On this day in 1980, country music artist Willie Nelson and his band perform at the White House with President Jimmy Carter in attendance. Later that night, unbeknownst to the president, Nelson allegedly retired to the White House roof to smoke a marijuana cigarette.
A fan of Nelson’s music, Carter frequently attended the singer’s concerts and invited Nelson to stay at the White House during his presidency. The two formed a friendship that continued after Carter left the White House in 1980. In 2004, Carter told reporter Beverly Keel from Rolling Stone magazine that while under immense pressure as president he would relax in his study, tying flies for fishing while listening to Nelson’s music. “All the good things I did as president, all the mistakes I made — you can blame half of that on Willie,” said the former president. He and Nelson shared a common background: both grew up in the South and worked as blacksmiths and at picking cotton. Nelson felt equal admiration for Carter and told Keel that Carter was his “favorite president…he did a great job.”
In 1980, Carter invited Nelson to perform on the South Lawn of the White House. A week later, The New York Times reported on an unusual event that raised a few eyebrows among Washington’s conservative set: first lady Rosalynn Carter had joined Nelson for a duet. Her “soft soprano” complemented Nelson’s “nasal baritone.” The president and many in the audience joined in heartily as Nelson and Rosalynn sang “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.”
Nelson, whom The New York Times dubbed the “king of outlaw country,” had never made a secret of his use of illegal marijuana and supported the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). In his biography, Nelson admitted to lighting up a “big fat Austin torpedo” (slang for a marijuana cigarette) whenever he stayed overnight at the White House. Carter claimed not to have known of Nelson’s after-hours tokes on the White House roof, saying he and Willie never discussed the singer’s drug use. (During the 1976 campaign, Carter had called for the decriminalization of marijuana.) However, as Nelson himself admitted in later interviews, Secret Service agents kept a close eye on Nelson whenever he indulged in his nightly habit at the White House.