Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly says that he raised five children. Nugent fathered nine children, three of whom lived at home with him. This version has been corrected.
On the final morningof the 2013 NRA annual convention in May, the day was bright, the mood was festive and Ted Nugent was neither dead nor in jail.
It was almost exactly a year earlier that Nugent, speaking on video at the NRA gathering in St. Louis, had made headlines by predicting one or the other would be his fate should Barack Obama become a two-termer. As far as incendiary rhetoric by the rocker-hunter-conservative firebrand goes, this was pretty tame stuff.
He has referred to Obama as a “piece of s--t” and members of his administration as “criminals,” and implored the president to “suck on my machine gun.” The “dead or in jail” comment was notable mostly for prompting a visit by the Secret Service, a
meeting Nugent laughed off as a pro forma check-in from agents he described as more star-struck than suspicious.
A year later, the second Obama term Nugent had dreaded was only boosting his visibility as a conservative provocateur. Having “a gang of Chicago criminals” who “want to dismantle America” to rail against for another four years ensures that Nugent’s ballistic take on current events is in growing demand at events such as this one, the National Rifle Association’s gathering at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. The cavernous hall was abuzz with camo-clad sportsmen, young men in ball caps, and families, some pushing strollers, wandering the crowded exhibit hall. A man with a carnival barker’s voice cajoled ticket buyers toward the hourly firearms raffle at the Wall of Guns.
The largest crowd was outside the third-level auditorium, where a line had been forming for more than an hour. By 9:30 a.m., as Nugent settled behind a folding table at the foot of the stage, the queue snaked the length of the blocks-long building. Hundreds of people waited, clutching old album covers, guitars, copies of his wild game cookbook, “Kill It and Grill It.” One teenage boy held a whitened deer skull sporting a six-point rack of antlers.
Those at the end would wait almost two hours to get to the ponytailed bowhunter with the grizzled beard and the bush hat who sat beside a pile of Sharpies. Nugent happily signed the albums and the skulls along with objects fans could purchase: Ted Nugent hunting arrows, T-shirts, photos of the Nuge behind a guitar or a newly killed buck, copies of his 2008 screed “ Ted, White and Blue .” He signed anything the conveyor belt of fans deposited in front of him, as he has been doing for decades. Back in the day, he would sign the bare breasts of screaming female fans. In Houston, the most titillating object may have been a loaded ammo magazine.
“He stands for what we believe in. He’s not scared to say it the way we want to say it. He is fearless.”
Nugent fan Patti Baillio
Between sips of a Starbucks double-shot mocha, Nugent dashed off his signature, shook hands, shouted “Semper fi” to the Marines and thanked each and every person for coming and for being a member of the NRA, where he has served on the board since 1995. At 64, after 6,400 arena-shaking concerts, he didn’t hear every word of adulation that came his way, frequently cocking his head and saying, “How’s that?” And when he stood for a photo with a boy in a wheelchair, he grimaced slightly on knees that are nearly shot from years of leaping from tower speakers.
But his energy was unmistakable — and remarkable, considering he had flown in from a gig in Tampa the night before and would be winging off within hours to do another in Atlanta that evening. His eyes were as fierce as the pair burning from album covers of the 1970s and ’80s. His hands drummed the table expectantly whenever there was a pause in the string of citizens stepping up to thank him, for the music, for “saying it straight” and for “not taking any s--t” from the liberals, the media, the government.
Patti and Les Baillio of Houston were typical of the crowd, which was a Nugent-specific blend of hard-rock nostalgia, blood-sport celebration and right-wing fermentation. Les is a bearded mechanical engineer and deer hunter who saw Nugent in concert as a student, still regularly watches Nugent’s hunting show on the Outdoor Channel and sang Nugent’s screaming anthem to independence, “Tooth, Fang & Claw,” to Patti on their wedding day. Les was sporting a cap from Nugent’s 2010 tour, “Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead.”
Patti came for the politics. The couple and their 13-year-old daughter stayed in the auditorium to hear Nugent’s speech, the final address of a roster that included Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Oliver North and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The family came to its feet more than once as Nugent derided the “liars in the White House,” the “bad and ugly” Hillary Clinton, the “gun-running” attorney general. Nugent ridiculed political opponents as “dirty sub-human punks,” “soulless,” “mongrels” and “struggling for personal hygiene.” He blamed the president for the spike in military suicides. (“They are shattered and heartbroken because they believe their own commander in chief is not on the same team.”)
