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Willie’s Reserve: Willie Nelson’s Cannabis is at the Forefront of a Growing Industry
“When we get to New York you’ll have to come visit me on the tour bus,” Willie Nelson said, when I told him how disappointed I was to be interviewing him by phone rather than in person. “We have fun on the bus. I think you’d like it.”
He then let out a long, hearty laugh that left no doubt in my mind: Willie Nelson had just invited me to party with him on his tour bus, the legendary Honeysuckle Rose. Or at least I hope he had.
At 85, Nelson is still going strong. The legendary singer/songwriter released a clutch of excellent albums this decade — including Heroes, which featured a superb version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” a fantastic tribute to his friend Ray Price, God’s Problem Child, from 2017, plus Willie and the Boys: Willie’s Stash, Vol. 2, which teams him up again with family, this time his sons Lukas and Micah, and now My Way, a reverent tribute album to one of his musical heroes, Frank Sinatra.
So how does Willie Nelson approach a song like “My Way,” so identified with Sinatra, to put his own stamp on it? While most artists will give you a long-winded answer about technique and getting inside the song, Nelson says his approach is, not surprisingly, more laid-back.
“I’m lucky working with Buddy,” Nelson said of his longtime producer, Buddy Cannon, who worked with Matt Rollings on My Way. “At some point (in the production process) I’ll go into the studio and I’ll put my vocals on there. Simple as that. It’s really the easiest thing in the world for me. Nothing to get to worried about, really.”
Nelson also he defends his decision to record the album, which includes chestnuts like Willie’s takes on timeless tunes like “Summer Wind,” “It Was A Very Good Year,” “I’ll Be Around,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” a duet with Norah Jones, and the title track, and comes on the heals of similar projects by artists like Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney.
“It just takes a good idea to come at the right time,” Nelson told me. “You know, my original idea was to do the Red Headed Stranger album and the Red Headed Stranger movie at the same time. As it happened they were twelve years apart. I guess it’s hard to plan these kind of things,” he said with a laugh.
He also keeps up a relentless touring schedule that would make any artist half his age blush.
But with all the accomplishments in his long and storied career, at the moment Willie Nelson seems most proud of Willie’s Reserve, his own line of legal cannabis products.
“It started over Willie and Annie’s kitchen table, on their ranch,” Andrew Davison, the CEO of Willie’s Reserve, tells me later. “It started with a conversation about what was important to Willie, and what his values were as it relates to his legacy and his ability to set the tone for this industry for which he’s been a lifelong advocate. He’s been carrying the flag for a long time and he’s someone that appeals to all types, so it was important to him that we get Willie’s Reserve right.”
A longtime advocate of legalization, Nelson says he’s relieved the time has come that marijuana use is no longer a behind closed doors activity, and is blunt about why his brand is better than the rest.
“Let’s be honest, I know what good stuff is,” he said, with a chuckle. “And don’t forget, come on by when we come to town. I’ll look for you.”
And on that high note (pun intended), Davison sat down with Rock Cellar to discuss Willie’s Reserve, and the very serious business of bringing one of the most famous names associated with marijuana use to the forefront of the burgeoning, legal market.
Keep it lit 🔥🔥🔥💨 pic.twitter.com/Y5pTGZBqfS
— Willie's Reserve (@WilliesReserve) September 17, 2018
Rock Cellar: I understand that Willie’s Reserve is a real family run passion for Willie Nelson. But it’s obviously growing now far beyond what he probably envisioned initially. Tell me a bit about how you’re planning to grow it, and where you see the company in the next five to ten years.
Andrew Davison: Willie has some pretty clear values. So what we want to do is bring those values together with a real smart business plan to help grow this and create a national, responsible business that helps Main Street in the category, and really takes a responsible stance in the industry in a way that brings Willie’s story to life. His journey is now 50 years plus and counting, and so we want to reflect that with a very strong product offering that consumers like.
Rock Cellar: Willie told me that when people come to his shows, he promises that he’s not going to get into politics, because they’re just there for entertainment. But legalization was, even five or ten years ago, a highly partisan issue. It no longer is. How do you see that evolution as a businessman?
Andrew Davison: Well, I think that this category has always had its advocates, and it’s been that way for a long time. I think what’s finally happening, and Willie has said this as well, is that if we make it legal, we can tax it, and if we have taxes we can manage the business of it responsibly. We can then use that to have a valid impact on society. So I think that’s what’s happening, from our perspective, is that we see that there’s a lot of people in the marketplace that see this is a really viable alternative to other recreational and social activities, and they want to be able to have the right to enjoy and experience cannabis in a responsible way.
