this whole idea. There's a company selling BioWillie, but I don't think I made a quarter off it yet. It's just to add my name to something to get some attention. I'm not pushing BioWillie. I'm just pushing biodiesel.
Do you push biodiesel at concerts?
No. I don't say anything onstage about anything except music. I think that's what people come to hear.
You created BioWillie in part because it was so hard to find biodiesel. Has BioWillie changed that?
It's becoming easier. It's not easy yet. Our bus drivers have a list of where they can find it across the country and phone numbers they can call. There's a lot of places we go where they bring out a tanker and deliver us fuel onsite. A lot of times it's farmers in the area who have gone into business themselves.
Tell us about the new truck stop, Willie's Place at Carl's Corner.
It's going to be an incredible place to go. An 800-seat theater and a restaurant and a couple bars. I want to start a farmers' market there where local producers can bring in farm produce and have a place to sell it. Before we started on the new truck stop, we did a few shows there. We'll be doing those kinds of things again.
Will biodiesel save the family farm?
There's a lot of family farms it didn't save. Had we known about it we could have saved thousands and thousands of family farms by giving them a way to make additional money, but for some reason information about biodiesel had been withheld. When petrochemical companies came in, they tried to get us to forget about biodiesel and ethanol. Now more people are hearing about it. Will it save some farmers? I hope it will.