This was a Ted Talk meant less to inform than to enrage. At the end, he would tear up as he talked about the injured soldiers he routinely visits and again when he presented a new house to the family of a wounded veteran on behalf of a nonprofit group. But the politics that came before were the rarest of red meat, and the crowd wolfed it down without chewing.
“He stands for what we believe in,” said Patti, a stay-at-home mom. “He’s not scared to say it the way we want to say it. He is fearless.” She wore a black T-shirt featuring an image of a big cat labeled “African Lion” and one of Barack Obama labeled “Lyin’ African.”
The day was a telling moment in the ever-strange career of the Motor City Madman who came screaming out of Detroit in the late 1960s. Five decades on, Nugent has perfected the alchemy of infamy, turning it into a relevance that has long outlasted the usual half-life of a rock star. He is everywhere — Piers Morgan, Anderson Cooper, Fox, CBS — as a lead spokesman for the NRA in the middle of the most intense gun-control debate in a generation. His endorsement was courted by last year’s Republican presidential candidates (and loudly touted by Mitt Romney, after tracking down the reluctant Nugent in a sporting goods store to lobby him). He was parked in the gallery of the last State of the Union address as an in-your-face gesture by conservative Texas congressman Steve Stockman (R).
Nugent fields the kind of daily requests for interviews other legacy acts can only dream of, and not just on guns. His Washington Times columns have covered issues as varied as entitlement reform (suspend the vote of anyone on welfare), unions (they killed the Twinkie) and Amy Winehouse (another “God-given talent wasted away on dope and booze”).
His Web site is a blizzard of commerce and commentary (box of Nugent bullets, $25; chat room subscription, $30). He’s still touring, hosts a hunting series and makes $35,000 a speech.
“It’s just synchronicity; we didn’t plan all of this,” said Shemane Nugent, 50, his wife of 24 years, as she marveled at the unending line of Nugent partisans. “It’s been a rock-and-roll evolution that has propelled us into politics.”
It’s only the latest, weirdest twist in a long, weird history — the crazy-haired, teetotal, speed guitarist who spent his off days in a deer stand has emerged as a conservative icon who boasts of having lots of children by lots of women and speaks with the bathroom vocabulary of a Mafioso enforcer.
As establishment Republicans try to tune the party to a political pitch less divisive and combative, Nugent doubles down on both. He unleashes rhetorical torrents the way he whales on a Gibson Byrdland, soaring virtuoso riffs of invective that are cruel, glib, informed and blisteringly fast.
It has some of the party’s most conservative fringes flocking to him, not as fans but as followers. And it has political observers wondering what a Ted Nugent with a following might do next.
In Houston, Patti Baillio held up a red and white bumper sticker: Ted Nugent for President.
She gave a big smile. “I’d vote for him.”
My own time on Planet Ted began pretty much as I expected, with Ted Nugent swearing at me.
I had arranged, by e-mail, a series of interviews for this article with Nugent’s assistant at “Tedquarters.” But a few days before I was scheduled to fly out to his Texas ranch, my phone rang. It was the Nuge himself, calling to set the mood.
“You better bring your A-game, motherf---er,” he said, by way of greeting. “You are just going to be tsunamied by all this energy.”
Nugent said he and his brother had been driving around the ranch, “killing some squirrels,” when he decided to reach out. His experience with journalists — whom he routinely describes as working “straight from Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ ” — had clearly been mixed.
“When you f---ers misrepresent me, it just makes things better and better,” he said. “Come on out and give it your best shot.”
A week later, in early April, I parked my rental car outside a barely marked rural recording studio near China Spring, Tex. I could hear the muffled shriek of a guitar inside, and waited for a pause before pounding on the door.
“Come on in here,” said Nugent, sticking out his hand. He was sitting on a metal folding chair in the control booth in blue jeans and an untucked snakeskin-patterned shirt. A red Gibson Les Paul was cooling off in his lap. “You’re gonna enjoy the hell out of this.”
There is a kind of electric serenity to Nugent in person that is about 100 degrees less fiery than Nugent on the air. He leaned back in the chair and placidly recounted his achievements for the morning: skinning a raccoon, training his Labrador retrievers, weeding the garden and fixing an air conditioner hose. “Now I get to play rock-and-roll?” he marveled with a huge grin. “What the f---?”
