It's no big surprise that Willie Nelson believes in hemp. But Nelson, a longtime advocate of smoking the stuff, has now moved his advocacy into a different realm. The outlaw country-music icon is spreading the word that hemp, a sturdy weed more popularly known as marijuana, can save the planet. To do so, Nelson has lent his name to a small company operating out of a hilltop home in far-east Apache Junction. For now, the company's product line--dubbed the Willie Nelson Hemp Collection--consists of ball caps, fanny packs and signature shirts in cream and blue, all made of hemp or a blend of hemp and cotton. Eventually, there will be hemp guitar straps, maybe a line of luggage. Eventually, the world will be a better place, all because of hemp. Arlin Troutt, the Valley-based front man for the Willie Nelson Hemp Collection, says the caps and clothes are totally legal, made from hemp fabric imported from China. This industrial grade of hemp was long ago stripped of all its stony properties, Troutt says, so burning a hat won't get you high. Of course, hemp in any other form is still illegal in America and many other countries. Troutt, with the celebrity endorsement of Nelson, would like to change that. Troutt met Nelson a few years ago, when both men owned fairway-side homes on Nelson's golf course, located near Austin, Texas. (Nelson lost the course during his recent unpleasantness with the Internal Revenue Service.) Troutt had prepared for that meeting by leading an admittedly colorful and somewhat mysterious existence, including, he says, stints as a professional guitarist in Phoenix and raising fighting cocks in Mexico. "I have made a lot of easy money in my life," he says, somewhat cryptically. It was while living in Mexico that Troutt had seen huge bales of marijuana stalks piled beside roadways, the unsmokable detritus of the international pot trade, and began to study the plant's many uses. He learned that the sails and rigging on Christopher Columbus' ships were made of hemp. He learned that early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on paper made of hemp. He learned that young Abraham Lincoln studied by a lamp fired by hemp-seed oil. He learned that hemp's beneficial by-products are "endless," he says today. "Hemp provides everything a human needs." Troutt also learned that this miracle plant was all but officially wiped out in the early years of this century, when the U.S. government, goaded by press tyrants (who fueled public paranoia about the evil weed's psychoactive uses) and industrial barons (hoping to eliminate competition from the cheap, easy-to-grow crop), outlawed it. Finally, he learned of the growing underground of hemp true-believers devoted to legitimizing the weed once more. Troutt brought all this knowledge to his meeting with Willie Nelson at the infamous Pedernales Country Club and "everything kind of fit into place," Troutt says. Already acquainted with the hemp plant's recreational possibilities, Nelson quickly became sold on its value as a cash crop that could save America's family farmers, and freely bought into the clothing enterprise.

(Nelson, touring in South America, couldn't be reached for comment. His Connecticut-based manager didn't return several telephone calls, and his Nashville-based publicist couldn't confirm any of Troutt's story, but did say this: "Willie has lots of affiliations we don't know about. . . . I know that Willie is aware that hemp has other uses. He's aware of hemp clothing.")

Troutt says Nelson eventually will see a percentage of profits from his collection's sales, but profits are not the company's main objective. "We're not talking about who's gonna get the prune Danish right now," Troutt says. "We're talking about informing people." To that end, Troutt, with Nelson's blessing, is officially launching the company by sending 100 percent hemp ball caps and pro-hemp literature to dozens of influential lawmakers (including another famous Willie, president-elect Clinton) and even several Supreme Court justices. The ultimate goal of such a mailing, Troutt says, is the relegalization of hemp--for all its glorious uses. "We're not sending the ball caps to a bunch of old farts who are going to throw them into the garbage," says Troutt. "The hippies can sit around and talk about this amongst themselves forever, but until we can get Republicans interested, it's not going nowhere." Meanwhile, the hemp clothes are being peddled at Willie Nelson concerts (the hats go for $20; the shirts for $60) and via mail order. Though a few hip boutiques around the country carry the stuff (none locally), the mainstream retail apparel industry hasn't shown much interest, Troutt says. The imported fabric's high cost and limited reserves apparently leave too little profit margin.

Which, Troutt says, is no big deal: "We'll just do the Willie Nelson Amway.

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Dave Walker