— Willie's Reserve (@WilliesReserve) October 6, 2018
And I think when you look at the marketplace, you can see that the latest polls show that 61 percent of adults support legalization. But that’s also tied to the younger generation that’s coming forward and expressing their views on social change and responsible policies. I think it’s very much a Libertarian issue, in the sense that, “good fences make good neighbors.” We have a lot of attention, rightly so, on the opioid crisis and on alcohol abuse, both of which have had big, negative impacts on society. I think cannabis, conversely, is a really fairly benign alternative, as it relates to the choices consumers have.
So the goal is to make it a responsible, safe product for consumers to choose.
Rock Cellar: You talked about the opioid crisis, and we have innumerable problems in the healthcare industry dealing with alcohol abuse. As a business person, how do you address that, and how do you talk about your business to people who are reluctant to accept it?
Andrew Davison: Well, I think first and foremost, it’s not for everyone, and I think that’s really important. It’s also very much an adult substance. As much as we all should have a mature relationship with beer and alcohol, so to do I feel like we need to have a mature relationship with cannabis. And I can already see the signs of that happening. I think more than one your readers will say to themselves, after reading this, “This sounds like a safe alternative for a glass or two of wine.” I think allowing people to familiarize themselves with the category, in a responsible way, by learning about it, and understanding what their options are, that’s the responsibility of companies, and that’s what we’re looking to do.
Rock Cellar: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think, right now, you distribute in four states. Is that correct?
Andrew Davison: Correct. We’re currently in four states. We’re working in states that have legalized recreational cannabis, and those are the states that we are targeting for growth currently.
Rock Cellar: And where do you see it going, not just as a business person, but as a public advocate, in the next five or ten years?
Andrew Davison: I see continued, responsible growth, and I see social use that is going to become more acceptable, but is also going to become more defined. You know, the image that people have of marijuana is of the stoner sitting in the corner, not able to do anything. The reality is that people use cannabis to enhance and to enjoy life. There are people who are out there, from survey after survey and the research that we have and that is available to the industry, who are using this to go out and enjoy different aspects of life, and to enhance their life experience. So the old stereotype of the stoner as a degenerate and a blight on society is not really the reality.
And so I see that people are going to continue to become familiar with that, and I see the responsibility of companies like ours as promoting responsible use, and providing a safe choice for consumers to enjoy.
Rock Cellar: You must deal with politicians at all levels of government. Do you feel that the conversation has changed in the past five years or so?
Andrew Davison: Yes, and I do I think there are a number of factors that are driving that. Obviously, there have been cultural changes. We can see that in the statistics shown in numerous, recent studies. But there are also new economic realities. This has become a mature business in recent years. I come from a traditional business background, and so does a majority of our team, and I think we see more and more people like that — more and more professionals — in this industry at all levels, whether it’s operators, or people investing. There are changes going on at all levels of the business, and truly positive growth, and I think that politicians have come to recognize that, for instance, the wheels haven’t fallen off in Colorado. And in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Colorado has a thriving economy. And Colorado is still very socially responsible. Colorado is a purple state that sits right in the middle of just about every demographic, and people are seeing that and they’re seeing these successful rollouts of legalization in other states, and they are realizing that they should take another look. And whether that’s a politician, or a housewife in Ohio, I think they’re all realizing that, “Hey, maybe this deserves another look.” Lastly, I think politicians realize that this is where the votes are going over the next 20 to 30 years and, of course, they’re not shy about following the votes. So I think their perspectives are changing for that reason, and that’s why we see so much activity in this industry and in politics, as a result, across all of the states, whether that’s in regard to medical or recreational use and legalization.
Rock Cellar: The movement has been very grassroots driven, and things have certainly changed in very broad terms in a very short time, but you still have to deal with zealots — people at the top, who implement policy how they see fit, like (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions — who is going to do all he can at the federal level to stand in the way of that change, and progress, surely, from your point of view. Does that concern you, or do you just do what you’re doing, and focus on the state and local level, who seem much more interested, if perhaps self-interested, in working with you?
Andrew Davison: I think it’s always a concern what happens at the federal level. We keep a close eye on it, for sure. However, I would just say that I truly believe this industry is on the right side of history, and I think that ultimately that’s where it’s going to land.
Because of the changes in the voting base, more than anything else, I really see only one path in the future for cannabis.