He had stopped by the studio to lay down a couple of tracks. One was a guitar part for a Second Amendment anthem by country singer Clay Walkertitled “Stick to Our Guns.” After noodling around with the tune for a few minutes, Nugent closed his eyes and set off on a screaming solo that had producer David Zychek nodding in time and sweat beading on Nugent’s forehead. “That’s like racing at high speeds down a road you’ve never been on before,” Nugent said with a laugh, as Zychek prepared to record a take.
There are two transporting passions in Nugent’s life that he has pursued with a maniac zeal since prepuberty: hunting animals and playing the guitar (a third obsession, sex, started a few years later).
“Even at 64, the music thing is still f-----g primal,” he said, filing a callus from his fingertip with a Leatherman tool that is always in his pocket (his invariable daily kit also includes a handkerchief, pen, Chapstick, lighter, earplugs and a Glock 10mm with 46 rounds). “I’m still in the garage in Detroit in 1967 trying to be Bo Diddley. There’s no Barack Obama when I’m playing, no Taliban, no IRS. I mean, it’s soul cleansing.”
In the late 1960s, Detroit was the center of the universe for American music. It was also a city aflame, one of the opening conflagrations of the culture wars that, for Nugent, are raging still.
For his upcoming tour, Nugent is preparing a medley to honor what he calls his “black heroes”: Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Brown, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Funk Brothers. They were, he said, everything he admires in an artist: tight, disciplined, hardworking and inventive.
“Are you kidding me?” he asked with a look of wonder. “In 1955, how do you get this new electrified instrument from Les Paul and decide to go” — he fires off the opening licks of “Johnnie B. Good.” “Chuck Berry was more exploratory than, than Lewis and Clark! All good music, all of it, comes from those guys.”
Nugent’s own career is a medley of contradictions. He once had a concert canceled after his use of the N-word in a 2003 radio interview, and he also once joined Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix in a 1968 tribute concert to Martin Luther King Jr.
His name for this year’s shows: “The Black Power Tour.”
Hi, I’m Ted Nugent. I have nine children from seven women, and I’m running for president.”
Nugent takes a sip of water, having delivered his potential slogan.
“Yeah, I’m thinking about it.”
We were in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency in San Antonio, where Nugent was an hour away from giving a speech to an association of entrepreneurs. It was a political gig; Nugent was to hail (without script) the power of capitalism, self-sufficiency and grit.
He would talk about guns, of course. (He always talks about guns. Indeed, the meeting room he had requested before his speech was not for a meeting, but for a gunsmith to come repair one of Nugent’s many machine guns. The weapon then lay in pieces amid the neatly arranged hotel notepads, pens and full water glasses.) But the venue called for the all-purpose conservative Ted Nugent, the one increasingly in demand on a range of issues.
And the one who says he is increasingly interested in running for office.
“Hi, I’m Ted Nugent. I have nine children from seven women, and I’m running for president.”
Nugent, practicing a potential election slogan
“He’s talked about it before,” Shemane said. “But this time he seems more serious. People are constantly asking him to run.”
He ruminated on a run for governor of Michigan in the 1980s and again in the mid-2000s. His brother Jeff Nugent, 66, who had a long corporate career that included stints as chief executive officer of Revlon and Neutrogena, helped him do polling for both efforts. (Former Michigan governor John Engler was a backer, Jeff said. Engler’s office said he wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story.) Republicans in New Mexico mounted a draft for him to seek that state’s top job, Nugent said. In all cases, he decided he couldn’t abide the disruption of his hunting schedule.
“I said, ‘Ted, I can help get you elected governor of Michigan,’ ” said Jeff. “ ‘You wouldn’t have to wear Brooks Brothers, but you would have to be f---ing governor.’ ”
Now, the constant beseeching from fans and followers has Nugent eyeing a run for the Republican nomination, the party he aligns with as the lesser of two feebles. (He is one of the few Republicans who will disparage Ronald Reagan, mainly for signing a bill restricting machine-gun sales.)
“Things are just so wrong in the country now,” Nugent said. “And I know that my answers would make things wonderful, unless you just refuse to produce, and then I’d recommend that you move to Canada. Or Illinois.”
He doesn’t predict a landslide. Or even a win. The country is probably too far gone for that, he said.
“The Republicans can’t possibly promise more s--t than the Democrats do,” he said. “We can’t possibly offer more door prizes to the voters.”
But a campaign would only boost the brand. And it would give Nugent his biggest microphone ever to do what he does best: sound off. About everything.
Nugent began branching out into the broader spectrum of conservative issues gradually. A 1975 CBS documentary on hunting, “The Guns of Autumn,” considered a hatchet job in the outdoors community, fueled his distrust of media. The taking of American hostages in Tehran fired his jingoism. The decline of his beloved home town outraged him.
“A lot of his feelings about government can be traced back to the liberal policies at the heart of the destruction of Detroit,” Jeff said.
Or, as Nugent put it himself in his address to the entrepreneurs: Liberal Democrats convinced the poor that they didn’t have to work for a living and that the government would provide. “It’s a heartbreak that’s indescribable in my 64 years, watching people buy into the lie that they are just too inept to provide for themselves.”
Nugent’s worldview has crystallized along perfect bifurcations: right and wrong, good and evil, the self-reliant and the freeloaders, the armed and the helpless. There are lazy people who want to take from you, and a government that abets them is destroying America. There are bad people who want to kill you, and the government that would keep you from having a gun to stop them is evil.
The kid who had the first paper route on his block and changed the oil in the van so the band could travel can’t imagine an excuse for accepting a food stamp. The voracious collector of true-crime home-invasion horror stories can’t compute the father who would not keep a gun at the ready.
“I’ve never had a fire in my house, but I have a fire extinguisher in every f---ing room,” he said.
“He is constantly on his laptop, reading and writing about anything that he’s going to talk about. Sometimes we’re like, ‘Ted, you want to put that down for a second, so we can go over a couple of tunes?’ ”
Nugent’s singer and guitarist, Derek St. Holmes
Nugent can deliver an improv rant on any political prompt, rhetorical torrents packed with stats, metaphor, profanity and an inextinguishable righteousness that has drowned out opponents from Piers Morgan to Roseanne Barr. There are no opinions, only his truth. He seems incapable of even detecting the frequencies of opposing arguments. Inevitably, he has become catnip to booking producers and Web sites that seek him out after any breaking news involving weapons, including the bombings in Boston and a stabbing rampage at a Houston college (a few days after that April event, Nugent appeared in a promotion for Knife Rights, a group that seeks Second Amendment protections for knives).
“The political stuff has grown and grown,” said Derek St. Holmes, Nugent’s longtime singer and guitarist who is touring the country with him. “He is constantly on his laptop, reading and writing about anything that he’s going to talk about. Sometimes we’re like, ‘Ted, you want to put that down for a second, so we can go over a couple of tunes?’ ”
St. Holmes has been with Nugent on and off for almost 40 years, one of a number of lifelong relationships Nugent has maintained through the volatile decades. Doug Banker has served as Nugent’s manager and Bob Quandt his tour manager for more than 30 years. His personal assistant, Linda Peterson, started in 1992. His six-person organization is stable, maybe even campaign-ready.
Floating the mesmerizing idea of a Nugent run, for any office, certainly helps keep Nugent in demand. But no one who has seen him milk a crowd can doubt his natural chops on the stump. He’s a born campaigner, indefatigable on the road and used to hopscotching the country. (And he has already been the Republican nominee once, in a 2012 episode of “The Simpsons.”)
“You’d have to put those debates on pay-per-view,” said Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, Republican presidential candidate and evangelical Christian who counts Nugent as a friend and duck-hunting partner.
“Ted says things in public that I wouldn’t even say in private, but what people look for more than anything is authenticity,” Huckabee said. “I’m probably as strait-laced a Republican as there is, but I’d rather be around Ted Nugent, who has an absolute honesty about him, than a so-called values guy who is secretly bedding down half his staff. I think you’d be surprised at how many evangelicals respond to him.”
But ... really? “Hail to the Chief” supplanted by “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”?
Said Huckabee: “If he runs, I’ll go help him.”
Said Gov. Perry, who is considering another run of his own in 2016: “I think Ted has the best of both worlds right now. He makes a lot of money expressing his views, and he still plays great music.”
Said Republican consultant Ralph Reed: “He would find that the rules would be totally different. All the things he gets a pass on now, he wouldn’t get away with as a candidate. Let’s face it, besting Piers Morgan is a fairly low bar. Nothing against Piers, but that’s not exactly Oxford debate.”
Said Democratic consultant Paul Begala, another Texas deer hunter who is friendly with Nugent: “It would be a very good thing for the Democrats. How many people would look at a 60-year-old man with long hair and a loincloth screaming the C-word about Hillary Clinton and say, ‘I wanna be like him?’ ”
His campaign bio video would start wholesomely enough. The crew-cut Nugents were brought up in 1950s Detroit by a stay-at-home mother and stern father who expected the three boys and one girl to do chores promptly and properly, or do them again. The dad, a former drill sergeant who was then a manager at a steel company, taught the boys to hunt. He bought Ted his first guitar and insisted on lessons. Ted’s older brother got a trumpet.
“If that had been the other way around, who knows how we would have turned out,” said Jeff Nugent, who got a math degree and an MBA and worked as an intelligence analyst at the Pentagon before going corporate. He lives in Manhattan but sometimes joins his brother on tour and hunts with him every year in Michigan.
Ted, though, dived right into music. The band he founded when still a student at a Detroit Catholic high school, the Amboy Dukes, toured for nearly 10 years before Nugent went solo. He was always loud and fast, but soon he became a spectacle, swinging nearly naked from a vine, sporting an Indian headdress, riding a buffalo. His stage chatter was raunchy and raw, even when his mother was in the audience.
Nugent rocked to his own rhythm in other ways, eschewing drugs and alcohol from the beginning. He deplored a hippie habit that made for sloppy music, late musicians and wasted rehearsal time. That led to many a letdown in meeting his idols — Hendrix, the Who, Eddie Van Halen — only to find them stammering and stoned.
“They all thought it was a party; I thought it was just a puking, drooling, stinky embarrassment,” Nugent said of a particular night in Chicago when John Belushi sent a limo and an invitation to hang out. “It was like a stupid outtake from ‘Scarface.’ I mean, literally their heads dropping into giant mounds of cocaine. It was heartbreaking.”
St. Holmes said the partiers were always perplexed by the onstage maniac who was also a stickler for schedules and preparation.
“People would say, ‘What’s wrong with that cat? Doesn’t he like to get high?’ ” St. Holmes said. “I said, ‘He gets high in his own ways.’ ”
I spent years telling Ted that he would be much more effective if he were less extreme. I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong about that. It’s his outrageous, extreme positions that have let him accomplish so much.”
Jeff Nugent, Ted’s brother
Instead of drugs, Nugent did guns. In the early days, his radio interviews included references to deer season, the sublime joy of hunting with a bow or a rifle and, increasingly, the politics of gun control. By the early 1980s, a young Nugent was peppering a young David Letterman with gun statistics while also gracing the cover of Guitar Player magazine.
Nugent had become a top touring draw, but the craft hadn’t come easily. Young Theodore had had to practice more than other garage band musicians in Detroit.
“Oh, God, did I struggle,” he said. “I could shoot a bow and arrow, but I couldn’t play a guitar. But I struggled and struggled and kept at it.”
He credits those early frustrations with creating the extreme style he eventually found so marketable.
“If you can’t play Chuck Berry perfect but you’re so enthusiastic about trying, it comes off as a little more outrageous,” he said at the studio. To demonstrate, he strummed a few notes of classic ’50s honky-tonk, then seamlessly morphed into the growling opening riff of his FM staple “Cat Scratch Fever.”
“That’s all that is, with just a little bit more p--- and vinegar,” he said. “Instead of playing just notes, I play whole chords and then I beat the s--- out of it.”
It was a technique that turned out to work for more than just music. For Nugent, beating the s--- out of it became a way of life, and politics.
“I spent years telling Ted that he would be much more effective if he were less extreme,” Jeff Nugent said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong about that. It’s his outrageous, extreme positions that have let him accomplish so much.”
Nugent’s home is about 20 miles outside of Waco, Tex., a rolling patch of flatland behind a motorized gate that reads “SpiritWild Ranch.” A small herd of oryx gallops through the trees beside the long driveway, one of several bands of exotic hoofed wildlife that Nugent keeps, and hunts, on his 300 acres. He and his wife moved here 11 years ago, after their longtime Michigan home was infested with black mold. Shemane became ill as a result. They came to Dallas for treatment and settled in Waco. Their son, Rocco, now working as an actor in Los Angeles, played basketball at Waco High School.
Texas was happy to have Ted Nugent.
“I was already governor at the time, so I just called him up and said, ‘Why don’t you stop in here and let’s visit?’ ” said Rick Perry (R). The two became hunting buddies. It was Perry, who suffers from back problems, who recommended the stem-cell therapy that Nugent says greatly reduced his knee pain. And Nugent says it was at his suggestion that Perry, dealing with feral hog populations that were destroying crops, signed a controversial law allowing private hunters to shoot the animals from helicopters. Nugent has been up more than once, using an automatic rifle and donating the meat to Hogs for a Cause, a Christian ministry that provides game meat to food pantries.
(It’s a story he loves to tell. During his talk to the entrepreneurs in San Antonio, he told it again. “Lots of places have a hog problem,” Nugent said. “In Texas, the hogs have a Ted problem.” He described the giddy joy of shooting from the open copter with an M4 machine gun. “And four hours later I had 450 dead hogs,” he said to loud applause. Then he added an afterthought that produced ample laughs: “And now if they would just take me to South Central. ... Okay! I kid.”)
The Nugent ranch house is modest, filled with guitars and taxidermied animals and, when we walked in, extremely still. Nugent was batching it while Shemane spent the weekend at their condo in Naples, Fla.
“I never go there, but she loves it,” said Nugent, closing the front door on the three Labs he had just released from their pens. “You want a burger?”
“I know that hunting is without question the most perfectly environmentally positive activity you can partake in.”
He took a tube of ground venison from the refrigerator, the bounty of one of the 300 or so days he hunts each year. The Nugent kitchen serves nothing but his own kill, and tons more go to various nonprofit groups. He derides chicken eaters as enablers of factory-farm cruelty and is adamant that hunters deserve credit as the guardians of habitat and environmental balance.
“That I’m so hated for being a Bambi killer and slaughtering innocent creatures is a such a source of positive humor in my life,” he said as he crushed a clove of garlic into sizzling boar fat, “because I know that hunting is without question the most perfectly environmentally positive activity you can partake in.”
He is both an evangelist and an entrepreneur of hunting. He sells hunts on his Texas and Michigan properties, which he guides, for up to $7,500, and often tapes the outings for his cable show. He donates several hunts a year to children’s and veterans’ charities.
“Ted’s hunts and donated items were a big part of our Radiothon for 30 years,” said William Seklar, president of the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan, who estimates that Nugent helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the group. “He was front and center with his time and personal treasure.”
Nugent talks a lot about his work with charities and chalks it up to the “Saul Alinsky model” that it doesn’t get much press. Lately, particularly since his USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan with country singer Toby Keith, he has been spending time with wounded vets. Many of his tour stops include a drop-by at a veterans hospital or a rehab clinic. He and Shemane had a gazebo built for patients at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
He loves the grand gesture, such as having a special device designed for a former Army sniper, paralyzed in combat, that let him fire a rifle again. He once had a bull elk released on his ranch so a young terminal cancer patient could come hunt it with him, fulfilling the boy’s lifelong ambition. Nugent’s Kamp for Kids has introduced about 3,500 children to the outdoors and hunting safety since he founded it in 1989. (There are four sessions of the volunteer-run, one-day workshops this summer, in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Colorado.)
Angela Kline, who was born with cerebral palsy, remembers Nugent crouching by her wheelchair at a Michigan outdoors show in 1995. Coming from a family of hunters, Kline had always wanted to shoot. Nugent took her on, helping her learn to handle a modified rifle. Now 28, she has shot deer and wild hogs with him in Michigan and South Africa.
“He said he was impressed with my endurance and passion, and ever since we’ve been in constant contact,” Kline said.
After the venison burgers, we drove around the ranch in a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, exercising the dogs and checking on some seeds Nugent had scattered in a boggy lowland to keep his wildlife healthy. We rolled through the shooting range permanently fixed in a front field, with bear and deer targets for archery practice, human silhouettes for the hundreds of pistols, rifles and machine guns Nugent keeps on hand.
Whenever we stopped — to watch a two-week-old oryx, to release a squirrel from one of Nugent’s traps — he bent and cooed baby talk at the dogs. When he relocates to Michigan each fall for deer season, he sends them east, often by private jet.
He looked around at the sun slanting through the woods, glinting off the barrel of the Browning .223 resting on the dash. “Isn’t this pretty? Texas is like spring all year long,” he said. The long, loving look he gave to the great outdoors eventually settled on me. “The reason I accommodate you b------s is that I really have something to say. There really is an American dream if you go about it like this.”
Nugent’s life is not so much an open book as an open mike; whatever he thinks he says, no matter who’s listening. And there is a robust corps of Nugent needlers out there taking notes. There are Web sites devoted to collecting and sorting and linking to the vast litany of misdeeds and accusations Nugent has accumulated over the rock-star decades: his recent no-contest pleas to deer hunting with bait in California and taking one black bear too many in Alaska (he says both prosecutions were politically motivated); his 2007 album cover that featured a naked woman served on a platter with a grenade in her mouth (later changed to a clothed woman on a platter); constant cries that he is a “chicken-hawk” hypocrite for pushing military action though he never served in uniform and even, allegedly, schemed to avoid the Vietnam draft.
“Are you alive, or aren’t ya? Are you going for maximum life or minimum life? I’ve always been very, very alive.”
And girls. Lots and lots of girls.
When it came to sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, Nugent went big for numbers one and three. His exploits with the young fans and groupies were legendary. He won’t estimate how many (“Not Wilt Chamberlain numbers or anything,” he said), but he proudly embraces the memory.
“I was a young man, inundated with these stunning, stunning dream girls. They are everywhere, and my response should have been what?” he said, with incredulity. “Will I ever apologize for having lots of girlfriends? F--- you. It was great!”
Some were very young. Pele Massa, a 17-year-old who met Nugent when he was 30, claimed in a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode that Nugent arranged a guardianship agreement with her parents to facilitate their relationship. They were together for almost 10 years, and she became a stepmother of sorts to his two children from a first marriage. But Nugent denies there was ever any document or agreement with her parents. He says Massa was 17 when they met but 18 when she moved in. The story made Spin Magazine’s “100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock” in 2000.
Nugent scoffed. “I got way better ones than that. That’s not even in my top 100.”
The hyper sex drive is all part of his vaunted maximum-volume approach to life. Sitting in the sun in the open four-wheeler, he explained it this way: “I’m sexually driven. I’m highly susceptible to stimuli.”
He laughed loudly.
“Are you alive, or aren’t ya? Are you going for maximum life or minimum life? I’ve always been very, very alive.”
The next morning, some of the fruits of maximum life came by the ranch for lunch. Louisa Savarese, a 42-year-old teacher from Houston, and Heather Holland Boyette, a 33-year-old Charleston, S.C., Internet consultant, are two of the several offspring from Nugent’s randy heydays who have tracked him down in recent years. Boyette came out to Texas to visit her newfound half-sister, and together they drove up to see their newfound dad. He has three children that he raised, and now four more have stepped into the family portrait.
Savarese was the first to emerge. She was born in the 1970s to a girlfriend of Nugent’s and put up for adoption without, he says, his ever knowing about her. She began exploring her biological past and zeroed in on Nugent in 2007.
“Louisa got through to me and said, ‘I think you’re my dad,’ ” Nugent recalled. “And I said, ‘Probably.’ ”
“It’s been awesome,” Savarese said. She is an Obama voter who was raised by a stepfather who went to Harvard. But the welcome from Nugent, and his other children, has been warm and rewarding. They get together as often as possible and may write a book together. “He’s such a sweet man. He is not what people think he is ... when he’s not screaming about politics.”
After lunch (venison again), Nugent helped Boyette shoulder a rifle for her first time on a shooting range. Both she and Savarese nailed the target. “It’s genetic,” Nugent crowed.
He has embraced each pop-up child and seems to revel in an ever-extending nuclear family. They came not, he said, from one-night stands but from long-term girlfriends who never told him about the babies. Now he acts as granddad to their kids and has a lot of new birthdays to remember. Savarese tells of Nugent driving two hours recently to meet her family at a chain restaurant for her son’s 13th birthday. The Harvard granddad gave him books; Nugent was in the parking lot teaching the boy to throw a knife into a tree.
“It’s just as beautiful as beautiful gets,” he said, as his most recent daughters went into the house to gather their bags for the drive back to Houston. “If the country worked more like the Nugent family worked, we’d be in great shape.”
Nugent is a blend of impulse and rectitude. He has sought a relationship with all of his children. When he and his first wife divorced after several affairs, he fought for — and won — a joint-custody order that was rare in the 1970s. (There is another boy, from an affair about 18 years ago, who has declined Nugent’s overtures for contact, he said.)
“I don’t hesitate to tell you my most egregious violations,” he said. “But at the end of the day, put up a chalkboard, put the f----ups on this side and put the f---ing wonderful decisions and doing the right thing on this side, and let her rip.”
Shemane, the former radio traffic reporter he married in 1989, said their marriage is strong now, but stability was a long time coming.
“I’ll be brutally honest with you,” said Shemane, an upbeat Zumba fitness instructor who is as frank as her husband, “we’ve had huge trials — enormous, gigantic.”
She was talking at the NRA event, standing near where Nugent’s oldest son, Toby, was helping to move the autograph line along. Toby Nugent often travels with his dad.
“The infidelity, that really threw us for a loop,” Shemane said. “When we met he only had three kids, now there’s nine. I only had something to do with one of them. You do the math.”
A few weeks later, Nugent was at the Roanoke Civic Center, one of the first stops of his summer tour with fellow paleo-rockers REO Speedwagon and Styx. The hall was three-quarters filled. One section, stage left, was crowded with military uniforms. At almost every show, Nugent provides tickets to active-duty military and has them come for a meet-and-greet after his set.
Before going on, Nugent was holding forth in his dressing room with a group of fans who paid $420 to spend time with the Nuge backstage. A couple were former military who asked not to be identified because they still work in the intelligence field. All seemed to be in sync with Nugent’s politics.
“I’d like to see him run, absolutely,” said one Virginia man. “He really loves the warriors.”
Several of them passed him challenge coins, unit-specific disks that military people exchange as a sign of respect. Nugent said he has “vats” of them. He has had his own coins made to give in return.
It could be that the most painful part of running for president would be the constant re-airing of the charge that seems to bother him most (at least, judging by the frequency with which he brings it up): that he dodged the draft in 1967, specifically that he stopped bathing, ate nothing but junk for weeks, and then fouled his pants before the medical exam.
“Do you think I was gonna lay down my guitar and go play army? Give me a break! ... I ceased cleansing my body. No more brushing my teeth, no more washing my hair, no baths, no soap, no water,” reads the interview in High Times magazine in 1977. “Then two weeks before, I stopped eating any food with nutritional value.”
“I didn’t know what communism was. I was not interested in abandoning this intense, high-velocity guitar jihad.”
Ted Nugent, on why he didn’t enlist during Vietnam
Now he says that it never happened but acknowledges that he made it up to mess with the reporter. “It was a source of such hysterical outrage, and the guy interviewing me was such a stoned inept idiot.”
In numerous interviews since, Nugent has said that he didn’t get inducted into the military both because he had a high draft number and because he was in a Michigan community college for one semester, which earned him a deferral. The myth-busting Web site Snopes.com, citing a purported copy of Nugent’s Selective Service record, found that he did have one student deferral and also one medical exception between February 1967 and December 1972. The findings were inconclusive, the Web site said, and the story goes round and round.
I asked him why he didn’t enlist, as his brother Jeff had done. Nugent said that he was ignorant of the war, that he hadn’t learned a thing about geopolitics in high school and that his music career was already taking off.
“I didn’t know what communism was,” he said. “I was not interested in abandoning this intense, high-velocity guitar jihad.”
When he took the stage in Roanoke, he was right back in the grip of the music. He didn’t caper and he didn’t leap, but he wielded his guitar like a machine gun, his aging knees still bent, his back still arching at the peak of his riffs. The acoustics were muddy, but the crowd pumped fists and whistled. Many had ponytails grayer than Nugent’s and looked as if the only joints they were thinking about were the ones they needed to have replaced. They came fully to their feet for “Cat Scratch Fever” and danced in place for a cover of “My Girl” and the rest of his roots tribute medley. “Every piece of music that you love comes originally from a black hero,” he cried. “Black power!” “Motown!”
After some lobbying by the other bands, Nugent has been keeping the onstage political harangues to a minimum. (In previous tours he has brandished replica machine guns.)
“Right now we’ve got the political down to 2 percent,” St. Holmes said. “The two groups we’re with would like it to be lighthearted entertainment. The armed forces stuff is great, but when he’s going after Hillary and Obama and stuff, I mean, I get it, but why don’t we just save it for another forum?”
Nugent delivered a long tribute to the troops, and he let fly a sustained banshee wail of “Freeeeeeeedom!” toward the end of the show. But the closest thing to a call to arms might have been this:
“The whole world sucks,” he cried to the applauding crowd, one hand on his guitar, the other in the air. “But America still sucks less!”
While not quite Reagan’s “Morning in America” or Obama’s “Hope,” it is classic Nugent.
But can he run on it?
Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@ washpost.com.
Related story: Brother Jeffrey Nugent on why Ted is wrong about background checks.